Speech Pathologists break ‘metalinguistics’ down into separate components so that we can help children to fix the areas that are letting them down. Some of these components are:
- Sound awareness or phonological awareness – being able to hear the differences between speech sounds, hear all the syllables and sounds in words, hear starting and ending sounds, manipulate sounds in words
- Semantic awareness – understanding that everything has a name, associate words with meanings, understanding how words are related, understanding higher level language like figures of speech with layers of meaning, and noticing when something doesn’t make sense
- Syntactic awareness – understanding how to put correct sentences together and manipulate words in sentences and larger chunks of text
- Word awareness – understanding that words can have multiple meanings or sound the same and have different meanings, be opposite or similar or come from the same root
- Pragmatic awareness – understanding the extras that go with the words, such as tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and use appropriate volume and tune, and say just the right amount in an appropriate way
Why do we need to worry about metalinguistics?
All these areas are important for kids to be able to function in life. For example, without phonological awareness skills kids can’t read well, or spell words they haven’t learnt. Without semantic awareness they can’t develop a good, extensive vocabulary. Without pragmatic awareness they can’t hold quality conversations with other people in a socially acceptable way.
And as a parent you can help your children to develop good metalinguistic skills from the time they are babies. Do lots of talking and singing, keeping it slow and exaggerating the tune in your voice. Have fun with sounds! Make lots of silly sounds and repeat back your babies sounds to them so that they start taking turns with you. Use noises for animals and cars and fire trucks and anything else exciting!
Read lots of stories. Be sure to let them choose the same story over and over and over so that they can practise new skills on well-known stories.
Encourage great vocabulary. Teach them very specific words for everything in their world, so that they know that every action and every object and every part of a thing has a name, and that it is to their advantage to use these names.
And when your child is off to kindy or preschool to begin their formal education, make sure they do pick up all the skills of phonological awareness that they need, like being able to make rhymes and say the first sound they can hear in a word.