Metacognitive Learning Strategy: A Parameter For Liberating African Students From Cognitive Enslavement In Second Language Writing


The paper explores the concept of metacognition in line with the theory governing its usage in language learning literature. Metacognitive learning strategy as a strategy that entails self awareness and regulation of knowledge to execute tasks was examined in relation to its prominence in learner autonomy. The art and skill of proficient essay writing can be enhanced through constant practice and an integration of metacognitive skills in classroom discourses. It encourages students to see writing as a process of discovering, exploring, generating and constructing ideas which could facilitate effective writing skill. The paper unveils the efficacy of the learning technique in improving the quality of essays written by students. Though there are many learning strategies that can aid and promote writing tasks; Cognitive, Search, Affective, Social etc the paper laid emphasis on Metacognitive learning strategy owing to research findings solidifying its efficiency in second language writing pedagogy.

Key Words: Metacognition, Learning Strategy, Writing Skill.


Khadijat Muhammad SAMA, (PhD)
Department of Curriculum Studies and Educational Technology
Faculty of Education and Extension Services

Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto

Email:   hadizasama@yahoo.com, samakhadijat@gmail.com

Phone: 08039592052


       Writing constitutes an important part of second language learners’ academic experience at all levels of education in Nigeria. Governed by the prevalence of writing in the academic curriculum and because of the challenges associated with its development, a common component of English as second language (ESL) writing classes consists of helping second-language learners develop writing skills. Many of the difficulties and differences observed through textual analysis of L2 essays were explained in terms of the transfer of the cultural and linguistic influences from the writer’s first language. However, the newly defined contrastive rhetoric (Conner, 2007) sees that L2 texts and writing are influenced by an array of factors.  Researchers interested in the application of contrastive rhetoric research in L2 writing instruction have argued for the importance of going beyond cultural and linguistic factors as sole explanations for textual features observed in L2 writing. For example, Matsuda (1997) argues that the writer’s cultural and linguistic background, though still relevant, should no longer be seen as the only explanation for organizational features in L2 texts.

       In spite of numerous studies on metacognition and its usefulness in L2 pedagogy by scholars around the globe (Conner, 2007; Fenghua & Chen 2010) this area has experienced neglect and is rarely explored to ascertain its effectiveness especially in the Nigerian context. The focus therefore is to provide additional information and knowledge base for course instructors to better support students in second language writing tasks. Teachers can accelerate the rate at which the learners’ task is accomplished by being explicit about the particular learning goals they have set for the class and guiding the students in setting their writing goals. In this regard, teaching learners to use specific writing strategies is a prime consideration in essay writing discourses in Nigerian schools.


 Scholars from different fields of endeavour see and view metacognition from different angles and thus describe it differently in accordance with their perspectives. It refers to the ability to reflect upon, understand and control one’s learning Magno (2008). Fisher (1998) describes it as that uniquely human capacity of people to be self-reflexive, not just to think and know but to think about their own thinking and knowing.

 Theories that integrate one’s knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition are known as metacognitive theories. Hence, the theories of metacognition focus on cognitive aspects of the mind. Schraw and Moshman (1995) opine that specifically, metacognitive theories (a) integrate a wide range of metacognitive knowledge and experiences, and (b) permit explanation and prediction of cognitive behaviour. Kuhn, (1989) suggests that one primary feature of a metacognitive theory is that it allows an individual to integrate diverse aspects of metacognition within a single framework. Metacognition is most commonly broken down into distinct but interrelated areas. Flavell, one of the first researchers in metacognition and memory, classifies these two areas as metacognitive knowledge,  i.e. awareness of one’s thinking or thinking about what we know; and metacognitive regulation i.e. the ability to manage one’s own thinking processes or put differently, managing how we go about learning. These two components are used together to inform learning theory. The processes make up an important aspect of learning and development.

 Metacognitive Knowledge

             Zhang (2010, p. 26), believed that our metacognitive knowledge base consists of what we have learned through experience about cognitive activities. Students have thoughts, notions, and intuitions about their own knowledge and thinking. Flavell (1979) describes three kinds of metacognitive knowledge. These are;

·         Awareness of knowledge-understanding what one knows what one does not know, and what one wants to know. (I know that I understand that plants need sunlight but I do not know why). This category may also include an awareness of others’ knowledge (I know that Umar understands long division, so I will ask him to explain this problem to me.)

·         Awareness of thinking-understanding cognitive tasks and the nature of what is required to complete them ( I know that reading a newspaper article will be easier for me than reading my text book)

·         Awareness of thinking strategies-understandingly approaches to directing learning. (I am having difficulty reading this article. I should summarize what I just read before going out).

The above three categories of metacognitive knowledge are similarly viewed by Zhang (2010) as highly interactive knowledge variables of person knowledge, task knowledge, and strategic knowledge.

Person knowledge refers to general knowledge that learners have acquired about themselves as learners, which facilitate or inhibit learning. We know that children are not very accurate or efficient at describing what they know, but as they get older their skills improve, especially if they have been taught and have had practice in how to think about and discuss their own thinking. Wenden (1998) suggest that person knowledge may include cognitive and effective variables such as age, language aptitude, and motivation, specific knowledge learners have acquired about their general ability as learners, and beliefs about their ability to achieve specific learning goals.

Taking the above into consideration regarding writing in English as a second language, person knowledge can be regarded as the totality of the knowledge that English as a second language learners have acquired about themselves as writers, such as their attitude towards and motivation in English language writing, their beliefs about their writing proficiency and their perceived ability to achieve certain writing objectives. In this connection, L2 learners should be guided to develop an understanding of what they know and do not know. They should be encouraged to develop a sense of their own knowledge.

Task knowledge generally involves three aspects: Learners’ knowledge about the task purpose and how it will meet their learning needs and goals, Zhang 2010, p. 27, knowledge about the nature of a particular task identified through a classification process; information about a task’s demands such as the approach to the task and the knowledge and skills needed to complete the task. In this wise, students can be prompted to ask more general questions about the task or problem that help them become aware of their existing resources and needs. In relation to English as a second language writing, task knowledge may include among others, learners’ knowledge about the purpose of a certain writing task, such as to improve their writing ability and their information about the required skills to fulfill the task, such as good command of English vocabulary and grammar, and a skillful mastery of developing ideas clearly and logically.

Strategy knowledge, on the other hand, refers to general knowledge about the types and usefulness of strategies, and specific knowledge about their utility for learning. In second language learning, learners’ retrospection upon their language learning strategies is often taken as evidence of their stored strategic knowledge. Of particular importance are metacognitive strategies, which are “general skills through which learners manage, direct, regulate and guide their learning, i.e. planning, monitoring and evaluating” (Wenden, 1998, p. 519). In L2 writing, Strategic knowledge often refers to learners’ knowledge about pre-writing planning, on-writing monitoring of errors, post-writing checking and reflection of their writing processes and products.

Metacognitive Regulation

            Metacognitive regulation otherwise known as self-direction refers to the processes by which learners plan how to approach a task, their analysis of the task, and the monitoring of its implementation. The cognitive literature refers to the same processes as self-regulation (Wenden, 2001). When a student has information about his/her thinking (metacognitive knowledge), he/she is able to use this information to direct or regulate his/her learning. The demands and opportunities of a self-directed learning context make it necessary for students to reevaluate their role(s) and responsibilities as language learners, and their need for self-direction requires them to develop a comparatively higher degree of metacognitive knowledge particularly in terms of self- or person knowledge Hauck (2005). The ability to work strategically can be taught and must be learned if students are to succeed at being self-directed learners throughout their lives.

Second Language Writing Strategies

Second Language (L2) writing strategies have been defined by Mu and Carrington (2007) as conscious decisions made by the writers to solve a writing problem. This can be explained further to mean techniques, approaches and measures employed by a careful writer to accomplish a writing task effectively and with ease.  Second language writing research has examined the processes and strategies L2 writers employ to accomplish writing tasks ( Leki 1995, Riazi, 1997). For instance, Riazi (1997) classified the strategies used by participants in his study (four Iranian doctoral students learning to write in the field of education) into four categories, “cognitive”, “metacognitive”,” social” and “search”.  Riazi opines that cognitive strategies are responsible for interacting with the materials to be used in the writing by manipulating them mentally or physically. One of these strategies is Metacognitive strategies which are those that writers use to control the writing process consciously and social strategies allow interacting with other persons to assist in performing the task or to gain affective control. The search strategies involve searching and using supporting sources such as looking for model.

Metacognitive Learning Strategy: A Success Parameter in L2 Writing

Metacognitive learning strategies are higher order executive skills which enable students to approach learning in a systematic, efficient and effective way by using the elements of planning, monitoring and evaluation. Hamzah and Abdullah (2009). Learners who are metacognitively aware have strategies for finding out or figuring out what they need to do when in a fix. The use of metacognitive strategies ignites one’s thinking and can lead to more profound learning and improved performance especially in accomplishing essay writing exercises. The learning strategy involves for example planning for writing, monitoring of own progress in writing task or self-evaluating of writing after the activity is completed. These stages are in accordance with the views of O’Malley and Chamot’s 1990 classification of the strategy which “are more accurate and more widely accepted” (Fenghua & Chen 2010, p.  136). The need for an in-depth discussion on these obviously presents itself.

        Planning involves directing the course of language reception and production. Planning is more about brainstorming on the assigned task and systematic organization of how the task is to be completed successfully.  In the writing process focus is made on the process of writing rather than on the product of writing, and on the recursive nature of writing rather than the linear nature of writing (Robinson 2000). Although planning, monitoring and evaluation stages do overlap in the writing process, it is pertinent to take them separately in order to facilitate description.

            An integral time log of writing should be focused on planning stage of writing where the goal setting occurs. Goal setting is one important aspect of good writing. It involves the selection of appropriate strategies and allocation of resources that affect performances. The ability to plan, and knowledge about this process, develops throughout childhood and adolescence, improving dramatically between the ages of 10 and 14. Older more experienced writers engage in more global as opposed to local planning. Hence, they possess more knowledge about cognition and use that knowledge to regulate their learning before they undertake a task. In addition, more experienced writers are better able to plan effectively regardless of text “content”, whereas poor writers are unable to do so. Monitoring can also be described as being aware of what one is doing in the course of accomplishing or executing a task. This strategy is as well seen as self-monitoring. In addition, monitoring refers to one’s on-line awareness of comprehension and task performance. The ability to engage in periodic self-testing while learning is a good example. Fenghua and Chen (2010), suggest that self-monitoring involves checking, verifying or correcting one’s comprehension or performance in the course of the language task. It involves more specific metacognitive strategies as follows: (1) comprehension monitoring, (2) production monitoring which means checking, verifying or correcting one’s language production. It is primarily applied in writing and speaking, (3) Auditory monitoring (4) Visual monitoring (5) styling monitoring (6)strategy monitoring (7) plan monitoring and (8) Double –checking monitoring. During the second stage of writing process, i.e. self-monitoring, ideas are translated into the written mode. The writer is expected to perform many tasks during this period. Being conscious of the task at hand, staying on track of the assigned task and guarding against unnecessary mistakes of spelling, grammar, punctuation etc are some of the features of self- monitoring. 

            Evaluation is a mental process involving conscious inspection of learning outcomes and one’s own progress in the new language. This stage entails self –evaluation. Schraw and Moshman (1995) opined that evaluation means appraising the products and regulatory processes of one’s learning. Typical examples includes, re-evaluating one’s goals and conclusions. A number of studies indicate that metacognitive knowledge and regulatory skills such as planning are related to evaluation (see Baker, 1989). With respect to text revisions for example, Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) found that poor writers were less able than good writers to adopt the reader’s perspective and had more difficulty “diagnosing” text problems and correcting them. These differences were attributed to the use of different mental models of writing. Good writers used what Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) referred to as the “knowledge transforming” model (p. 12). In contrast, poor writers used a knowledge telling model. In the light of the above Fenghua and Chen (2010) view that self-evaluation subsumes five metacognitive strategies. They are: (1) Production evaluation; (2) Performance Evaluation; (3) Ability evaluation; (4) Strategy evaluation and (5) Language evaluation. Self-evaluation is a basic and important aspect of the writing process as it enhances the quality of essay. Most often than not efficient or professional writers set apart considerable time for revision because effective revision (which is part of self evaluation) results in good writing. In most cases however, students’ focus is on mechanical and word-level changes and their revising influences little on the quality of writing.  Students’ sense of audience is limited, resulting in less revision. Many students submit written essays unchecked and unrevised. Others probably, proof read once to pick out a few spelling mistakes.            

Integrating Second Language Writing Discourses with Metacognitive Learning Strategy

            In academic writing, the importance of classroom discourse in writing tasks is a recurrent theme Langer, 2001. Because teachers play a critical role in ensuring classroom learning activities, including writing tasks such as tests, essay exams, reports, and journals their responsibilities becomes apparent. A clearer understanding of these classroom discourses is essential since teacher practices have the efficacy to influence students’ beliefs about writing both positively and negatively. It becomes obvious that explicitly teaching students to plan and organize in various writing tasks can be quite effective. Students who have received this instruction have displayed a better understanding of the importance of planning in their writing (Bereiter & Scardamalia.

Strategic approaches to learning are often what separate good learners from poor ones. Simply put, it provides students with the same tools and techniques that efficient learners use to understand and learn new materials or skills. With continued guidance and ample opportunities for practice, students learn to integrate new information with what they already know, in a way that makes sense, making it easier for them to recall the information or skill at a later time, even in a different situation or setting (Luke & Stephen, 2006). A skillful teacher can thus, play an important role in guiding students’ use of strategies until their use becomes an automatic part of each student’s repertoire.

Learners need to be trained in effective use of learning strategies to take control of their learning process before they can eventually take complete responsibility of their learning or become autonomous in their overall learning approach. Before a learner can become autonomous, he/she needs to acquire the right strategic knowledge that will enable him/her to achieve a critical level of autonomy in order to function independently. But what sort of strategic knowledge does the learner need to acquire in order to become autonomous in his/her learning process? One probable way is to teach the learners knowledge of learning strategies in order to equip them with useful learning tools to take responsibility of their own learning. In other words, strategy instruction provides an opportunity for learners to develop their expertise in strategy use i.e. being able to learn how to learn (Wenden, 1998).

Training on learning how to learn can be offered by instructors to serve as paths for independent and successful learning.  Oxford and Nyikos (1989) holds that unlike most other characteristics of the learner, such as aptitude, attitude, motivation, personality and general cognitive styles, learning strategies are readily teachable. Many researchers (Oxford, 1990; Wenden, 1991a; Chamot, Barnhardt, El-Dinary and Robbins, 1990) describe processes for effective language learning instruction. Steps include raising students’ awareness, explicitly teaching strategies, providing opportunities for practice and evaluation. Raising awareness includes generally explaining what strategies are and why learners should use them. Explicitly teaching strategies entails naming and defining specific strategies and explaining when and how to use them. Opportunities to practice strategies should be provided as separate class activities as well as integrated with regular classroom language training activities. Learners should also be given opportunities to reflect on and evaluate the effectiveness of the practice and strategies. Research has been done on the impact of strategies on writing skills. Historically writing was viewed as a linear and simplistic activity. However, contemporary models of writing explain it as a process rather than a product. The process of writing involves cognitive, linguistic, affective, behavioural and physical characters. Application of metacognitive learning strategy in writing should be viewed as part of “process writing” research (Manchon, De Larios & Murphy (2007) because MLS are used in the process of writing and are only useful when used during the writing activity.


From the foregoing, it is quite indisputable that strategy instruction can play a major role in meeting some of the many challenges of essay writing. This is because it has the power to transform passive students into active learners equipped with the tools to promote  effective writing techniques in learners. When strategy instruction is implemented as a coordinated school-wide system, student outcomes can be even greater, leading to transfer of knowledge, skills and strategies to other academic and social settings. Of course, caution should be taken to avoid a focus on teaching strategies at the expense of core content instruction. Quality professional development can help educators strike the proper balance as well as ensure faithful and sustained implementation designed to maximize instructional impact.


The following could help the second language teacher in carrying out classroom discourses on writing.

Ø  English language teachers should promote awareness of learning strategies so that learners would maximize their use for optimal benefit.

Ø  An integration of essay writing lessons with training on metacognitive learning strategy could improve students’ writing skill.

Ø  At each level of essay writing, learners should be guided to take control of the process by applying the principle learnt in strategy training which could enhanced quality write ups.



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