Does Metacognition Aid Language Acquisition?

Metacognition– thinking about thinking; being aware of what you know (or don’t), or of what you need to know– is a big word these days. There’s a fair amount of good research that indicates that, for some subjects/activities, metacognition plays an important role in learning.

For example, when reading a story or novel, good readers are aware of what they know, or don’t. A good reader doesn’t just mindlessly let words slip through their brain, but is imagining, predicting, questioning etc, and is self-aware of what is happening. If the good reader doesn’t know something, or has forgotten something, or is unclear, s/he goes back, re-reads, asks questions of other readers (or looks online) etc. The same is broadly true in something like math, or chem. Poor learners say “I don’t get it.” Good learners say “I don’t get how to go from __ to __,” or “I don’t get [a specific thing].”

In board games such as chess or the Asian game Go, good players “replay” matches to see where their issues are. I play Go, and regularly review the games I play online. I now know from two years of review that I have problems with mid-board attacks, calculating risks in corners, and heading off cuts. (I am SUCH a geek). It’s made me marginally better.

Question: does “reflecting on one’s knowledge of language” help one acquire the language, in the way that reflecting on reading, game-play, or math helps us there?

I’m thinking about this because I’m going to a conference soon where there will be a workshop on “Portfolio Assessment in Second Languages.” The people presenting this have their students collect “evidence of learning”– written docs, recordings of interviews, etc– in portfolios, and, at the end of the course they go through these portfolios with the students. They ask the students questions (in TL) about what they have learned/need to know and they comment on everything from grammar and pronunciation to writing.

My view: I think this is generally an ineffective practice. Why?

a) We acquire language unconsciously. While knowing what we don’t know is a kind of “map” for the future, it does not, on its own, help us acquire language. My being aware that I can’t say the French word for, say, “to sit down” is not going to help me acquire that verb unless I get the chance to hear/read it meaningfully a number of times.

b) Feedback regarding pronunciation, grammar, etc, is basically useless. This is because feedback goes into the conscious mind , while language is stored in the unconscious mind. Any language teacher knows this: you teach l’imparfait till your face turns blue and the kids still don’t use it properly. They will still write “Hier, j’allais a l’ecole.”

My colleague Leanda started TPRS this year with her French 10s. I’ve seen and heard what they can do. I was, to put it mildly, amazed by how good the kids’ output was– accent, grammar, fluency, variety of vocab, etc– but what REALLY blew me away was the fact that her kids hadn’t practiced any speaking or been given any speaking or writing feedback!

c) Curriculum makes metacognition irrelevant. If kids are taught “thematic” units, as they are in my district in French and Spanish, it doesn’t matter what they know (or don’t) or how aware they are. The teacher still has to teach units 1-6 (or whatever) with their attendant vocab, grammar, etc, the next year. If a kid knows s/he doesn’t know aller or whatever (and most kids won’t know anything about their own learning even close to that specifically), great…but if aller doesn’t come up a lot during the next year, that act of self-reflection won’t help the kid acquire it.

I’ve asked the communicative French teachers about this, and they say “well we recycle the vocab: the curriculum is spiral.” The problem here is that, typically, the vocab “chunks” or themes are separated by months and years from each other. For example, under the old Passages text we used to use, kids saw food and the partitive article in a unit in Level 2 and then again in Level 4. I taught level 3 for a year and while you’d see the odd partitive expression, the food vocab was absent. (Level 3 at that time had clothing, media, sports, etc but no food unit.) In the meantime they lose a lot of what they’ve gotten.

A good “communicative” teacher will get around this by consciously re-incoporating whatever has “just been taught” into the next unit and so on. The problem is that these text series have very specific grammar foci, so the “older stuff” gets backgrounded and the worksheets, videos etc foreground the new stuff. It’s doable but one must consciously focus on maintaining usage of ALL stuff.

TPRS gets around this because, while stories have 2-3 structures and focus (or even themes– the crazy trip to the restaurant, shopping with Celebrity ____, etc), we can always re-use everything we’ve ever used as background detail. I’ll use había (there was/were) in the first story ever…and it gets reused ALL THE TIME. I’ll do a story about clothes and shopping (wears, pays, costs would be typical structures) and then every story from then on, we’ll stop and say what the characters are wearing, or not, or want to be wearing, etc.

d) Metacognition in one’s first language is incredibly difficult…how can it be any easier in one’s second? I teach English lit/comp…and believe me, getting the kids to reflect on their writing is next to impossible. In our school, for example, the kids from Punjabi and Hindi families mis-use the present pluperfect in English– e.g. instead of writing “Yesterday I went to the store,” (correct) they’ll write “Yesterday I had gone to the store” (incorrect). When you point this out to them, they say “oh yeah sounds wrong” and then they go right back to doing it. This is an interlanguage thing– there’s something in South Asian languages that mimics the “had” in English or whatever– and it’s pretty clear that the kids aren’t consciously doing it. You can explain English grammar till you’re blue in the face and the kids won’t get it. I don’t know how we expect people to “reflect on their learning” in a second language when reflecting on their first language is so difficult.

Long story short: portfolios, self assessment and self-reflection have no place in a secondary school second-languages classroom. If you want your kids to learn…give ’em zillions of reps of comprehensible input that’s interesting enough for them to focus on. Kids– and most adults– cannot turn conscious feedback into acquisition, and, evennif they can, it’s much more efficient to give ’em reps of comprehensible input. The only place I see for self-reflection is in stuff that kids actually can be aware of– work habits, how much effort they make outside class to read/hear target language, how “tuned in” they are in class, etc.

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