Research Article: Effects of individual and group metacognitive prompts on EFL reading comprehension and incidental vocabulary learning

Date Published: May 22, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Feng Teng, Barry Lee Reynolds, Marije Michel.


Recent research has highlighted the value of providing metacognitive guidance for learning English in a small group setting. This study investigated the effects that the presence or absence of metacognitive prompts for group or individual learning could have on reading comprehension and the incidental learning of vocabulary through reading. A total of 171 university students were randomly assigned to four treatment conditions: collaborative learning with metacognitive prompts, collaborative learning without metacognitive prompts, individual learning with metacognitive prompts, and individual learning without metacognitive prompts. Results indicated that after the treatment, learners in the collaborative learning with metacognitive prompts group outperformed the other groups on both reading comprehension and incidental vocabulary learning assessments. In addition, the vocabulary knowledge acquired by students in the collaborative learning with metacognitive prompts group was highest for meaning recognition, followed by form recognition, meaning recall, and finally form recall. These findings highlight the importance of training students’ self-regulated learning and suggest that the use of metacognitive prompts in a group setting is an effective means to boost EFL reading comprehension and the incidental vocabulary learning for Chinese university students. Pedagogical implications of these and other nuanced findings are discussed.

Partial Text

Second language (L2) vocabulary knowledge is the foundation of learning English as a second (ESL) or a foreign language (EFL) as it has a pronounced effect on language skills such as reading and writing [1]. Out of all the methods of assisting learners in enlarging their second language (L2) vocabulary size, incidental vocabulary learning has been found to be the least robust in the short term but can result in substantial longitudinal vocabulary growth [1, 2]. Incidental vocabulary learning, i.e., picking up new words from reading or listening input without a conscious intention to commit new knowledge to memory [3], has been found to be more challenging compared to intentional vocabulary learning [4]. In addition, previous studies on incidental vocabulary learning have shown partial and arguably unstable gains in vocabulary knowledge [5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10]. However, the alternative—direct teaching of vocabulary—may be problematic because many teachers may not know where to begin to help learners independently engage in word learning [11]. Moreover, most incidental vocabulary learning studies that show such negligible gains in vocabulary knowledge are those that do not provide learners any instruction other than telling learners to read [12]. While pioneering studies were aimed confirming a hypothesis that incidental learning through reading was possible for L2 learners the same as first language speakers [13, 14]), in recent years the field has begun asking more nuanced pedagogically-oriented critical questions [15].

The research reported in this manuscript was approved by the Nanning University Committee on the Use of Human & Animal Subjects in Teaching & Research. Written informed consent also was obtained from the participants. In 2014, the committee included 10 members that consisted of academic faculty staff (mainly professors) from different disciplines. All ethics forms related to research practices needed to be approved by this committee. This study was approved in 2014 and data collection was completed in 2014.

This study addressed whether the provision of metacognitive prompts in group settings would improve learners’ reading comprehension and incidental learning of novel words. Findings supported that using metacognitive prompts in a group setting significantly improved learners’ reading comprehension. The significant interaction between prompts and settings indicated that using metacognitive prompts in a group setting does have an additive impact on enhancing the incidental learning knowledge of the form-meaning relationship to a greater extent than the other treatment conditions investigated.

In summary, the findings in the present study established that learners working in groups and with metacognitive prompts were more likely to improve reading comprehension and to incidentally learn more unknown words from reading. When considering the interactive effects of prompts and group settings, it was revealed that the prompts may have directed the learners to conduct self-reflection and take metacognitive control of their knowledge, which likely illuminated their sense of strengths and weaknesses. In addition, group work appeared to help learners internalize and activate metacognitive processes for reading and vocabulary learning.