Levels of Language Knowledge
Knowledge of aspects of language can be categorized into three levels: linguistic, metalinguistic, and metalinguistic verbalization (Otto, 1982). Children first develop knowledge of language at a linguistic level, or usage level. This is the “know-how”: being able to use language in communicative contexts. This linguistic level of language knowledge can be documented in children’s acquisition of each of the five aspects of language knowledge. Children’s ability to articulate and discriminate different sounds and words when using language to communicate represents their linguistic level of phonetic knowledge. Similarly, children’s ability to comprehend the semantic meanings of others’ speech and to create their own meaningful speech represents their linguistic level of semantic knowledge. The linguistic level of syntactic knowledge is evident as children are able to express their ideas in a form that is grammatically appropriate to their dialect or language. Morphemic knowledge at the linguistic level is evident when a child can use appropriate plural forms of nouns or use prefixes and suffixes. The linguistic level of pragmatic knowledge is demonstrated by a child’s use of “please” and “thank you” in social situations.
Gradually, children become more aware of the five aspects of language knowledge and can consciously manipulate and reflect on features of language. This conscious awareness of specific features within the aspects of language knowledge is at a level higher than linguistic knowledge, the metalinguistic level. At the meta-linguistic level, a child consciously manipulates phonemic, semantic, syntactic, morphemic, and pragmatic knowledge to form the desired message. Metalinguistic knowledge is indicated when a child can respond to questions about words and other linguistic concepts such as sounds, consonants, vowels, and word parts. Children’s wordplay in rhyming games is an indicator of their early metalinguistic phonetic knowledge. Other evidence of early metalinguistic knowledge has been described by emergent literacy research (Ehri, 1975; Schickedanz, 1981; Sulzby, 1986b; Voss, 1988), which documented children’s spontaneous comments about language, such as “My name starts with a T—Tommy!”
Metalinguistic knowledge acquired through informal interactions with oral and written language develops further when children enter formal schooling. Beginning in kindergarten, many learning activities focus on the conscious manipulation of both oral and written language. For example, when a child is asked to give the first sound in the word bat, she must not only know how to say the word (linguistic knowledge), but she must be able to use her concepts of “sound” and “first” in reflecting on the word and then separating out the sounds.
When children begin to verbalize their metalinguistic knowledge, they are at the most conscious and complex level of language knowledge, metalinguistic verbalization. For example, when children are asked to explain how the words cup and pup sound alike, they must be able to verbalize their awareness of the rhyming that is present, thus requiring verbalization of their knowledge about a specific feature of language.
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