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.

Children acquire linguistic knowledge and metalinguistic knowledge as they use language and through interaction with others. Only after oral language is well established can children begin to verbalize their metalinguistic knowledge. A teacher’s awareness of levels of language knowledge is important in determining the developmental appropriateness of language-related tasks in early childhood classrooms.

Teachers of young children need to structure their learning activities to involve both linguistic and metalinguistic knowledge; however, it is not appropriate to expect that young children will be able to verbalize their metalinguistic knowledge. For example, during a research observation (Otto, 1985), a first-grade teacher became upset with her young students when they were unsuccessful in explaining to her the difference between a digraph (two letters representing one sound, such as ph in phone) and a blend (two letters representing sounds that are blended, such as cl in clear). Yet, when asked to read specific words containing either a digraph or a blend, the children were successful. They were able to do this because the reading of the specific words drew on their linguistic knowledge (Level I). They did not have to be able to linguistically verbalize (Level III) the language concepts to respond appropriately to the words when reading. Yet, their teacher appeared to interpret their inability to define the two concepts as evidence that they could not distinguish between a diagraph and a blend. Instead of focusing only on the verbalization of metalinguistic knowledge to assess acquired concepts, teachers can use observation and recording of language use (Level I) for evidence of language knowledge acquisition or language competency.

Linguistic knowledge provides the foundation for higher levels of language knowledge. Likewise, the middle level, use of metalinguistic knowledge, provides the basis for the development of the highest level, the ability to verbalize metalinguistic knowledge. For example, children’s phonetic knowledge during infancy and toddlerhood is at the linguistic level of language knowledge. They are able to produce and distinguish between the sounds used in their home languages. As children move into the preschool years, they may acquire a more conscious awareness of distinct sounds in their language and begin to manipulate their language through this conscious awareness known as phonemic awareness. This phonemic awareness serves as a basis for children to acquire knowledge of phonics, which involves learning how alphabetic symbols, letters, are used to represent the specific sounds in words used in written language (Eldredge, 2004).