Using metacognitive strategies – that is, “thinking about thinking” – is something that all teachers do, almost without realising. As part of the curriculum planning cycle, we reflect on what went well in lessons, what our role was in facilitating learning, and how we can improve student engagement.

Getting students to do the same thing is a powerful tool in helping them to think more deeply about their role as learners. Recent research supports the idea that metacognition adds value to student learning, with the Education Endowment Foundation, a UK based educational charity, estimating that metacognitive skills can add up to seven months of additional progress when used effectively (“EEF”). But what does this look like in practice? These are some strategies that I have found useful when teaching IGCSE and A-level English Language and Literature.

Firstly, asking students to consider prior knowledge at the beginning of the study of a new text or topic helps them to activate more in-depth learning, where they transfer information from one topic or subject to another. For example, when studying the IGCSE text An Inspector Calls, asking students what they know about 1912 or 1945 can help them to engage with the historical and social context against which the play is set and written, and creates expectations about the content of the drama. For topics where students have little prior knowledge, asking what they think they’ll learn helps frame their thinking, and these ideas can be revisited during study to assess their relevance.

One technique I have learned from colleagues in the English department is to focus students on the success criteria and the writing processes they need to follow to implement them – this is a department wide approach. Students who know what makes for successful writing and consciously remind themselves of this before they put pen to paper tend to be far more effective planners and writers. I have seen the benefit of this first-hand, with students becoming far more confident about the IGCSE English Language composition task in a very short period of time.

Another important aspect of metacognition is teaching students to think about their own thinking. This is a key aspect of critical thinking, which is a crucial part of understanding and analysing literature. By encouraging students to question their own assumptions, to consider alternative perspectives, and to evaluate evidence, teachers can help them develop the skills they need to become independent and critical thinkers. This is particularly relevant for A-level Literature students, where considering alternative interpretations of texts is an important part of the assessment.

Making thinking visible is a further helpful technique. When studying poetry, for example, I’ll often annotate the poem ‘live’, talking through my thought processes, the connections I’m making and why, and identifying any gaps in my own knowledge. This is particularly effective with unseen poems as modelling the ways in which I approach the text, and the things I find difficult about it, not only allow the student to see the teacher as a participant in the learning process (rather than the ‘sage on the stage’) but also how to overcome problems when meeting them, for example by missing out a problematic line and then returning to it, once the rest of the poem has been considered.

A metacognitive strategy I have had recent success with is asking students to reflect on how they are working in groups. Strategically timed teacher questions – ‘Why have you decided to approach the response in this way? What were your thought processes?’- helps them to ‘step back’ from the task and consider their method and alternative approaches. This is particularly useful if students are finding a task challenging – focusing on the process rather than the outcome can help them find a way through.

Finally, affective skills are also part of the metacognitive remit. When preparing for assessments, asking students to reflect on which learning behaviours are and aren’t helpful for them can better prepare them for success. If they have thought ahead of time about which factors might cause a distraction, for instance, they are primed to deal with them when they meet them. This is also a chance to encourage students to practise positive self-talk and growth mindset strategies before they find themselves needing to use them. This can be used as a quick lesson opener too, by asking students to reflect on how they are feeling before the lesson, how that might inhibit their learning and how they might overcome it. Asking students how motivated they are to engage with the lesson beforehand can draw their attention to it and encourage them to consciously find a way to focus.

From my own experience, I’ve found encouraging students to pause and reflect on the process of learning gives mental ‘breathing space’ and encourages them to question their own values and assumptions about what a successful learner looks like. Of course, being self-reflective, sharing ideas, and developing resilience are life-long learning skills that go beyond the walls of the classroom. Embedding these habits early will hopefully lay the foundations for future success.


Sarah Heming, English Teacher Academia International School Basel

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Works cited

Education Endowment Foundation
“Education Endowment Foundation”. EEF, 2023, Accessed 15 Jan 2023.