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Make the most of metacognition by making reading a group task

Students retain more ‘incidental’ vocabulary when prompted to think about learning

Students who use metacognitive prompts during reading tasks can improve their incidental vocabulary learning, an experimental study from Hong Kong Baptist University and the University of Macau has found. The effect is strengthened when students work collaboratively in small groups, according to the paper’s authors, Feng Teng and Barry Lee Reynolds.

Previous research has shown that students can pick up new lexis from reading and listening, but without strategies in place to retain this ‘incidentally’ learned vocabulary, retention is likely to be poor and the opportunity is wasted.

Reading comprehension depends heavily on lexis. Poor growth in vocabulary size means the development of reading and listening skills will be limited. Using self-regulating learning strategies during reading can help students to retain new vocabulary better, and so improve their reading and listening.

A metacognitive approach goes beyond merely teaching students the self-regulating techniques of assessing and evaluating their learning. Students take active control of the cognitive processes involved during the learning process itself.

Teng and Reynolds wanted to assess the relative benefit of teaching metacognition compared to another common strategy – collaborative learning. Could using the two together have an even stronger impact?

The researchers recruited 171 first-year science and technology undergraduates from a Chinese university, all with an intermediate level of English. They were randomly assigned to four groups. Two groups used collaborative learning (in groups of 4-6), one with and one without metacognitive prompts. The other two used individual learning, with or without metacognitive prompts.

The metacognitive prompts were printed on the students worksheets, and were also given to the teacher so they could advise students when requested. They were written as questions designed to prompt both knowledge and regulation of metacognition.

For example, the question: ‘How should we proceed to develop a solution for this reading exercise and in which way can we apply the strategies from previous learning experiences?’ prompts students to access their knowledge of metacognitive strategies.

The question: ‘What are needed for planning, monitoring and evaluation of this text reading?’ [sic] prompts students to actively regulate their cognitive processes during learning.

The target vocabulary was carefully selected. A separate group of 50 students were given 100 low-frequency English words, and reported that 63 were unknown to any of them. Fifteen words of 8-10 letters were chosen, including nouns, verbs and adjectives, such as ‘jubilation, deprecate, sumptuous’.

The target vocabulary was embedded into a story. All students read this silently for 30 minutes, then had 30 minutes to think about it. The students then took a surprise test on reading comprehension and vocabulary. The reading was taken away for the vocabulary test so that it measured incidentally learned vocabulary.

The vocabulary test included: recalling the form, by writing the word after reading the L1 meaning; recalling the meaning by writing the L1 translation; and recognising the form by matching the English word to one of four L1 options.

Students using both collaborative learning and the prompts together scored highest on both the reading comprehension and vocabular tests. Students studying individually without prompts had the lowest vocabulary scores.

Collaborative learning without prompts, and individual learning with them, both resulted in improved outcomes. But using these strategies together resulted in further significant improvement.

Looking more closely at the vocabulary scores suggests that, for all students, meaning recognition – i.e. writing an L1 translation of an English word – is the easiest aspect for students to pick up incidentally. The most difficult is form recall, i.e. remembering the written word when given the meaning in L1.

These results suggest that time invested in metacognitive training will be repaid in improved learning outcomes. More specifically, the study models a simple and practical approach in providing metacognitive prompts, and actively encouraging students to use these questions to think about their learning experience. The effect can be further boosted by working in small groups where students can articulate and exchange ideas.


  • Teng, F. and Reynolds, B. L. (2019) Effects of individual and group metacognitive prompts on EFL reading comprehension and incidental vocabulary learning.’ PLoS ONE 14(5): e0215902.


Self-regulating learning strategies: Students plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning before, during and after a learning task. These strategies make the students more independent, less passive and more efficient learners.

Metacognitive approach: Thinking about the cognitive learning processes that are being used in a learning task and consciously activating these processes. For example, activating prior knowledge associated with a task to improve the retention of new associated knowledge.

Collaborative learning: When two or more students work collaboratively, they interact and depend on each other to understand and complete the task.

Image courtesy of UNSPLASH
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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