The Role of Metalanguage in Supporting Academic Language Development


  • I am grateful to Annemarie Palincsar, Jason Moore, and other members of the Language and Meaning project for their contributions to this work. I also thank the teachers and children in our project. The editors and reviewers for Language Learning made valuable suggestions for improvement for which I am appreciative. The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A100482 to the University of Michigan. The opinions expressed are my own and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

Mary J. Schleppegrell, School of Education, 610 East University Avenue, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109. E-mail:


Recent currents in language learning research highlight the social and emergent aspects of second language (L2) development and recognize that learners need opportunities for interaction in meaningful contexts supported by explicit attention to language itself. These perspectives suggest new ways of conceptualizing the challenges faced by children learning L2s as they learn school subjects. This article reports on design-based research in U.S. schools with a majority of English language learners, where teachers were supported in using Systemic Functional Linguistics metalanguage in the context of curricular activities. This work illustrates how a meaningful metalanguage can support L2 learners in accomplishing challenging tasks in the primary school curriculum at the same time that it promotes the kind of focused consciousness-raising and explicit talk about language that has been shown to facilitate L2 development. Examples from classroom research exemplify how metalanguage supports the situated and contextual language learning that current research in education and L2 acquisition calls for, while also supporting disciplinary goals and activities in English language arts.