September 2005 | Volume 63 | Number 1
The Whole Child Pages 38-43
Affirming Identity in Multilingual
By welcoming a student's home language into the classroom,
schools actively engage English language learners in literacy.
Jim Cummins, Vicki Bismilla, Patricia Chow, Sarah Cohen,
Frances Giampapa, Lisa Leoni, Perminder Sandhu, and Padma
In How People Learn, Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) synthesized research regarding
the optimal conditions that foster learning; a follow-up volume edited by Donovan and
Bransford (2005) examines the application of these learning principles to teaching history,
mathematics, and science. Bransford and colleagues emphasize the following three conditions
for effective learning: engaging prior understandings and background knowledge, integrating
factual knowledge with conceptual frameworks by encouraging deep understanding, and
supporting students in taking active control over the learning process.
Any instructional intervention that claims scientific credibility should reflect these principles,
which are particularly important when it comes to English language learners. Prior knowledge
refers not only to information or skills previously acquired in formal instruction but also to the
totality of the experiences that have shaped the learner's identity and cognitive functioning. In
classrooms with students from linguistically diverse backgrounds, instruction should explicitly
activate this knowledge.
Knowledge is more than just the ability to remember. Deeper levels of understanding enable
students to transfer knowledge from one context to another. Moreover, when students take
ownership of their learning²when they invest their identities in learning outcomes²active
learning takes place. Numerous research studies have shown that scripted, transmission-
oriented pedagogy, which tends to be both superficial and passive, fails to build on English
language learners' pre-existing cultural and linguistic knowledge (Warschauer, Knobel, &
Pre-existing knowledge for English language learners is encoded in their home languages.
Consequently, educators should explicitly teach in a way that fosters transfer of concepts and
skills from the student's home language to English. Research clearly shows the potential for
this kind of cross-language transfer in school contexts that support biliteracy development
(Cummins, 2001; Reyes, 2001). It is hard to argue that we are teaching the whole child when
school policy dictates that students leave their language and culture at the schoolhouse door.
Sidra's experiences as an English language learner illustrate some of these concerns. Two
years after she emigrated from Pakistan with her family, she described her early days as a 5th
grader in a Canadian school:
I was new, and I didn't know English. I could only say little sentences. I wore
cultural clothes, and people usually judge a new person by their looks. If they see
the clothes that I am wearing are not like their clothes, they will just think that I'm
not one of them. If we had any partner activities, no one will pick me as their
partner. I felt really, really left out. Kids also made fun of me because I looked
different, and I couldn't speak English properly.
Sidra highlights themes that are notably absent from the ³scientifically proven´ prescriptions of
No Child Left Behind (NCLB). She talks about the struggle to express herself, not just
linguistically, but also culturally. Her ³cultural clothes´ are an expression of an identity that her
peers have rejected, causing her to feel ³really, really left out.´ But Sidra also had caring
teachers who welcomed her into school. As she explained,
I was the only person in grade 5 who wore cultural clothes. The teachers liked what I
wore. They tried to talk to me and ask me questions. I liked telling teachers about
my culture and religion. It made me feel more comfortable and welcome.
Sidra's experiences show that human relationships are important in children's adjustment to
schooling; engagement in learning, particularly for English language learners, is fueled as much
by affect as by cognition. Despite her still-limited access to academic English, she writes
extensively because she has a lot to share, and she knows that her teacher, Lisa Leoni, is
genuinely interested in her experiences and insights. Sidra's account also illustrates the
opportunity²and the responsibility²that teachers have to create environments that affirm the
identities of English language learners, thereby increasing the confidence with which these
students engage in language and literacy activities.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Affect, identity, respect, and human relationships: These constructs have not been evident in
the radical education reforms ushered in by NCLB, which supposedly are based on scientific
research. Numerous commentators have critiqued the scientific basis and instructional
consequences of these policies (Allington, 2004; Garan, 2001; Krashen, 2004). Several false
assumptions underlying these reforms apply specifically to English language learners:
ł Students' home language is, at best, irrelevant. At worst, it is an impediment to literacy
development and academic success.
ł The cultural knowledge and linguistic abilities that English language learners bring to
school have little instructional relevance.
ł Instruction to develop English literacy should focus only on English literacy.
ł Students can learn only what teachers explicitly teach.
ł Culturally and linguistically diverse parents, whose English may be limited, do not have
the language skills to contribute to their children's literacy development.
These assumptions, common before NCLB, have now become entrenched as a result of the
ubiquity of high-stakes testing and the mandate for systematic and explicit phonics instruction
from kindergarten through 6th grade (Lyon & Chhabra, 2004). Yet they violate the scientific
consensus about how people learn (Bransford et al., 2000). They also reduce the opportunities
for literacy engagement within the classroom (Guthrie, 2004). Finally, they are refuted by
empirical data on literacy development among English language learners, which show that
students' home language proficiency at time of arrival in an English-speaking country is the
strongest predictor of English academic development (Thomas & Collier, 2002).
We present an alternative set of principles for promoting academic engagement among English
language learners, which we draw from Early and colleagues' research project in Canada
(2002). Central to our argument are two interrelated propositions:
ł English language learners' cultural knowledge and language abilities in their home
language are important resources in enabling academic engagement; and
ł English language learners will engage academically to the extent that instruction affirms
their identities and enables them to invest their identities in learning.
The Dual Language Identity Text
Teaching for cross-language transfer and literacy engagement can be problematic for teachers
when multiple languages are represented in the classroom, none of which the teacher may
know. One approach that we have been exploring in several schools in Canada's Greater
Toronto area involves identity texts. These products, which can be written, spoken, visual,
musical, dramatic, or multimodal combinations, are positive statements that students make
Identity texts differ from more standard school assignments in both the process and the
product. The assignment is cognitively challenging, but students can choose their topics. They
decide how they will carry out the project and are encouraged to use the full repertoire of their
talents in doing so.
For example, when she was in 7th grade²and less than a year after arriving in Canada²
Madiha coauthored a 20-page English-Urdu dual language book titled The New Country (see
illustration, at left). Together with her friends, Kanta and Sulmana, also originally from
Pakistan, she wrote about ³how hard it was to leave our country and come to a new country.´
Kanta and Sulmana were reasonably fluent in English because they had arrived in Toronto
several years before, in 4th grade. Madiha, however, was in the early stages of English
Seventh graders coauthored a dual language book about their experiences immigrating to
Canada from Pakistan.
The students collaborated on this project in the context of a unit on migration that integrated
social studies, language, and ESL curriculum expectations. They researched and wrote the
story over the course of several weeks, sharing their experiences and language skills. Madiha
spoke little English but was fluent in Urdu; Sulmana was fluent and literate in both Urdu and
English; Kanta, who was fluent in Punjabi and English, had mostly learned Urdu in Toronto. The
girls discussed their ideas primarily in Urdu but wrote the initial draft of their story in English.
Sulmana served as scribe for both languages.
In a ³normal´ classroom, Madiha's minimal knowledge of English would have severely limited
her ability to participate in a 7th grade social studies unit. She certainly would not have been in
a position to communicate extensively in English about her experiences, ideas, and insights.
When the social structure of the classroom changed in simple ways, however, Madiha could
express herself in ways that few English language learners experience in school. Her home
language, in which all her experience prior to immigration was encoded, became once again a
tool for learning. She contributed her ideas and experiences to the story, participated in
discussions about how to translate vocabulary and expressions from Urdu to English and from
English to Urdu, and shared in the affirmation that all three students experienced when they
published their story.
Students can create identity texts on any topic relevant to their lives or of interest to them.
Sometimes teachers will suggest topics or ways of carrying out the project; in other cases,
students will generate topics themselves and decide what form the projects will take. Because
these projects require substantial time to complete, it is useful to aim for cross-curricular
integration. That way, the project can meet standards in several different content areas. For
example, students might research the social history of their communities through document
analysis and interviews with community members. Such a project would integrate curricular
standards in language arts, social studies, and technology.
Because students want to do the work in the first place, they generally treasure the product
they have created and wish to share it with those they care about. This usually doesn't happen
with worksheets, regardless of how accurately the student completes them. The worksheet has
no life beyond its immediate function, whereas the identity text lives on for a considerable
time, either in tangible form, as in a book, or as a digital text on the Web.
Language in the Classroom
Thornwood Public School, a K±5 school in the Peel District School Board in Toronto, Canada,
pioneered the process of the dual language identity text (Chow & Cummins, 2003; Schecter &
Cummins, 2003). As is common in many urban public schools in Canada, students in
Thornwood speak more than 40 different home languages, with no one language dominating.
Patricia Chow's 1st and 2nd grade students created stories initially in English, the language of
school instruction, because most of the primary students had not yet learned to read or write in
their home languages. Students illustrated their stories and then worked with various people²
parents, older students literate in their home languages, or teachers who spoke their languages
²to translate these stories into the students' home languages. The school created the Dual
Language Showcase Web site (http://thornwood.peelschools.org/Dual) to enable students to
share their bilingual stories over the Internet with parents, relatives, and friends, both in
Canada and in the students' countries of origin. With identity texts, audience becomes a
powerful source of validation for the student.
As the Thornwood Dual Language Showcase project has evolved, dual language books have
become a potent tool to support the integration of newcomers and English language learners.
Students write initial drafts of stories in whichever language they choose, usually in their
stronger language. Thus, newcomer students can write in their home language and
demonstrate not only their literacy skills but also their ideas and feelings, giving full play to
their imaginations. The image of newcomer students, in both their own eyes and in the eyes of
others, changes dramatically when these students express themselves in this way within the
A dual language (English-Urdu) storybook created by 7th graders for younger readers.
When none of the teachers or class members speaks the language of a particular newcomer
student, the school explores contacts with community members or board-employed community
liaison personnel or involves older students from the same language background whose English
is more fluent. High school students from various language backgrounds receive credit for their
involvement as community service work. Consequently, dual language texts have become a
catalyst for fruitful forms of school-community engagement.
At Floradale Public School, another highly multilingual school in the Peel District School Board,
teacher-librarian Padma Sastri has integrated both student-created and commercial dual
language books into all aspects of library functioning. She prominently displays student-created
dual language books near the library entrance, welcomes parents into the library to read books
to students in their native languages, and encourages students to check out dual language
books to take home to read with their families.
When students gather around her for the day's lesson in the library, Sastri enlists students to
read a given story out loud in English. She also encourages various students to retell the story
afterward in their home language. Said one observer,
I listen amazed as one by one the students retell the story in Urdu, Turkish,
Vietnamese, Chinese, Gujerati, Tamil, Korean, and Arabic. The other students in the
class appear to be equally entranced, although neither I nor they understand most of
the languages being used. It is captivating to hear the same story repeated in
different languages with new or sometimes the same gestures to express a change
By welcoming a student's home language, schools facilitate the flow of knowledge, ideas, and
feelings between home and school and across languages.
Elementary school teacher Perminder Sandhu integrated discussions about students' language
and culture into the curriculum of her 4th grade class in Coppard Glen Public School of
Toronto's York Region District School Board. Students wrote about their languages, discussed
the importance of continuing to speak their languages, and worked in pairs to create dual
language or multilingual books, often with the help of their parents. One of Sandhu's students
writes about his engagement with literacy and popular culture outside the school. Jagdeep,
who is fluent in Punjabi, Hindi, and English, illustrates the importance of connecting, both
cognitively and affectively, with students' prior experience:
I love Punjabi stories. They're so exciting. When it comes to Hindi movies, I just
can't stop watching them! They are very funny, and the problems are very
sophisticated. It makes me proud of my cultural background.
For Sandhu, acknowledging and actively promoting students' linguistic and cultural capital is
not simply a matter of activating students' prior knowledge²she fuses these practices in a
pedagogy of respect. Sandhu explains,
It informs my practice through and through. It runs in the bloodstream of my
classroom. It's all about relationships, how we validate students' identities, how they
accept their own identities. That ethos is fundamentally important²it's not an add-
on. It takes less than two extra minutes of my time to get students to see the
humanity of another human being at a most basic level. Because once they begin to
see their own and one another's vulnerabilities, inhibitions, and realities, they
The pedagogical orientation illustrated in the examples above differs from many schools'
current policies and practice in two major respects. First, the teacher acknowledges that the
language in which English language learners' prior experience is encoded is an important
resource for learning. Consequently, instruction explicitly aims for transfer of knowledge and
skills across languages. Second, instruction communicates respect for students' languages and
cultures and encourages students to engage with literacy and invest their identities in the
Aims of Education
The job of an educator is to teach students to see vitality in themselves.
The Heart of Schooling
Educators, individually and collectively, always have choices. They can choose to go beyond
curricular guidelines and mandates. They can meet curricular expectations and standards in
ways that acknowledge and respect students' prior knowledge. They can engage English
language learners in powerful literacy practices, such as creating identity texts. Identity texts
also encourage collaboration among teachers, parents, and students. By including parents in
the process, these practices affirm the funds of knowledge available in the community.
When we talk about the whole child, let us not forget the whole teacher. The process of identity
negotiation is reciprocal. As teachers open up identity options for students, they also define
their own identities. The teachers who supported and appreciated Sidra in her struggles to
express herself and belong in her new school were also expressing what being educators meant
to them. They saw Sidra not as a ³limited-English-proficient´ student but as a young person
with intelligence, emotions, aspirations, and talents. They created classrooms that enabled her
to express her identity.
Although NCLB has reinforced the bleak pedagogical landscapes that exist in many urban
school systems, it has reinserted the achievement of English language learners and low-income
students into policy discussions. Schools cannot meet adequate yearly progress goals without
improving these students' achievement. Schools can achieve this goal much more effectively
when they take into account identity investment as a core component of learning.
Many teachers understand intuitively that human relationships are at the heart of schooling.
Student achievement will increase significantly only when this insight permeates all levels of
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literacy for Latino students (pp. 96±121). New York: Teachers College Press.
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schooling: Deconstructing the digital divide. Educational Policy, 18(4), 562±588.
Authors' note: The research reported in this paper was carried out with funding (2002±2005) from the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. To view student and teacher work as well as relevant
research, visit www.multiliteracies.ca.
Jim Cummins (email@example.com) is a Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and
Learning at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, University of Toronto (OISE/UofT). Frances Giampapa
is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Sarah Cohen is a PhD student in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and
Learning at OISE/UofT. Vicki Bismilla is the Superintendent of Equity and Lisa Leoni and Perminder Sandhu
are elementary school teachers in the York Region District School Board. Patricia Chow and Padma Sastri are
elementary school teachers in the Peel District School Board.
Copyright © 2005 by ASCD
© 2009 ASCD