Making Metacognition Part of Student Writing - National Council of Teachers of English
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Making Metacognition Part of Student Writing

This post is written by NCTE member Susan Barber, reprinted with permission from Edutopia.

Writing conferences are a staple in many English language arts classrooms today. Teachers recognize the benefit of conversational feedback, allowing students to feel more agency over their own writing, and the power of building rapport that comes with conferences.

In my own classroom, I’ve been on the journey of incorporating writing conferences for over a decade, and they have changed drastically from when I first began. I’ve transitioned from doing most of the talking to students doing more and more sharing. Recently, my thinking on writing conferences has shifted again. After realizing that our conferences were primarily centered on a piece with little to no reflection on the thought process of writing, I added a new layer of complexity.


Metacognition is a term that describes thinking about one’s thinking as a means of reflection. The goal is for students to think more about the process—how they approach writing, barriers to good writing, and strategies that help them write successfully—instead of focusing only on content or rubric requirements. Metacognitive reflection can awaken students to be more aware of their thinking during writing, resulting in a deeper understanding of who they are as writers and of how to transfer their knowledge to any genre of writing.

So what exactly does metacognitive thinking on writing look like, and how can teachers build this type of reflection into writing conferences?

A whole-class conversation about the importance of metacognition is a good starting place, since students are often focused on assignments rather than their thinking while completing them. These strategies can help students become aware of their thinking while writing and are easy to incorporate in assignments, providing students with opportunities to pause and think about their thinking while writing. Observations from these activities will enable students to talk about metacognition during conferences.


1. Keeping a journal. Encourage students to take metacognitive breaks of two to three minutes during writing to record their thoughts. Describe your process to this pointWhat was a barrier to your writing? How did you overcome this? What do you think you could do to prevent this from occurring next time? These breaks can and should occur at different points in the writing process.

2. Recording troubleshooting ideas. Encourage students to keep a list of strategies and ideas they have found successful in the past that they can use during writing to help them push through when they’re experiencing difficulty.

3. Writing collaboratively. Provide opportunities for students to work on writing assignments together. The students can discuss why they are making the choices they make along the way. Thoughts can be addressed in comments in a Google Doc or on sticky notes placed on the student’s paper.

4. Using graphic organizers. Graphic organizers can also serve as tools to guide students to think about their thinking while writing and to identify successful strategies. The object is not to fill the entire graphic organizer but to provide multiple entry points to think about their thinking while writing.

5. Highlighting papers. I often have students highlight papers for claims, evidence, and analysis, but this can be modified for any focus. This strategy adds a visual component to reflection and opens opportunities for students to think about what leads to strong components of a piece and why other components are weaker.

6. Recording post-writing thoughts. Writing a paragraph on the thought process during an assignment can be particularly helpful for the big-picture process. What would you do differently if writing again? Why? What would you keep the same? Why? What strategies did you employ that worked well that you can use for future writing?

The insights gathered from these metacognitive tools can carry over into writing conversations. In your next writing conferences, try adding some of the italicized questions to questions already commonly asked to gather insight and give input into the thought process behind the writing.

  • What do you like best about this writing? Why do you think this section is strong? What did you notice as you were writing this section?
  • Where did you struggle with this piece? Why did you struggle with this section? How did you feel while you were writing this section? What could have helped you while writing this particular section? Let’s review your list of troubleshooting ideas and strategies. What can you add to these?
  • Where is an area you took a risk or experimented with something new? Why did you decide to do something different here? Was it successful? Why or why not? If so, how could you incorporate this into other writing?
  • How do you feel about the piece overall? How did you feel about the overall process? How do you see yourself growing as a writer? Are there particular things in your learning environment or mindset that contribute to successful writing? Identify one or two concrete strategies to use moving forward.

Metacognition is an important step in writing instruction and where the real magic happens in learning. Students do need feedback on specific pieces of writing but should be given the opportunity to think beyond the product. Providing students with opportunities for metacognitive reflection and the opportunity to discuss their thinking strengthens their writing not only in class but for years to come.

Susan Barber teaches AP English Literature at Midtown High School in Atlanta, Georgia, and serves as the College Board Advisor for AP Literature and on the NCTE Secondary Steering Committee. She has offered training at NCTE, GCTE, and the Folger Shakespeare Library, and frequently leads ELA workshops across the country. She has been featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and Edutopia. She is also the co-author of The Norton Guide to AP Literature. Susan, however, is most proud of the work she does on a daily basis in E216 and never tires of the beauty and chaos of the classroom.

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