Education for plurilingualism: Metalinguistic awareness in early instructed language learning

Project period: 2020-2026

Current research on language learning and education for plurilingualism has shown that it is important for pupils who are learning a new language to make use of the languages they already know. Pupils are better able to do this when they have a high degree of what is called 'metalinguistic awareness' (MLA), which means that they are able to use what they know about language in general as a means of making sense of what they are trying to learn. Though researchers agree that MLA is important, it is not well understood in early instructed language learning (learning a language at elementary school). Against this background, the MetaLearn research project aims to investigate young learners' MLA and its development in early instructed language learning and to explore how it can be promoted in the classroom. 

In its first year, MetaLearn developed a test to assess MLA in the Norwegian context. This "MetaLearn-test” was pre-tested with 350 pupils from seven Norwegian elementary schools in May 2021 with the purpose of constructing two parallel tests with equal levels of difficulty and discrimination, which is necessary to be able to compare pupils of different grades and to map development over time. 

In its second year (2021/2022), MetaLearn conducted the first and the second round of data collection. Since October 2021, MetaLearn is following the development of 175 pupils at five different schools, from the beginning of third to the end of fourth grade. The pupils all took the MetaLearn-test, as well as standardized tests of Norwegian and English language proficiency, logical thinking, and reading fluency in Norwegian. In addition, MetaLearn collected relevant background information, such as participants’ home language(s), through a parental questionnaire. 

MetaLearn also studies teachers’ thoughts and opinions about MLA and aims to explore how MLA can be promoted in the classroom. To this end, MetaLearn developed and administered a questionnaire which investigates teachers’ attitudes towards MLA. Also, the MetaLearn team interviewed all participating teachers of English and Norwegian and observed part of their teaching. 

In addition to tracking MLA development, the project includes a classroom intervention in which children engaged in translation-based activities. By inviting learners to draw comparisons across languages, translation activities have the potential to promote metalinguistic thinking. The aim of the intervention is to investigate how this potential can be exploited in the classroom. To this end, groups of pupils in three participating schools were recorded while engaged in collaborative translation-based activities over the course of one semester. The pupils’ translated texts and group discussions will provide insight into the pupils’ metalinguistic thinking and the potential of such activities for promoting MLA.  

For Norway, MetaLearn will provide an urgently needed background for promoting plurilingualism in all pupils - whether children with Norwegian as their home language or children with a minority language background - which can help schools and teachers to empower all pupils to exploit the full potential of their language competence and to provide a firm basis for them to develop as plurilingual citizens. 

In 2020, The Research Council of Norway awarded 12,0 mill. NOK funding to MetaLearn through FINNUT - Forskning og innovasjon i utdanningssektoren.

MetaLearn is anchored in the research group Analyzing and Assessing Linguistic Multicompetence (AALM) at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences.