Being more “meta” : The value of explicit instruction on pedagogical approaches and language-learning strategies

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By Melissa J. Enns

Recently, I have been busy interviewing teacher colleagues for my thesis. Among the insights they have graciously shared, I have found much to reflect on and inspiration for today’s post. I will discuss the value of offering students explicit metacognitive instruction about the pedagogical approaches we employ in our classrooms and language learning strategies that can contribute to success with them. I suggest that it is worthwhile to explain to students, perhaps at the beginning of a semester, what types of activities they can expect, how they can maximize their learning in these activities, and what research supports these strategies and activities.

This idea surfaced through my post on group work. After reading it, one commenter suggested that having students read Naughton’s (2006) study (cited in the post) and interactional strategies for themselves might help them understand the usefulness of group work and the benefit of those strategies. In many language-teaching contexts, learners may come from backgrounds with different educational values than the host culture’s. Where I used to teach, my colleagues and I faced challenges in encouraging our students from Confucian educational backgrounds to engage with Western pedagogical activities, such as group work and asking questions, because their system typically values reflection over participation, teacher-centred learning over collaboration, and puzzling things out over asking questions (Starr, 2012, p. 4-16). As a result, my colleagues and I often encountered resistance to group activities or the idea of asking questions. As noted by the commenter, these students often see no value to doing group work and refuse to invest in it.

However, drawing from the comment, if pedagogical approaches of each culture were explained to students and if they learned strategies they could use and saw the research supporting pedagogical activities like group work, perhaps their appreciation and willingness to engage would increase. For more advanced and mature learners, this might entail having them read research on cultural differences in education or on the use of particular pedagogical activities, such as group work (Naughton, 2006), listening activities (Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari, 2010), writing, reading, or so on. Learners would not only learn the strategies presented by the studies, but they would also see the results, which would hopefully stimulate their engagement with the activities. For younger or less advanced learners, simplified summaries could be presented.

The concept of offering students explicit instruction on the pedagogical approaches and strategies to be employed in the classroom is supported in the literature. Cohen and White (2008) argue that learners should be engaged as “informed consumers of language instruction” (p. 185). In other words, they should be made aware of different pedagogical approaches (2008) and language learner strategies, or “thoughts and actions… [that] assist [learners] in learning and using language… and in the completion of specific language tasks” (2011, p. 682). Cohen taught a seminar with the purpose of informing participants about their language-learning options. Throughout the process, they were exposed to and tried learning under different methods and strategies, gaining both the vocabulary to talk about them and insight into which they preferred.

Although Cohen and White’s (2008) study aimed to guide learners in selecting their courses, I argue that such explicit instruction about pedagogical approaches would also be useful at the level of the classroom. The contexts in which you and I teach and the teaching approaches we use may be to some extent pre-determined, but instructing students about our pedagogical activities and the research that backs them would offer valuable metacognitive tools for enhancing engagement and learning.

Cohen’s (2011) chapter, “Second Language Learner Strategies” (available on his website) presents an overview of the usefulness of strategy instruction, which typically involves raising awareness of strategies being used, “presenting and modeling strategies,” providing “practice opportunities to help learners move toward autonomous use” of these strategies, and having learners evaluate the strategies and their efforts in using them (p. 683). Cohen offers summaries of strategy instruction studies that have been done in each of the skill areas: listening, reading, speaking, writing, vocabulary learning, and grammar. These summaries are a useful resource for teachers interested in trying strategy instruction, because one can easily go straight to the area of interest, such as writing, and read a summary of strategy instruction studies that have been done in that area. Although Cohen’s summary does not outline the specific strategies taught, it does offer evidence that could be presented to students and provide references to studies in each skill area, so readers could choose one or two and model the strategies they describe.

Perhaps I will describe some of the findings of strategy instruction studies in different skill areas in more detail in a future post or posts, but for now I would love to hear your thoughts. Would you consider instructing your students on your pedagogical approaches and the language learning strategies that can aid their learning with them? How would you do so?


Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and December 31, 2017, any comments made on posts to this site may be used for research purposes. The identity of the person who posted the comment will be kept anonymous. For more information about the study, please see the About page. By commenting, you consent to participate.



Cohen, A. D. (2011). Second language learner strategies. Ch 41 in E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning, Vol. II- Part V. Methods and instruction in second language teaching (pp. 681-698). Retrieved from

Cohen, A. D. & White, C. (2008). Language learners as informed consumers of language instruction. In A. Stavans & I. Kupferberg (Eds.), Studies in language and language education: Essays in honor of Elite Olshtain (pp. 185-205)Retrieved from

Naughton, D. (2006). Cooperative strategy training and oral interaction: Enhancing small group communication in the language classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 90(2), 169– 184.

Starr, D. (2012). China and the Confucian education model. Universitas 21.

Vandergrift, L. & Tafaghodtari, M. H. (2010). Teaching L2 Learners How to Listen Does Make a Difference: An Empirical Study. Language Learning, 60, 470–497. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00559.x

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