Hearing Bonny Norton: Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

Hearing Bonny Norton - Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

UPDATED: May 1, 2014
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Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

Organised by Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR)


It was a rare opportunity to encounter Dr. Bonny Norton from the comfort and convenience of my study, while I was in Singapore, and she in Vancouver. Thanks to the web seminar organised by Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR), I had the privilege to listen first hand to the pioneer of identity and language learning theory. Dr. Norton has researched and written extensively on how individuals have multiple and changing identities across time and space and how these identities influence their language learning.

I didn’t realize Dr Norton herself was an example of multiple identities. As I was hearing her speak, I couldn’t quite place her accent until she introduced herself as a scholar, a white woman in Canada, with a South African accent. The awareness and acceptance of how we have multiple roles and identities feature prominently in her writing. As she explained in the seminar, having multiple identities empowers learners, instead of restricting them to choosing one identity over the other. For Dr. Norton, that meant that she didn’t have to choose being Canadian over South African.

In the seminar, Dr. Norton focused on her work in Uganda where she and her colleagues  introduced digital literacies to teachers and students. The two technological tools they used were the camera and eGranary, literally, the internet in a box filled with millions of digital resources (e.g. wikipedia, educational websites, multimedia documents). With limited infrastructure and access to the Internet and even electricity, students and teachers seized the opportunities to use these newly discovered tools to become better learners, become more respected, and have more power over their learning.

Nonetheless, the limitation of having few cameras and a single computer in a classroom of over a hundred students continue to present obstacles to empowering each and every student. The challenge to overcome poverty and (im)possibilities continues.

Apart from sharing her work in Uganda, Dr. Norton also responded to a few questions from the audience. I asked about how we can create classroom conditions to foster greater investment among students. While much depends on the classroom context including culture and class size, Dr. Norton suggested two strategies:

#1 Students become ethnographers in their communities.

Students write in journals about their experiences in their day-to-day lives in their communities, and share with fellow classmates in the classroom. Through peer sharing, students may find that their experiences are not unique and teachers find out more about their students’ lives. The key is to create a sense of community in the classroom, making the classroom a vibrant place where the teacher helps to develop meaningful relationships among students.

#2 Students speak from positions of strength.

For quiet students who do not participate, teachers can identify their strengths in other areas such as sports or music, and structure classroom activities so their talents come to the fore. By doing so, the student’s identity shifts from being the quiet student to becoming the music virtuoso, for example. Other students begin to relate to that student in a different way and the student is able to speak from a position of strength, rather than weakness.

As Dr. Norton explained at the beginning of the seminar, both the student and community (of teacher and classmates) are responsible for the student’s learning. Thus literacy is a social practice, and the teacher is responsible for creating conditions for positive learner identity and greater investment in learning.

After hearing

After reading numerous research articles by Dr. Norton, as well as others who have based their research on her theories, the personal encounter with Dr. Norton herself  (albeit mediated by one-way video conferencing) has helped me connect the dots. The theory comes alive when the author articulates it and I look forward to many more of these web seminars which build bridges across continents and time zones.

Only Connect: My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

Only Connect: My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

I present my ideological stance in content area instruction by first providing background information about the students and their goals and challenges regarding attaining proficiency in academic literacy practices. I then briefly summarize my ideological stance regarding teaching students in content area instruction, followed by describing three pedagogical approaches to integrate academic literacy into my instruction so as to provide equity and access for all students to succeed in content understanding.

Background of students

 The classes I teach at the polytechnic (or technical college) in Singapore are heterogeneous – students have wide ranging abilities in academic reading and writing, as well as come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the majority of the students can be said to be passive learners. Asian students have been brought up on a diet of passive reception of information and knowledge, thus many students tend to be quiet in class, not responding actively to teachers’ questions or whole class activities because they are not confident of their ability to do so and would rather wait for the teacher to provide the answers.

Goal: Academic Literacy

Students need to master academic literacy (i.e., academic reading and writing skills) in order to be successful in school. Such skills are important not only to understand content across different subjects, but also to do well in assessments. Furthermore, as many polytechnic students continue to further their studies at the university, mastering academic literacy is important for their educational goals. Gee (2012) defines literacy as a “[m]astery of a secondary Discourse” (p. 173), thus academic literacy of reading and writing entails mastering “distinctive ways of … writing/reading coupled with distinctive ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, believing with other people and various objects, tools and technologies[.]” (p. 152). Gee argues that the mastery of a Discourse requires both acquisition through an exposure through models and learning through having meta-knowledge about the Discourse (p. 174). Thus students should not only be successful at academic skills and assimilating its accompanying actions and attitudes, they should also be aware of how they become successful in such a Discourse (p. 175), thus facilitating their cognitive development.

Challenge: Coercive Power Relations

In terms of the teachers’ attitudes toward students’ English language proficiency levels, students whose English language standardized test scores are high are expected to excel at academic reading and writing, while students who have low scores are unquestionably assumed to continue to struggle with academic reading and writing and will have little hope of making any improvements. Furthermore, students’ use of colloquial speech – their primary Discourse, to use Gee’s (2012) terms – in class is frowned upon and is seen as a reflection of their lack of academic abilities.  Thus students’ past test scores and their functioning in their primary Discourse have a deterministic effect on teachers’ expectations of students’ future performance. This reveals the coercive power relations between teachers and students where teachers indirectly prepare students to accept the status quo regarding their academic abilities (Cummins, 2003, p. 25).


My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

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My Ideological Stance in a Nutshell

My position is that students need to be weaned off passive learning and engage in active learning because the complex nature of their content area (e.g. business and marketing subjects), as well as the demands of higher education and the workplace in a rapidly evolving social and economic environment. In addition, in order to promote mastery of the discourse of academic skills, teaching must be lead to both acquisition and learning of the discourse. Furthermore, students need to be empowered to master academic skills so that they can succeed in school, regardless of their existing English language proficiency and the beliefs that they themselves or others have about their ability.

Pedagogical Approach 1: Cooperative Learning

I choose cooperative learning to encourage positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation and simultaneous interaction – the four basic principles of the cooperative learning approach (Kagan, 1998, p. 108) – to foster the development of active learning, academic skills and content understanding.

Sociocultural learning theory informs this approach as an important premise of cooperative learning is the social nature of the activities. Complex mental processes begin as social activities and evolve into internal mental activities which students can use independently in the future (Ormrod, 2011, p. 40). Thus cooperative learning influences the cognitive development of students. Furthermore, the use of pair and group work in cooperative learning allows a student’s learning to be scaffolded by more capable peers who offer assistance or co-constructed together with fellow similar ability peers (p. 45). In this way, the use of scaffolding in pair and group work promotes equity and access among the heterogeneous classes that I encounter.

Pedagogical Approach 2: Modeling

According to Gee (2012), “[t]eaching that leads to acquisition means to apprentice students in a master-apprentice relationship” (p. 175) through exposure to models “in natural, meaningful, and functional settings” (p. 174). In practice, this means using content-based instruction where the teaching of academic skills is done through “exposure to content that is interesting and relevant to learners” (Brinton, 2003, p. 201). For successful modeling of academic skills to take place, the selection of content should extend over several weeks. (p. 201). Furthermore, the modeling of academic skills is optimally effective when I am able to demonstrate “not only how to do a task but also how to think about the task” (Ormrod, 2011, p. 330). Such cognitive modeling can be achieved through think-alouds where I make my thinking explicit by verbalizing my thoughts while completing a task (Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz, 2011, p. 197), for example, when planning a persuasive essay. Furthermore, according to social cognitive theory, modeling not only teaches students new behaviors and skills, it also boosts their self-confidence (Ormrod, 2011, p. 334).

Pedagogical Approach 3: Using Primary Discourse

I use students’ primary Discourse as a vehicle to mediate their learning of a secondary Discourse. A person’s primary Discourse is acquired as a result of family socialization (Gee, 2012) and for many students, their primary Discourse includes oral literacy in non-standard colloquial speech.

Students’ oral literacy, however informal and deemed unacceptable, is the carrier for their personal perspectives that needs to addressed before teachers can move on less familiar literacies of reading and writing (Kern & Schultz, 2005, p. 384). By narrowly defining academic literacy as a “strict adherence to standard forms and conventions” (p. 389), students who do not meet the standards are viewed as deficient. However, by expanding the notion of literacy through linking students’ primary Discourse to the secondary Discourse of academic skills, I explore and validate how students communicate with the resources that they have, thus empowering all students, especially the low achievers. For example, encouraging students to use informal language to talk or write about their reactions to a reading passage is a way to address their unique or even culturally-specific ways of thinking. By validating their worldview, I motivate them to connect with the academic ways of thinking that I seek to teach (Delpit, 2002, p. 45).


Ultimately, using the three pedagogical approaches of cooperative learning, modeling and using students’ primary Discourse help to combat the coercive power relations that exist between teachers and students. I must first be conscious of such power relations, then explore more collaborative relations of power of interacting with students so as to negotiate the “acquisition of knowledge and formation of identity” (Cummins, 2003, p. 19). In other words, I must be conscious of affirming my students’ sense of identity by allowing them to be confident participants during lessons, as well as in all other interactions with me (p. 19). As Delpit (2002) so eloquently concludes, we must “reconnect them to their own brilliance and gain their trust so that they will learn from us” (p. 48).


This paper was written for a course in the MAT-TESOL program at USC in March 2012.


Brinton, D. M. (2003). Content-based instruction. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Practical English language teaching (pp. 199-224). New York: McGraw Hill.

Cummins, J. (2005). Teaching the language of academic success: A framework for school-based language policies. In Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (3rd ed., pp. 3-32). Sacramento, CA: LBD Publishers.

Delpit, L. (2002). No kinda sense. In L. Delpit, (Ed.), The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (pp. 34-48). NY: The New York Press.

Gee, J. (2012). Discourses and literacies. Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (4th ed.) (pp. 147-178). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kagan, S. (1998). New cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and inclusion. In J. W. Putnam and R. W. Slavin (Eds.), Cooperative learning and strategies for inclusion: Celebrating diversity in the classroom (pp. 105-136). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Kern, R. & Schultz, J. M. (2005). Beyond orality: investigating literacy and the literary in second and foreign language instruction. The Modern Language Journal, 89(3), pp. 381-392.

Ormrod, J.E. (2011). Educational psychology: Developing learners (7th ed.). Boston, MA:  Pearson.

Vacca, R. T., Vacca, J. L., & Mraz, M. (2011). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

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