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Enhancing metacognition for language learning

The ability to communicate in more than one language is essential to the IB’s concept of an international education. Students benefit because learning a new language can increase understanding of other cultures and allows the exploration of globally significant ideas and issues.

In May 2022, the IB introduced listening comprehension examinations for Diploma Programme (DP) and Middle Years Programme (MYP) language acquisition courses. Students taking exams this November will now follow suit, after the successful introduction of this new assessment.

As well as learning a new language, the IB is committed to developing how students think in an additional language. Ali Bougatef, IB Subject Manager for Studies in Language and Literature and Language Acquisition (DP/MYP), writes about the importance of metacognition (or the critical awareness of your own cognitive processes) and listening in language learning, and the strategies teachers can use to maximize learning.

Many educators are starting to recognize the important role self-regulation can play in successful language learning. Self-regulation (proactive strategies used by learners to actively influence their learning) is a broad notion which includes the concept of metacognition.

Metacognition is considered an important learning strategy which are an integral part of efficient language learning especially those strategies that are employed by successful learners. Metacognition roots can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece, and more specifically to the ‘Know Thyself’ inscription in the Temple of Apollo. It has been argued that the term is used differently depending on the objectives and interests of the researcher and whether it is considered through the lens of education, psychology or neuroscience. This is complicated further by the multitude of terms which purport to be linked to metacognition such as ‘theory of mind’, ‘metamemory’ and ‘autonomy’; hence, the ‘many-headed monster’ moniker attributed to the concept. For the purposes of this blog, metacognition is defined as “individuals’ awareness and management of their learning processes” through the employment of the metacognitive strategies of planning, monitoring and evaluating one’s own learning.

Metacognition and Listening

Metacognition and its use in the acquisition of listening skills has an important role in language learning. Listening is a fundamental part of the communication process, with 45% of time spent communicating occupied by listening.

Over the last few decades, teaching of listening has benefited from many positive changes but mastering listening skills remains a challenge for most learners. A number of researchers advocate the teaching of listening using a metacognitive approach to promote self-regulation amongst learners. This holistic approach, they argue, would help maximise learning and help learners achieve listening proficiency in real-life contexts. It was not until the emergence of communicative language teaching in the 1970s that the complexity of listening skills was recognised, and the focus shifted from the emphasis on listening as ‘something that could simply be picked up by language learners’ to ‘active meaning construction’ thanks to the influence of cognitive psychology. However, Vandergrift and Goh argue that listening instruction is still too text orientated with too much focus on comprehension (such as listening for gist and listening for detail) rather than helping learners develop their listening skills inside and outside the classroom using a variety of different ways. As the authors put it: “With a focus on the product of listening, every activity becomes a test of the learners’ listening ability only, rather than a means for understanding the social and cognitive nature of developing and using these listening skills.”

Teaching and learning within a metacognitive framework can help enhance learning and engage learners in a wider range of listening activities. To help in this endeavour, tools, such as the Metacognitive Awareness Listening Questionnaire (MALQ) have been developed to help assess metacognitive awareness in listening. These tools can be used for testing and self-evaluation purposes by both teachers and students alike.

Researchers argue that motivation is essential to the successful adoption of learning strategies such as metacognition. This is confirmed by studies which show that metacognitive strategies are not equally used by all language learners. So what role does motivation play in the adoption of self-regulated learning? To answer this question, motivation can be conceived of as a series of complex and clearly conceptualised variables. Two of these variables, in particular, are thought to have a positive effect on the adoption of self-regulated learning: self-efficacy and task value.

Self-Efficacy and Task Value

Research shows that students with more positive views of their learning potential (high self-efficacy) were more likely to take risks and explore the use of different learning strategies such as metacognition. Task value, which is the learner’s perception of the value of a particular learning task, is another important variable. Task value determines how much learners engage with a particular task. It is also where the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation becomes evident. Learners may assign value to tasks based on intrinsic value (such as enjoyment or personal reward) or extrinsic value (such as a future gain). Therefore, it can be argued that these two value systems have a ‘differential effect on self-regulation’. In fact, Wigfield et al assert that learners who are driven by intrinsic motivation are more likely to engage with self-regulation strategies including metacognition when compared with learners who are driven by extrinsic motivation. Furthermore, research shows that self-regulation and metacognitive strategies are more likely to be used by learners who assign a value to a task.

Use in the language classroom

Using self-regulation and metacognition in language learning can help maximise learning. However, using learning strategies requires initiative, effort and time commitments from learners (and teachers) as studies have shown.

Promoting learning narratives that are more conducive to enhancing self-efficacy would result in increased motivation and create a positive feedback loop that would further enhance this process. Teachers can:

  • Strive to create positive learning environments which would increase learners’ confidence and self-belief.
  • Make it clear that learning languages is a complex process and learners are more likely to experience a learning curve; thus, novice learners tend to make rapid progress followed by limited improvements in later stages. The learning curve also predicts that learners are more likely to reach a plateau where progress might seem non-existent, however, small ongoing improvements continue. This predictable learning pattern should be explained to language learners to help them successfully navigate the learning curve without experiencing any detrimental effect on their self-efficacy as language learners.
  • Promote the idea that intelligence or inner ability might not be fixed (incremental view of intelligence). This can be liberating for learners and would allow the adoption of a more productive mindset that promotes mastery oriented and personal growth dispositions.
  • Continuously plan, monitor and evaluate their own teaching strategies as the best way to promote metacognition in the classroom. I am very much in support of the idea of the teacher as a researcher and applying metacognitive processes to one’s own teaching, whilst continuously refining them, is the best way of mastering and promoting metacognitive strategies.

It is worth noting that learning strategies might not be a one size fits all approach and it is the role of the learner to explore these strategies proactively and to adapt them when necessary. Educators should also be careful not to promote metanarratives about learning strategies that suggest universality of outcome, as this might have a detrimental effect on learners’ motivation and self-efficacy should some of these strategies prove unsuccessful for them.

Ali Bougatef is a Subject Manager for Studies in Language and Literature and Language Acquisition at the IB. You can find out more about Ali on LinkedIn.