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Playing with Language: Improving Elementary Reading through Metalinguistic Awareness

reviewed by Laura Ascenzi-Moreno - September 13, 2021

coverTitle: Playing with Language: Improving Elementary Reading through Metalinguistic Awareness
Author(s): Marcy Zipke
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080776504X, Pages: 132, Year: 2021
Search for book at Amazon.com

As a former dual-language bilingual teacher and now as a bilingual teacher educator, thinking about how students use, think about, and play with language is, for me and many other bilingual educators, naturally woven into designing experiences, planning lessons, and interacting with students. But for many teachers, especially in monolingual settings, language is something that is used to convey ideas and content but is not the focus of instruction. Zipke’s book, Playing with Language: Improving Elementary Reading through Metalinguistic Awareness (2021), is a wonderful effort to counter these practices and instead support teachers in understanding the unleashed power of children’s metalinguistic awareness when teachers “think about, talk about, and manipulate language out of context” (p. 1).

Zipke’s book is based on the premise that children’s metalinguistic awareness has been unrecognized and undervalued as an essential component in the development of reading. Zipke writes in her introduction that “explicit instruction in language manipulation is good for all children, not just preschoolers, emergent bilinguals, or students with speech deficits, and that this instruction can be both playful and not all that time consuming” (p. 4). Chapters in Zipke’s book are dedicated to concepts such as phonemic, semantic, and syntactic awareness that are familiar to most teachers, especially teachers trained in early literacy. However, Zipke also draws attention to lesser known concepts such as set for variability. Even in the chapters which address concepts, such as phonemic awareness, that teachers generally know about, Zipke takes an approach which supports educators by providing a concise, yet rigorous introduction to the theory about a particular concept as well as instructional activities which help teachers envision how this component of instruction could be implemented throughout the school day with students throughout various grade levels.

In this way, Zipke’s book is a great addition for literacy educators who want to provide pre-service and practicing teachers with a resource that honors research and yet is accessible to teachers who work with students from a variety of grades. Take, for instance, the chapter on syntactic awareness. In this chapter, Zipke provides examples of why syntax matters for everyday life and then provides an overview of the research on the relationship between syntactic awareness and reading. Following this overview, Zipke provides fun, playful, and easy to implement ways of engaging students in metalinguistic awareness related to syntax. For example, one suggestion is to introduce students to syntactic riddles such as the following: What did the doctor say to the patient who thought he was getting smaller? You’ll just have to be a little patient. Teachers are encouraged to share a riddle such as this one and ask students to discuss the syntax of the sentence and how the arrangement of the words can change the meaning of the sentence. All of Zipke’s instructional suggestions are fun and true to the heart of the book, “playing with language.” This chapter, as all chapters, has a text box that is dedicated to English Language Learners and provides suggestions about how to adapt this concept to students who may be at the early stages of learning English. Zipke’s suggestions are easy to implement and, as she argues in the book, are not meant to retool the entire literacy curriculum, but rather to be a powerful addition to the school day. Lastly, each chapter ends with reflection questions. I found all of these to be personal, engaging, and meaningful. Generally, Zipke’s questions ask teachers to reflect on their personal experience and histories alongside the concept addressed in each chapter.

Zipke’s suggested engagements for students to build their metalinguistic awareness reminds me of the classic work of Gianni Rodari, The Grammar of Fantasy, who asked children to play with words through fantastical and artistic engagements. While Rodari’s endpoint, for students to unleash their creativity to compose stories, was different than Zipke’s of developing powerful and thoughtful readers, their belief in children to understand language and be agents in their relationship to language is the same.

I also found Zipke’s chapter on the lesser known concept of set for variability fascinating. Set for variability, while not a new term, is not one that is often introduced to students in teacher education programs. It refers to the ability to be flexible when reading and try out different ways of pronouncing a word within a given context. For example, take the word “puddle.” A reader may at first read the word as “pūddle,” but set for variability means that students employ their metalinguistic awareness when the word does not make sense; students can learn to stop and try out different ways of decoding the word, so that the word does make sense within a given context. This is an incredibly valuable skill because as opposed to sight words, which ask students to memorize words, the concept of set for variability positions students to actively employ their metalinguistic awareness when reading.

Zipke’s appendices are especially notable and are a testament to her commitment to ensure that this book can be used by both pre-service and practicing educators. Appendix B provides an annotated list of digital resources that are associated with each chapter and could be easily converted to an independent or group activity for students. Appendix C is a list of children’s books that are ideal for word play and developing metalinguistic awareness. These are organized by type of book—picture book, chapter book, or riddles book—and make it easy for teachers at various grade levels to build up a resource library they could consult as they integrate activities that contribute to their students’ metalinguistic awareness.

While the book is an incredibly valuable resource to teacher educators and their students, and presents these concepts in a novel way, as a bilingual educator and scholar, I had hoped that language diversity and difference would be more at the center of a text like this one, rather than being confined to text boxes which broach the issue of how to support emergent bilinguals. When the needs of emergent bilinguals and other students, including many African-Americans, whose language does not match the standard language practices of school, it may set up the notion for teachers that there is a “standard practice” that needs to be modified for other types of students, and therefore these students must continue to be positioned at the margins of instruction or within the realm of specialists. Despite this critique, the book remains an important contribution to teacher educators, administrators, and teachers who wish to build students’ metalinguistic awareness in relation to reading.

Attention to children’s language in schools can no longer be an afterthought for teachers. Zipke’s book reminds us that language can be an object of play, mystery, and wonder and a powerful means to support readers to be critical and thoughtful, not only in early childhood but throughout elementary school.


Rodari, G. (1996). The grammar of fantasy: An introduction to the art of inventing stories (2nd ed.). Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

Zipke, M. (2021). Playing with language: Improving elementary reading through metalinguistic awareness. Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 13, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23841, Date Accessed: 9/22/2021 9:51:19 AM

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About the Author
  • Laura Ascenzi-Moreno
    Brooklyn College
    E-mail Author
    LAURA ASCENZI-MORENO, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the bilingual program coordinator at Brooklyn College School of Education. Her research is focused on the literacy development and assessment of emergent bilinguals, the development of teacher knowledge, and how these intersect with equity. She is particularly interested in investigating how to shift and reimagine monolingual literacy instruction by centering it on children’s multilingual and multimodal practices. Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno’s articles have appeared in Language Arts, The Reading Teacher, the Journal of Literacy Research, Literacy Research and Instruction, and Voices from the Middle, among other peer-reviewed literacy journals. She is the co-author of Rooted in Strength: Using Translanguaging to Grow Multilingual Readers and Writers (Espinosa & Ascenzi-Moreno, Scholastic, 2021).
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