Thursday, November 10, 2016

Meta Meta Meta

Metacognitive, Metalinguistic, Metamorphological

The purpose of Vocabulogic is to help educators "bridge the verbal divide" that exists between those students who freely use language as a precision tool and those who do not, for whatever reason. 

The photo of the Golden Gate Bridge (The Tahoe Guy / CC) is a metaphor for spanning the language gulf. This gulf is deepened by variance in socioeconomic status, including exposure to books and academic language in the home (e.g. Corson, 1984; Hart & Risley, 1995).

Vocabulogic strives to promote literacy via word-reasoning skills, knowledge, and a keener-than-normal conscious awareness of language. Numerous experts have posted on a variety of pertinent topics, always with some connection to language and literacy goals. Articles posted here implicitly or explicitly accord value to metacognition as it relates to some aspect of metalinguistic awareness.

Berko, 1958
“Metalinguistic awareness is broadly defined as the ability to think about and reflect upon the nature and functions of language” (Pratt & Grieve, 1984, p. 2). This type of cognition involves conscious awareness of language as an object that one can examine, manipulate, and reflect upon.

Metalinguistic awareness encompasses far more than the ability to reflect on single words. It includes awareness of phonemes and syllables, graphemes and symbols, morphemes and meaning, phrases and sentences, grammar and syntax, context and definitions, homonyms, synonyms and antonyms, slang, dialect, and jargon, lexical ambiguities, riddles, and word play. It includes metaphor, imagery, personification, onomatopoeia, and rhyming. In sum, metalinguistic awareness encompasses all aspects of language (Nagy, 2007). Or at least, it can. If needed. If called upon.

Flavell (1981) suggests that metalinguistic awareness falls under the general rubric of metacognition, which subsumes metamemory, meta-attention, metalinguistics, etc., all of which allow us to exercise intellectual oversight while learning. Gombert (1992) grouped metalinguistic awareness into six subcategories of language: metaphonological, metasyntactic, metalexical, metasemantic, metapragmatic, and metatextual.

More recently -- and highly pertinent to Vocabulogic -- Duncan, Casalis, and Colé (2009) included another subcategory: metamorphological awareness of word structure. Their conception of metamorphological awareness overlaps with several of Gombert’s subcategories, but also gleans from the growing body of research focused on morphological awareness.

Metalinguistic awareness facilitates early literacy (Andrews, Yaden, & Templeton, 1986; Donaldson, 1978).  Zipke asserted, “Metalinguistic awareness, the ability to manipulate language independent of meaning, is an important ingredient in learning to read.” (2011, p. 349). Cain (2007) investigated the relations between word reading accuracy, reading comprehension and two measures of syntactic awareness, which is a type of metalinguistic awareness. Assessing two groups of children, aged 7-8 and 9-10 years, she found evidence that word reading accuracy and syntactic awareness share unique variance that is not explained by vocabulary and grammatical knowledge or memory.

Activities involving conscious levels of “meta” thought include self-dialogue, thinking aloud to clarify our reasoning, and to gain a better sense of our own understanding. It also includes conversations that elucidate our thoughts to others, including teachers, hopefully receiving a thoughtful response in reply. Teachers can encourage independent thought at times, but also prompt students to work together, teaching them to explain their thinking as they problem solve or create. Metacognitive processing is integral to learning, and especially to mastery levels of learning.   Unless the need for metacognitive processing exists, thoughts will not necessarily become conscious. The teacher must create the task that generates the need for metacognitive, metalinguistic thought. Many such tasks are described throughout Vocabulogic.


Andrews, J. F., Yaden, D. B., & Templeton, S. (1986). Metalinguistic awareness and beginning literacy: Conceptualizing what it means to read and write. Portsmouth, N.H: Heinemann.

Cain, K. (2007). Syntactic awareness and reading ability: Is there any evidence for a special relationship? Applied Psycholinguistics, 28, 679-694.

Corson, D.J. (1984) The lexical bar: lexical change from 12 to 15 years measured by social class, region and ethnicity. British Educational Research Journal 10, 2: 115-133.

Donaldson, M. (1978). Children’s minds. Glasgow: Collins.

Duncan, L. G., Casalis, S., & Colé, P. (2009). Early metalinguistic awareness of derivational morphology: Observations from a comparison of English and French. Applied Psycholinguistics, 30, 405-440.

Flavell, J. H. (1981) Cognitive Monitoring. In W. P. Dickson (Ed.), Children’s Oral Communication (pp. 35-60). New York: Academic Press.

Gombert JE. Le développement métalinguistique. Paris, France: Presses Universitaires de France; 1990.

Hart, B., & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

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.

Pratt C, Grieve R. (1984). The development of metalinguistic awareness: An introduction. In Tunmer WE, Pratt C, Herriman ML (Ed.), Metalinguistic awareness in children (pp. 2–11). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Velag.

The Tahoe Guy, (Retrieved 2010).  Moon Over San Francisco. Licensed under Creative Commons. Cropped.

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.


  1. What is metaphysics - everything that comes after physics. So metathought is everything that comes after thought.

    1. Metaphysics. That's philosophy. Your bailiwick!

  2. Anonymous11/16/2016

    Thanks, Susan. Good ideas. How do you detect meta-learning? Is there a way to know if your kids are thinking at that level? Or is the proof in the pudding?!

    1. You know, I think the proof is indeed in the pudding, to some extent! Yet there may be other ways to measure metacognitive levels. If the student knows the answer, that shows some knowledge, however superficial. If the student can also explain how she knows it, and how she knows that she knows it, or somehow defend her answer, then metacognitive awareness might be at work.
      For teachers with 25 students, this requires too much time to utilize regularly, but it is useful for one-one diagnostic assessments. On a broader scale, just the presence of an active interest or a vital curiosity go hand-in-hand with deeper levels of thinking. I think. (This is somewhat fuzzy.)


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