Metacognitive Questions for Reading in the Content Area

Metacognitive questions are a tool for better comprehension for students reading in content-area classes.
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Reading a science or history textbook, students can feel lost in a dense forest of information. Metacognitive questioning is a strategy students can use to guide their thinking and learning as they read a content-area text. Asking questions -- and seeking the answers as they read -- will lead students to acquire new information, recognize how new content relates to what they already know and untangle their own confusion.

1 Metacognitive Questions

Content-area reading experts Joanne and Richard Vacca define metacognition in reading as students’ knowledge of reading strategies and their ability to use strategies to build their comprehension. According to literacy expert Laura Robb, readers use metacognitive questioning to monitor their comprehension. As they read, students should ask themselves, “Do I understand what I am reading?” If the answer is “yes,” then they keep reading. A “no” answer leads students to try other strategies to help them figure out the text.

2 Setting Purpose

Metacognitive questions asked before reading will focus students’ minds on a specific purpose for reading. A question readers might ask before they start a chapter is "What am I supposed to learn from in this section?" Scanning the title and subheadings and previewing pictures and graphics along with reviewing directions from the teacher may help provide that answer. Finally, students should consider "What's the best strategy for reading this chapter?" That could lead the reader to consider breaking a long chapter up into smaller chunks, skimming over parts of the selection and taking notes while reading.

3 Background Knowledge

As readers acquire new knowledge, they make connections between what they are learning and what they already know. To activate their prior knowledge, students should ask, "What do I already know about topic?" They build on that question as they read by asking, "What have I read before that is like this?" and "What experiences have I had that will help me understand this?" For example, in reading about the Civil War, these questions could lead a student to recall a previously read biography of Abraham Lincoln or a family trip to Gettysburg.

4 Monitoring Comprehension

“What don’t I understand?" and "What’s confusing me?” are two questions readers use to monitor their comprehension as they read complex text with difficult vocabulary. Readers don't ask these kinds of questions just once. They need to repeat the questions throughout the reading process. When their comprehension falters, students can turn their metacognitive attention to fixing the problem. The internal questioning might sound as simple as this: “Do I understand what I am reading? No, the last few paragraphs have confused me. What strategy should I use to fix this?" The student might then realize that she should reread those paragraphs a few times until she understands the content.

5 Reflecting

After reading and fixing comprehension problems, students can use metacognitive questions to reflect on what they have learned, according to Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmermann, authors of “Mosaic of Thought.” Thinking about “What were the most important ideas in this chapter?” promotes reflection and evaluating the information they have just learned. Readers should also consider “How can I remember what I’ve learned?” to access strategies for retaining information like writing a summary or making note cards. Asking themselves “What do I want to learn more about now?” leads students to further reading in the text or outside sources.

  • 1 Content Area Reading; Richard and Joanna Vacca
  • 2 Teaching Reading in the Middle School; Laura Robb
  • 3 Mosaic of Thought; Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmermann

David Raudenbush has more than 20 years of experience as a literacy teacher, staff developer and literacy coach. He has written for newspapers, magazines and online publications, and served as the editor of "Golfstyles New Jersey Magazine." Raudenbush holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in education.