George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Skill Strong Readers Share

Metacognition helps readers analyze texts as they read, and it’s a skill you can teach your students.

August 10, 2017
©Gable Denims/500px

Students in classrooms across the United States spend an estimated 85 percent of their school day on assignments that require reading texts. A key difference between students who can read well and those who cannot is the ability to use metacognition.

Metacognition can be regarded as a conversation readers have with themselves about what they are reading. Metacognitive readers enjoy reading because they can find meaning in texts and think deeply to comprehend what they’re reading.

Those who have not yet learned to be metacognitive often have trouble reading fluently and comprehending what they read. Virtually all students can learn how to become metacognitive readers when they are explicitly taught. Here are some tools for teaching students how to become metacognitive readers.

Before Reading

We consider the prereading stage to be of critical importance. The way teachers frame reading, by modeling passion, purpose, and curiosity about texts, fuels student motivation to read.

Allow students to select their reading material whenever possible. Guide students to appropriate selections they’ll be able to read with no less than 98 percent accuracy. This way, they can practice thinking about what they’re reading and increase their reading efficacy and fluency.

When students have made their selections, facilitate a class discussion around questions like these:

  • Examining the cover, title, illustrations, and main headings, what do you think this text is about?
  • What is your purpose for reading this selection? What do you want to learn about this topic?
  • What makes you curious about the topic?
  • What do you already know about this?

For example, I (Donna) am planning to read The Things Our Fathers Saw by Matthew Rozell. Curious about my father’s years fighting with the 1st Calvary in World War II, I’m keen to read stories of others who served in the Pacific Theater. With maturity I didn’t have when my beloved dad was alive, my purpose is to know what life may have been like for him, traveling from America’s rural heartland to Asian jungles and Manila.

While Reading

Metacognitive readers engage in self-dialogue about content while they’re reading. This dialogue is key to comprehending what is read. Here are some questions you can encourage students to ask themselves:

  • What are the most important elements of what you’re reading? What are the main ideas?
  • Who is the main character? Who are the supporting characters? In the case of nonfiction, what is the main argument? What are the supporting ideas?
  • If you could, what questions would you ask the author?
  • As you read, what are the clues regarding what the author’s underlying motive in writing this might be?
  • If you could rewrite this selection, how would your version be similar and different?

Visualizing is a powerful tool for many readers. One of our favorite strategies to aid metacognition during reading is something we call “making brain movies.” Creating brain movies can help students make sense of complex nonfiction subject matter and vividly see the characters, setting, and action in stories, thus bringing a text to life. Teachers who use this strategy tell us their students seem to have more fun as they experience reading success.


Rereading offers big benefits because it allows for a deeper emotional connection and more thoughtful reflection than the first reading, which is more focused on the plot or the primary argument.

During rereading, graphic organizers offer a way for the reader to map the most vital aspects of the material and key supporting details. Outlining is another way to enhance the rereading process.


The ability to summarize demonstrates an understanding of a text and comprehension of the main theme and most important information. This skill does not come naturally to most people, so students need to be taught how to do it.

Questions like these can help students learn to summarize:

  • What is most important in what you are reading?
  • What are the why, who, what, when, where, and how in this text?
  • What is the intent and overarching theme or idea?


Questions such as the following can help readers analyze what they’ve read. In particular, we think it’s important to think about how reading enriches or informs our lives.

  • What is the author’s main story line or argument? Articulate the main ideas using your own words.
  • Why do you think the author wrote this selection?
  • Explain the author’s reasoning.
  • What is the source of the author’s information?
  • Forgetting what the author thinks for a moment, what are your own thoughts and opinions about the issues raised?
  • What are you taking away from your reading of this selection? What have you learned? How does learning this enhance or inform your life?

Many teachers begin the process of teaching students to be metacognitive readers using an interactive read-aloud with the entire class. While reading, the teacher amplifies appropriate questions during the five phases from prereading to evaluation to assist students in internalizing the process of metacognitive reading. After students have had some practice, teachers can facilitate the process with them as they read individual choices.

It’s important to be aware that teaching students to become metacognitive readers is accomplished over time and is not something to be tackled in just one or two lessons.

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  • English Language Arts

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