Monthly Archives: December 2011

Metalinguistic Awareness, Comprehension, and The Common Core State Standards

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; 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, declarative awareness of language. We demonstrate this type of metacognition when weremove 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 lessons, too, including metamorphological instruction (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—the logic behind understanding multiple-meaning words, drawing an inference, or grasping how compound words convey meaning morphologically, for example. 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.

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. Perhaps educators can assign a portion of their discretionary non-standards-aligned time to this goal. Without conscious awareness of language, second graders may be frustrated by The Jumblies (Edward Lear). Indeed, if lessons do not include an explicit focus on metalinguistic awareness, we could be sending our schools to sea—in a sieve.


Susan M. Ebbers, a former teacher and principal, authored several supplemental materials published by Cambium Learning, including Vocabulary through Morphemes, Daily Oral Vocabulary Exercises (with coauthor Jill Carroll), Power Readers, and Supercharged Readers. She is a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, investigating various aspects of metalinguistic awareness, and the publisher of Vocabulogic (visit

About Susan M. Ebbers

Books by Susan M. Ebbers: Vocabulary Through MorphemesPower ReadersSupercharged ReadersDaily Oral Vocabulary Exercises (DOVE)

Categories: Literacy, Professional Developement | 3 Comments

Reframing School Discipline

From “Who Is to Blame” to “How Can We Support Each Other and Our Students to Be More Successful?”

By Jeffrey Sprague

Many teachers experience enormous stress while attempting to “discipline” disruptive students, and often do not feel adequately supported by their colleagues, parents, or society. Teachers often tell me, “I just want something that works,” and yet, when I ask them how they define “what works,” they are unclear about the goals of behavior change, how to measure change, and how long it will take to get there. This lack of perceived job control (“I don’t feel like I am in control of what I need to be effective”) and professional efficacy (“I feel like what I am doing is not making a difference”) results in high levels of stress and can directly lead to burnout or other unhealthy responses to the problem. Fully one half of all new teachers leave the field within their first four years of practice, citing students with behavioral challenges and their parents as one of the main reasons.

Over the past 15 years, the use of “consequences”—such as office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions—has skyrocketed, particularly among poor and nonwhite students. Paradoxically, these practices actually increase aggressive behavior, truancy, vandalism and school dropout/disengagement.

A common response is to increase the length of time to remove a student from the classroom or from school if a behavior problem is not resolved quickly. For teachers, the temporary “relief” from removing a student quickly vanishes when the student returns with the same challenges. This only makes the problem worse in the long term for both student and teacher. Some teachers respond to this spiraling cycle by demanding ever more intense “punishment,” others may simply work harder to try to solve each student’s problems, and still others will engage in harmful behaviors such as complaining about or criticizing students, parents, colleagues, and “the system.” In the worst situations, teachers resort to alcohol or drug use (prescribed and otherwise) in order to “cope.” Each response may bring some short-term relief but will exacerbate the problem in the end. There has to be a “new move.”

Alongside a general interest in restorative justice in society at large, attention has turned to the development of restorative justice practices in educational settings and how this might respond to some of the continuing concerns about discipline and violence in schools. As it has developed in the criminal justice system, restorative justice seeks to provide (perhaps for the first time) a much clearer framework for restitution and repair. In this framework, misbehaviors can result in sanctions, but within a context where the relationship damaged by the misbehavior is the priority and based on the premise that this damaged relationship can and should be repaired—and that the offending individual can and should be reintegrated, not only for the good of that individual but also for that of the community as a whole.

Balanced and Restorative Discipline brings us this “new move,” and I have already seen the positive benefits of using restorative principles and practices in my work with teachers all over the world. Restorative discipline training works to help teachers clarify their core values about their work with colleagues and students and reminds them that their core mission is to help students become “safe, respectful, and responsible.” First they become collectively clear about what those behaviors look like, and second we model those values ourselves.

We embed restorative practices in our staff development and consultation in positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) to help teachers accept that change is very difficult for some students. We also help teachers “reframe” their views of students by emphasizing that their problems are likely a result of delayed skill development in key social areas (e.g., impulse control, problem solving, empathy) and not just a matter of “misbehaving.” Finally, taking valued action on a daily and long-term basis requires teachers to remain mindful of their core values and plans. The most powerful methods we have learned are to share data regularly about improvements or new problems (mindfulness) and to teach problem-solving methods (often called Functional Behavior Assessment) so we can systematically pursue our values.

I hold great respect and hope for our teachers, and believe that restorative practices provide a foundational framework for improving our sense of effectiveness and personal well-being.

Jeffrey Sprague, Ph.D., is an associate professor of special education and codirector of the University of Oregon Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior. In 2001, he helped establish the Oregon Center for School Safety. Sprague has been a teacher, a behavioral consultant, and director of the Center for School and Community Integration.

About Jeffrey Sprague

Books by Jeffrey Sprague: Best BehaviorWhole School Leader

Categories: Family, Positive School Climate | 1 Comment

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