Sunday, January 8, 2012

Metalinguistic Awareness, Comprehension, and the Common Core State Standards

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 envelops 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 the 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.

~Susan M. Ebbers


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

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.


Note:  This post was republished in EdView360 and in the CDL Professional Library


  1. Susan-- very timely and, as always, beautifully written. We must keep vigilant with the changes coming our way with the adoption of the CCSS. Thank you for your contribution to this important discussion.

  2. Shane Templeton1/08/2012

    Susan, you've offered a marvelous perspective here on the role of metalinguistic awareness in addressing the Common Core English Language Arts standards. I absolutely love your definition in the paragraph that begins "Metalinguistic awareness is a cognitive dynamo"! I agree that one may infer MA is indeed in the CCS -- they certainly include all the parts, as you note -- and by mentioning "metacognitive awareness" (of which metalinguistic awareness is often considered to be a component) -- the case should be closed. Your caveat should be very well taken, however: Explicit awareness should be directly addressed, but of course, it's in the doing of it where the challenges emerge -- and herein lies the work of so many of the folks who enjoy Vocabulogic: Developing the "professional discretion" of the those who will be directly working to implement these standards. Thanks again for another thoughtful, insightful, and enjoyable post!

  3. Thanks for an excellent article, Susan. As you know, I favor direct and systematic teaching of all relevant aspects of language structure; this is the vehicle for students achieving "metalinguistic awareness". They know about the content and therefore can be aware and pay attention to details in language. I would be very cautious about naming this abstract idea as a target for instruction, when there are so many concrete steps that enable its achievement -- e.g., knowledge of the phoneme system, knowledge of orthography and how it represents speech, knowledge of morphemes, knowledge of syntax and how it conveys meaning, etc. There is still a huge void in the national conversation about the standards and the knowledge that underpins learning to read and write.
    Louisa Moats

  4. Thanks for your post emphasizing the importance of promoting metalinguistic awareness.

    You write, "As educators, we promote metalinguistic awareness by making explicit salient aspects of the targeted linguistic concept...We promote keener consciousness when we point out how any detail of language works."

    You correctly point to a variety of language features that can be targeted by instruction to build such a linguistic awareness. I can’t resist pointing your readers (again!) to word sums and word matrices as ways to provide concrete representations of morphological structure and grapheme-phoneme correspondences. These tools, and the conventions for working with them offer teachers a way of making explicit underlying details of how our written language works.

    I see these tools as providing a similar teaching function for language learning that number lines and fraction pieces offers for learning numeracy. With numeracy, those tools give learners a concrete representation of value that they can see and manipulate to make abstract concepts of number explicit. Matrices and announcing graphemic and morphemic structure with word sums offers a similar function for the representation of the abstract concepts of morphemes, graphemes and phonemes.

    For those interested, this link provides an introduction to how these tools work. The conventions for spelling out graphemes is highlighted more clearly here than I have in earlier Vocabulogic posts.

    After preparing this response I saw that Shane Templeton and Louisa Moats have added responses as well. It seems to me that these tools also relate to both of their comments. Shane’s points out that "it's in the doing of it where the challenges emerge." Louisa emphasizes the "direct and systematic teaching of all relevant aspects of language structure" as a means of supporting metalinguistic awareness. I hope these tools are seen as one way to address those important points.

    A quick example of these tools in action can be seen in your See Spot page ( in the a video of a Kindergarten class working with these tools.

    Thanks again for your article and sparking another rich discussion about language learning and instruction.

  5. Hi Jan, Shane, Louisa, and Pete,

    Thanks for contributing so much to the discussion, and for all the kind comments. I agree with Jan, that we need to stay abreast of the Standards, and the implementation of them.  Louisa's point is well taken-- by systematically and explicitly teaching the various elements of language, we help students develop these insights. Louisa is perhaps wise to caution against the inclusion of metalinguistic awareness in the Standards themselves. But the goal is not simply to know something--it is also to know why and how you know, and to be aware of what you do not know, and to know how to seek out new information. It is not enough to directly teach any linguistic concept, we might also include methods that prompt students to reflect on their own burgeoning knowledge, to strive for motivational and metacognitive goals, including interest, identity, and self-efficacy, and to help students generalize and transfer. Perhaps these goals are best defined in places other than the Standards document.

    As Shane said, it's a matter of how these insights are shared with teachers in preservice and inservice seminars. Pete works with word sums and matrices in a thought-provoking way, much as Marcia Henry has always done.

    Bottom line, when addressing the Standards, it is important to differentiate between lessons that include an endless supply of worksheets from those lessons that are more cognitively engaging and more metacognitively oriented. Shane's post, More Than the Sum of the Parts, is geared towards meaningful inquiry-based lessons that promote metalinguistic awareness.

    But whether this needs to be an explicit goal in the Standards? hmmm....what do you think?

  6. Susan-
    Excellent work, par usual. Thank you for taking the time to so articulately represent the critical understanding necessary for the CCSS for English Language Arts to be viable. I believe we need to ensure that our teacher prpeparation programs are providing future teachers with the educations requisite to delivery of the instruction necessary to align with the standards. There's much work to be done.
    I would like to link your articles to my weebly for teachers - if that is ok with you.
    Maureen Ruby

  7. Susan et al.-
    I couldn't agree with you more. Teacher preparation will need to take all that you have addressed, so articulately, into careful consideration as coursework is redesigned. This will be requisite to successfully prepare teacher candidates to understand the standards and all that one needs to know to provide a 21st century education to a highly diverse population of students. Louisa, I wholeheartedly agree with your statement, "There is still a huge void in the national conversation about the standards and the knowledge that underpins learning to read and write." If the CCSS can influence teacher preparation in as far as filling that "void" - perhaps we can meet students' needs for language and literacy success.
    Thank you all for your inspiration to continue the work!

  8. Thanks for the feedback, Maureen. Yes, feel free to link any post to your teacher newsletter. The more the merrier!

    Best wishes with your own work in this area. Hopefully, despite some concerns with the CCSS and the Publisher's Criteria, we will someday see the fruit of a nationwide focus on the same key learning goals.



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