The role of metacognition in language learning

According to Vandergrift and Goh (2o12:loc 360), “metacognition, or the act of thinking about thinking, refers to the ability of learners to control their thoughts and to regulate their own learning.”  They go on to explain that despite the fact that metacognition is key to listening (the focus of their text), its role in the classroom remains minimal. I believe metacognition is a crucial part of language learning in general, but even broadening the scope in this way, I suspect the degree to which it is integrated into language learning is probably still fairly minimal, as with listening.

Indeed, in my own language learning at school and university, I can remember there being a lot of content – grammar, vocabulary etc – but I don’t remember learning how to regulate my own learning or being helped to develop metacognitive awareness. I managed, however, to learn reasonably well in the end – I did German to A-level and French up to university level, getting good results. So what difference does metacognition and metacognitive awareness make to language learning? If I managed well enough with French and German, without any, or perhaps very little, metacognitive awareness, doesn’t that suggest it’s not really necessary as long as your teacher tells you what activities to do and when?

I would say, speaking from experience, that it hugely affects what you are able to achieve independently:

I went to work in Indonesia in 2010, and was there for a year and a half. I’d just done my CELTA. I spoke no Indonesian prior to arriving – other than a smattering of phrases that I taught myself before I left home. I did manage to learn a little bit of Indonesian while in the country, but not much. I was keen but my efforts were clumsy and ill-informed, with very little in the way of success, so I then got demotivated, as well as losing confidence, so learning was very minimal overall. Then I did my M.A. in ELT and Delta, and actually learnt a bit more about how languages are learnt and taught, coming across all manner of theories and being encouraged to consider them all critically.

I came to Italy to work last September. This time, I have had much greater resources to draw on in my language learning. I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learnt about learning and teaching English to my own learning of Italian, and, in 7 months of self-study, get myself from complete beginner to (very) low pre-intermediate level (though I sometimes still sound like a total beginner when I get my tongue all in knots! :-p ). Obviously I’ve benefitted from my knowledge of French, but I’d argue that here, it’s not just the fact that I speak French that helps, but the fact that I’m aware of how to use that skill/knowledge to my benefit while learning Italian.

I’ve been able to use a whole range of metacognitive and language learning strategies that I wasn’t able to use while learning Indonesian, as well as a range of task types, clear in my understanding of what I could achieve in using them and how to maximise that benefit. As well as not being put off by initial difficulties e.g not understanding what I was listening to when I first starting watching things without subtitles. This is part of what Vandergrift and Goh (2012) would refer to as strategy knowledge and task knowledge. I’ve also been able to manage my motivation a lot better and avoid getting discouraged when progress has been slow or when I thought I’d never get out of my “silent period“, for example. This is part of what Vandergrift and Goh (ibid) would refer to as person knowledge.

I would suggest that as learners spend the majority of their time outside the classroom and mostly don’t have the opportunity to do whole courses devoted to theories of learning and how to learn, it is up to us, as language teachers, to ensure that we help them develop sufficient metacognitive knowledge and understanding of how language learning works – how to approach tasks, how the tasks can be beneficial, what strategies you can use to gain the most benefit from them etc –  for them to be able to help themselves learn without the teacher always telling them exactly what to do and when (so that they are able to learn outside of the classroom), and, all-importantly, manage their own motivation. Vandergrift and Goh (2012) contains lots of ideas for developing metacognitive awareness in relation to the skill of listening and a lot of their ideas, I would suggest, are adaptable and applicable to other areas of language learning. I wonder how widespread their use is.

My questions for you:

  • Have you used your knowledge of learning theory and language teaching in your own language learning? How?
  • Have you helped your learners to develop their metacognitive awareness and become more able to manage their own learning? How?

Here are some posts about my own language learning and what I’ve learnt from it:

And here are some of my ideas for helping learners to develop metacognitive awareness and apply it to their learning, to help them become more autonomous:

Finally, if you have written any posts that are relevant to the theme of language learning and applying metacognitive awareness to your learning processes, or write any in response to my questions, please do link to them in the comments section of this post!


Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. Teaching and learning second language listening: metacognition in action Routledge. Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 09.13.23

In reply to David’s rebuttal: the future of language learning part 2

Firstly, I would like to thank David Petrie for this opportunity to debate and discuss that has arisen out of his thought-provoking post for the British Council Teaching English site and equally well-written rebuttal of my response to that post. For me this is one of the magic things about blogging: the opportunity to engage in critical, reflective discussion and debate on our teaching and learning beliefs, our pedagogies, our methodologies, with fellow members of the profession, so that much less of it becomes entrenched or gathers dust.

I will now respond to David’s rebuttal to my original points and weave in a few more points of my own along the way.

David explains that:

I certainly didn’t mean to imply that language is anything but social or used for anything other than a communicative purpose.  I don’t see, though, how this belief mitigates against learning in an online environment.  People do, after all, communicate quite effectively online. 

Absolutely. People do communicate very effectively online and language is used communicatively. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools are brilliant – I use Edmodo and blogs with my students regularly. However, does this use of language fully prepare learners for face-to-face encounters? I would argue that it doesn’t. Spoken communication and use of language involves so much more than words. Online communication recognises this: we try to bridge the gap between online and face-to-face communication by using emoticons ( 🙂 ) , abbreviations for paralinguistic devices (LOL! <sigh…>) [For more about this overlap between spoken and online communication, see my summary of Fiona Johnston’s talk at IATEFL this year: Write here, write now- developing written fluency ] and we manage most of the time – give or take a few arguments when tone is misread. However communicating in this way does not fully capture the diversity of spoken communication. For this reason, I feel that while online collaborative platforms are a valuable additional opportunity for meaningful language use, learning language exclusively through their use is insufficient. I think online learning may be better suited to content learning, which we are able to package in words and diagrams, rather than language learning, which is a lot more complex to package. (This perhaps being one of the reasons why technologically based language learning has seen lots of change and innovation, and is continually evolving, but has not taken over classroom-based language learning despite this kind of prediction.)

However, in addition to this, David argues that sites such as Vocaroo mean that speaking can be included in online learning too. Yes, again, absolutely. In response to this, though, I would like to highlight the difference between this form of speaking – making a voice recording, listening to someone else’s voice recording, responding to that voice recording in a further recording etc – and a face-to-face conversation. If you are not sure what I mean by this, record yourself and a few friends having a conversation. Now try and transcribe it. Can you capture the full meaning of what was said? How much code do you need to be able to do that? Do you notice how you pick up what your friends are saying, interrupt or overlap and complete their utterances? Do you notice the wide range of different tones used? What about non-verbal communication? How do you capture it all? Now how do you transfer that to online communication such as that done using Facebook messenger or similar? Spoken conversation is co-constructed and we have to co-construct differently online, mimicking spoken conversation but adapting to the different medium. Clearly it would not be possible to interact online using discourse analysis transcription coding to capture spoken communication – it would take far too long and be too complicated; beside which, until technology enables us to see what someone is typing as they type it, then mimicking interruptions and overlaps, as they happen in spoken conversation, are not possible in any case. So I would say tools such as Vocaroo are great for helping learners to practice speaking in terms of stringing words together fluidly and coherently over the piece of discourse as a whole, and certainly lend themselves to practicing presentations or other single-turn speaking, but they do not enable learners to practice genuinely conversing in real time in the target language. (And this, together with the social side of language learning, is why PSP Speaking and Thursday night English-speaking pub night are so popular with our students – they recognise that in order to use English more competently, as well as learning and developing skills, they need opportunities to converse in English.Skype and other similar video-conferencing software such as Adobe are another possibility, but even this is limited.

I would argue that since language began as caveman noises which in turn became utterances and developed into the complex form of spoken communication as we know it today, if learners want to learn language in order to be able to use it face-to-face, then they need opportunities to use it face-to-face in a supportive setting. If they don’t live in a situation/community/location that allows this, then the language classroom and, indeed, the language community of the language school, can provide such opportunities. Returning to the social side of language learning, I would also argue that online socialising is no replacement for face-to-face communication. As a friend of mine who is currently working in a small place, far away from friends and family put it, and I paraphrase, “I feel isolated. Having people on the end of a skype call is not the same as having them there with you.” To illustrate this further, would you prefer to spend the evening having a drink while talking with people in Second Life or similar and trawling Facebook, sat at your computer, or join those people for a drink in real life? Being able to communicate online is brilliant, and social media have helped bring like-minded people together from all four corners of the world, it is true (#ELTchat is one such shining example, as is the British Council Teaching English Facebook page); but think how excited we get at the prospect of attending a conference and talking to members of our online PLN in person! I believe there will be no small number of learners who feel the same way about their course mates. (I know I’d give anything to be back in a room with my fellow M.A. DELTA course mates of 2012-2013, for a good discussion, and our Facebook group just isn’t the same – as a small example!)

Well, despite the length of this blogpost, I’ve only scraped the surface of David’s second blogpost and there is so much more there to deal with. However, for now, work beckons and will be followed by a 3-day holiday from the computer, so you’ll have to wait a bit for the next instalment! 🙂

open clip art org

Computers are great but grrrr! 🙂 Photo taken from via Google image search labelled for commercial reuse with modification.


What about the social side of language learning? (In response to David Petrie’s “The Future of Language Teaching”)

In his post for the British Council Teaching English website, David gives us a futuristic language teaching case from 2034, study drawing on currently existent technologies and their potential uses. His closing question is,

“Do you think there’s a role for the language school? I’m not so sure.”

But what about the social side of language learning?

In the private language school where I currently work, adult learners jump at the opportunity to do things in addition to their classes e.g. Reading Group, where they read and discuss a given graded reader periodically, and PSP speaking (an hour of mixed-level English conversation) or English-speaking Thursday nights at the pub. Who do they attend with? For the latter two, it is open to any level, and learners often sign up to join with, or in the case of the pub, just turn up with, other members of their class. 

Their language classes are not only about language learning – though clearly this is key! – but also 2 hours and 40 mins to 4 hrs a week (depending on their course intensity) doing something with a group of friends, some of whom have been met in previous courses at the school, some of whom are classmates (for YL, teens, university students), with new friends made each course too, as new learners join, others leave and so the classes evolve. They enjoy being in each other’s company twice or three times a week, in the classroom, learning English together. Perhaps it should be no surprise: after all language evolved because humans are social creatures. The benefits of this in terms of language learning are, of course, the pair –  and group – work potential that is there to be mined, the collaboration, the opportunities to learn from one another, for a start.

Young learners, meanwhile, learn a lot more than language when in the classroom – they learn social skills, cognitive skills, motor skills and so on. And they have fun, too! Would they be there if their language learning at school were super effective? I’m not sure. But I do know that we don’t only have kids in need of remedial help in our YL classes. We have a mixture of brilliant kids/teens, average kids/teens and kids/teens who do need lots of extra help. To me this suggests that they don’t only attend because school language learning isn’t good enough. Some of them love English and learning, some of them doubtless are there because their parents think it is a Good Thing. The latter may start classes because of that and discover that they love learning too.

Perhaps for people who are learning English purely to get ahead in their job, David’s vision is a possible futuristic avenue. (Though I question if after working all day using a computer, as many might, they’d want their language learning to be purely computerised too?) Either way, for people who learn as a hobby, or as part of a holiday, or who combine it with socialising outside of work/school, for whom English is important but who want to use it to speak to people face to face (or on the phone!), technology is better off in a more ancillary role.

For me, the future of language learning still involves groups of people coming together to use and explore language. And the delicate in some ways, robust in others, ecosystem of the classroom, that “small culture” (Holliday, 1999), is part of this. The language school is another small culture, within which that classroom culture operates and by which it is influenced, as is the university language teaching centre, or the primary or secondary school and the languages department within it.

Does this make me a technophobe? Insecure about my future as a teacher? I hope not. I just think there is room for all. And perhaps technology, as used in David’s case study, will make language learning accessible to *additional* learners and become an additional option, rather than becoming a replacement. I think that as far as technology is concerned, as with language teaching and learning methodology, there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as Michael Swan would say. I think we should build on what we have rather than lopping off entire aspects of it.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater! Image taken from google advanced image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification (source:

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Image taken from google advanced image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification (source:

What do you think?


Holliday, A. (1999) Small Cultures in Applied Linguistics vol. 20/2 pp. 237-264. Oxford University Press. Oxford.