METACOGNITIVE STRATEGIES FOR HELPING POOR
READERS IN THE CONTENT AREAS
John Arul Phillips
My kids can't read their textbooks! But,
every teacher is a teacher of reading!
Both of those positions are the result
of the dominant role the textbook plays
in the secondary schools. Many teachers
place the responsibility for learning on
the textbook, or on the students'
inability to learn from the textbook
(Thelen,1985 p. v).
This is prevalent in most secondary schools and yet
little has been done to address the problem. The poor
comprehension of prose material refers to those found in the
content areas such as in science and the social sciences.
The purpose of this article is firstly to discuss the concept
of learning from text, secondly to describe the
characteristics of poor readers based on research evidence,
thirdly, is to discuss metacognition and its role in the
comprehension process, and finally to suggest an approach for
assisting poor readers understand prose material in the
LEARNING FROM TEXT
In the secondary school under the KBSM (or Integrated
Secondary School Curriculum), students are introduced to
subjects such as history, geography, science, health science,
commerce, and economics as separate disciplines. With each
subject taught, there are specific textbooks together with
perhaps workbooks, worksheets and reference materials from
which learners are expected to extract information. Many
content area teachers assume that their students can
comprehend what they read based upon their ability to
communicate and sound out words. Furthermore, some teachers
are of the opinion that reading skills should have been
acquired in the primary school and that secondary school is
for the mastery of content. Few would deny that `content is
king' but the zeal with which teachers try to `get through
the curriculum' often results in weak learners (or weak
readers) being left on their own to resolve their learning
Success in the content areas or the school subject areas
is very much dependent on the efficiency and effectiveness of
learners' in comprehending their textbooks and related prose
materials. The dominance of the textbook is most evident in
Malaysian secondary schools and the printed page continues to
be the major source of information for students whether they
be in the form of books, journals, magazines. pamphlets, or
presented on a computer screen. Reading comprehension or
understanding written content is the crux of the reading act.
Students cannot learn unless they can comprehend reading
material, and they cannot remember what they read unless they
Learning from text at the secondary school level
requires the skill of having to cope with a variety of text
structure. The text structure of social science materials
present certain peculiarities that make special demands on the
reader. Specialised technical vocabulary and symbols such as
maps, globes, statistical tables, graphs; and text structure
that is characterised by cause-effect pattern, comparison-
contrast pattern, sequential events pattern, and fact versus
opinion pattern, are features of social science materials
(Lunstrum and Taylor,1978). For the sciences, Davies and
Greene (1984) identified seven types of text structure,
namely; instruction texts, classification texts, structure
texts, mechanism texts, process texts, concept-principle
texts and hypothesis-theory texts. Unfortunately, research
has demonstrated that a sizeable proportion of secondary
school students are poor readers, and their inability to
handle textbooks and supplementary materials is most serious.
Hence the role of reading in the secondary school is
most evident especially when it is realised that not all
students are able to learn from text. When written prose
materials are the vehicle for learning, content area teachers
have a significant role in showing students how to learn.
THE POOR READERS
Why is it that some students are able to understand an
assigned reading after having only read it once? Whereas
other students have to read the same text three or four
times. These learners realise that rereading may not
necessarily be effective in trying to understand a passage.
Research has revealed that comprehension failure may be
attributed to the text processing characteristics of poor
readers who among other things;
- seem to be unaware of their purpose for reading, and
are relatively insensitive to the demands of reading for
meaning and tend to concentrate on the decoding of individual
words and phrases and are less able to detect text
inconsistencies (Di Vesta, Hayward & Orlando,1979).
- are less apt in modifying their reading rate according
to the purpose of reading, that is, when to slow down when
material is difficult and when to speed up reading when
skimming or to get a general impression (Smith,1967).
- are not as efficient in extracting main ideas from a
passage and tend to dwell on details and subordinate ideas
(Brown and Smiley,1977).
- are less able to grasp the logical structure of the
text, that is, a lack of understanding of how and why the
ideas are interconnected (Owings et al. 1980).
- experience difficulty in relating their past knowledge
to what they are reading (Sullivan,1978).
- are less sensitive to semantic and syntactic cues in
making predictions about information that they are uncertain
about (Irakson and Miller.1976).
- are less likely to take remedial measures when
comprehension failures occur, such as to reread previous
segment of text in search of clarification (Garner &
The poor reader may be summarised as one who is less
able to take charge of his or her own cognitive processes
while reading. They are not as flexible as good readers in
adapting their processing to the demands of the task and to
capitalise on the structure or contextual constraints
inherent in texts. In other words, poor readers are less
efficient in monitoring their understanding of the material
read or are deficient in metacognitive skills. Hence, when a
teacher assigns reading in a history, geography, science or
economics class, he or she "cannot expect all students to
`read more carefully', `figure things out for themselves,'
`look it up', or `ask someone for help' when so often the
student is unaware that something has `gone wrong' in the
first place" (Langer, 1982, p.45).
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF METACOGNITION IN COMPREHENSION?
The term metacognition was introduced by psychologists
to refer to the knowledge and control people have over their
own thinking and learning activities (Flavell and
Wellman,1977, Flavell,1978). It deals with "the individual's
knowledge about the task, possible strategies that might be
applied to the task and the individual's awareness of their
own abilities in relation to these strategies"
(Taylor,1983,p.270). Its increasing role in reading
comprehension is attributable to the influence of research in
cognitive science. Metacognition plays an important role in
reading comprehension and it refers to what a learner knows
about his or her cognitive processes (conscious awareness)
and the ability to control these processes by planning,
choosing and monitoring.
Brown (1980) identified reading strategies as instances
of metacognition and described metacomprehension as "any
deliberate planful control of activities that give birth to
comprehension" (p.456). Metacomprehension involves at least
two separate components; that is awareness and action (Baker
and Brown, 1985).
1 -> purpose
1 -> what one knows
1 -> what one needs to know
METACOMPREHENSION -->1 -> what facilitates
Figure 1: Components of Metacomprehension
Awareness of one's own cognitive behaviour during
- awareness of purpose of the reading assignment,
- awareness of what one knows about the reading task,
- awareness of what needs to be known,
- awareness of the strategies and skills which facilitate
or impede learning from text.
Action is the ability to use self-regulatory mechanisms
or cognitive monitoring to ensure the successful completion
of the task such as:
- checking the outcome of any attempt to solve the
- planning one's next move,
- evaluating the effectiveness of any attempted action,
- testing and revising one's strategies for learning,
and remediating any difficulties encountered by
using compensatory strategies
The successful reader is one who is able to monitor his
or her understanding of what is being read and this
metacognitive skill is apparently not developed in all
students. Linked to reading, metacognition involves `knowing
what you know', `knowing what you need to know' and `knowing
the utility of active intervention' (Sanacore,1984). In other
words, to be an efficient and effective reader, the person
should be able to monitor his or her degree of understanding,
be aware of the knowledge possessed, be conscious of the task
demanded and know the strategies that facilitates
comprehension. However, Baker and Brown (1984) point out
.... it is tempting to conclude that
ineffective monitoring of one's
cognitive processes during reading is
the cause of poor comprehension, we
caution against such precipitous
conclusion. The majority of studies have
shown that ineffective monitoring is
associated with poor comprehension, but
not that it is the cause. It may be that
poor comprehension reduces the ability
to monitor one's ongoing activities; or
perhaps a third factor such as
impoverished background knowledge, is
responsible for both problems
AN APPROACH FOR HELPING POOR READERS
Nonetheless, it is evident that one of the reasons for
comprehension failure is the inability of learners to monitor
their comprehension. Comprehension monitoring ability differ
between poor and good readers as evidenced by the varying
processing strategies adopted by each group. The question
that is of interest is whether instruction in monitoring of
one's own comprehension can assist learners to be more
efficient readers in the content areas? Existing research
suggest that instruction in comprehension monitoring can be
successful and should be attempted by content area teachers,
even though some might view this as outside their repertoire
of skills and responsibilities, and that it should be left to
reading specialists. If comprehension and content mastery is
the goal of instruction, then content area teachers will have
to instruct students in metacognitive skills that will help
them in learning new cognitive processes.
Beck (1976) identified three steps in learning new
cognitive processes: (1) altering "automatic thoughts" -
self-verbalisations and images that one is conscious of
using; (2) recognising and altering error-producing cognitive
processes; (3) discovering and altering underlying,
previously unrecognised "schemas". Based on these principles
the following metacognitive approach is suggested for helping
poor readers comprehend prose material in the various content
areas (see Figure 2).
EXPLANATION BY THE TEACHER
* introduce a skill
* show examples and non-examples
* exercises to practice the skill
MODELING BY THE TEACHER
* `think aloud' of the modeling process
by the teacher/expert
- identification of comprehension failure
- "fix-up" strategies
APPLICATION BY THE LEARNER
* `think aloud' of the modeling process
by learners in different situations
* comparison of their modeling process
* silent modeling
Figure 2: An Approach Towards Helping Poor
Readers in the Content Areas
Step 1: Explanation
The teacher decides which skill that is to be taught,
lists the steps to follow when executing the skill, why it is
important and when students will need to use it. Examples of
such comprehension skills are, context clues,
relating relevant prior knowledge to new information,
paraphrasing/summarising effectively, identification of text
structure, self-questioning and inferential reasoning. The
teacher emphasises that comprehending text is a problem
solving task that requires a line of reasoning or a way of
thinking. For example, in learning how to use context clues,
the teacher explains how the semantic and syntactic
structures of text may provide clues in understanding
difficult words or phrases. The teacher lists the types of
contextual aids that may be used by the reader such as;
definition, linked synonyms, examples, modifiers,
restatements, contrast and cause-effect (Vacca,1981).
The teacher describes the reasoning process and
presents several examples and non-examples that can be used
when explaining the process. It should be evident that the
technique of using context clues is mostly an inferential
process that requires the reader to see an explicit or
implicit relationship between an unfamiliar word and its
context or to connect what he or she already knows with the
unknown term. Simultaneously, the teacher anticipates the
kinds of problems students may have when and how to use the
reasoning process and selects passages that may be used to
clarify misunderstandings (Herrmann,1988).
Step 2: Modeling by the Teacher
Besides merely explaining the comprehension, the teacher
seen as the expert models the reasoning proces involved. The
teacher "thinks out loud" stating WHEN and HOW the reasoning
process should be used. The teacher reads a passage to the
class, does self-questioning and describes the fix-up
strategies the teacher will use. During this whole process
the teacher thinks aloud the mental processes each step of
The teacher provides a model of the thinking process by
stating what is going on inside his or her head. The teacher
is assumed to be the `expert reader' while the student is the
novice. While making inferences, for example, the following
`inner dialogue' might be the sequence of cognitive processes
going on inside the head of the teacher-expert.
Given this text, I'm required to make inferences.
OK, That means the message is not explicitly
mentioned. Hmmm! How do I draw inferences?
[TEACHER PRETENDS TO HAVE TROUBLE WITH THE TEXT]
I need to `read between the lines'. Let me first
identify the explicit information. [TEACHER
READS] Do any of the words or phrases explicitly
stated provide clues as to the implied message.
Yes! this phrase seems to imply that....
Furthermore, if I connect the first sentence of
paragraph 1 and the first sentence of paragraph
2, I could infer that... [TEACHER DRAWS A
CONCLUSION] One of the causes for this event may
be inferred from the following words.... Yes!
this event most probably resulted in ... and this
is implied in this sentence.
The teacher checks how the students interpreted the modeling
information asking them to tell or show when and how to use
the reasoning process. If, however, the students still do
not understand, the teacher provide cues in the form of
prompts, analogies, metaphors, or other forms of elaboration
which help students refine their understanding of the
reasoning process (Herrmann,1988). Teachers share their
thinking through externalising their inner dialogue by
verbalising the questions they are asking themselves. By
sharing their strategies, teachers can provide their students
with models of mental processes.
Step 3: Application
The student performs the same task under the guidance of
the teacher. As students describe what is going on `inside
their heads' they become aware of their thinking processes.
The teacher shapes students' evolving understandings of
reasoning processes by asking them to explain how they made
sense of the text and, on the basis of what they say,
providing additional explanation t help them reason like
experts. Similarly, as they listen to their classmates
describing their mental processes, they develop flexibility
of thought and an appreciation for the different ways of
solving the same problem.
In the student participation phase, students are asked
to pose questions, spot confusions, form hypotheses, find
supporting evidence and suggest remedies to failures. In the
silent reading phase, students do their own monitoring and
the teacher is available to suggest strategies when
difficulties are encountered.
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