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How Can Metacognition Improve Language Learning?

By Mark Chen | Published: September 12, 2017

Have you ever wondered how we learn? How do we go from not knowing to knowing? Metacognition, simply put, is awareness of one’s own thoughts, thinking process and learning. Such awareness allows us to approach novel situations with the benefit of our experiences, which, as Fadel, Trilling and Bialik note in Four-Dimensional Education, is the purpose of education—to prepare young people for the future.  Here are three ways language educators foster students’ development of metacognitive skills.

Reflection

At the start of a lesson or unit, many teachers use a K-W-L chart to help students consider what they already know about a topic, what they want to learn and, later, what they ultimately learned about the topic.  In a language setting, this exercise could focus around the day’s theme of describing family members, for example.  Students ponder expected outcomes, conduct their own baseline assessment and identify learning goals.

To wrap up a lesson, teachers can ask reflection questions—perhaps in the form of an exit slip—about what students learned, where they need clarification and what they observed about the day’s learning process (e.g., “What was easy for you today?  What was challenging or confusing?  How well did we work as a team?”).  This feedback from students is not only instructive for planning purposes but can also be used as a starter in the next class, as a Think-Pair-Share activity or whole-class discussion, allowing students to compare their learning with others’ in a low-risk format. 

Self-placement and Progress Monitoring

Villagers determine their own proficiency through group activities in the CLV high school credit program.
High school credit villagers determine their 
language proficiency through interactive activities.

As part of Concordia Language Villages’ high school credit programs, villagers participate in a variety of activities in the first days of the program, to determine relative proficiency levels and form class groups.  In one activity, villagers form a line and discuss a prompt (e.g., “Introduce yourself”) with the villagers to their immediate left and right.  Based on their ability to address the prompt and compared with their neighbors’ abilities, the villagers move up or down the line. The process is repeated with increasingly difficult questions (e.g., “What do you want to learn this summer?”; “How did you like the last school year?”) until, ultimately, villagers are arranged with those with the lowest proficiency at one end of the line and the highest at the opposite end.  While not the only activity used for placement, it is insightful and, importantly, creates an opportunity for villagers to compare their skills with those of their peers. 

Of course, in most language classrooms, students arrive pre-sorted by level.  However, the above activity can be modified by asking students to form two concentric circles facing each other.  The teacher asks a question related to the current topic of study, and students address the question with the student opposite them.  At a signal from the teacher, the students in one circle move to the right (or left), and the newly formed pairs discuss a different question.  Students practice speaking with a variety of partners and develop a strong sense of their relative level of skill.  This activity can be particularly insightful when the student’s own assessment of his/her skills is out of alignment with what other sources of data indicate.

Measuring Progress Over Time

The CLVisa grid allows villagers to choose from a range of Can-Do statements to identify their current language proficiency.
The CLVisa lets learners identify their current
language skills and see the progress they've made.

Students can measure their growth over the course of a semester or entire school year. At the Villages, one of our tools is the CLVisa, essentially a rubric of the three language modalities, with Can-Do statements ranging from Novice to Advanced. Villagers circle the Can-Do statements that are true for them at the beginning of the four-week session, at the midpoint, and again at the end. Oftentimes, villagers are surprised by their progress, as it is not always obvious in the moment-to-moment process of learning. Bringing that learning into relief helps many villagers develop a strong sense of accomplishment and increased confidence in their language abilities.

Combined with other sources of data about each student’s learning, such as essays, dialogues, video projects and traditional tests, the above tools provide valuable insight into students’ own perceptions of their language learning in today's classrooms.  More broadly, we create concrete opportunities for students to develop lifelong skills in reflection, self-assessment and critical thinking, all of which will be important as they embark into the world of higher education and professional endeavor.

 

About the Author

A headshot of author Mark Chen.

Mark Chen is a group director with Concordia Language Villages. Chen holds a BA in multiple foreign languages from North Central College and an MA in foreign language education from the Ohio State University. He has taught Japanese and Spanish from kindergarten to undergraduate levels for more than 25 years. Chen has been on staff at CLV for 12 years, and is a former dean of the Japanese Language Village.

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