Meta-cognitive strategies in foreign language academic reading: eight case studies

Written by: Marina Samalieva, The University of Plovdiv

1. Introduction

Academic reading in a foreign language requires in-depth comprehension, which is often associated with the requirement to perform cognitive and procedural tasks such as writing a paper, giving a speech etc. For most foreign language learners the main problem is the gap between what they know and what the native speakers know in relation to the language and content of the text written, as nearly all authentic texts are for native speaking readers or people possessing excellent linguistic competence. Adult, academic foreign language readers, even those with considerable knowledge of the language, still suffer from deficiencies at the level of identification which interfere with their attempts to comprehend the texts they must read. Research has shown that academic reading is a complex process which involves a whole range of conscious and active metacognitive strategies (Cohen, 1998). According to Flavell, “metacognition refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them” (Flavell, 1976 : 232). The metacognitive strategies involve the active monitoring and consequent regulation and orchestration of the cognitive processes in relation to the cognitive objects or data on which they bear, in the service of some concrete goal or objective. In other words, learners have knowledge about their cognitive processes and are able to use that knowledge to choose the most efficient strategies for problem solving. As Williams and Burden point out, “the metacognitive strategy is the ability to step outside one’s learning and look at it from outside” (Williams and Burden, 1997:148). The process-oriented studies in foreign language research have increased our knowledge of metacognitive processes of students in EFL training programs. Nevertheless research on the reading process in a foreign language during which the learners control and monitor their reading more constantly then when they read for general purposes has been still limited.

In this paper are presented results from an experimental study which aim is to investigate the application of metacognitive strategies by learners in the process of reading comprehension of a specialized academic text in a foreign language (English).


2. Methods

2.1. Data collection

Two methods were applied in the research- interview and think-aloud sessions.


3. Description of the experiment

3.1. Participants

Eight students non-linguists from Plovdiv University learning English as a foreign language participated in the experiment, their level of proficiency in English being advanced.

3.2. Tasks

3.2.1. Think-aloud sessions

In the present study the reading materials were carefully selected for the purposes of the experiment and they included specialized texts teacher selected. In each think-aloud session the student reads the material, the teacher follows and silently reads the same text. She frequently interrupts the participant during task performance to ask the participant to verbalize what she or he was thinking or what activities he was doing while reading. Example questions of the teacher: Do you read the material for the first time? What activities do you perform in order to understand the meaning of the text? Two think-aloud sessions were conducted. The average length of a think-aloud session was 60 minutes.

3.2.2. The interviews

The interviews consisted of: a) open-ended interviews. In this case the participants had to point out the learner strategies which they applied in the process of reading in a foreign language (English). For example, ”Can you tell me the strategies you used when you read your texts?” etc. and b) questions focused on information already familiar to the participants: For example, “What do you mean by translation? Can you give me examples of background knowledge?”, etc. Four interviews were conducted which averaged 20 minutes each.

The think-aloud and interview sessions were recorded on a tape recorder and were analyzed.

3.3. Data analysis

The data collected for this study were analyzed through open coding i.e. a process of breaking down, examining, comparing, contextualizing, and categorizing data (Strauss and Corbin 1990:61).

The categorizing of the reading strategies is done according to the well known classifications of Adamson (1990, 1992), Block( 1986, 1992), Carrell (1989) and O’Maley and Chamot (1990). The categorized strategies were checked by a second teacher.


4. Findings

During analysis of the context of the academic reading materials 15 metacognitive strategies were synthesized by the participants. (Table 1). The most frequent strategies mentioned were : using contextual clues to predict, using background knowledge, translation (87.2%), picking out key words, self-questioning (75%) etc. (Table 1). The strategies were categorized as follows: a) pre-reading strategies – previewing b) while-reading strategies – 13 reported strategies and c) post-reading strategies – evaluation and personal response.

Table 1. Metacognitive strategies in academic reading and frequency of their application

Type Student No. Frequency
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 (%)
1. Previewing v v v v 50.0
2. Repetition v v v 37.5
3. Paraphrasing v v v v v 62.5
4. Using prediction and contextual clues v v v v v v v 87.5
5. Skimming v v v v v 62.5
6. Comparison and contrast to L1 domain v v v v v v 75.0
7. Picking out key words v v v v v v 75.0
8. Scanning v v v 37.5
9. Self-questioning v v v v v v 75.0
10.Looking for purposes and important information v v v v v 62.5
11.Visualizing v v v v 50.0
12.Using background knowledge v v v v v v v 87.5
13.Translation v v v v v v v 87.5
14.Summarizing v v v v 50.0
Post -reading
15.Evaluation and personal response v v v 37.5

1. Use of prediction and contextual clues

The learners were able to use contextual clues to guess unknown words or phrases in the reading texts. The following think-aloud protocol shows how they used contextual clues to predict: For example student No.5 said: “when I read the word ‘posterity’ I know that the first part of the word means after, next. Then I transferred the meaning to the noun. Then I guessed that the meaning of the word is something coming next or after.” The learners said that sometimes after the prediction, they would look up the words in a dictionary to make sure the guessing was accurate. They skipped words that were considered not significant to the understanding of the entire passage.

2. Translation

In spite of their high proficiency in English all students still used translation as a strategy to improve their reading. During the pauses in the think-aloud sessions when asked why they stopped reading they answered that they had been thinking about what they had read in their first language The interview data revealed that by translating, the participants were referring to thinking and comprehension processes in Bulgarian. The participants said that when reading for fun they did not use translation. In spite of the fact that they had not received any formal training in translation they reported that they very often applied the translation strategy while studying English at school. However, they realized that translation was not necessarily effective at all times because it was not always possible to find an equivalent idea in their first language.

3. Use of background knowledge.

It was found that the participants in this experiment frequently used the strategy of background knowledge while reading in a foreign language. They gave much credit to this strategy for academic reading in a foreign language and realized that lack of relevant background knowledge impeded their reading comprehension. The participants were aware of the inconsistency between their own background knowledge and the required for foreign language academic reading. They believed that this deficiency impeded their reading comprehension and they attempted to improve their background knowledge with additional reading.

4. Self-questioning

This is also one of the most frequently used strategy in our research. The participants ask themselves questions about the meaning of different unknown words which they come upon in the text. Asking questions means they the learner controls through monitoring his comprehension of the material he reads. Most frequent questions are: What does this mean? Why this is so? What? How? When we asked them why they stopped and asked questions the students answered that they read in a language which they have not wholly mastered and in a context within which they did not have enough prior knowledge. So they asked in their minds whether comprehension was happening or not. If not, they had to remedial their reading.

5. Key Words

When the students were reading they usually picked out some words that were important for understanding which they called “key words’. During or after reading they would reflect on these words trying to connect them with their mental schemes. They explained that the key words were not new or unfamiliar vocabulary but were important for reminding them of what they read or in other words “the key words gave the students the skeleton for understanding”. There were no criteria for how many words the students will select. This depended on the difficulty of the reading material.

6. Comparison and contrast to L1 Domain

The learners reported that they used this strategy to see the difference and the similarity between L1 knowledge and foreign language knowledge on a given topic. This also helps comprehension. For example when they read about the ecological problems in England they compared it with Bulgarian ecological problems. Thus one can see clearly the similarities and differences. They reported that while comparing they similarities in what they read at the moment and what they had read in the past. They speeked differences in both systems and thus they got a better idea of both. This according to the learners, “makes you think more deeply than the surface meaning of the reading”. The participants distinguished the strategies “translation” and that of the “comparison and contrast to L1 domain”. They said that when they used translation they were thinking in their first language to clarify the meaning. While in comparison and contrast they were thinking in English but they used the knowledge of the topic in our country.


5. Conclusions

5.1. It was found that in order to overcome their problems in the academic reading in a foreign language the learners pointed out 15 metacognitive strategies. The strategies were categorized as pre-reading strategies, while-reading strategies and post-reading strategies.(Pearson & Fielding, 1991).

5.2. The data analysis shows that the participants in the experiment varied their strategies according to how well they understood the reading materials and according to how difficult the materials were. These data confirm Cohen’s findings (1998) that the academic strategies do not exist independently, only in relation to a particular content reading.

5.3. The learners used strategies from a number of sources, for example from their native language. These data are in relation to Adamson’s findings that ”some of the metacognitive strategies applied by native speakers will not necessarily be the same as those employed by foreign language learners.The foreign language learners use the strategies they have acquired in their first language”. (Adamson, 1991).

5.4. This investigation lends sufficient information about the individual application and finding of metacognitive strategies in academic reading in a foreign language of students at advanced level of linguistic competence. It would be useful to carry out more studies directed to students from different disciplines and a lower level of linguistic competence to develop a thorough picture of academic reading in a foreign language.



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