Daniel is in Year 4 and his teacher has asked him to write a story that shows his understanding of narrative structure: of setting, characters, with an obvious beginning, a problem and a conclusion. Maryanne is in Year 8 and her teacher is assessing her on her understanding of the novel they have read in class. She must write a paragraph about the character traits of one of the protagonists in her novel and support her writing with quotes from the text. She has to explain how her quotes provide information about the character traits she has chosen in her writing.
Billy is in Year 11 and analysing issues in the news. He must identify persuasive techniques that show how the writer is attempting to convince her audience of her argument. He must then explain how those persuasive techniques operate to convince their audience to agree.
The above examples are illustrations of the types of metalanguage tasks you might find in any classroom across many year levels. Metalanguage is more than just a fancy sounding term. It’s the name for the set of skills that we, as readers, must acquire once we have learned to decode words on the page. Once we have learned to read, we enter into the “read to learn” phase where deep comprehension is the primary goal. Deeply understanding a text allows us to expand our understanding of the text we are studying, but more than that, it allows us to expand our understanding of the world around us.
Assuming that the skill of decoding has become a (largely) automated task (and sadly for some, this takes a really long time) we must read the text closely in order to glean the hidden meanings in it. “Reading the text closely” does not mean to look more closely at the page! It means we must develop a stored understanding about how language works in order to unlock the literal and non-literal meanings within.
Students must acquire the skills of metalanguage as they progress through school and this all depends on their ability to first be able to accurately decode what they are reading. This becomes particularly important in the secondary years when it is expected that students should be able to compare, analyse and critique what they read. These tasks would be difficult without a thorough knowledge of metalanguage. In fact, metalanguage is considered so important, that the VCE English curriculum expects students to display their knowledge of it in the text study and language analysis sections of the course.
Four areas of metalanguage that students with language-learning problems commonly have difficulty with are: verbal sequencing, determining cause and effect, making inferences, and understanding and using figurative language. To improve cause and effect skills, students must learn to see the relationship between the cause of the event and the outcome. In order to infer meaning and predict outcomes, students must develop good deductive reasoning skills to be able to look beyond the information that is provided and fill in the “gaps” that are missing from the text. Being able to sequence events is critical to developing cause and effect skills. Students must also be able to differentiate between literal and non-literal meanings of words, phrases and texts to enhance their understanding of figurative language. Acquiring figurative language skills is not only important for academic success, but social development as well.
Lastly, it is critical to integrate spoken and written language when teaching metalanguage. The interplay between spoken and written language is multi-dimensional and if a student has not acquired spoken metalanguage skills, they will struggle to acquire those skills in their reading and writing.
There is still much to learn about the development of adolescent language and literacy skills. However, one thing is for certain, metalanguage skills are a critical component of language and literacy development and at Gameplan, form an essential part of the individualised learning plan for upper primary and secondary school students.
Top tips for improving your metalanguage skills
- Practice sequencing information into a logical order such as alphabetising, putting events in chronological order, creating timelines, planning narratives and essays;
- Practice “filling in the gaps” when not provided all the information but using what you have;
- Predict the logical outcomes of stories, maths problems and science experiments; and
- Listen to, read, discuss, analyse and create figurative language forms such as metaphors, similes and jokes!
World renowned researcher Dr Nickola Wolf Nelson’s 2011 presentation on “Curriculum-based Language Assessment and Intervention for School-Age Children and Adolescents: http://wmich.edu/speechaudiology/wlop/Curriculumbased%20language%20asst%20and%20intervention.pdf