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Review of  The Role of Metalinguistic Awareness in the Effective Teaching of Foreign Languages

Reviewer: Clara Burgo
Book Title: The Role of Metalinguistic Awareness in the Effective Teaching of Foreign Languages
Book Author: Anthony David Roberts
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 23.82

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AUTHOR: Roberts, Anthony David
TITLE: The Role of Metalinguistic Awareness in the Effective Teaching of Foreign
SERIES TITLE: Rethinking Education, Volume 10
YEAR: 2011

Clara Burgo, Modern Languages Department, DePaul University


This book’s goal is to fill an important gap in language development literature
by explaining the nature and function of the concept of “metalinguistic
awareness,” with strong implications for the fields of pedagogy, first (L1),
second (L2), and foreign language acquisition, and immersion programs.

In the Introduction, Roberts mentions three sources of controversy: the
processes that give rise to metalinguistic awareness; the function these play;
and the aspects of language of which children become aware. He finishes the
introduction with a summary of the content of each chapter.

In Chapter One, the author explains terminological considerations about
metalinguistic awareness (i.e. the need to develop a language to talk about
language). That is, the distinction between knowing a language and knowing that
you know a language. There is a blur between “consciousness” and “awareness” due
to the lack of a solid theoretical foundation to account for these areas. In
order to develop a framework in which the relationship between metacognitive/
metalinguistic activities and the functional role they play can be understood,
it is necessary to respond to the following questions: Does metalinguistic/
metacognitive processing emerge out of an ongoing process of cognitive
restructuring?; Does it emerge as general, stage-related phenomena, or as a
result of maturational development or socio-cognitive interaction? There is
general agreement that metalinguistic awareness involves the ability to switch
from language function to form, but there is disagreement around the linguistic
aspects that are the object of that reflection, as well as the cognitive status
of this awareness. This is primarily due to psychology’s behaviorist traditions’
tendency to marginalize the terms of “awareness” or “consciousness.”

In Chapter Two, Roberts exposes the parameters of the debate in metalinguistic
processing and language development. He describes alternative hypotheses (e.g.
interaction, autonomy, and socio-cultural). The interaction hypothesis assumes
that metalinguistic awareness plays a functional role in L1 acquisition; the
autonomy hypothesis, however, considers it to be completely disconnected from
the mechanism responsible for the acquisition of linguistic skill; finally, the
socio-cultural hypothesis assumes that this awareness arises out of the transfer
to new semiotic variants, from the spoken to the written word. The author adds
a critique after each description, where he compares hypotheses, and highlights
their strengths and weaknesses. Both the autonomy and interaction hypotheses
have a similar difficulty in reconciling their maturationist stage-related
approach to the inter-subject variability of metalinguistic awareness among
children not related to age. The socio-cultural approach is more able to make
sense of existing data to explain the levels at which the awareness operates and
the variability within socio-cultural groups. Roberts sheds light on specific
relevant aspects with comments such as “the different ways in which children
attend to language or the order in which these features appear” (p. 88).

In Chapter Three, a model of metalinguistic awareness is proposed, since a
longer-term developmental model is needed “to explain the interaction between
metalinguistic awareness and the extension of a child’s linguistic repertoire”
(p. 109). According to the author, this model attempts to explain the following
concepts: the relationship between metalinguistic awareness and skill
development in language acquisition and learning; a taxonomy of these processes,
specifically, the shift from spoken to written language and from L1 to L2; and
the interaction between cognitive and affective factors.

In Chapter Four, the focus is on problems of differentiation in the
metalinguistic awareness of children. All children develop a similar degree of
linguistic competence in the primary skills of speaking and hearing, but this is
not the case with the secondary skills of conscious monitoring of linguistic
input and output. The most obvious case of this differentiation is the transfer
from spoken to written word. There is a clash between the child’s prior semiotic
experience and his/her schooling demands. This supposes a dual barrier in
learning to read for children with a restricted code. This code is a
class-related concept that results in a very controversial issue. However, the
author claims that those who criticize Berstein’s “class” notion do not
understand the relevance of his approach to relating the “metalinguistic
awareness” notion to that of “class” in order to explain education performance.
One example for this would be the difficulties that a child with a restricted
code would face in school when transferring from spoken to written discourse.

In Chapter Five, Roberts explains the implications of metalinguistic awareness
in language education. He agrees with Richmond (1990) in that language
curriculum should develop students’ competence, but what Roberts points out is
that it is undeniable that the mastery of secondary skills starts with conscious
reflection on language form that only becomes unconscious through use. He
supports the development of a cross-curricular syllabus where the role
(institutional and social) of language is central across school life. This
syllabus would contain a series of topics based upon the variants to be
mastered, such as non-standard and standard dialect. This model should operate
along cognitive and affective axes. Fairclough (1992) points out the risks of
emphasizing the use of Standard English over other nonstandard dialects since it
could be interpreted as an acceptance of power relations in a given speech
community. Nevertheless, Roberts emphasizes that a bigger issue would be the
difficulty of children mastering semiotic practices, such as transfer from L1 to
foreign language use, which might not seem relevant to them, but is necessary
for their socio-cognitive development.

In Chapter Six, the connection between metalinguistic awareness and pedagogy is
the focus. Following Celce-Murcia et al. (1997), Roberts states the importance
of focus on form in communicative language teaching. There is a link between
attention to form and accuracy in L2 or foreign language learning, so linguistic
“conscious raising” activities (e.g. attention enhancing strategies) serve a
crucial role as a prerequisite for L2 learning. As Swain (1990) claims, the
problem is that “typical content teaching is not necessarily good second
language teaching” (p. 249). Roberts goes beyond this and indicates three areas
where this is more evident: selective listening, interlanguage, and fossilization.

In Chapter Seven, the author proposes ideas towards an effective approach to
Foreign Language Learning. He mentions that the main goal in pedagogy should be
helping learners process salient features in the target language. Some
strategies suggested to achieve this purpose are: modeling, explaining,
task-structuring, summarizing, providing feedback, and questioning. The focus is
on questioning since there is a dialogic view in question-answering dynamics
that is important to help learners move from present to targeted competence. It
is through the scaffolding provided by questioning that the MKO (i.e. more
knowledgeable others) play an important role in shaping students’ understanding
of things and of common knowledge.

In Chapter Eight, the book concludes with a metatheory of Second Language
Teaching. The concept of “metalinguistic awareness” is defined in order to
explain the crucial role it plays in the socio-cognitive development of a child.
Roberts proposes two criteria for adequate pedagogy: an evaluation criterion
based on an ongoing self-evaluation by the teacher as a reflective practitioner;
and a genetic analysis to describe changes in the strategies used related to
changing socio-cognitive variables (e.g. the match of learning/ teaching
strategies in Gass’ input-intake model). To sum up, what teachers need is an
understanding of the role of semiotic mediation for education.


Roberts addresses an important gap in literature across disciplines such as
pedagogy, language acquisition and language learning, and captures it well in
the book’s title. This book serves as an excellent literature review for
teachers regarding linguistic development in children. The author offers an
extended compilation of current theories and trends in the field as well as
commentary on their importance and their weaknesses. At the end of the
introduction, he advances the structure of the book with a brief summary of each
chapter. This structure will be very practical for teachers, since he describes
the practical application of “metalinguistic awareness” to education issues such
as language planning or foreign language learning, after proposing a theoretical
model of metalinguistic awareness that seeks to guide teachers in extending
children’s linguistic repertoire.

He defines “metalinguistic awareness” as a starting point to advocate for its
crucial role in children’s language development. This term has generated some
confusion in the field and needed a revision, which he efficiently provides in
the first chapter. However, in Section 2.2, when describing awareness and
contextual orientation predictions, there is an apparent contradiction in the
definitions of primary and secondary skills. On page 20, he explains that
primary skills are automatic, parallel, capable of multi-tasking and faster than
secondary skills, and that Schneider and Fisk (1983), or Shiffrin and Dumais
(1981), make an identical point “when suggesting that primary processes
are…slow, effortful, generally serial in nature” (p. 20). This statement might
require further clarification since it seems contradictory. Also, the former of
the two previous references is not listed in the bibliography at the end of the
book, as is the case with a few other references. In the case of the latter
reference, there are two typos; on page 20, it is quoted as “Shiffin” and in the
bibliography as “Shiffron,” which makes it harder for the reader to identify the

In Chapter Two, there is a critique after the main hypotheses about weaknesses
that are current in the study of language development, which is really valuable
for the reader. Similarly, the summary at the end of each chapter gives
coherence and purpose to the book, while showing the gap it fills in literature
in this area of study.

In Chapter Four, Roberts does a great job of dedicating a whole chapter to the
problems of differentiation in the field, which he bravely attempts to solve by
dedicating the rest of the chapters to the practical applications of
metalinguistic awareness in language education. This book offers an alternative
to these problems and serves as a great theoretical and practical literature
review. It shows the specific implications for language pedagogy and curriculum
design by proposing some guidelines and covering diverse issues, such as
language planning and foreign and immersion language programs.

Even though this book provides a complete revision of the current trends in the
field and provides a path towards a necessary model of “metalinguistic
awareness,” it might seem too theoretical for many teachers, with few real
examples in the classroom. Perhaps there should be more examples across languages.

Roberts’ proposal is oriented towards a cross-curricular syllabus based on the
assumption that reflection is necessary for the development of the child’s
linguistic repertoire. He stresses the importance of not only the content of
“what” is taught but also “how” it is taught. Since L1 and L2 acquisition and
learning differ, he advocates for the “apprenticeship approach” to curriculum
design to understand these differences. I find this approach very helpful for
foreign language teachers.

Finally, the last chapter serves as a revision of the contrasting theories of
acquisition, with Roberts underlining the weaknesses of task-based approaches to
syllabus design due to the assumption that the teacher might impede learners’
natural development. For the author, the learner needs the teacher to guide
him/her to obtain the knowledge he/she needs to make hypotheses about the
form-meaning relationship. This perspective supports the purpose of the book,
which is to offer an alternative guide for teachers.


Celce-Murcia, M. et al. (1997). “Direct approaches to L2 instruction: a turning
point in communicative language teaching,” TESOL Quarterly, 31, 141-152.

Fairclough, N. (ed.). (1992). Critical Language Awareness. Longman.

Richmond, J. (1990). “What do you mean by knowledge about language?” In Carter,
R. (ed.) Knowledge about the Language and the Curriculum. Hodder and Stoughton.

Schneider, W. and Fisk, A. (1983). ''Concurrent automatic and controlled visual
search: Can processing occur without resource cost?'' Journal of Experimental
Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition (8): 261-278.

Shiffrin, R. M. and Dumais, S.T. (1981). “Characteristics of Automatism.” In
Long, J. & Baddeley, A. (eds.). Attention and Performance XI. Erlbaum.

Swain, M. (1990). “Manipulating and complementing content teaching to maximize
second language learning.” In Phillipson, R. (ed.) Foreign/ Second Language
Pedagogy Research. Multilingual Matters.

Clara Burgo is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish in the Modern Languages Department at DePaul University. Her current teaching responsibilities are in the area of Spanish Linguistics and her current research interests are in the Second Language Acquisition, Sociolinguistics and Spanish for Heritage Speakers.

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