By Susan M. Ebbers
Coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center), the Common Core State Standards have swept the nation, and nearly every state has sanctioned the call for students to read more complex texts. In response, publishers are rapidly preparing more challenging texts, referring to the exemplars listed in Appendix B of the Standards, including works by Sophocles, Alexis de Tocqueville and Fyodor Dostoevsky. These types of texts will be Waterloo for some students, and the battle begins in kindergarten with a call to understand—and hopefully enjoy—As I was Going to St. Ives. How can teachers help readers meet this challenge? In part, the solution lies in developing metacognitive insights and abilities—including metalinguistic awareness.
Metalinguistic awareness requires a keener than normal conscious awareness of language. We demonstrate this type of metacognition when we remove language from context in order to reflect on it and manipulate it. Metalinguistic awareness is an important ingredient in learning to read, spell and understand words (Donaldson, 1978). Moreover, as Nagy suggests, it explains a portion of the otherwise unexplained variance in comprehension scores, when other important variables have been controlled (2007). Boosting metalinguistic awareness has significant effect on reading comprehension (Cain, 2007; Zipke, 2007, 2011; Zipke, Ehri, & Cairns, 2009). English Language Learners benefit from metalinguistic awareness, too, including metamorphological awareness (Carlo et al., 2004; Ginsberg, Honda, O’Neil, 2011; Kuo & Anderson, 2006; Ramirez, Chen, Geva, & Kiefer, 2010).
Metalinguistic awareness is a cognitive dynamo. At maximum potential, it includes increased awareness of phonemes and syllables and rhymes/rimes, of meaning-bearing morphemes, words, and phrases, of syntax, word referents, and appositives, of denotations, connotations, and lexical ambiguities, of homonyms, synonyms, and antonyms, of slang, dialect, and jargon, of academic language and figurative devices like metaphor, imagery, personification, and more. Writ large, metalinguistic awareness envelopes every atom of language.
Researchers have long proclaimed the critical role of phonological awareness (PA) in helping children blend and segment sounds in words. In the past decade, two more types of metalinguistic insight have surfaced repeatedly in reading research journals: morphological awareness (MA) and orthographic awareness (OA). If a student grows in MA, s/he becomes increasingly aware that words sharing the same base or root are similar in form and meaning. For example, the child notices similarities across painted, painter, paintings, painterly, and repaint, at the same time realizing that pain –while somewhat similar in form—is not related to this morphological family. MA also includes knowledge of common suffixes and prefixes.
If a student grows in OA, s/he becomes more aware of the English system of writing, realizing that something “just looks wrong” when presented with “illegal” spellings, such as words beginning with ck or words containing three identical vowels in a row, as in *seeer. As this insight matures, students gradually realize that foreign loan words allow the inclusion of spellings not aligned with English orthography, as in beau, hoi polloi, and faux pas.
Recently, Berninger, Abbott, Nagy, and Carlisle (2010) conducted a longitudinal study spanning first grade to sixth grade in two cohorts (N = 241 students), investigating growth curves for three types of metalinguistic awareness: MA, OA, and PA. They found that PA and receptive OA grew from first to third grade and then tapered off or reached a plateau, for most students. Expressive OA continued to grow a bit after third grade. Meanwhile, MA grew rapidly from first to third grade and then continued to grow, but less rapidly, through sixth grade. Furthermore, MA influenced word knowledge: Vocabulary knowledge was significantly related to how well the student understood that derivational suffixes influence the grammatical category of the word—for example, that instrument is not grammatically the same as instrumentalist or instrumentally, even though there is semantic overlap. Reading comprehension is partially explained by growth in MA (Kuo & Anderson, 2006; Nagy, Berninger, & Abbott, 2006).
As educators, we promote metalinguistic awareness by making explicit salient aspects of the targeted linguistic concept—for example, the logic behind understanding multiple-meaning words, drawing an inference, or grasping how compound words convey meaning morphologically. We promote keener consciousness when we point out how any detail of language works, making our thoughts transparent in a think-aloud with visual modeling, or when we ask students to explain their reasoning—and we give them feedback. If we exploit metalinguistic insight, we influence word reading, spelling, and vocabulary while moving the ball towards the end goal: comprehension. Thus, we might heed the clarion call of linguist Bill Nagy (2007):
“Vocabulary instruction needs to be more explicitly metalinguistic, that is word consciousness is an obligatory, not an optional, component” (p. 54).
What about the brave new Common Core? Do they mention the term metalinguistic in the English Language Arts Standards? Alas, no. However, Appendix A circles loosely around the topic (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010):
The reader brings to the act of reading his or her cognitive capabilities (attention, memory, critical analytic ability, inferencing, visualization); motivation (a purpose for reading, interest in the content, self-efficacy as a reader); knowledge (vocabulary and topic knowledge, linguistic and discourse knowledge, knowledge of comprehension strategies); and experiences.
In another section of the document, metacognitive strategies are mentioned. The Standards, and the forthcoming standards-aligned assessments, are fairly agnostic to instructional methods—they do not care HOW we teach—only that students learn. Professional discretion is encouraged; teachers and administrators decide how to address the Standards, including how to develop metacognitive insight, as indicated in Key Design Considerations:
By emphasizing required achievements, the Standards leave room for teachers, curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be reached and what additional topics should be addressed. Thus, the Standards do not mandate such things as a particular writing process or the full range of metacognitive strategies [formatting added] that students may need to monitor and direct their thinking and learning. Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.
To my knowledge, the term metacognitive only appears once in the CCSS, in the insert above. By integrating the two excerpts above, one might (might) infer that the National Governors Association did indeed include metalinguistic development in the Common Core. I only wish they had been more deliberate about it.
Without conscious awareness of language, second graders may be frustrated by The Jumblies (another exemplar text, by Edward Lear). Indeed, if lessons do not include an explicit focus on metalinguistic awareness, we could be sending whole schools to sea—in a sieve.
Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Nagy, W., & Carlisle, J. (2010). Growth in phonological, orthographic, and morphological awareness in grades 1 to 6. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 39, 141–163.
Cain, K. (2007). Syntactic awareness and reading ability: Is there any evidence for a special relationship? Applied Psycholinguistics, 28, 679-694.
Carlo, M.S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C.E., Dressler, C., Lippman, D., Liveley, T. & White, C.E. (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs of ELLs in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 188-215.
Donaldson, M. (1978). Children’s minds. Glasgow: Collins.
Ginsberg, D., Honda, M., & O’Neil, W. (2011). Looking beyond English: Linguistic inquiry for English Language Learners. Language and Linguistics Compass 5/5, 249-264.
Kuo, L-J., & Anderson, R. C. (2006). Morphological awareness and learning to read: A cross-language perspective. Educational Psychologist, 41-3, 161-180.
NGA Center & CCSSO. (2010). The common core state standards for English language arts. Retrieved December 13, 2011 from http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/english-language-arts-standards
Nagy, W.E. (2007). Metalinguistic awareness and the vocabulary-comprehension connection. In R.K. Wagner, A.E Muse, & K.R. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Vocabulary acquisition: Implications for reading comprehension (pp. 52-77). New York: Guilford Press.
Nagy, W., Berninger, V., & Abbott, R. (2006). Contributions of morphology beyond phonology to literacy outcomes of upper elementary and middle school students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 134-147.
Ramirez, G., Chen, X., Geva, E., & Kiefer, H. (2010). Morphological awareness in Spanish-speaking English language learners: Within and cross-language effects on word reading. Reading and Writing, 23(3-4), 337-358.
Zipke, M. (2007). The role of metalinguistic awareness in the reading comprehension of sixth and seventh graders. Reading Psychology, 28(4), 375-396.
Zipke, M. (2011). First graders receive instruction in homonym detection and meaning articulation: The effect of explicit metalinguistic awareness practice on beginning readers. Reading Psychology, 32(4), 349-371.
Zipke, M., Ehri, L. E., & Cairns, H. (2009). Using semantic ambiguity instruction to improve third graders’ metalinguistic awareness and reading comprehension: An experimental study. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(3), 300–321.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
This article was first published in EdView 360 (published by Sopris Learning) and more recently on Vocabulogic blogspot. Read comments on this article from Jan Hasbrouck, Louisa Moats, and Peter Bowers at http://vocablog-plc.blogspot.com/.