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

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3 thoughts on “Metalinguistic Awareness, Comprehension, and The Common Core State Standards

  1. mustardgreen

    It’s not difficult to build metalinguistic awareness. We do it in different ways all day long in my 5th grade class. We read Frindle (love that book) and we use your wonderful program, Vocabulary through Morphemes, Susan. We also keep a wordbook and word wall with top picks for words and sayings. By Christmas, kids comment on words and ask about the meaning, etymology or morphological connections of a word. I see a big difference, even in how they spell.

    Thanks for this blog. It affirms what we’re doing in my small school in the foothills.

    PS I attended a PD session with you, Susan, about 5 years ago.


    • Thanks for these tips. Yes, I agree — Frindle is a fine book for developing awareness of how newly coined words become officially ensconced in the dictionary, word origins, free speech, the strategic use of the media, and becoming a young entrepreneur. I especially loved the ending, where the teacher had the last laugh…in the best way.

      I’d like to hear more about your top picks word wall. Sounds interesting, especially if you change it up every month or so.

      Glad you enjoyed the post and feel affirmed in your work. Also, happy to hear that Vocabulary through Morphemes is working well for your 5th graders. Knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, roots — word structure — should make a difference in middle school. Link

      Best wishes!
      Susan Ebbers

  2. mustardgreen

    I posted a comment, but I isn’t showing up.

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