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Playing with Language

Marcy Zipke

By Marcy Zipke

“Knock, knock!”

“Who’s there?”
“Tennis, who?”
“Ten is my favorite number!!!!”

The knock knock joke above was the first successful joke I ever wrote. I was about 5 or 6 years old and obsessed with knock knock jokes. The problem is that I didn’t have the metalinguistic awareness (MA) to understand how they worked, so I was instead creating nonsensical jokes and then laughing uproariously. Seeing the word “tennis” on the side of a building and suddenly understanding that it was made up of two words that could be used consecutively was a moment of such cognitive clarity, this joke creation became one of my earliest memories.

Metalinguistic awareness is an important – and often over-looked – component of the reading process. One form of MA that has received attention in recent years is phonemic awareness. Beginning readers are routinely taught to manipulate the sounds in words. Once they can segment and blend individual sounds, they are better equipped to learn to match spoken phonemes to written graphemes (the foundation of decoding).

In addition to phonemic awareness, there are many other units of language that can be manipulated. Metalinguistic awareness is an umbrella term that means thinking about one’s own use of language. Students can be metalinguistic about their word choice, about the order of words and phrases in a sentence, and about how or when to say something. For example, young elementary students who are learning to tell jokes and riddles often recite nonsensical questions and punchlines, and then laugh and laugh, as I remember doing as a child. A student who does this is demonstrating comprehension of the form, but lacks the linguistic understanding to recognize the word play.

Consider the following riddle: “Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road? … Because he didn’t have the guts.” A child who lacks the linguistic knowledge to understand this joke might retell the riddle this way: “Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road?… Because he fell down!” Whereas a student with a better linguistic understanding might say: “Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road? … He… he… [rubs stomach] was afraid.” The second student clearly understands the joke better than the first student, but perhaps has not learned the meaning of the word “guts” completely enough to remember the joke verbatim. It is not until students have gained the metalinguistic understanding to know that words often have two meanings and that jokes revolve around that misunderstanding that they can accurately remember and retell riddles.

Metalinguistic awareness contributes to students’ reading comprehension, in that being analytical about language can help students to quickly parse the meanings of words and phrases. When students’ thinking is more flexible, they are open to alternative interpretations (Cairns, Waltzman, & Schlisselberg, 2004), which improves reading comprehension. Having some metalinguistic awareness also means that students can talk about their own language and that of others, which is helpful in many school-related tasks. Therefore, facilitating students’ understanding of language parts and how they can be manipulated benefits reading and, by extension, school achievement.

I am not suggesting an all new curriculum. Explicit language lessons on topics such as parts of speech, idioms, or the morphology of words can be built into most ELA programs. And students can be encouraged to pay attention to language in teachable moments throughout the day. For example, I once overheard a third grader ask how to spell “leopard.” His teacher agreed with him that that is a very hard word to spell and dictated the letters aloud to him. However, had they gone to the dictionary together, they would have found that leopard is made up of leo, for lion, and pard, for panther. Learning the morphology of the word might have cemented the spelling in that 8 year-old’s brain, as well as stimulated an interesting scientific conversation.

My new book, Playing with Language: Improving Elementary Reading Through Metalinguistic Awareness, is for teachers, parents, and anyone with an interest in language development or reading. Each chapter tackles a different unit of language, from phonology and morphology to semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. Other topics include spelling, set for variability, and assessment of metalinguistic awareness. Every chapter includes background information on the construct, a review of the literature, a consideration of how the language manifests in English Language Learners, and teaching suggestions.

Order Playing with Language here:

Marcy Zipke is a Professor in the Elementary/Special Education department at Providence College. She has served as Dept Chair and Faculty Senate representative, and is currently co-Editor in Chief of the Journal of Research in Childhood Education. Her research focuses on language and literacy development, as well as best methods for teaching reading.  She has also taught, published, and served on college-wide committees on topics related to educational technology. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Reading Teacher, Reading Research Quarterly, and Education and Information Technologies.

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