Reading Comprehension and Metacognition

November 30, 2017

by Adam Hickey

I recently reread a paper by Maryanne Wolf and Elizabeth Norton while listening to a Boston Public Radio interview of Anthony Bourdain. In that exchange, Bourdain discussed the “Medieval Standard of Excellence,” and I made the connection that successful reading instruction can be conceptualized as a recipe if the intent of that instruction is mastery. What consolidated, for me, in that moment were the threads that ran through all the sensory inputs: Wolf and Norton outlined the elements, which one must be knowledgeable of in order to teach reading, and Bourdain, a chef and writer, considered the effort and dedication to the detail of an art that borders on obsession in order to create a quality product. In fact, isn’t the goal of any teacher of reading to create a quality end result? 

In order for a reader to become successful in the task, she or he needs to be fed a mixture of ingredients that are skillfully and purposefully combined in the correct proportions. Those ingredients include an understanding of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, visual and orthographic processes, working memory, attention, motor movements, and higher-level comprehension and cognition. To wit, like all good recipes, one must be aware of a social-cultural context. The recipes, like the successful reader, are inseparable from their social-cultural influences.

Catherine Snow posits that fluent comprehension consists of three elements: “The reader who is doing the comprehending, the text that is to be comprehended, and the activity in which comprehension is a part” (Snow & Sweet 2003).  Activity here is defined as the purpose for the task of reading. At this point, we arrive at metacognition’s role in the process. To be truly metacognitive, readers must be aware of their relative strengths and weaknesses, cognizant of how they learn best and mindful of what they already know. They must understand more than just the kind of task they are being asked to perform. Meaning, they must have either been given the purpose for reading or self-identify the purpose themselves. Finally, they must have available strategies if difficulties in arriving at the purpose arise. The good news is that metacognitive skills can be taught. Teachers can and must activate metacognition in order to improve student comprehension and then move the responsibility for that activation to the students themselves.

Students who fail to grasp the purpose for any reading task will struggle to find the motivation to complete the reading. Successful students become frustrated when the purpose is undefined because they try to focus on too much and fail. Students who arrive at the reading task already disenfranchised are further challenged by an undefined purpose and all but give up before even starting the task. In contrast, both the skilled and struggling reader benefit when teachers clearly define the purpose of an assignment. When teachers, and later students themselves, identify the why, they have, in fact, provided a focus point for attention. It is simply not enough to just pay attention; students must learn what to pay attention to.


Snow, C. E., & Sweet, A. P. (2003). Reading for Comprehension. In A. P. Sweet, & C. E. Snow (Eds.), Rethinking Reading Comprehension. New York: The Guilford Press.

This month’s blog post features Adam Hickey, Landmark School’s Research Coordinator and a Landmark Outreach consultant.  From his perspective, at the intersection of research and practice, Adam shares his thoughts on reading instruction.


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