LINGUIST List 23.82

Wed Jan 04 2012

Review: Applied Linguistics; Language Acquisition: Roberts (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 04-Jan-2012
From: Clara Burgo <>
Subject: The Role of Metalinguistic Awareness in the Effective Teaching of Foreign Languages
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Announced at
AUTHOR: Roberts, Anthony DavidTITLE: The Role of Metalinguistic Awareness in the Effective Teaching of ForeignLanguagesSERIES TITLE: Rethinking Education, Volume 10PUBLISHER: Peter Lang AGYEAR: 2011

Clara Burgo, Modern Languages Department, DePaul University


This book’s goal is to fill an important gap in language development literatureby explaining the nature and function of the concept of “metalinguisticawareness,” 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: theprocesses that give rise to metalinguistic awareness; the function these play;and the aspects of language of which children become aware. He finishes theintroduction with a summary of the content of each chapter.

In Chapter One, the author explains terminological considerations aboutmetalinguistic awareness (i.e. the need to develop a language to talk aboutlanguage). That is, the distinction between knowing a language and knowing thatyou know a language. There is a blur between “consciousness” and “awareness” dueto the lack of a solid theoretical foundation to account for these areas. Inorder 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 cognitiverestructuring?; Does it emerge as general, stage-related phenomena, or as aresult of maturational development or socio-cognitive interaction? There isgeneral agreement that metalinguistic awareness involves the ability to switchfrom language function to form, but there is disagreement around the linguisticaspects that are the object of that reflection, as well as the cognitive statusof 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 metalinguisticprocessing and language development. He describes alternative hypotheses (e.g.interaction, autonomy, and socio-cultural). The interaction hypothesis assumesthat metalinguistic awareness plays a functional role in L1 acquisition; theautonomy hypothesis, however, considers it to be completely disconnected fromthe mechanism responsible for the acquisition of linguistic skill; finally, thesocio-cultural hypothesis assumes that this awareness arises out of the transferto new semiotic variants, from the spoken to the written word. The author addsa critique after each description, where he compares hypotheses, and highlightstheir strengths and weaknesses. Both the autonomy and interaction hypotheseshave a similar difficulty in reconciling their maturationist stage-relatedapproach to the inter-subject variability of metalinguistic awareness amongchildren not related to age. The socio-cultural approach is more able to makesense of existing data to explain the levels at which the awareness operates andthe variability within socio-cultural groups. Roberts sheds light on specificrelevant aspects with comments such as “the different ways in which childrenattend to language or the order in which these features appear” (p. 88).

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

In Chapter Four, the focus is on problems of differentiation in themetalinguistic awareness of children. All children develop a similar degree oflinguistic competence in the primary skills of speaking and hearing, but this isnot the case with the secondary skills of conscious monitoring of linguisticinput and output. The most obvious case of this differentiation is the transferfrom spoken to written word. There is a clash between the child’s prior semioticexperience and his/her schooling demands. This supposes a dual barrier inlearning to read for children with a restricted code. This code is aclass-related concept that results in a very controversial issue. However, theauthor claims that those who criticize Berstein’s “class” notion do notunderstand the relevance of his approach to relating the “metalinguisticawareness” notion to that of “class” in order to explain education performance.One example for this would be the difficulties that a child with a restrictedcode would face in school when transferring from spoken to written discourse.

In Chapter Five, Roberts explains the implications of metalinguistic awarenessin language education. He agrees with Richmond (1990) in that languagecurriculum should develop students’ competence, but what Roberts points out isthat it is undeniable that the mastery of secondary skills starts with consciousreflection on language form that only becomes unconscious through use. Hesupports the development of a cross-curricular syllabus where the role(institutional and social) of language is central across school life. Thissyllabus would contain a series of topics based upon the variants to bemastered, such as non-standard and standard dialect. This model should operatealong cognitive and affective axes. Fairclough (1992) points out the risks ofemphasizing the use of Standard English over other nonstandard dialects since itcould be interpreted as an acceptance of power relations in a given speechcommunity. Nevertheless, Roberts emphasizes that a bigger issue would be thedifficulty of children mastering semiotic practices, such as transfer from L1 toforeign language use, which might not seem relevant to them, but is necessaryfor their socio-cognitive development.

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

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

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


Roberts addresses an important gap in literature across disciplines such aspedagogy, language acquisition and language learning, and captures it well inthe book’s title. This book serves as an excellent literature review forteachers regarding linguistic development in children. The author offers anextended compilation of current theories and trends in the field as well ascommentary on their importance and their weaknesses. At the end of theintroduction, he advances the structure of the book with a brief summary of eachchapter. This structure will be very practical for teachers, since he describesthe practical application of “metalinguistic awareness” to education issues suchas language planning or foreign language learning, after proposing a theoreticalmodel of metalinguistic awareness that seeks to guide teachers in extendingchildren’s linguistic repertoire.

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

In Chapter Two, there is a critique after the main hypotheses about weaknessesthat are current in the study of language development, which is really valuablefor the reader. Similarly, the summary at the end of each chapter givescoherence and purpose to the book, while showing the gap it fills in literaturein this area of study.

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

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

Roberts’ proposal is oriented towards a cross-curricular syllabus based on theassumption that reflection is necessary for the development of the child’slinguistic 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 andlearning differ, he advocates for the “apprenticeship approach” to curriculumdesign to understand these differences. I find this approach very helpful forforeign language teachers.

Finally, the last chapter serves as a revision of the contrasting theories ofacquisition, with Roberts underlining the weaknesses of task-based approaches tosyllabus design due to the assumption that the teacher might impede learners’natural development. For the author, the learner needs the teacher to guidehim/her to obtain the knowledge he/she needs to make hypotheses about theform-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 turningpoint 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 visualsearch: Can processing occur without resource cost?'' Journal of ExperimentalPsychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition (8): 261-278.

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

Swain, M. (1990). “Manipulating and complementing content teaching to maximizesecond language learning.” In Phillipson, R. (ed.) Foreign/ Second LanguagePedagogy 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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