Language Learning

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Conscious Instruction in Metacognitive and Cognitive Learning Strategies: A Classroom Example of the CALLA Model
by Pete Roach

The scene is a sheltered language arts class in a suburban American high school. The 12 students are of mixed language and cultural backgrounds—about half are Spanish speakers from Central and South America; the remainder are from Asia (Pakistan, Korea, and Vietnam). Their grade level is also mixed, as placement in the class is determined by the students’ level of language proficiency. The class is early in their study of the Realist school of American literature. Today they will begin Kate Chopin’s short story “A Pair of Silk Stockings.” On the classroom walls are posters with a Victorian theme—the streets of New York and other cities, as well as large advertisements for products of the day—some with contemporary prices, and the well-known Vogue posters. Many of the wall decorations show men and women in the high collars, button shoes, and long dresses of the era.

The class begins with a brainstorming session. The teacher, Mr. Van Nostrand, writes down the students’ comments. The class is reminded that their prior knowledge about Victorian America will help them to understand the text they are to read. The class is then divided into groups of 3 to create a “mind map” of what they know about life in America of the 1890s. Because the students have read the historical background for the unit, and have also covered the era in their U.S. history class, a substantial amount of information is generated. After the information has been shared with the class, Mr. Van Nostrand directs the class’s attention to the “Literature and History” selection in the Literature textbook which discusses the dress of 1890s America. After a brief preview of some vocabulary from the day’s listening/reading passage, the class prepares to listen to the first selection.

Mr. Van Nostrand then asks the students to examine the artwork in the textbook: the painting A Cup of Tea (showing a Victorian woman sipping tea), several 1879 dollar coins, Mary Cassatt’s 1891 print The Fitting (a woman being fitted for a new dress), and clothing advertisements from the historical period. He says: “Before you read a story, you should think about its title and look at the illustrations. Try to guess what will happen in the story—it will help you to understand better. As class members offer their predictions, they are recorded on the board. Mr. Van Nostrand reminds the class that, as they read, it is not necessary to understand every word in order to enjoy the story—they can still get the main idea of the selection. An audiotape of the text is to be played as the students read the story in sections. “A Pair of Silk Stockings” is the story of a struggling mother of three who finds herself “the unexpected possessor of fifteen dollars.” She had planned to spend this large sum (for the times) on practical items—clothing for her children—but instead (largely on impulse) she spends it all on herself for luxuries.

Although the story is in the course text, students have been given a printed copy that has breaks at strategic points in the narrative. (Click here to see the story text) After listening to and reading the first two paragraphs of the story, the students are placed in small groups. Mr. Van Nostrand asks the students to predict what Mrs. Sommers will do with the money, and to give reasons for their predictions. These predictions are then shared. One student says that she will buy clothing for herself and her family. Another guesses that she will buy toys for her children; A third predicts that she will spend the money on gifts for her husband and children. Again, their responses are recorded for comparison with the actual plot.

Next, Mr. Van Nostrand writes on the board: Summarize. Ask Questions. Identify difficulties. Predict. He asks three students to come to the front of the class, and sits with them in a circle. He says,” Each one of us is going to read the first part of ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ a section at a time. Then we’ll each take turns teaching a section to the rest of the group. Pay close attention to the strategies we use to teach each other.” The rest of the class follows along in their story texts as the demonstration progresses. Mr. Van Nostrand and his group read the first section of the passage—ending when Mrs. Sommers sits down at the counter. Mr. Van Nostrand has divided each passage of the story into four sections. The model group reads the first section, and the teacher then teaches it, using the four learning strategies (written on the board). The group then reads the next section, and a student assumes the role of teacher by briefly summarizing, asking one or two questions about the reading and identifying and then discussing any difficulties encountered by group members. Finally, the “teacher” predicts what she thinks will happen next. As the groups work through the story, they complete a set of comprehension questions that involve factual and evaluative questions, as well as items requiring them to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Mr. Van Nostrand instructs each of the groups to select three unfamiliar words. Then, the class, in groups of four, read the rest of the story using the techniques modeled for them. After he writes each group’s selections on the board, he asks the students to make guesses about the new words’ meanings based on the context of the story.

Mr. Van Nostrand reviews with the class the elements of narrative fiction—setting, point of view, characterization, conflict, plot, and theme. Still in their groups, the students complete the Short Story Analysis sheet.

As a group the class compares and contrasts “A Pair of Silk Stockings” with the other stories in the unit, which is thematically organized and titled “Shackles.”

To close the instructional phase of this unit, each student completes a “Learning Log” in which they must assess their success in mastering vocabulary, the genre, and learning strategy use. The results are discussed as a whole class.

Future class sessions will explore the story’s main theme (emancipation), as well as alternate plot lines and endings, students will address questions such as:

  • When she was spending the money, was Mrs. Sommers really free?
  • What do you think happened to Mrs. Sommers after she went home?

Students will be allowed to explore alternate scenarios by “rewriting” the story:

  • What if Mrs. Sommers had stopped after she bought the silk stockings?
  • What if, at the end of the story, Mrs. Sommers had really not gone home?


The preceding example portrays the CALLA (Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach) model of learning, devised by O’Malley and Chamot (1994). Although it is aimed specifically at learners of English as a second Language, it is important to note that it is premised on the idea that students can explicitly be taught to use learning strategies to learn more efficiently.

The instructional sequence of the CALLA model is comprised of five steps, which are explained below as they relate to the above scenario. Multiple cycles of the first three steps on the sequence (preparation, presentation, practice) may be necessary in a single lesson before the final two (assessment and expansion) are reached.

1. Preparation In this stage, emphasis is on bringing out and highlighting students’ existing knowledge. The posters on Mr. Van Nostrand’s classroom walls, the textbook artwork, and the brainstorming session are intended to achieve this aim. The model also stresses that the students be alerted that this elicitation of prior knowledge (elaboration) is an effective learning strategy.

2. Presentation The second phase of the sequence calls for students to deal with an authentic text—one that has not been modified for ESL students—in this case, the listening text handout of the story. O’Malley and Chamot suggest that student interaction with this text may be in written, audio, or video format; it may involve silent reading or reading aloud. In the vignette above, this occurs when the class reads and hears the first part of the story. Learning strategy instruction is again included when the teacher reminds the class to use graphics and titles to make predictions. Further, the strategies used should be modeled and explained.

3. Practice Here, according to O’Malley and Chamot, learners “discuss, investigate, and reflect on the text they have read, listened to, or viewed.” This may involve beginning a composition based on a class discussion, or, as in the scenario, simply completing a set of questions. The authors again include strategy instruction; learners should be made conscious of their thought processes as they work.

Throughout the model, regardless of the subject matter, Cooperative Learning techniques are used whenever possible. In this scenario, the students guide themselves through the text through a method termed Reciprocal Teaching; the learners take turns teaching each other.

4. Evaluation In the CALLA model, this stage refers not to conventional assessment of learning through tests, but to self-evaluation of learning through dialogue journals, self-checklists of achievement or objectives, which the authors term “Learning Logs.” This is consistent with the rest of the model in that students are overtly monitoring and assessing their learning through metacognitive strategies. This occurs in Mr. Van Nostrand’s class when the reading has been completed, discussed, and compared to other examples from the thematic unit.

5. Expansion The final phase of the sequence, as its name implies, allows students to use what they have learned in new contexts. Rewriting or retelling stories, as was done in the case above, are one example; however, CALLA’s designers assert that expansion may occur in less structured ways. Students might independently seek out more examples of the same genre, theme, or author. The most important aspect of this phase is that learners think critically and find personal meaning in what they have learned.

Assessment of learning in the CALLA model varies with the subject area under study. For literature and composition, O’Malley and Chamot suggest portfolios that include Learning Logs, “Story Maps” similar to the Short Story Analysis Sheet above, teacher-created assessment forms, and, of course, student writing samples.

Research has yet to prove conclusively and measurably that metacognitive abilities can be significantly improved by instruction. Many studies involve "deconstruction" of mental processes used by already-successful learners. There seems to be agreement that cognitive variations within learners play an important role in successful learners. Because of the almost endless number of possible cognitive variable combinations--learning styles, left- and right-brain functioning, and reflectivity/impulsivity to mention but a few, it does seem sensible to do all that is possible to help students become aware of their metacognitive and cognitive processes as they process information and strive to become independent managers of their own learning.