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  1. Section Editor(s): Wolter, Julie A. PhD, CCC-SLP
  2. Timler, Geralyn R. PhD, CCC-SLP

Article Content

As students progress through school, it becomes increasingly important to understand, reflect on, think about, and talk about one's language (metalinguistics), thinking (metacognition), and social interactions (metapragmatics). These meta skills help students access the language underpinnings required for successful reading and writing, as well as the subtle and nonverbal rules of classroom discourse, culture, and social communication (e.g., National Reading Panel, 2000; Nelson, 2010; Robertson, 2007; Wallach, 2004; Westby, 2007, 2014). This issue of Topics in Language Disorders (TLD; 34:3) presents two strands of research focused on these respective meta skills and explores challenges associated with developing important assessments in these areas.


The first three articles in this issue focus on metalinguistics, specifically morphological awareness skills, and address several challenges associated with the development of assessment tasks for students with and without language and literacy deficits. The next two articles focus on metacognitive and metapragmatic issues related to the population of school-age children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In this issue Foreword, Co-Editor Julie Wolter first introduces Part 1 on the topic of morphological awareness. She also reviews the three related articles, one a proposed comprehensive definition of morphological awareness and two respective studies of word-level influences on the assessment of this metalinguistic skill. Then, Co-Editor Geralyn Timler introduces Part 2 on the topics of metacognition and metapragmatics, particularly focused on school-age children with ASD. She also reviews the two articles related to these phenomena, one a theoretical treatise and one a report of research on a practical assessment tool.



Metalinguistic abilities have been established as playing an important and influential role in school-age literacy success (National Reading Panel, 2000). The relation between language and literacy success has been well documented, and the explicit awareness or ability to segment and blend units of language such as phonology (i.e., phonemic awareness) has been widely recognized as highly predictive of reading and writing success (Ehri et al., 2001). More recently, researchers have begun to investigate the phenomenon of morphological awareness, which is the ability to reflect actively on and to manipulate the smallest linguistic units of meaning. Evidence has shown morphological awareness to be associated strongly with decoding, word identification, spelling, and reading comprehension abilities (e.g., Deacon, Benere, & Pasquarella, 2012; Deacon et al., 2014; Nagy, Carlisle, & Goodwin, 2014; Wolter, Wood, & D'zatko, 2009). Indeed, two peer-reviewed journals have recently devoted full issues to this topic (TLD, 33:1, and Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47:1). The purpose of Part 1 of this TLD issue is to continue this discussion with reviews and research related to the challenges in defining the construct, interpreting research, and developing assessments of morphological awareness.


Morphological awareness influences and assessment: Factors of complexity

Despite the positive evidence regarding the importance of morphological awareness in predicting language and literacy success, the interpretability of findings is limited by the diverse types of morphological awareness assessment tasks used across studies and incomplete data regarding the development of many of these tasks (Apel, Diehm, & Apel, 2013; Carlisle, 2010). At this time, no standardized task is available to assess morphological awareness in which active and explicit reflection on morphological word structure is required. Thus, researchers have developed their own morphological awareness tasks, and such tasks vary widely as to how thoroughly the skill is assessed and whether factors such as word frequency are controlled. Consequently, it is difficult to compare results across studies, and it is important to continue to explore the complex factors associated with student performance on morphological awareness assessment tasks.


Several factors have been established as affecting children's morphological awareness task performance. These include, but certainly are not limited to, the following: morphological suffix level (i.e., inflections vs. derivations), word frequency (i.e., an individual's exposure to the word/morpheme and therefore familiarity), clarity of morphological relationships (i.e., transparent vs. opaque word-pairs), and semantic properties of individual words (e.g., concrete or abstract qualities of words).


In general, children develop an awareness of inflectional morphology, or affixes changing tense, plurality, or possession as early as first grade (Wolter et al., 2009). They develop a more consistent awareness of derivational morphology, which is the set of affixes that typically change word class, in third grade (Kuo & Anderson, 2006). Given this differential development of inflectional and derivational morphology, it stands to reason that the morphological awareness suffix level must be considered in morphological awareness task development and reflect developmental data, specifically those for young children.


The factors of word frequency and transparency of the derived-word relationship also appear to affect the developmental appropriateness of morphological awareness measures. Word frequency, which likely contributes to a child's familiarity with a word, has been recognized as a confounding variable affecting children's performance on morphological awareness measures (e.g., Nippold & Sun, 2008). In addition, the clarity of the relationship between the base word and the corresponding derivative has been found to affect morphological task performance. Children generally perform better on morphological awareness tasks that use transparent rather than opaque words (e.g., Carlisle, Stone, & Katz, 2001). Word pairs are considered transparent when pronunciation and spelling of the base word are maintained in the derived form, as in four and fourth or heal and healing. Word pairs are considered more opaque when they involve a shift in the pronunciation and/or spelling of the derived form, as in five in fifth. Because these factors may readily affect morphological task performance, they need to be controlled for and considered when interpreting and designing morphological awareness tasks.


Morphological awareness articles

In addition to the aforementioned factors, researchers in this issue explore the influences of definitional variances, affix knowledge, and word imageability on morphological awareness task performance and development. These additional factors appear to be equally and significantly important when developing assessments of morphological awareness.


Morphological awareness defined: Metalinguistic and modality considerations

An inclusive and unified definition is important when developing valid assessments of morphological awareness that are readily interpretable and comparable across studies. Indeed, without consistent application of a clear and comprehensive definition, Apel (2014) contends in the lead article in this issue that assessment outcomes may be incomplete and research using such outcomes may be contradicting and/or misleading. Apel reasons that research reviews of children's morphological awareness abilities have interchangeably focused on the assessment of the implicit unconscious use of morphology (morphological knowledge) versus that of the metalinguistic skills in which explicit conscious reflection is required (morphological awareness). Moreover, studies have included various versions of morphological awareness tasks that have been administered in a spoken or written mode. As such, the complete picture of a child's morphological awareness skills is not necessarily assessed and results across studies are not easily compared. Thus, in this TLD issue, Apel offers a comprehensive definition of morphological awareness, one in which the metalinguistic aspects of morphological awareness are incorporated in both spoken and written modalities. In addition, Apel discusses the implications for using a unified definition in morphological awareness assessment and provides suggestions for ways to assess morphological awareness in a comprehensive manner.


Morphological awareness stimuli development: Affix and imageability considerations

In their article, Mitchell and Brady (2014) report on an investigation of third- and fifth-grade students' knowledge of 32 common affixes. To measure this knowledge, the authors developed two experimental subtests that included real-word and pseudoword stimuli, respectively (see Supplemental Digital Content with their article). Both subtests included 16 common prefixes and 16 common suffixes that were combined with base and pseudobase words to create multimorphemic stimuli. Students were asked to select the best meaning for the multimorphemic stimuli given three possible multiple-choice definitions. In addition, students' vocabulary and sight-word-reading abilities were assessed and investigated to determine how these skills related to and predicted affix knowledge. Results revealed a wide range of affix knowledge in the participating students. Affixes that were considered to be common were not necessarily known by third-grade students, and a pattern of development was evident in that fifth-graders appeared to have more knowledge of certain common affixes than the third-graders. This increased knowledge of affixes appeared to be most related to vocabulary, and the receptive vocabulary measure was found to be the strongest predictor of affix knowledge, even with age entered into the regression. In addition, although performance on the word tasks was highly correlated with the pseudoword tasks, students performed significantly different on the two measures of specific item affix pairs.


Mitchell and Brady (2014) noted that this finding may indicate that knowledge of multimorphemic words may not necessarily indicate awareness of affix knowledge, nor does affix knowledge necessarily indicate knowledge of multimorphemic words. As such, consideration and future research of developmental affix knowledge and validation of affix knowledge appear to be an important consideration when developing morphological stimuli to be included in morphological awareness measures.


In the third article in Part 1, Wolter (2014) further explores factors influencing stimulus complexity and theorizes that a word's semantic imageability, which indicates how easily a word invokes a visual referent (e.g., teacher has high imageability, whereas learning has low imageability), may influence performance on morphological awareness assessment tasks. Imageability effects have been established in word-naming research, which has shown that words with highly imageable referents appear to be more readily recognized than words that are less imageable (e.g., Strain, Patterson, & Seidenberg, 1995). Recently, researchers have found similar imageability effects in school-age children's productions of words containing inflectional morphemes in a morphological awareness task (Dye, Walenski, Mostofsky, & Ullman, 2013).


In this issue, Wolter (2014) reports on an investigation of the effects of imageability and word transparency in third-grade students' productions of derivational morphology in a morphological awareness task (see Supplemental Digital Content with her article). Wolter found that in conditions in which transparency was high or low between the base word and the derived form (represented by phonological and potentially orthographic shifts), the students more readily produced words of high imageability than those of low imageability. Results of this study indicate that semantic imageability may warrant further investigation and this semantic factor should be considered when developing stimulus items to be included in measures of morphological awareness.


Collectively, these three articles in Part 1 reflect the need for continued discussion and research regarding the linguistic complexities associated with assessment of morphological awareness. A unified, consistent, and comprehensive definition of morphological awareness, one that accounts for the metalinguistic and multimodal components of this skill, is needed to comprehensively address the variance in this research field. Moreover, morphological awareness task performance appears to be influenced by affix knowledge and imageability. Thus, it may be important to account for and control for these variables when conducting related research. Potentially, consideration and further research of and application of such aforementioned factors may result in increased assessment validity and interpretability.



Metacognition refers to the ability to think about one's thoughts including actively planning, organizing, and reflecting on one's approach to a problem or situation (Westby, 2005). When school-age children and adolescents are asked to reflect on their approach to a social situation, both metacognitive and metapragmatic skills are tapped. Metapragmatics is the ability to reflect explicitly on the words or actions one employs within a social interaction and to make ongoing judgments about the appropriateness of those words and actions based on what the speaker believes his or her communication partner needs or is thinking (Wilkinson & Milosky, 1987). As such, the meta skills for successful maneuvering of social situations require an awareness of self and self-motivations as well as an awareness of one's own role in social situations and the role of others. The final two articles in this issue address these topics in children with ASD.


Challenges in metapragmatic skills are a core feature of ASD. The recently published Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fifth Edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), describes the persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction that an individual must demonstrate to receive an ASD diagnosis. These deficits include limitations in social-emotional reciprocity, difficulties in the nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, and challenges in developing, maintaining, and understanding social relationships. Shopen's (2014) and Timler, Boone, and Bergmann's (2014) articles examine these deficits.


In the first article in Part 2, Shopen (2014) offers theoretical arguments for the role of self and subjectivity (i.e., the awareness of one's own experiences, feelings, beliefs, and desires) or lack thereof in individuals with ASD. First, he reviews the research evidence regarding the lack of private speech among some individuals with ASD. Private speech is characterized as a dialogue within one's own mind, which emerges sometime during the preschool years. Shopen describes competing theories about the use of self-dialogue to mediate completion of challenging tasks or as a form of self-regulation when faced with undesirable or stressful situations. He argues that private speech supports the development of selfhood and subjectivity in typical development and the lack of this speech among individuals with ASD is an important area of future investigation to broaden our understanding about how the presence or absence of private speech might contribute to the assessment and intervention of children with ASD.


Timler et al. (2014) address the topic of assessing awareness of social communication skills (i.e., metapragmatics) among school-age children with social communication problems and peer interaction difficulties. They describe the development of a new self-report measure of conversation participation for school-age students between the ages of 7 and 16 years. Assessment results from two case studies of boys with ASD are presented to compare data elicited from the new tool with results of currently available measures. Timler et al. then describe how the children's self-reflections and perceptions of their conversation activities and participation might be used both to guide further in-depth assessment and to prioritize social communication intervention goals.


Collectively, the articles of Part 2 reflect somewhat divergent, but not mutually exclusive, views about the metacognitive and metapragmatic abilities of individuals with ASD. Shopen (2014) argues that some individuals with ASD lack the ability to reflect upon social situations because their sense of self and subjectivity is not well-developed. Alternatively, Timler et al. (2014) propose that if children are able to reflect upon their social participation with peers, these reflections and self-perceptions can provide important implications for intervention. Taken together, these two articles underscore the importance of accounting for self-reflection, or in some cases, the inability to self-reflect, in the assessment and intervention of children with ASD.



The meta skills of metalinguistics (specifically, morphological awareness), metacognition, and metapragmatics are important for school success. Multiple factors appear to influence the development of these skills, which must be considered when developing and interpreting related tasks of assessment. The articles in this issue present interesting concepts and methodology for assessment of a variety of important meta skills with diverse populations of school-age children. Continued consideration of the issues described in each of these articles will serve to inform best practices for assessment of meta skills and may stimulate new directions of investigation.


-Julie A. Wolter, PhD, CCC-SLP


-Geralyn R. Timler, PhD, CCC-SLP


Issue Co-Editors




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