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Blog post Part of special issue: Spotlight on language and literacy

Meta-thinking and meta-talk in English and mathematics lessons in the primary school

Sally Ann Jones, Senior Lecturer at Nanyang Technological University

An interest in neurolinguistics and the idea that children’s development of thought and language is interdependent (Vygotsky, 1962; Bloom, 2000) has led to my research about how classroom talk may develop metacognitive and metalinguistic awareness – that is, how meta-talk may promote meta-thinking. Joining a long-standing tradition of research in metacognitive awareness, generally characterised as ‘thinking about thinking’ (Flavell, 1979), I led government-funded research at three primary schools in Singapore with 6-, 8- and 10-year-olds to discover more about classroom interaction and whether and how, within that interaction, teachers and pupils focus on developing sophisticated thinking in English and mathematics lessons. This blog post is based on the preliminary findings of the project.

The first finding came from the project’s literature review based on the intersection of metacognitive and metalinguistic awareness and classroom interaction. It showed that only six research studies out of a total of 64 defined metacognitive awareness. These definitions drew on traditional sources (for example Flavell, 1979). Research on English meta-talk tended to draw from this psychological tradition as well as second language acquisition (see for example Watson et al., 2021). Research on mathematics meta-talk was informed by Vygotsky’s socio-cultural perspective.

Second, the analysis of 24 mathematics and 24 English lessons showed that talk was employed differently in the two disciplines. English lessons manifested a genre we labelled routine, while mathematics lessons showed one we labelled guidance. Both are based on the initiation, response, feedback (IRF) format and are strongly controlled. Both operated smoothly as safe talk in lessons.

Third, another aspect of talk we observed was the ways in which teachers created the norms of social interaction both implicitly and directly in their lessons. For example, one teacher asked, ‘Anyone else has a different answer? It’s all right, you can make mistakes. You are here to learn, to study’; and another said, ‘I said don’t give me a guess. You must think first.’ These sociodiscourse norms (Razfar & Leavitt, 2011) established the conversational climate of the classroom and also suggested how talk could be used for thinking.

Fourth, at times in the routine and guidance interaction, teachers created a high press to push thinking (Kazemi & Stipek, 2001) which could lead to moments of struggle. Hintz & Tyson (2015) describe struggles as discontinuities or confusions where teachers listen carefully and attend to pupils’ responses by reasoned rather than procedural explanations. Within these moments of struggle, pupils have to learn and use a particular and precise kind of metadiscourse. Rather than merely stating, ‘I don’t understand’, a pupil has to develop the ability to reflect and find the language with which to articulate the reflection to make it visible to the teacher. This meta-talk seems to include verbs to do with thinking, such as ‘explain’, ‘compare’, ‘suggest’, as well as other linguistic structures and tenses.

‘Within moments of struggle, pupils have to learn and use a particular and precise kind of metadiscourse.’

In conclusion, this project has extended traditional psychological research in metacognition from ‘thinking about thinking’ by focusing on its development via classroom talk, and found that various types of talk are involved and interrelated in the development of complex cognition in lessons. We now focus on identifying the linguistic features of metadiscourse suitable for young learners as well as on identifying the interaction strategies used by teachers at moments of struggle and high press.


Bloom, L. (2000). The intentionality model of word learning: How to learn a word, any word. In R. Golinkoff, K. Hirsch-Pasek, L. Bloom, L. Smith, A. Woodward, A. Akhtar, N. Tomasello, & G. Hollich (Eds.), Becoming a word learner: A debate on lexical acquisition (pp. 19–50). Oxford University Press.

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34(10), 906–911. 

Hintz, A., & Tyson, K. (2015). Complex listening: Supporting students to listen as mathematical sense-makers. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 17(4), 296–326. 

Kazemi, E., & Stipek, D. (2001). Promoting conceptual thinking in four upper-elementary mathematics classrooms. Elementary School Journal, 102(1), 59–80. 

Razfar, A., & Leavitt, D. R. (2011). Developing metadiscourse: Building mathematical discussions in an urban elementary classroom. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 11(2) 180–197. 

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and language. E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar (Eds.). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Watson, A. M., Newman, R. M. C., & Morgan, S. D. (2021). Metatalk and metalinguistic knowledge: The interplay of procedural and declarative knowledge in the classroom discourse of first-language grammar teaching. Language Awareness, 30(3), 257–275. 


This study was funded by Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) under the Education Research Funding Programme (OER 23/19 SAJ) and administered by the National Institute of Education Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NIE NTU). Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Singapore MOE and NIE. The Institutional Review Board approval number is IRB-2020-04-019.