Cultivating Metacognitive Skills Through Writing Instruction

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By Emily Loughead

As learners, we are constantly using meta-

cognitive skills to support ourselves in everyday life in both small- and large-scale ways. Often referred to as the “thinking about our thinking,” metacognition helps learners to improve and achieve greater success.

Metacognitive skills can be separated into two categories. The first is metacognitive knowledge, which is defined as what one knows about their own cognition or cognition in general. Skills covered include knowledge about problem-solving strategies, which cognitive strategies work best for certain tasks, and what someone knows about themself as a learner and what leads to their best performance. The second is metacognitive regulation, which is the monitoring of one’s cognition, and uses skills such as planning, analyzing for comprehension and accuracy, and evaluation (Schraw & Moshman, 1995).

We use a variety of these metacognitive skills each day. For example, when trying out a new recipe for dinner you might use your knowledge of cooking to decide to steam instead of bake the vegetables and stagger the cooking of the different items on the menu so everything is ready to serve at the same time. In doing so, you are demonstrating metacognitive knowledge skills by using strategies that work best for certain tasks and problem-solving using prior knowledge and experience. While cooking you plan for how long each ingredient needs to cook and when all of the meal’s components will be ready. After dinner you might reflect on what went well and what you might change the next time you cook, demonstrating the use of metacognitive regulation skills. During the course of preparing dinner, you have automatically activated multiple metacognitive skills that led to a successful outcome. Metacognitive skills can strengthen over time and as we grow to know ourselves better as learners, setting ourselves up for future success.

For students—especially our youngest learners—metacognitive skills are necessary ones that can and should be strengthened and supported by educators to foster success both in and out of school. With social and emotional learning at the forefront, educators can strengthen and help the development of metacognitive knowledge and regulation that supports students learning about how they learn. As is recommended for academic skills, metacognitive skills can and should be modeled and explicitly taught for our learners. The cultivation of these skills supports students’ identity, agency, and confidence.

Teachers must accomplish a tremendous amount within a short school day, including satisfying many instructional requirements, so for many educators the thought of teaching skills to support students’ thinking about their learning might seem like an add-on that simply will not fit in the schedule. However, metacognitive knowledge and regulation skills can be seamlessly integrated into academic instruction.

One discipline that provides numerous opportunities for metacognitive skills to be modeled, practiced, and supported is writing.

There are four areas to focus on that will help students develop their metacognitive skills in writing instruction: purpose and audience, goal setting, the revision process, and reflection.

Purpose and Audience

Often in school-based writing the purpose of the piece is dictated by the educator. This often reduces the audience to just the classroom teacher, narrowing the scope of purpose and audience while also taking away from the goal of authenticity in the writing. Educators should strive to create writing assignments where students are able to write to meet an expressive or communicative goal in their own unique voice (Graham et al., 2019). When educators reconsider the writing task’s purpose and audience, they are able to open up a platform for important metacognitive regulation skills such as planning and evaluation and the metacognitive knowledge skill of making decisions that best support oneself as a learner.

To increase opportunities for student voices, consider these approaches:

  • Develop an inquiry-based discussion on what type of craft and publishing format will be best for the intended audience of the writing piece. Ask students to think about the multiple identities of the audience when considering what craft moves and publication format would best support the audience’s needs.
  • When the writing task’s purpose and audience are predetermined by the curriculum, provide authentic publishing choices for students. Include multimodal choices such as audiobooks, graphic novels, or infographics to increase engagement and decision-making. Prompt students to think aloud about why each publishing choice might be best for certain learners. This will allow students to make decisions that are best for their own learning goals.

Goal Setting

Self-efficacy is the core of building an academic mindset that can transform student learning in the classroom. The belief that students hold about their ability to carry out a task affects the way they feel, think, and learn. Setting up students to believe that their effort is valuable and creates an impact on their learning goes beyond simply telling them to think positively and try their hardest.

The brain seeks patterns and solutions to problems, so it works best when it is able to identify patterns and problems, generate solutions, and make progress toward goals (Hammond, 2015). Educators can support students with thinking strategies and writing tools that cultivate the “I can succeed at this” attitude that propels learners through all phases of the writing process. The essential foundational skill of planning is further reinforced through problem-solving and self- evaluation, strengthening metacognitive skills that can be applied in writing tasks across all disciplines. Some goal-setting strategies include:

  • Modeling how to create individualized, incremental goals that help your brain keep track of progress toward an end goal. Teach different note-taking or organization strategies for setting goals that are related to both process and product goals, and provide coaching and support while students practice different strategies for different writing projects.
  • Providing checklists or rubrics that are in student-friendly language (or cocreated by students) to foster independent goal setting and monitoring. The rubrics and checklists will guide decision-making for revisions and set up students for powerful and concrete reflections.

Revision Process

As educators cultivate metacognitive growth, it is important to balance teacher-directed practices and child-centered teaching practices within writing instruction. Teacher- directed practices include explicit teaching and modeling of various strategies, while child-centered teaching practices provide opportunities for students to practice, self- regulate their learning, and question their processes. This leads to greater autonomy and internalized metacognitive skill work (Lerkkanen et al., 2016). The revision process is an opportune time to shift from explicit teaching to student-led inquiry and practice. When revising, students have time to practice the act of self-regulation as they try out strategies for problem-solving, decision-making, and evaluating. The role of the educator shifts to that of a coach who provides support in response to students requesting guidance and who uses questions to prompt independence. Here are some ways to approach the revision process:

  • When meeting with students individually, an inquiry framework can guide the student’s reflection and lead to greater self-awareness of what cognitive strategies are working best. Questions such as “What’s going well for you as a writer?” and “What’s been challenging?” will help students to reflect on their own learning strategies and make decisions for adjustment if needed.
  • Schedule time for students to pause and take stock of their process and product goals. Celebrate the “messiness” of revision, and ask students to pause and reflect about how their thinking is made visible through the revision process. Provide opportunities for students to share their process work with their peers. This will help shift their thinking from the idea that only a perfect final piece is worth showing to the understanding that sharing the process is a celebration in itself.


When students internalize the process of reflection they are setting themselves up for success both in and out of school. Reflection allows learners to evaluate and make decisions in the moment or make decisions that have a lasting impact on learning and thinking. Reflection also strengthens self-efficacy and reinforces the understanding that the process of learning has a tremendous impact on future learning.

Reflecting on a finished piece of writing is important, but it is not the only type of reflection that is needed to strengthen metacognitive skills. Educators can model explicit thinking that reveals personal reflection about content choices such as craft moves, punctuation and grammar, or formatting. Students can practice this type of reflection process to evaluate and monitor for cognitive strategies that work best for the writing assignment at hand. Educators can also model for students how to think about metacognitive regulation skills and allow students to practice analyzing how their planning, decision-making, and goal setting is working for their own learning as they engage in the writing process. To assist students’ reflections, consider the following:

  • Plan specific days within a writing unit that are dedicated to self-evaluation using student-friendly or cocreated checklists. Slowly release this teacher-directed planning in order to support students’ independent scheduling of check-in days for their own reflection. Lead an inquiry into tools or routines that support this systematic reflection process for student learners and ask questions such as “What tools will help you best keep track of your work process?” “Could you utilize reminders and alerts on your devices?” “Would sticky notes be a visual reminder to pause for reflection?” “Can a calendar or planner help you chunk out your work and schedule check-ins?”
  • When students finish a writing assignment, guide them to reflect not only on the content of the piece but also on the process of their learning. Support the reflection of the decisions learners made throughout the writing task with questions such as “How did your choices help support you?” “Would you make the same plan or decision next time?” “What did you learn about yourself as a writer and what did you learn about yourself as a learner?”

Student writers naturally think about what they are learning and how they are learning. When educators provide opportunities for students to name and practice this type of thinking work, it will grow stronger. As educators, our goal is to support the metacognitive skills within the writing classroom so the thinking work can be internalized to use independently across the school day and beyond.

Emily Loughead has had the unique experience of teaching fifth grade for eight years in both rural and urban public school settings. Emily was first introduced to Responsive Classroom while teaching on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and con- tinued her journey in education in Washington, DC. This year, Emily is finishing a literacy specialist master’s program at Teachers College, Columbia University.