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A Metacognitive Strategy of Predicting: Teaching Tentative Language to Overcome the Fear of Being Wrong

Chris Quigley
Posted by Chris Quigley
May 16, 2024


Making predictions is a critical skill in learning that spans all subjects and year groups. However, one of the most significant barriers to developing this skill in students is their fear of being wrong. This fear can stifle creativity, hinder learning, and prevent students from engaging fully with the material. As teachers, it is essential to create a classroom environment that values the process of thinking and exploration over the correctness of answers. A powerful tool in achieving this is teaching and using tentative language. This blog will explore how to foster such an environment and provide practical strategies for incorporating tentative language into prediction activities.

Understanding the Barrier: Fear of Being Wrong

Many students hesitate to make predictions because they fear their guesses will be incorrect. This fear can be rooted in several factors:
Negative past experiences: Students may have been penalised or ridiculed for wrong answers.
High-stakes testing culture: The emphasis on correct answers in standardised testing can make students wary of taking risks.
Lack of confidence: Some students may lack knowledge or the ability to make accurate predictions.
Perfectionism: Students with perfectionist tendencies may avoid making predictions to protect their self-esteem from potential failure.

The Importance of Tentative Language

Tentative language is crucial in helping students overcome their fear of being wrong. It emphasises that predictions are not about being right or wrong but about exploring possibilities and engaging with the material. By framing predictions as hypotheses rather than definitive answers, students can approach predictions with curiosity and open-mindedness. This shift in perspective encourages risk-taking and intellectual growth.

Creating a Supportive Classroom Environment

To effectively teach and use tentative language, fostering a supportive classroom environment where students feel safe to express their ideas is essential. Here are some strategies to achieve this:

  1. Modelling Tentative Language: Use tentative language in your speech and predictions. Show students that it is okay to be unsure and that exploring different possibilities is a valuable part of the learning process.
  2. Encouraging Risk-Taking: Praise students for making educated guesses, even if they are incorrect. Emphasise the learning that comes from examining why a prediction did not hold true.
  3.  Providing Constructive Feedback: Offer feedback that focuses on the thought process rather than the correctness of the answer. Encourage students to reflect on their predictions and consider what they learned.
  4. Creating Low-Stakes Opportunities: Incorporate prediction activities that are low-stakes and fun, such as guessing the ending of a story or predicting the outcome of a simple experiment. This helps students practice making predictions without the pressure of being graded.

Teaching Tentative Language

To help students effectively use tentative language, it is essential to teach and practice it explicitly. Here is a table outlining how to introduce and use tentative language in the classroom:

Tentative Language Purpose Examples How to Teach Practice Activities
Modal Verbs Indicate possibility or likelihood May, might, could, can Explain the use of modal verbs to express uncertainty. Model sentences using these verbs. Have students rewrite definitive predictions using modal verbs. Example: "It might rain tomorrow."
Adverbs Soften the prediction Possibly, potentially, likely, apparently Discuss how adverbs can make statements less absolute. Provide examples in context. Create a list of adverbs and have students insert them into their predictions. Example: "The plant will possibly grow taller with more sunlight."
Phrases Indicating Uncertainty Express uncertainty explicitly It is possible that, there is a chance that, it seems that, it appears that Introduce these phrases and explain their purpose. Show how they can precede predictions. Practice making predictions using these phrases in pairs or small groups. Example: "It is possible that the character will change his mind."
Qualifying Phrases Add caution to the statement Suggests that, indicates that, implies that, points to Explain how qualifying phrases can frame predictions as hypotheses. Model their use in context. Have students use qualifying phrases in their predictions during class discussions. Example: "The evidence suggests that the chemical reaction will produce gas."
Conditional Language Show conditional relationships If... then, assuming that, provided that Teach the structure of conditional sentences. Use examples from various subjects. Write conditional predictions based on scenarios. Example: "If we add more water, then the plant might grow faster."
Uncertainty Markers Highlight uncertainty Approximately, somewhat, to some extent Discuss how uncertainty markers indicate levels of confidence. Provide examples. Include uncertainty markers in science experiment predictions. Example: "The temperature will approximately increase by 5 degrees."
Hedging Words Reduce the strength of the statement Perhaps, possibly, conceivably, feasibly Introduce hedging words and their use in making cautious predictions. Practice using hedging words in writing predictions. Example: "Perhaps the solution will change color."
Subjunctive Mood Express hypothetical or contrary-to-fact situations If... were to, should, it is essential that, were... to Explain the use of the subjunctive mood in hypothetical predictions. Provide examples. Role-play scenarios where students make predictions using the subjunctive mood. Example: "If the data were to confirm the hypothesis, it could lead to new discoveries."


Practical Examples of Teaching Tentative Language in the Classroom

Example 1: Science

Activity: Predicting the outcome of a plant growth experiment.

Objective: Use tentative language to frame predictions.


  1.Introduction: Explain the experiment and variables involved.

  2.Modelling: Demonstrate using modal verbs and uncertainty markers. "I predict that the plant might grow taller with more sunlight, but it is possible that other factors could also affect growth."

  3.Student Practice: Have students write their predictions using tentative language. "The plant will likely grow faster if we add more fertiliser."

  4.Discussion: Review predictions as a class, highlighting the use of tentative language and discussing the reasoning behind each prediction. 

Example 2: English

Activity: Predicting the ending of a story.

Objective: Use qualifying phrases and conditional language.


  1. Introduction: Read the beginning of a story and pause before the climax.

  2. Modelling: Show qualifying phrases and conditional language. "Based on the character's actions so far, it seems he might find the treasure, assuming that he follows the map correctly."

  3. Student Practice: Have students write their predictions. "There is a chance that the hero will save the day if he reaches the castle in time."

  4. Discussion: Share predictions and discuss different possible endings, emphasising the use of tentative language.

Example 3: History

Activity: Predicting the outcome of a historical event.

Objective: Use hedging words and the subjunctive mood.


  1. Introduction: Present a historical event with an uncertain outcome.

  2. Modelling: Demonstrate how to use hedging words and the subjunctive mood. "If the allies had not won the battle, it is conceivable that the war's outcome would have been different."

  3. Student Practice: Have students write their predictions. "Perhaps the revolution would have succeeded if the leader had more support."

  4. Discussion: Analyse different predictions and discuss how historical events could have unfolded differently, highlighting the use of tentative language.

 Benefits of Using Tentative Language

Using tentative language in making predictions offers several benefits:

1. Reduces Anxiety: When students know their predictions are not expected to be definitive, they feel less pressure and anxiety about being wrong.

2. Encourages exploration: Tentative language frames predictions as part of an exploratory process, encouraging students to think creatively and consider multiple possibilities.

3. Promotes Critical Thinking: By using tentative language, students learn to weigh evidence, consider alternatives, and make more nuanced predictions.

4. Enhances Communication Skills: Learning to express uncertainty and probability helps students develop more sophisticated communication skills, which are valuable in both academic and real-world contexts.

5. Supports Scientific Thinking: Tentative language aligns with the scientific method, teaching students to make hypotheses that can be tested and refined based on evidence.


Fostering a classroom environment that values the process of thinking over the correctness of answers is crucial for helping students overcome their fear of being wrong. By teaching and using tentative language, educators can encourage students to confidently make predictions, knowing that their guesses are part of a more extensive exploratory process. This approach enhances students' predictive skills and promotes critical thinking, creativity, and intellectual growth. Through practical strategies and supportive classroom practices, we can help students embrace the uncertainty of prediction and develop a lifelong love of learning.

Further Reading

Click Here to explore practical resources to Master Metacognition

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