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The Power of Teacher-Language on Children’s Memory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3486 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Why is There a Need?

Given the diverse backgrounds and abilities that students arrive at school with (Langley, Coffman, & Ornstein, 2016), the challenge remains of how teachers can address the academic achievement gap that exists across children of varying skill sets.  By providing students with evidence-based strategies as an embedded part of classroom instructional experiences, teachers have a better chance of meeting students where they are and providing them the tools needed for self-efficacy and academic growth.  Despite the fact that research demonstrates the effectiveness and positive impact of teaching metacognition across a variety of settings, there appears to be a gap between research and teacher practice (Laski et al., 2013).

Findings shared by Grammer, Coffman, and Ornstein (2013) addressed how teachers’ memory-relevant language impacted children’s memory skills, with a particular focus on memory-related language and mnemonic instruction.  This was built upon previous research from 2010: an increased use of mnemonic instruction by the teacher exhibited a stronger impact on student learning (Ornstein, Grammer, & Coffman, 2010).

The work of Grammer and colleagues (2013) was among the first to explore the differences in teacher instruction with the intent of later collaboratively shaping “future classroom-based interventions in teachers’ provision of memory-relevant language in the classroom setting,” (p. 16).  Within this study, first and second grade students participated in STEM-based science instruction that took place after school with teachers who varied in their use of memory-relevant language.  Students of teachers that used more memory-relevant language demonstrated an increased use of strategic knowledge and used more sophisticated strategies during a memory task based on what they had learned; showing a connection between teacher language and children’s demonstrated abilities (Grammer et al., 2013).  Furthermore, it was found that children who received high mnemonic instruction demonstrated a more complex application of strategies than the control group (Grammer et al., 2013).

How Far have we already Come?

Early research investigating the role of metacognition and the classroom setting on children’s outcomes was conducted through the lens of teacher instruction towards students with learning disabilities as well as the challenges that those students may face integrating metacognitive strategies into their own skill set.  The following areas were explored: interventions to enhance memory skills, interventions to increase text comprehension, improving written expression, and improving math performance (Palincsar & Brown, 1987).  Moreover,  several different areas of metacognitive instruction was recognized as effective (Palincsar & Brown, 1987).

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The literature clearly specified that one strategy should not be used over another to support students.  Instead, a host of various supports and strategies should be employed in the classroom setting to provide the students with the greatest chances for success (Palincsar & Brown, 1987).  Within each area that was explored, listed above, students demonstrated gains in comparison to the control group (Palincsar & Brown, 1987).  For some areas, additional observations were made that included the extended ability to utilize strategies across time, generalization across settings, and particularly impressive gains linked when explicit instruction was provided (Palincsar & Brown, 1987).  Additionally, the work of Palincsar & Brown (1987) set the stage for future research aiming to investigate scaffolded instruction of metacognitive strategies, where in which teachers intentionally shift the responsibility for these new skills in stages.  More specifically, the teacher models these skills for students and therefore demonstrates the independent practice of these metacognitive skills.

Although this research is over thirty years old, when examined alongside more recent studies, this article demonstrates that the initial knowledge of the potential value for metacognitive strategies being used in the classroom has existed for decades, particularly in the areas of special education.  However, little change has been observed in classrooms in how often these strategies are being used by teachers; as these techniques are not being consistently and frequently observed by researchers.  Further research is required in order to explore how feasible it is for elementary special education teachers to employ the use of regular and explicit metacognitive instruction across subjects.

What do Current Math Teachers tell us about the Gap between Research and the Classroom?

Laski et al. (2013) published one of the earliest articles to attempt to “empirically measure the extent to which key findings from cognitive research are communicated to future teachers of elementary mathematics,” (p. 69).  They did so by having over two-hundred elementary math teachers complete a survey asking “the extent to which they value cognitive research and incorporate it into their courses,” (p. 63).  Results showed that although elementary math teachers recognized that cognitive strategies play an important role in the classroom, they were not likely to access research to help them employ these strategies in their own pedagogy (Laski et al., 2013).  Although multiple studies have demonstrated the potential benefits to students by teachers’ use of metacognitive strategies and explicit teaching, this research doesn’t seem to be making its way into the hands of teachers.

Laski et al. (2013) suggested that emphasizing the significance of “cognitive studies of mathematics thinking and learning” to preservice teachers throughout their academic instruction is important in order to promote teacher’s trust and valuing of evidence-based practice.  Two primary barriers to teachers accessing research on classroom instruction were presented: “perceived importance and comprehensibility,” (Laski et al., 2013, p. 64).  Some examples include research only being published in a narrow field of journals that teachers don’t regularly read and that perhaps the language is too difficult, full of technical “jargon”, or too time-consuming for teachers to manage along with their current workload (Laski et al., 2013, p. 71).  Previous research suggested that there has been inconsistent use of evidence-based research such as metacognitive strategies in classrooms despite the fact that “researchers and educational policymakers have argued for increased application of cognitive science research for improving instructional practice,” (Laski et al., 2013, pp. 64-65).  Additionally, preservice teacher programs in the United States do not unilaterally meet consistent goals regarding cognitive research, which is unfortunate because mathematics pedagogy discussion could prove very meaningful for future application in classrooms (Laski et al., 2013).

Can Teaching Metacognitive Strategies have a Lasting Impact?

In a meta-analysis covering three decades of research, Berkeley and Larsen (2018) explored how students with learning disabilities responded to reading comprehension interventions focusing on self-regulated learning, including metacognitive strategies.  By creating a coding system, they attempted to compare and contrast these interventions and the results that followed.

Researchers collected snapshots of data across time and sources (18 studies from nine research journals) and selected articles that were subsequently evaluated for methodological quality (Berkeley & Larsen, 2018).  The data collected were judged by the rigor of each article as determined by ten “quality indicators” (Berkeley & Larsen, 2018, p. 77).  They noted that the sample group was weak in the following quality indicator areas; “description of interventionist” and “reporting of fidelity of implementation” and added that over half of the studies didn’t provide evidence regarding their quality indicators aligned with reporting, (Berkeley & Larsen, 2018, p. 77).

The sample examined data across both upper elementary and lower middle school age groups, but no samples were included for lower elementary grades. Also, there was limited access to a comparative view of information collected about the socio-economic status of students who were part of the studies reported on (Berkeley & Larsen, 2018).

The section titled “Implications for Practice” was particularly convincing based on the repeated positive correlations, it indeed appears that meta-cognitive strategies have a place in the ELA classroom as a way for students to learn to improve their own cognitive processes and access to internal strategies for improving reading comprehension.  Specific techniques such as “think aloud” and explicitly teaching the strategy steps, along with when and why to use them, ample opportunities for practice, and assistive supports such as “mnemonic devices” appear to be a way for teachers to provide students with learning disabilities a long-lasting path to self-efficacy (Berkeley & Larsen, 2018, p. 84).  Significant improvements in children’s reading comprehension and abilities to employ metacognitive strategies in future settings were noted both immediately post-instruction and again after the passage of time, which “suggested that instruction in reading comprehension strategies that contain self -regulation components may have a long-lasting impact on student performance,” (Berkeley & Larsen, 2018, p. 75)  which reaffirmed thoughts from Grammer et al. (2013) that the impact of early teachers’ memory-centered language might have impacts that last across time.

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Furthermore, Grammer et al. (2013) stressed the importance of prior research that suggests that students carried differences across from first to second-grade levels as a result of varied cognitive language that teachers had exposed them to in first-grade.  They went on to point out that there were associations that impacted the students’ use of modeled memory strategies evident even in the fourth grade; adding that, “although children’s memory strategy use improves greatly across the early grades in general, there may be something unique about the first-grade classroom context that is important for the development of these skills,”  (Grammer et al., 2013, p. 2).

Can Teaching Metacognitive Strategies work for Math?

Research based on careful observations by Grammer et al. (2016) pointed out that a teacher’s choice of language and presentation not only can have positive benefit, observable as growth, when  language is intentionally constructed using open-ended questions and includes explanations; but conversely shows that teachers using language that does not access higher levels of thinking, such as rote counting and recognizing shapes, actually has a negative association with kindergarten growth (Grammer et al., 2016).  This highlights the urgency and importance of getting effective strategies from the latest research into the teacher’s hands and giving them support on how to use this knowledge.  It appears that educators are missing an opportunity to support students to the fullest extent possible by not using language that supports higher level thinking through metacognitive strategies and furthermore, is potentially causing harm to students which could unintentionally set them up for failure.  Specifically, Grammer et al. (2016) pointed out that not only is the “content of math lessons” important; but we must also consider the means in which information is shared with students (p. 470).

To understand the significant impact that CPL can have on children’s mathematical achievement, consider that after only one year of high CPL instruction for children in the second grade, the researchers found that “there were marked differences” in math fluency and math calculation scores which were demonstrated as higher gains in mathematical ability (Grammer et al., 2016, p. 481).

 Work by Hudson, Coffman, and Ornstein (2018) explored environmental influences impacting the mathematical skills that children arrive at kindergarten with and that develop over the course of the year.  Students mathematical competency was tracked across during Kindergarten in relation to specific language that was used by their mothers in the home setting and by their teachers in the school setting.  The researchers attempted to determine if there was an impact created by metamemory and cognitive processing language (CPL) on the student’s mathematical skills.  They used the “Taxonomy of Teacher Behaviors” to monitor the kinds of language interactions teachers had with the sample students and compared those students mathematical scores across the year, searching for correlations between cognitive processing language and mathematical ability. (Hudson et al., 2018).

Hudson and colleagues (2018) stated that further research with larger sample sizes is needed before definite conclusions could be made.  Of particular importance regarding the persuasiveness of this article was when children’s end-of-year mathematical performance was examined. The children with fewer exposures to high levels of CPL answered fewer mathematical questions correctly, and conversely, children with teachers using more CPL language performed better; demonstrating that there was a link between CPL exposure and children’s use of strategy (Hudson et al, 2018).  The results of this study suggested that there’s a strong link between the language used by teachers in the classroom and how it can influence children’s mathematical skill growth as evidenced in the quote, “This finding suggests that teachers’ instructional language may be critically important for the development of children’s strategic awareness and their ability to employ various strategies effectively,” (Hudson et al., 2018, p. 81).  This indicates the need to expand the focus of variables that could influence a child’s preset of knowledge.  The increased use of metacognitive language and CPL within the settings of home and school seemed to support the increased ability to pull from various strategies to solve math problems.  Based on this, there may be adjustments that can be made at the classroom level to support greater student growth and ability, despite the challenges that students face when they arrive at kindergarten with differing prior experiences and a wide variance in their funds of knowledge (Hudson et al., 2018)(Coffman et al., 2008).

    Additionally, though research by Berkeley and Larsen (2018) focused primarily on reading strategies and comprehension, their work mentioned research that already explored multiple subject areas for metacognitive intervention, such as math and science, leaving the door open to similar studies that investigate data across these mentioned subject areas.

Final Thoughts and Conclusion

There exists a vast collection of research that demonstrates the benefit and need for teachers to utilize evidence-based practices to serve their students more effectively, however, according to Grammer, et al. (2016), general education teachers are not consistently engaging in the practice of teaching explicit self-monitoring techniques such as basic memory and meta-cognitive strategies to students.  Furthermore, based on results from employing the Taxonomy of Teacher Behaviors Coding System, teachers are not consistently being mindful of language that signals that important information is being presented (Grammer et al., 2016).                

     Results suggest that teachers are not consistently using language that signals that important information is being presented (Grammer et al., 2016), but that when they do use high levels of “Cognitive Processing Language,” that their students are making greater gains in memory strategies (Coffman et al., 2008) mathematics performance (Grammer et al., 2016), and later study skills (Coffman et al., 2008) than their peers who have been exposed to lower levels of this language.

    Findings from Grammer et al. (2016) suggested that elementary teachers were not necessarily explicitly teaching basic memory and metacognitive (or self-monitoring) strategies to elementary students.  Indeed, these results suggest that teachers are not consistently using language that signals that important information is being presented (Grammer et al., 2016), but that when they do use high levels of “Cognitive Processing Language,” that their students are making greater gains in memory strategies (Coffman et al., 2008) mathematics performance (Grammer et al., 2016), and later study skills (Coffman et al., 2008) than their peers who have been exposed to lower levels of this language.

When reviewing research about how metacognitive strategies are being taught across different settings; such as early elementary school through early middle school, general and special education, and across subjects like Mathematics and English Language Arts, there appears to be a breakdown in communication between the research community and the education community.  This research leaves the door open for further investigation into ways to address issues of educational inequity while more importantly, providing support for teachers through sharing of information that can inform and build and connections between researchers, preservice teaching students, and classroom teachers.


  • Berkeley, S., & Larsen, A. (2018). Fostering self-regulation of students with learning disabilities:
  • Insights from 30 years of reading comprehension intervention research. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 33(2), 75-86. doi:10.1111/ldrp.12165 .
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  • Langley, H., Coffman J, & Ornstein, P. (2016). The socialization of children’s memory: Linking maternal conversational style to the development of children’s autobiographical and deliberate memory skills. Journal of Cognition and Development, 18(1), 63-86.
  • Laski, E., Reeves, T., Ganley, C., Mitchell, R. (2013). Mathematics teacher educators’ perceptions and use of cognitive research. Mind Brain and Education, 7(1), 63-74. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3647/f1ef5863a8f8accad0a6c1e44ddbffd82ab4.pdf .
  • Palincsar, A., & Brown, D. (1987). Enhancing instructional time through attention to metacognition. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 20(2), 66-75.


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