Rather than think of literacy simply as a set of skills, educators should consider literacy as tightly bound up with students’ evolving sense of identity, according to a growing number of literacy-and-identity studies in the field.
How much students choose to read and what they choose to read go are an integral part of who they think they are and who other people think they are, according to a recent study in Reading Research Quarterly.
Literacy also goes to the heart of students’ motivation and aspirations for what they want to be, researchers say. Literacy-and-identity studies pay close attention to “the roles of texts and literacy practices as tools or media for constructing, narrating, mediating, enacting, performing, enlisting, or exploring identities.”
“In other words, recognizing literacy practices as social has led many theorists to recognize that people’s identities mediate and are mediated by the texts they read, write, and talk about,” according to the study.
Educators are very focused on a skills-based view of literacy, but it’s useful to take the broader view of literacy advocated by literacy-and-identity studies. The study in Reading Research Quarterly examines concepts of identity and draws implications from literacy-and-identity studies for educators in the classroom.
Identity as a moving target
Any educator who works with adolescents knows that one’s sense of identity is always in flux. Even for adults, identity is increasingly recognized as fluid and ever-changing rather than as a relatively stable set of characteristics.
The student who is seen as a resistant reader is sometimes engaged and compliant and sometimes resistant. All are accurate, albeit partial representations, the researchers write in their study examining theories and contemporary thought on identity.
Identities are social rather than individual constructions, often tied to sustained group membership (e.g. race, social class etc.), the authors write. Individuals attach greater importance to their memberships in some social groups than others and so seek out or avoid certain practices of literacy. People have the option of participating or not participating in the literacy practices of the distinct groups to which they belong.
Identity is in play in any and all social interactions, the researchers write. This is especially true in classroom interactions. Identities can be viewed as stories told about and within social interactions. Individuals narrate their identities by choosing what stories to tell about themselves in which situations and to which listeners.
Authority figures may interpell or “call out” identities in individuals. For instance when a subject responds to an officer of the law, the person accepts the “identity” of a guilty subject. In reading a text, students are called by that text to assume or step into a role as audience or as a reader. Readers are required to assume certain knowledge, to have certain assumptions and particular relationships to power as well as to inhabit particular subject positions.
Implications So what do literacy-and-identity studies mean for educators working in the classroom? One major take-away is to resist trying to control literacy in much the same way one would resist trying to control a student’s self-expression, according to the researchers.
Some literacy-and-identity studies were motivated by the call to broaden the view of literacy to include the new media and other non-academic practices. Literacy-and-identity studies make a case for including multiple text types and media in the curricula so that students have multiple opportunities to explore and create identities.
Another take-away is to avoid getting locked into assumptions about students’ literacy and identity because the two are always in flux. Literacy and identity are interdependent so that students’ ability to progress and change are helped or hindered by their access or lack of access to a variety of literacy opportunities, the researchers write.
To develop students’ academic literacy in various subjects such as math and science, educators should remember that each kind of literacy requires a shift in identity. Students need to adopt a particular voice that is recognizable by the reader. They need to take, communicate and defend a stance and signal meaning to help others make their way through the material. In short, students must have a sense of awareness of self and audience to develop an academic literacy.
“Literate practice is a dialogic activity in which the reader or author is always in conversation with another; whether strategic or not, such conversation requires acts of identification and enactments of identity,” the researchers write.
“The academic literacies perspective offers just one angle on why literacy-and-identities research may be important—even central—to enhancing educational opportunity for all people and on why we need to do such research well.”
“Because the institutions in which people learn rely so heavily on identities to assign labels of progress, particularly in relation to reading and writing skills, these identity labels associated with certain kinds of literacy practices can be especially powerful in an individual’s life.”
“Literacy-and-identity: Examining the Metaphors in History and Contemporary Research,” by Elizabeth Birr Moje et al., Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 4, 2009, pp. 415-437.