Literacy Now

Latest Posts
Subscribe to ILA Journals
instructional practices-280x280
Subscribe to ILA Journals
instructional practices-280x280
  • Blog Posts
  • Teaching Tips

Metalinguistic Understanding and Literacy Development

 | Sep 13, 2013

Beverly Derewianka
by Beverly Derewianka
University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia
September 12, 2013


A generation ago Bernstein (1971) suggested that much educational failure is primarily linguistic failure. Do the educational challenges facing our students result largely from lack of control over the language of schooling? If we agree that access to curriculum-specific language resources is critical to academic achievement, then what are the implications for curriculum and pedagogy?

In many countries we have seen an increasing emphasis on the explicit teaching of knowledge about language (metalinguistic knowledge) in school classrooms. In Australia, for instance, the new Australian Curriculum: English places at its core ‘a coherent, dynamic, and evolving body of knowledge about the English language and how it works’ (ACARA, 2009: 6).  Similarly, in England knowledge about language was reintroduced as part of the National Curriculum for English (NCE) in 1989 and its significance has been repeatedly reinforced ever since. In the United States, the Common Core State Standards make it clear that an explicit knowledge about language contributes to college and career readiness:

Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening (Standards for Language Grades 6-12)

These initiatives assume the importance of metalinguistic understanding for the development of literacy. While some early studies (e.g., Hillocks, 1986) concluded that there is little or no positive benefit on students’ literacy from the teaching of conventional grammar (Andrews et al, 2004), decades later there have been significant advances in our appreciation of what is meant by metalinguistic knowledge, in the development of a more relevant, contemporary, functionally-oriented theory of language, and in our understanding of more dialogic, engaging pedagogies.

There is recent evidence of the beneficial effects of increased knowledge about language on students’ literacy outcomes from primarily qualitative studies.

In the UK, Myhill (2011a, 2011b), for example, found an improvement of 20% over a year in the writing of secondary students who had been involved in a programme with a contexualised language focus. In the US, researchers are providing evidence of the value of explicit teaching about language from a functional perspective (e.g. Enright, 2013; Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010). Achugar, Schleppegrell & Oteiza (2007), for example, report that students whose teachers participated in a major project on the language of History made significantly greater gains on the state exams than students whose teachers had not participated, and ELLs were among those who showed greatest benefits.

Similarly, data from a study in Massachusetts indicate that SFL-based pedagogy supported emergent ELL writers in analyzing and producing more coherent texts reflective of written as opposed to oral discourse, with fourth graders analyzing the genre and register features in Puerto Rican children’s literature to create their own narratives and fifth graders researching the benefits of recreation to make an argument for reinstating recess in letters to their principal (Gebhard & Martin 2010).

And in Australia, numerous studies over the years have reported that even very young students are able to effectively deploy a shared metalanguage to explore, appreciate, interpret and evaluate the language resources found in a range of genres and to apply those understandings in their own writing (e.g. Williams 2004, 2005). 

What all of these studies have in common is a view of language as a resource for making meaning rather than simply a set of rules. Knowledge about language is taught in the context of substantial curriculum content, with a focus on those language features that are relevant to the particular task. Such knowledge is built up incrementally over time through explicit instruction as students engage in curriculum activities. The metalanguage operates at the level of the whole text through to the paragraph, the sentence, the phrase and the word, emphasizing the function that language plays at each of these levels and the interconnections between each level. The teacher’s role is seen as constantly expanding the students’ repertoire of choices in a classroom climate that fosters exploration, experimentation, discussion, choice and decision-making.

Beverly Derewianka is Professor of Language Education in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia. She has been an active participant for several decades in the field of literacy education, where she has contributed to policy development at national and state levels. Her research spans the learning of both English as a mothertongue and ESL/EFL - from children through to adults, drawing on a Hallidayan functional approach to language and learning.


Achugar, M., Schleppegrell, M., & Ote ́ıza, T. (2007). Engaging teachers in language analysis: A functional linguistics approach to reflective literacy. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 6(2), 8–24.

Andrews, R., Torgerson, C., Beverton, S., Locke, T., Low, G., Robinson. A, & Zhu, D. (2004). The effect of grammar teaching (syntax) in English on 5 to 16 year olds’ accuracy and quality in written composition. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education. Retrieved 050513

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (2009), English. Retrieved 050513

Bernstein, B. (1971). Class, codes and control vol 1. London: Paladin.

Enright, K. A. (in press/2013). Adolescent writers and academic trajectories: Situating L2 writing in the content areas. In L. C. de Oliveira and T. Silva (Eds). L2 Writing in the secondary classroom: Experiences, issues, and teacher education. NY: Routledge.

Fang, Z., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2010). Disciplinary literacies across content areas: Supporting secondary reading through functional language analysis. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(7), 587–597

Gebhard, M., & Martin, J. (2010). Grammar and literacy learning.  In D. Fisher & D. Lapp (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English Language Arts. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum/Taylor & Francis.

Gebhard, M., Willett, J., Jimenez, J., & Piedra, A. (2010). Systemic functional linguistics, teachers’ professional development, and ELLs’ academic literacy practices. In T. Lucas (Ed.), Teacher preparation for linguistically diverse classrooms: A resource for teacher educators (pp. 91–110). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum/Taylor & Francis.

Hillocks, G. (1986). Research on written composition: New directions for teaching. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and the National Conference on Research in English.

Myhill, D.A. (2011a) Grammar for designers: How grammar supports the development of writing. Applied linguistics and primary school teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Myhill, D.A. (2011b) ‘The ordeal of deliberate choice’: Metalinguistic development in secondary writers. In V. Berninger, (Ed.) Past, present, and future contributions of cognitive writing research to cognitive psychology. NY: Psychology Press/Taylor Francis Group.

Myhill, D.A., Jones, S.M., Lines, H., & Watson, A.  (2012). Re-thinking grammar: The impact of embedded grammar teaching on students’ writing and students’ metalinguistic understanding.  Research Papers in Education, 27(2), 1-28.

Williams, G. (2004). Ontogenesis and grammatics: Functions of metalanguage in pedagogic discourse. In Williams, G., & Lukin, A. (Eds.), The development of language: Functional perspectives on species and individuals. London: Continuum.

Williams, G. (2005). Grammatics in Schools. In R. Hasan, C. Matthiessen and J. Webster (Eds.), Continuing discourse on language: A functional perspective. London, Equinox.

Reader response is welcomed. Email your comments to LRP@/

Leave a comment

Back to Top


Recent Posts