Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Reading and Identity: Part One
In my first blog post, 'Children's Books are Society's Most Vital Literature', I attempted to explain the inspiration for this website and my YouTube channel. It all stemmed from my Master's dissertation research which attempted to answer the quesion: do teachers' identities as readers influence children's reading identities? It's a fascinating and important question which sent me down a reading rabbit hole of academic literature covering reading, identity, power and agency - the last three words making it sound like the sub-heading to a spy thriller! I can't promise you car chases and code breaking, but it is fascinating and I'd love to share some of that reading with you. If you are a parent, teacher or school leader, it is vital to understand how our individual and collective experiences shape and influence our own reading identities and those of the children in our care. This will also be an interesting exercise for me in attempting to distil my rather lengthy dissertation into more easily digestible 5 to 10 minute reads! All relevant academic literature will be referenced should you wish to investigate further.
Before we dive into reading and identity, let's just take a moment to consider why I'm bothering to look at reading as an identity at all. Some of you may be thinking that reading is a skill or set of skills to be learned like any other and whether we identify as a reader or not is of little consequence. In a nutshell, those who have 'reader' as part of their identity are those who choose to read for themselves for pleasure (for more detailed explanation see my first post). It is definitely something we want emerging readers to aspire to. But to start with, we should establish why identity is important to learning.
Identity affects learning and learning affects identity
You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.
I will try not to topple off an existential, 'who am I?' cliff here, but it is crucial to acknowledge that identity is everything! Our sense of self, how we identify within ourselves and how others identify us, is fundamental to us as human beings. Our self-worth, our belief systems, our emotional health and life choices and countless other crucial factors are influenced and shaped by our identities. And our identity - who we are - is the sum of all our learning. Identities also shape how we learn and learning is the formation of new identities: it's a beautiful circle and round and round we go. When we talk about learning, we are talking about identity. When we take on an identity, we are joining a community.
Factors influencing identity
Of course, identity is much more complex than this short blog post can convey or than I can explain, given my limited experience and understanding. So, it will be helpful here to clarify identity in relation to discourse analysis (the study of language in social context) and the work of James Paul Gee (2005; 2007) on identity in relation to learning.
Gee proposes that there are four factors influencing our identity: nature (N-identities), institutions (I-identities), discourse (D-identities) and affinity groups (A-identities). These factors are complex and fluid. N-identities and I-identities are not necessarily sought out or adopted but are assigned by nature (eye colour, for example) or institutions (prisoner or doctor, for example). A-identities are sought out when someone wants to become a member of an 'affinity group' or community, such as a fan club, sports team, circle of friends or book group. These A-identities are the only ones we choose for ourselves. D-identities are ascribed to us through dialogue and discussion about particular characteristics or traits we have. This is a really complex topic which I am attempting to distil into a manageable chunk so forgive me if I am over-simplifying it, but the main thing to remember here is that we do not assign D-identities to ourselves but are assigned them by a community when we display the characteristics, or what Etienne Wenger (2008) calls 'the regime of competence', of a community.
Learning is not just acquiring skills, it is becoming a certain person - a knower where what it means to know is negotiated with respect to the regime of competence to that community.
Wenger, E., 2008, p.2.
What Wenger means by 'regime of competence' is, most simply, the knowledge and skills of that community. He proposes that communities are defined through participation and artefacts, both physical (tools, books etc) and conceptual (methods, stories etc). In other words, the 'regime of competence' can include a myriad of things, such as knowledge, language, dress and tools. So, we become members of a community when we display the 'things' that identify us as members of that community and once the community acknowledges us as members. This is true whether the identity is that of a dancer, a knitter, an Arsenal fan or a reader. We have learned how to be a member of that community and to display the necessary competences so that we are accepted as such.
Gee refers to the 'regime of competence' as 'Discourses':
I use the term "Discourse", with a capital "D", for ways of integrating language, actions, interactions, ways of thinking, believing, valuing, and using various symbols, tools and objects to enact a particular sort of socially recognisable identity.
Gee, J.P., 2005, p.21.
We know that if we say we are member of a particular community, we need to demonstrate the accepted Discourses to be accepted within that community. This may be why 'imposter syndrome' - a state of thinking you are not really what you say you are and, worse, being 'found out' - is so prevalent! I spent the first few years of teaching feeling like an imposter until one day, without me noticing, that feeling wasn't there. I knew I was a teacher. I'm currently feeling imposter syndrome writing a blog; experience tells me this will change but it still invokes fear! If we examine the school environment through this lens of identity, we can see just how crucial it is to learning.
'That's not how we behave!'
When a child first comes to school or joins a new class, there are many new Discourses that they have to learn at multiple levels, both spoken and unspoken. They need to learn the school's Discourses, both the accepted ones for all schools and those of the particular school that they attend: how to dress, behave, communicate and move around in the accepted ways. They need to learn the Discourses of their particular year group (how many times have we said or heard that 'Year 6 children should be showing the younger children how to behave'!) and for their particular class and teacher (one teacher finds low-level talk acceptable but another does not). They need to learn social Discourses to make friends as they seek out A-identities and negotiate the complex microcosm that is the playground or the dinner hall.
At school, children will also have I-identities assigned to them: Special Needs, Pupil Premium, higher-ability, to name but a few of the jargon-heavy terms UK schools are required to pigeon-hole children into. Occasionally this is done without the child's awareness, but mostly (and particularly in relation to ability) they will be fully aware of their I-identity and begin to internalise it. This happens all too frequently and, in relation to learning, this is hugely detrimental but more on this in a later post.
D-identities will be assigned to children throughout all of their time at school by adults and children, both ones they seek out ('she is the fastest runner', 'he is a joker', 'he is well-behaved') and ones they do not ('she distracts others', 'he is disruptive', 'he's a loser'). It's also vital for us to remember that they didn't turn up to us as blank slates! Their already-formed identities influence how they interpret and learn all of the new Discourses and assigned identities that they are being bombarded with by teachers, support staff, peers, older children and younger children. One child is used to adults listening to every word they say and perhaps is told off for calling out, inadvertently being labelled as 'disruptive' or a 'show off'. Another child has no siblings and finds sharing difficult. Someone might have no outdoor space at home and spend playtimes racing around the playground causing collisions. This is why careful transition work, home visits and good school-home communication are essential. Have a think about your own children or children in your care in relation to Gee's theory. Do you see how they are influenced by these different factors?
In part two of this series, I will delve into how identity relates to reading and how important it is for adults to understand their own reading identities.
Chambers, A., (1985). Booktalk. London: Bodley Head.
Chambers, A. (2011). Tell me. South Woodchester: Thimble Press.
Gee, J. P. (2005) An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method. New York and London: Routledge.
Gee, J. P. (2007). Chapter 3 : Identity as an Analytic Lens for Research in Education. Review of Research in Education, 25(1), 99–125. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3102/0091732x025001099
Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: The career of a concept. In Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice (pp. 179–198). Available at:https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-84996-133-2_11