Identity Online


The aim of this project was to establish how adult learners of ESOL construct textual identities in their electronic literacy practices using networked computer media both within and outside their places of learning. That is:

  • How do they identify themselves, and how are they identified by others, in their online literacy practices?
  • How do these practices differ in and out of class?

There were three objectives: to ascertain the range of opportunities which multilingual learners have for developing electronic literacy skills within their places of learning; to identify the scope and nature of multilingual learners' electronic literacy practices outside their formal places of learning; to discern and describe the features of multilingual learners' online linguistic behaviour which relate to identity both within and outside their formal places of learning. 

Executive Summary

Contemporary global society is characterised by international movements of people, many ofwhom come to a new country with a need to learn a new language. Life in a new language anda new culture inevitably entails new ways of constructing identity in discourse. This projectconcerns the electronically-mediated textual identity construction of adult migrants to the UKwho are learners of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

The participants' electronic literacy practices are conceptualised as occurring in two domains: with teachers and classmates within the centres where learning takes place; and with peers, colleagues, friends and families in everyday sites of electronic literacy practice. Permeating these 'real life' settings are the virtual spaces where online interaction happens. Findings, with implications for ESOL practice and policy, thus focus on two domains: multilingual students' electronic literacy practices both in classroom settings and in their outside lives.

Participants' electronic literacy practices outside the classroom are chiefly interpersonal ones: ICTs are used to maintain relationships with friends and family, especially across long distances, a task for which the tools employed are eminently suited. The spaces where people use ICTs and electronic communication outside their places of learning are predominantly: the home, the classroom, the library, and the internet café. Particular practices are more associated with some places than with others: for example, people are more likely to be in touch with family 'back home' when they are in their own homes. Questions of access also emerge: the economic position of many on the project preclude the purchase of expensive computer equipment. In terms of language use in online written communication, language alternation is prevalent, as well as emergent hybrid varieties and vernacular transliterations (e.g. 'Urdu in English').

Inside the classroom, the uses of ICTs are quite distinct from those out of class. Pedagogical framing is understandablyprominent, restricting the range of identity positions which students can claim. For example, the role of assessment dominates,which can manifest itself with an overriding concern with accuracy and error correction. Three case studies of classroompractice suggest that classroom issues tend to reproduce themselves in the ICT environment. At times the ICT environmentseems colonized by the pedagogical traits of the classroom, which can be very resilient. The recontextualization of new mediacan happen, therefore, in ways that are reductive. The challenge for teachers is to resist the temptation to pedagogize it. Animplication – as well as a direction for further research – is that students might be able to appropriate the tools and spaces ofnew technology in ways which benefit their learning and which afford them a full range of identity positions.

Project Publications

Simpson, J. (submitted) 'Textual identity online: Interaction on an ESOL class blog.' Submitted to Applied Linguistics.

Simpson, J. (forthcoming, 2010) 'Telling Tales: Discursive space and narratives in ESOL classrooms.' Linguistics and Education.

Cooke, M. and J. Simpson (2009) 'Challenging agendas in ESOL: Skills, employability and social cohesion.' Language Issues 20/1, 19-30.

Simpson, J. (2009) 'Language appropriation and online textual identity.' In M. Edwards (ed.) Proceedings of the BAAL Annual Conference 2008. London: Scitsiugnil Press (DVD). (p. 109-110)

Simpson (2008) ESOL: A critical guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Handbooks for Language Teachers series). (Chapter 7 contains a section on this project)

Presentations and workshops associated with the project:

'Identities Online.' Seminar presentation at ESOL Research Seminar, University of Leeds. February 2008

'Online textual identities and language learning: The case of an adult ESOL class blog.' Presentation at TESOL Forum, University of Leeds. April 2008

'Identity online: Adult ESOL language learner identity and electronic communication.' Presentation delivered as guest speaker at the Department of Educational Studies Lecture Series, University of York. June 2008

'Identities online: Adult ESOL language learner identity and electronic communication.' Workshop at NATECLA national conference, University of Warwick. July 2008

'Challenging agendas: Skills, employability, community cohesion and ESOL.' Workshop at NATECLA national conference, University of Warwick. (With Melanie Cooke.) July 2008

'Identities Online' Paper presented at the 41st Annual Meeting of the British Association for Applied Linguistics, Swansea University. September 2008

'Promises and challenges for ELT in the new communicative world.' Plenary presentation at the 4th Annual International Conference of TEFL, Tonghua, China (section of presentation drew on project data). . September 2008

'Power and identity online: Adult migrant language learner interaction on a class blog.' AILA Language and Migration Research Network, 3rd international seminar on language and migration, Barcelona. February 2009

'Telling tales: Life history and electronic communication in an ESOL classroom.' International Symposium on Bilingualism 7, Utrecht. July 2009

'ELT and the English language in the new communicative age.' Plenary presentation at International conference on interactive media in pedagogy, HM Patel Institute of English training and research, Vallabh Vidyanaghar, Gujarat, India (section of presentation drew on project data). January 2010

'Policy discourse and identity negotiation online: ESOL students and the national literacy test' (working title) AILA conference, Beijing. August 2011