Research School Network: Metacognitive reading strategies for the English Language GCSE

Metacognitive reading strategies for the English Language GCSE

by Durrington Research School
on the

By Andy Tharby

English is a subject that requires that students know and practise a wide range of strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their work. The reading sections of the two GCSE English Language papers, for example, require the mastery of a range of metacognitive processes: reading for meaning; annotating a text; choosing relevant quotations; tracking’ a text; making valid inferences; planning short and long answers; and writing in a concise and analytical style. These processes need to be further broken down into their component parts and, most importantly, should be taught explicitly in a coherent sequence.

We have noticed that many of our students struggle to read for meaning. When working with a new passage of fiction, they find it hard to get a handle on the basics. Who is involved? What is happening? When is it happening? Where is it happening? Instead, many students skim through the text and either misunderstand it, only partially understand it or, in some cases, do not understand it at all. Sometimes this is caused by a lack of reading proficiency (they cannot read the text because it is too difficult to comprehend) or a lack of motivation (they cannot be bothered to read the text). However, there is a significantly large group of proficient readers who also struggle to find meaning in a new text. It is likely that these students do not plan, monitor or evaluate their approach effectively.

To combat this, we have resisted the urge to throw students into the deep end from the off. Rather than handing out exam questions to answer straight away, we have instead spent time on explicitly teaching them how to read a new text first. To do this, we have introduced a simple who, what, where, when’ annotation strategy. This has then been narrowed down to some essential component parts, which include:

  • Writing who, what, where, when at the bottom of the page.
  • Listing facts and inferences under these headings.
  • Numbering new characters.
  • Joining related or contrasting ideas with arrows.
  • Placing question marks next to unsecure inferences (and removing if the inference id supported by further evidence).
  • Re-reading the text to search for missing or incomplete information.

We have used the EEF’s remarkably useful Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning Guidance Report to plan how we will introduce the strategy. This recommends that new metacognitive strategies are taught in seven stages:

  1. Activating prior knowledge;
  2. Explicit strategy instruction;
  3. Modelling of learned strategy;
  4. Memorisation of strategy;
  5. Guided practice;
  6. Independent practice;
  7. and 7. Structured reflection.

We took this advice and modified it slightly to fit our needs. Here is an outline of the process we used:

  1. Explain the reasons for using the who, what, where, when’ strategy.Reading a new text is akin to being dropped by parachute onto a deserted island in the middle of the night. In this scenario, you would really need some tools to help you to locate yourself – a torch, a compass and a rope, for instance. Similarly, you need to employ a set of tools when reading a new text – who, what, where, when.
  2. Use a text to explicitly model the new strategy. This is the I stage of the process, when students listen, watch and take notes.
  3. Use the strategy to make notes together on a second text. At this stage, the teacher guides practice through questioning. What do we need to do when we meet a new character? What do we do with two related ideas? What do we do if we are not completely certain about our inference? What do we do when we have finished reading the text? This is the we stage.
  4. Give students the opportunity to practise applying the strategy independently with a third text. This is the you stage of the model/​practise cycle.
  5. Finally, reflect on how things went.What is useful about the strategy? What did you find difficult?
  6. Provide plenty more opportunities to practise in future lessons and homework.

What have we learnt?

We introduced the new strategy during our fortnightly Subject Planning and Development meeting. We started by modelling the I and we parts of the strategy to the whole department as if they were a class – very meta, I know! – and then we discussed how we could make it work even better in our classrooms. In the ensuing days, we popped into each other’s lessons to see how well students were getting to grips with the new strategy. We discovered that:

  • Students seem to be reading texts with more purpose than this time last year.
  • Students found the strategy easy to understand and access.
  • It is important to separate strategy instruction from general teaching of the text. In other words, the surface structure (understanding the text itself) sometimes takes over from the deeper structure (understanding how to apply the reading strategy). A careful balance must be struck – a teacher’s questioning skill is vital here.
  • It is useful to return to the guided practice stage during later lessons to ensure students have not forgotten or misunderstood a stage.

Where next?

We have also designed a simple, fine-focus whole-class assessment sheet which will allow teachers to assess how well their students are applying the strategy. Teachers will use this next week, and we will use this data to give very precise actionable feedback, and also to further refine the strategy for the future. The next stage, of course, will be to model how to read an exam question and how to identify relevant quotations to include in an answer.


It is important to remain clear-eyed about the effectiveness of teaching reading strategies such as this. This paper by Daniel Willingham and Gail Lovette (2014) surveys the evidence on reading strategy instruction. It concludes:

that reading comprehension strategy instruction does not actually improve general‐​purpose comprehension skills. Rather, this strategy represents a bag of tricks that are useful and worth teaching, but that that are quickly learned and require minimal practice.

Instead, Willingham and Lovette argue that educators should:

focus on other, more fruitful activities, such as generative vocabulary instruction, deep content exploration, and opportunities for reading across genres and content areas. When it comes to improving reading comprehension, strategy instruction may have an upper limit, but building background knowledge does not; the more students know, the broader the range of texts they can comprehend.

In other words, even though reading comprehension strategies – like the one I have outlined in this post – have a crucial role to play, they only provide one part of the answer. The other part comes through the development of a rich, deep five-year English curriculum that involves plentiful reading across a wide range of genres and content domains.

Sadly, these strategies are also of limited value to those students who still cannot read fluently. They require very targeted assessment and intervention instead.

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