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Who do you think you are? Part Two.

Updated: Feb 12, 2023

Reading and Identity: Part Two

In this series, I attempt to break down some of the eye-opening academic literature that I reviewed on reading and identity. In part one, I discussed the importance of identity in relation to learning, the different factors influencing our identities and how many of these factors come into play in the school setting. In part two, I'm going to discuss the ways in which we communicate particular identities to children, such as that of a learner or a reader, why that is important and then explain how identity is related to power and how this in turn affects reading. If you haven't read part one of this series where I discuss Discourses (yes, the capital 'D' is intentional!), then you can find it here. All relevant academic literature will be referenced below.

Am I a learner?

It may seem obvious to state that children who fail to fully grasp new Discourses at school, both spoken and unspoken, are at risk of potential academic failure. Discourses, according to James Paul Gee, are "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) An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method, p.21). However, when I talk about school Discourses, I mean more than just achieving the statutory objectives of the National Curriculum or following the school rules or memorising timestables. Fundamentally, it is about understanding the much broader Discourses in relation to being a learner. What does it mean to be a learner? What are the behaviours of a learner? Why do we need to learn? What is learning?

That time I felt like Charlie Brown's teacher

In my own experience of both teaching and observing lessons over nearly two decades across many primary schools, I have seen different examples of children who don't understand the point of learning or the ways in which we learn and other teachers will recognise some of these examples as well. Children who copy answers (they think that being right is what teachers are looking for). Children who are so pleased to present teachers with lots of completed questions but either got them all wrong (too hard = no learning) or all correct (too easy = no learning). Children who sit quietly while the teacher talks but take nothing in (I always think of Charlie Brown's teacher at moments like this) and then gaze off into the distance while their partner talks enthusiastically at them (they are staying hidden - not disruptive, but not participating). For some of these children, they want to take on the identity of a learner but are mistaken about what learning is and its purpose. For some others, it may seem that they don't have any interest in taking on the identity of a learner but this is for exactly the same reason: they don't understand what learning is or why they should be bothered to engage in it.

If we want children to seek out the learner identity and successfully adopt it, then we have to work on communicating what learning is and how one learns. I don't mean to suggest that this will solve all the issues for these children, which will be far deeper and more complex than just not understanding learning, but my point is that we, as teachers and parents, should focus on things that are within our power to change. The simplest way to do that is through our own language and behaviours. I know that the majority of us recognise and do this in relation to learning. We 'walk the talk'. Have we done the same in relation to reading?

Am I a reader?

What does it mean to be a reader? How do schools communicate the Discourses of 'being a reader' to children? If we apply Gee's theory to reading, then to be a reader is a D-identity (influenced by discourse - assigned to us by others when we display the appropriate Discourses), an A-identity (influenced by affinity - we seek to join the community of readers) and an I-identity (influenced by the institution of school - through a variety of assessment, schools decide whether we are able to read and to what degree). Therefore, if we are to be identified as a reader (one who chooses to read for themselves for pleasure), we must actively choose to participate in the reader affinity group, be acknowledged by members of the group through dialogue and discussion of the Discourses we portray and, importantly, these Discourses must be the agreed Discourses of a reader.

Discussion is crucial if we are to know which Discourses to acquire in order to develop the identities which we, or the community, desire. This links to the concept of power as we consider how I-identities are acquired. If being a member of a community is defined by what that community pays attention to, then it follows that certain Discourses and identities are valued more highly than others. Whoever it is that assigns the value, is the one with the power.

Who has the power?

In order to understand the power imbalance at play in schools and its impact on reading, I also need to explain the wider sociocultural factors influencing identity.

Pierre Bourdieu (1986) highlighted the dramatic impact of sociocultural constructs, such as gender, class and ethnicity, in the formation of one’s identity. He proposed that dominance of social groups, in particular class groups, could be measured by how much social, economic and cultural capital they possess. It is the dominant social groups that define acceptable cultural norms or Discourses. This means that there is always a power imbalance and struggle between social groups (Alexander, 2000) which makes gaining membership of particular groups more challenging for some individuals. Dominant groups, in order to remain so, must restrict membership or risk losing their elite status. There is evidence of this staring us in the face on a daily basis, either through personal experience or from just turning on the news. This relates to schools and classrooms in two important ways.

First, schools, are “agents of cultural reproduction, transmitting and thus reinforcing as cultural capital the dominant (middle-class) culture” (Alexander 2000, p.164). For the majority of the pupils in our schools, this may mean that they would have to adapt and change their identities if they are to succeed academically and socially. Secondly, when it comes to the question of who decides which Discourses are valuable, the microcosm of the classroom is an example of power imbalance and struggle: between pupils and teachers, pupils and their peers and the teachers and policy-makers. The power lies in defining the acceptable norm and permitting access to that group, with policy-makers, teachers and even peers acting as gatekeepers to the multitude of communities within a school (Alexander, 2000; Gee, 2005; Street 2003).

Not only do individuals struggle to gain acceptance into groups and thus gain new, sought-after D-identities, the power imbalance is further compounded when they are labelled and assigned D-identities that they did not seek out. This is often due to how N-identities (identities influenced by nature - sex, skin colour, eye colour) and I-identities are perceived, particularly by dominant social groups. This can often result in discrimination and, in schools particularly, has lead to low expectations of particular groups and ascribed D-identities, such as ‘low-performing’ or ‘reluctant reader’, which once gained are often hard to discard (Gee, 2005). The impact of this cannot be underestimated: studies have found that socially disadvantaged pupils and those from ethnic minority backgrounds tend to be graded lower than their white, middle-class peers and are frequently subjected to placement in low-ability classes where they are exposed to less challenge and poor teaching (Burgess and Greaves 2009; Castagno 2013).

I can't read

There has been a lot of research on the negative impact of ability grouping but I would just like to outline a study by Leigh Hall (2010) of ‘struggling readers’ in US middle schools (pupils who were performing at least one or more years behind their current grade level and with no identified learning disability) which demonstrated the importance of identity and discourse in learning to read and the powerful ways they impact on pupils. Hall observed that the teachers in her study created discursive identities for pupils based on their own models of what it means to be a good reader. Their pupils then based their approaches to class reading tasks on how they identified themselves as readers (often as bad or poor readers) and also in the hope that teachers and other adults would not construct a discursive identity of them as poor readers.

This had a number of negative consequences. Firstly, the amount of support offered to the struggling readers varied depending on the characteristics that the pupils displayed. If they displayed characteristics which matched the teachers’ definitions of the ‘good-reader’ identity, teachers were more likely to offer them assistance; those who did not display these characteristics would be marginalised. Secondly, while the pupils themselves had a clear idea of the teachers’ ‘good reader’ identity models and agreed that to be a good reader was a desirable goal, they would not attempt any activities which would risk them being identified as a poor reader. Consequently, it can become a vicious circle: they avoid activities designed to help them improve their reading and therefore do not not improve as readers. These negative D-identities, however they are attained, can powerfully undermine any attempts by teachers or pupils to improve reading ability. This further demonstrates the need to carefully consider how we construct and communicate these reader identity models within our classrooms.

Alvermann (2001) recognised that our identities as readers are often decided for us, reinforcing the link between social construction of discourse identities and struggling readers. In other words, the identities assigned to us as readers will actually affect how well we learn to read.

In part three of this post, I'll delve further into reading and identity as well as the importance of book talk, sharing texts and text choice.


Further reading:

Alexander, R. (2000) Culture and Pedagogy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Alvermann, D. E, (2001). Reading Adolescents’ reading identities: Looking back to see ahead. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Vol. 44, No. 8, pp.676 - 690.

Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York:Greenwood).

Burgess, J. and Greaves, E. (2013) Test Scores, Subjective Assessment, and Stereotyping of Ethnic Minorities. Journal of Labor Economics 31, 3, pp. 535-576.

Castagno, A.E. (2013) Multicultural Education and the Protection of Whiteness. American Journal of Education, 120, 1, pp. 101-128.

Egan-Robertson, A. (1998). Learning about culture, language, and power: Understanding relationships among personhood, literacy practices, and intertextuality. Journal of Literacy Research, Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 449-487.

Gee, J. P. (2005) An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method. New York and London: Routledge.

Hall, K. (2003). Listening to Stephen Read. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Hall, L. A. (2010). The Negative Consequences of Becoming a Good Reader: Identity Theory as a Lens for Understanding Struggling Readers, Teachers, and Reading Instruction. Teachers College Record, Vol. 112, No. 7, pp.1792–1829.

Hall, L. A. (2012). The Role of Reading Identities and Reading Abilities in Students’ Discussions About Texts and Comprehension Strategies. Journal of Literacy Research, Vol. 44, No.3, pp. 239–272.

Moje, E. B., & Lewis, C. (2007). Chapter 2 Examining Opportunities to Learn Literacy: The Role of Critical Sociocultural Literacy Research. New York: Routledge.

Street, B. (2003). What’s “new” in New Literacy Studies? Critical approaches to literacy in theory and practice. Journal: Current Issues in Comparative Education (Vol. 5).

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