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Why are Metalinguistic Skills Important?

Written By Geoff Nixon . March 4, 2021

Metalinguistic Awareness Helps Students Deconstruct & Truly “Get” Language

“Metalinguistics”  and “metalinguistic awareness” aren’t words and phrases most people know. As a parent, you may have never heard of metalinguistics. It rarely comes up in conversations with other parents or even teachers. But it’s a critical skill on the road to reading proficiency and learning independence.

Metalinguistics awareness is the ability to look at language as a thing; to evaluate language as a process or even a system; and to maneuver around successfully in using language. It involves reflecting on the nature of language, its rules, conventions, and the ways in which it is used to communicate. Metalinguistic awareness involves the ability to think and talk about language explicitly, to analyze its components, and to understand the rules and structures that govern it.

The term was coined in the 1970s when researchers used it to describe the process of learning multiple languages, however it applies to many facets of language. Once you have metalinguistic ability and can understand the intricacies of your native language such as:

  • How nuances and inferences beyond meaning are conveyed
  • That meaning can be changed by moving words around
  • That language is not absolute, that changing the name of an object does not change the object

Once you understand metalinguistics, you have a foundation for reading comprehension with metacognition.  Metalinguistic ability also sets you to successfully begin to learn another, new language. As a result, you can start to compare and contrast the languages and remember that in one language you do a-b-c, whereas in another, the rule is d-e-f.

Metalinguistic Awareness Depends on Metalinguistic Skills

Metalinguistic awareness also refers to the awareness that you can change language in different ways, that you have the power to manipulate it. For example, if you write a letter to someone and realize afterwards that sentences #4 through #7 do not make sense, you can rewrite those sentences. You have the power to change them.

As they grow up, kids start to develop metalinguistic skills, once they start reviewing their own work.  They should start to look at their essays and homework assignments with a more thinking and critical eye. They will begin to see ways to improve their writing. For instance, a 9 year old may write a sentence like:

“I runned fast to the park.”

Using metalinguistic skills, the child can recognize that “runned” is not the correct past tense form of the verb “run.” They remember that the correct past tense form is “ran” – correcting the verb tense to:

“I ran fast to the park.”

They could also understand – with metalinguistic awareness – that not all language is literal.  For example, if someone says, “My little dog is an Olympic athlete,” it doesn’t mean that the dog participates in the Olympic athletic events. Instead, it means that the dog is athletic, good at athletic skills, and the owner thinks that the dog has a lot of potential.

This level of dexterity with the language is a necessary step to metacognition, the ability to monitor your own understanding as you listen and read – knowing about knowing. Metacognition is the last step to high school reading proficiency.

The First Metalinguistic Skill – Rhyming

Children with auditory processing disorder (APD) have difficulty with metalinguistics and metalinguistic awareness, starting at an early age with rhyming.

Playing with language, such as rhyming, is a metalinguistic skill – it involves the ability to consciously reflect on and manipulate language elements, including sounds, words, and structures. Rhyming  involves recognizing and manipulating the sounds of words to create patterns and establish connections between words. Seeing that words that end with similar sounds takes more than listening, it takes observing, seeing language as a study object, a thing. 

Rhyming is arguably the first sign of metalinguistic awareness in a child.  If a child is not able to rhyme at 3 years of age, it’s an indication that the effort required to make out the words is so all-consuming there is no capacity to observe that some words end in the same sounds.  It’s a warning sign of future reading difficulty.

Programs to Help

However, programs created to assist children, teens or adults with APD focus on metalinguistic skills to bring these learners success.

As a parent, improving your child’s metalinguistic skills allows you to ask him or her to do their homework and to check it. You can expect higher grades and higher understanding.

Gemm Learning provides Fast ForWord software to improve the processing skills needed to improve metalinguistic skills.  Learn more here.

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