Has there been a book that completely transformed your views on English teaching? For me as a literacy teacher, it was Gee’s Situated Language and Learning in 2004 which prompted me to consider for the first time that language and literacy practices serve not only to communicate information but, and perhaps more importantly, are also expressions of identity. As English teachers in the FE sector our working lives and session plans tend to be shaped by the rigorous, atomistic detail of the Functional Skills Standards or the GCSE English Language Assessment Objectives which constantly emphasise the effectiveness of written and spoken language in terms of its effectiveness in communicating ‘information’. But the way we talk, read, and write serves also to express who we are – our social identity, our status, our values, etc., and this simple but powerful insight was explored in great depth both in Gee’s work and in New Literacy Studies generally (Gee, 2015). However, this social practice approach to literacy can easily remain as a focus for academic debate only and is not often seen as a source of inspiration for hard-pressed English teachers working with challenging resit students. In contrast, this article explores how an understanding of the relationship between literacy and identity can be central to some engaging and effective teaching.
The theme for this article first suggested itself when I was reading Kirsty Powell’s fascinating report on her research project at Moulton College entitled ‘Bringing Writing to Life’. In it she explains how she and her team set out to explore the value of encouraging learners to write about their ‘lived experience’. Her research findings included an interesting observation that her GCSE English resit learners seemed to be much more interested in analysing a text when it was in the author’s handwriting and especially in peer assessment tasks when the writing was by another learner at a similar ability level –
“When an example piece was handed out, learners who were previously visibly distracted, for example by using their mobile phone, were seen to put their phones down without being asked, and started looking at the examples and taking part in class discussions. The pieces seemed to support better engagement because learners could see that the pieces had been written by somebody who was, at some point, ‘just like them’”
In the diffident handwriting and imperfect spelling Kirsty feels that student recognised immediately that the novice writer faced similar challenges. He had a ‘voice’ that was familiar and there was a sense of shared background, aspiration and identity. I would suggest that the learner probably felt at that moment a ‘sense of belonging’ in Kirsty’s classroom that, according to a DfE report (2018), is vital if GCSE resit teachers are to be successful in engaging poorly motivated learners who are easily alienated by the range of unfamiliar texts and technical terminology that can characterise much GCSE English Language teaching.
A GCSE English resit teacher’s role is to help learners feel confident in using Standard English correctly when the context requires it and to develop their stamina in reading extended texts with challenging vocabulary but, and at the start of their programme especially, they need to feel that their interests, their informal literacy practices and their support needs are understood and validated by their teacher as a starting point for their programmes. The DfE report mentioned above, ‘Retention and Success in Maths and English’, recommends a range of practical interventions and support strategies that organisations and teachers can use to cultivate this ‘sense of belonging’ and many of those strategies, I would argue, reflect a social practice view of literacy which recognises that for many students learning to speak, read and write in Standard English requires a significant challenge to a learner’s sense of identity and cultural background. It involves changes in the way they talk in class, the vocabulary they use and how they express themselves on the page and this is so much more than just the mastery of a set of cognitive skills or the retrieval of knowledge. This challenge was addressed on several other OTLA projects this year which demonstrated how teachers can enable learners in feeling a ‘sense of belonging’ in their classroom.
At Develop, for example, an independent training provider, staff undertook an action research project ‘New Support Models’ which explored how they could use learning support assistants more effectively on GCSE maths programmes and their findings highlight the benefits of involving successful resit students not only in peer support activities but also of providing them with progression routes to a recognised learning support role. When new learners discovered that some of the support staff were ex-students, they said they felt reassured because they knew that the LSAs had a similar background and so could identify with their support needs and anxieties which they felt could be discussed openly.
In Tina Pringle’s report of her research project at Grantham College we read about a performing arts student, ‘a colourful character … (and) a natural performer’ who was resitting his GCSE English qualification for the second time at his college, having been completed disengaged in his first year of study –
‘He did very little written work in 2019/20 and the lockdown affected his studies greatly. He was impossible to motivate online and although he knew the importance of reading for his lines, he would not read for GCSE. It was very difficult for him to do any work at home. His written work suffered greatly, and he was unable to provide the evidence for a CAG grade for GCSE English.’
Through Tina’s project this learner was invited to become actively involved in the filming of some videos of dramatized readings of extracts from 19th century texts that were required to be covered in the syllabus. He was ‘excited’ by the prospect of this new role and he has enjoyed his involvement in the filming, feeling that he could contribute his skills to the class activities and began to see the relevance of his GCSE English studies for the first time. As a result, his behaviour and English skills have improved greatly.
Similarly, Cass Webb at Cambridge Regional College reports how in her project ‘Toolbox of Horrors’ she encouraged learners to share their interest in the horror film genre and used it as basis for a series of reading and writing activities over two terms that built on their ‘funds of knowledge’ (Gonzales et al, 2005) and enabled Cass to make links with elements of effective storytelling and writing that could be then be explored in other genres –
‘Exploiting their existing knowledge of atmosphere and setting provided us with the ideal route into exploring and creating their own examples of the use of simple stylistic techniques e.g., similes and metaphors… Learners didn’t mind greeting us in corridors and were keen to drop us messages on Teams to say what horror film they watched at the weekend… They haven’t been shy about letting us know about their favourite horror movie or sharing with us a new word they have learnt for their horror vocabulary.’
Some readers may object that these examples serve only to confirm a rather hackneyed encouragement to make a programme of study ‘relevant’, which in many ways they do, but they also remind us that the process of literacy teaching is so much more than just a transmission of knowledge and that the learners’ interests, their ‘funds of knowledge’ and their informal literacy and language practices need to be valued and incorporated into a programme if learners are to feel ‘a sense of belonging’ in their GCSE resit classroom. Given the time constraints of most resit programmes it is easy for teachers to dismiss this social practice perspective on literacy development as an irrelevant academic distraction and that their focus should instead be on the ‘delivery’ of a knowledge-rich English curriculum based on the requirements of high mark exam questions. However, I would argue that as shown in these action research projects, an insight into the links between literacy and identity can help teachers explore new approaches to effective classroom practice that can accelerate learners’ progress by anticipating and minimising the affective and attitudinal barriers to learning that many of our learners face. As a result, learners will be more easily engaged and better prepared to access the knowledge-rich curriculum that they are offered.
Finally, I would like to mention that often in working with teachers on OTLA research projects this year and last year I have regularly discussed with project leads the challenge of supporting learners in understanding and practising the use of technical terminology to describe word classes, language features, writing techniques, etc. Often this has involved discussing the range of different strategies they can use in actively modelling the use of terminology in the classroom and in scaffolding discussion activities in sensitive ways so that learners can begin to use the vocabulary and sentence structures that characterise effective text analysis (Didau, 2014). These strategies only work well when teachers understand that they are socialising learners into the academic language practices that underpin a particular subject area and its discourse, and that such strategies therefore present both challenges and valuable opportunities for learners in terms of their ‘identity’. (Gee, 2008).
I would argue that the practitioners featured in the action research projects above tend to view themselves not so much as a teacher of a subject but as a teacher of a group of learners, learners whose backgrounds, interests, literacy practices and ‘funds of knowledge’ were of real interest to them as a valuable starting point for their course planning. Exploring issues of literacy and identity as a way to create ‘a sense of belonging’ in the classroom can then be seen not just as the focus for academic discussion in articles like this but as an essential element in the teaching of effective GCSE resit programmes in the real world.
Didau, D. (2014) The Secret of Literacy. Ch. 4 Oracy Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press
Gee, J. (2004) Situated Language and Learning. Oxford: Routledge
Gee, J. (2008) What is academic language? Teaching Science to English Language Learners: Building on Students’ Strengths. Ch 7 pp.57-70 Arlington: VANSTA Press
Gee, J. (2015) The New Literacy Studies. The Routledge Handbook of Literacy Studies Routledge Accessed on: 22 Jul 2021 https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315717647.ch2
Gonzales, N. et al (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms Oxford: Routledge
Hume, S. eta; (2018) Retention and Success in Maths and English: A Practitioner Guide to Applying Behavioural Insights. Department for Education Accessed on 22 July 2021