Building Literate Identities as Secondary Discourses: Research into Practice
by Chase Young

Click Here
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how this author, a reading specialist in a Title 1 elementary school, came to understand the impact of language socialization, the existence of primary and secondary Discourses, and teacher language on literacy learning. Multiple perspectives were explored and the research was synthesized into classroom practice. The example of the research into classroom practice is told from the perspective of the author.  

First, the work of Shirley Brice Heath (Heath, 1982; Heath, 1989; Heath, 1996; 1983) is used to investigate language socialization’s effect on readers entering school. It is important to understand the language foundations of students before instruction. The research was extensive, and led to many insights into the mind of a pre-school child. She clearly illustrated the need for awareness, but the direct implications for instruction were unclear. Therefore, the next researcher, James Gee (Gee, 2008), was examined to bridge the gap between language socialization from home to school.

Gee (2008) describes two types of Discourses. Discourse (big D), also called “lifeworld” Discourse, is defined as how we write, read, think, listen, and how we feel, act, or value. Primary Discourse is our sense of self. It is, essentially, who we are throughout life. This Discourse would reflect language socialization. All other Discourses acquired subsequently are deemed secondary Discourses. Gee specifically cites “schools” as an example of a secondary Discourse. This helps understand that home and school language, or practices, are not disconnected, but a matter a different Discourses. The synthesis helped this author honor language socialization, and respect developing Discourses. The next step was to transfer the knowledge into classroom practice.

Peter Johnston (2004) describes how language can build identity and agency. Arguably, this is the same way a secondary Discourse can be developed. Johnston discusses the consequences of teachers’ language on students’ ideational construction. Therefore, teachers can honor student language socialization and primary Discourse while empowering students with a secondary Discourse in literate identity. Instead of mere students, they become readers and authors. 

Using Shirley Brice Heath to Understand Language Socialization 

Shirley Brice Heath is a linguistic anthropologist. She is a professor at Brown and Stanford Universities. Her scholarly interests have evolved over time, but linguistic socialization is a staple in her research. Heath sees language as power. She claims there is an inequity of power among students entering school based on their language socialization (Heath, 1996; 1983). 

Language socialization illustrates a way in which children are socialized. Children, or novices, acquire knowledge necessary to participate socially in a given community. The acquisition is done by constructing, resisting, or reorganizing knowledge acquired through interaction with others in the community (Garrett & Baquedano-Lopez, 2002). Additionally, children are socialized in how to use language in a community. As children learn language, their social knowledge is also constructed (Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986).

Along with Cohen (1968), Heath rejected claims that class and race alone caused difficulty in school. She believed that certain language socializations were more compatible with school environments. Being aware of the implications of conceptual styles acquired from a community is valuable information for educators dealing with individual students. Her ethnographic studies aim to demystify language socialization’s effect on school readiness. Essentially, a deeper look into the existing language development of the student better equips educators to continue their growth and teach to specific needs of the students.

Heath has conducted research for decades. Her most notable work, Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms (1996; 1983), was a long-term comparative informational analysis of the three different communities within the Piedmont area of the Carolinas.: Trackton, Roadville, and Maintown, each with “strikingly” different language socialization (Heath, 1982).  She studied children’s language development in each community during nonschool hours to better understand their particular language socialization.

Roadville is a community of white, working-class people. The people of Roadville have a long history of earning a living from the textile mill. The families in the community share a similar culture. Children are taught to respect authority, specifically teachers, work hard, and attend church. The perspective shared by Roadville residents is simple—it is the teacher’s job to educate the student. As long as the parents get the student to class daily, the rest is up to the school. Assistance is rarely given, and grade expectations are minimal (Heath, 1996; 1983). 

Trackton is an African American working-class community. Trackon’s people grew up farming. More recently, however, they work in the mills. It is a small community, and reflects a basic premise that everyone is involved in child-rearing.  Trackton’s 
children roam knowing they have overcome their oppressed past, and rejoice in their promising present (Heath, 1996; 1983).
There is a suburban, middle-class population called Maintown. It best represents the school culture.  The school teachers are residents of Maintown. It is important to realize the teachers’ language socialization differs greatly from the students instructed (Heath, 1996; 1983). A disconnect already exists before the school bell rings. The children of Maintown, both white and African American, have similar cultures. Their culture, also, is similar to the school culture. The people of Roadville and Trackton’s cultures differ from Maintown, and from each other. How does a teacher best accommodate students with such variance in language socialization? Heath seeks the answer to this question.

The commonalities and differences of the three towns demonstrate the need to reject race’s impact on school performance. Truly, after her observations and subsequent analyses, language socialization has a far greater impact on assimilating to the school culture (Heath, 1996; 1983).  

Heath filled two roles during her research in the Piedmonts. As an ethnographer, Heath observed communication and linguistic socialization among children. She recorded details to be analyzed later. As a teacher-trainer, her second role, she used the information to help the area teachers implement the knowledge of specific language differences in classrooms (Heath, 1996; 1983). Integrating her roles of ethnographer and educator, she analyzed the language socialization’s impact on literacy and ways of displaying knowledge in a classroom setting (Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986). 

Heath’s research methodologies are typically, comparative, longitudinal, qualitative, and include long-term fieldwork. She engages in information analysis to infer and compare based on her objective, and extensive, qualitative datasets. In Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms (1996; 1983), Heath used audio recordings and field notes based on objective observation to compile her data. She spent over a decade observing the people of Trackton and Roadville in the Piedmont Carolinas. According to Heath’s web site (, she is adding a longitudinal aspect to her long-term study by following up with the erstwhile children of Trackton and Roadville 35 years later.
The research is not only presented, but also interpreted for practical use. Her data from the Carolinas was used in various studies (Heath, 1982; Heath, 1989). The results of her studies have impacted education and classroom teachers, especially in socioeconomically diverse schools. Heath’s results were used to help teacher’s define their role in language-diverse classrooms (Heath & Mangiola, 1991). Student voice in classroom discourse is imperative. Although students’ primary Discourse was learned it home, it was acquired through interaction and immersion. The secondary Discourse required for school has to be mastered similarly (Gee, 2008). Therefore, classrooms should be language rich, and Heath goes on to recommend creative ways to improve school-based literacy learning for every student (Heath & Mangiola, 1991).
Around the time of her first publication of Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms (1996; 1983) researchers noticed that psychologists, linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, and other fields were coming together to investigate and further child development (Bruner, 1983). Shirley Brice Heath bridged the gap. Her anthropological roots spread into education. It was inevitable, as language socialization is described as “Vygotskian” because of languages central role in socialization, that linguistic anthropology would meet education (Schieffelin, 2008). 
The research described builds empathy in teachers. Walking into a classroom filled with diverse students is daunting. Even worse, however, to know a student’s spirit and linguistic diversity might be crushed by unknowingly dismissing contributions as unintelligible. In actuality, student contributions are more rhythmic, alliterative, or aesthetic in nature. These contributions are often rejected because they do not match the school’s “cultural model” of “being literate”, discussion participation. Taking time to understand the prior socialization of students will instill the empathy necessary to perpetuate the child’s development in school based literacy (Heath, 1982; Heath, 1989; Heath & Mangiola, 1991; Heath, 1996; 1983). 
Cultural models play an important role in analyzing observations of different social groups. A cultural model is a tacit theory that is based on previous experience, assumptions, and learned values. Cultural models change our view of the world. These tacit theories underlie how we understand a concept. For example, “school” has a different cultural model in every community. Even if the model is somewhat similar, there will be some variance (Gee, 2008). 

The Roadville parents see “school” is a place that is completely responsible for educating children. The parents of Maintown, however, place themselves as an important component to a child’s education. More specifically, the cultural model for literacy is extremely different. Imagine sitting down with twenty kindergarteners for a literacy lesson all with different understandings of literacy. Not only the word is different, but its purpose, value, or applicability to an individual. Growing up with a similar cultural model for literacy as the teacher is advantageous when entering the classroom. However, the children of Trackton and Roadville were not exposed to the same language socialization, therefore lacked power in the classroom. Their ways were the incorrect ways, or so they were viewed (Heath, 1996; 1983).  Although Heath did not specifically reference cultural models in Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms (1996; 1983), her assumption that language changes our reality similarly reflects Gee’s (2008) work. 

Shirley Brice Heath’s work is versatile. It aligns itself with other researchers. The research is easily cited when discussing diverse classroom settings or language acquisition. Her work spans anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and education. Her methodologies, interests, and dedication have paved the way for further research in language socialization. As a result of her dedication, she helped teachers balance the power among students in diverse classrooms. 

Using Gee’s Work to Understand Primary and Secondary Discourse (top)

James Paul Gee is member of the National Academy of Education. His book, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses (2008) is used in this article to explore primary and secondary Discourses. More globally, his book is regarded as a foundational work in “The New Literacy Studies.” In “The New Literacy Studies” learning is viewed through multiple lenses including social, cultural, and as it is related to language. 

Gee (2008) reveals there are many types of literacies. This article will focus on “literary literacy”. Discussing literary literacy is definitely an example in engaging a secondary Discourse. However, the sense of self permeates as the students move towards their critically implicit responses based on observations in the text.
James Gee (2008) argues that “what we say, think, feel, and do is always indebted to the social groups to which we have been apprenticed (p. viii).” Gee asserts there are two types of Discourse. The primary Discourse is the sense of self, and secondary Discourses are developed for different social situations. In certain groups primary Discourse is used, where others require a secondary Discourse. Schools often require a shift in Discourse. 
Reading and writing in school is decontextualized. This makes the school-type Discourse difficult to acquire. Gee’s (2008) work in this synthesis of research helps connect students to school in that primary Discourse is used to build on a secondary Discourse in school based literacy. The work of Heath and Gee, together, seemed to call for a smoother transition to school based literacy by manipulating language and making literate activities more personal. 
In the example used in this article, students are required to call upon what they know in order to evaluate children’s literature by published authors. A connection between the students as authors and published authors is made to create level playing field to inspire students to read and evaluate literary works. 

Using Johnston’s Work to Understand the Secondary Discourse and Literate Identity 

Authors are not confined to log cabins and typewriters. Readers are not restricted to ivory towers. An author can be anyone just as a reader can. Everyone is both, just waiting to be recognized. The identity of each should be instilled in everyone. If it is not, it might be the fault of a past teacher. Peter Johnston (2004) reveals the teachers integral role in developing students’ literate identities. 

Essentially, the first identity that needs to change is the teachers. Building a community of readers and authors begins with the teacher releasing control to the students. The standard authoritarian-type relationship must be eliminated to prepare the room for serious identity overhauls. Balancing teachers and students power is more conducive to a learning organization. As the concept “we” breaks through the power differential in classrooms, students begin to take responsibility for learning. Not only are they responsible, but students become the key agents in the construction of knowledge (Johnston, 2004). 

Sometimes a simple twist of a common phrase makes all the difference. A student’s role is often the teacher-pleaser; however, this does not conjure the most independent and intrinsically motivated character. These students long for the phrase “I’m so proud of you” spring from their teacher’s lips. What if, for example, the phrase was slightly altered in a way that actually builds pride in the students rather than the teacher? “You should be proud of yourself (p. 25)” does just that; it effectively gives permission for the student to accomplish tasks for him. It eliminates teacher-pleaser mentalities and instills internal motivation (Johnston, 2004). 

Now that the students are not simply “doing school”, a new identity must replace “student”. This slot can be filled with whatever is necessary to collectively complete a task. For example, when writing, “author” will be used; when reading, “reader”; if students are conducting research, replace with “researcher”. Affixing of labels, of course, will not eliminate the need for instruction; students will need guidance as authors, readers, and researchers. However, the concept of “we” must not be forgotten in these guidance sessions (Johnston, 2004). In the case of this article, the student as “evaluator” will be used to develop a critical eye to evaluate the work of an author. 

Guiding students through learning can be seen, to students, as maturing as learners. More specifically, for example, students mature as readers. Asking a student whether they believe a reading task can be done, instills a since of accomplishment and growth. The student is no longer stagnant in reading, but maturing rapidly, and is in charge of making decisions based on the maturity (Johnston, 2004). 

Choice words (Johnston, 2004) is great tool for using language in the classroom. However, the oversimplification of identity might breed mediocrity. Although Johnston mentions the simplification in the appendices, the selective reader may walk away believing creation of a perfect learning identity can be done in six short phrases. These phrases should be overtly illustrated as examples, where the explanation of the impact is emphasized. Many of the phrases can be generalized to other areas, and expanded if necessary. 

Johnston mentions the need for instruction beyond “identity-leaning conversational prompts (p. 26)”. Once again, however, the message could be received and expressed in an extremely simplistic manner. These phrases should be overtly illustrated as examples, where the explanation of the impact is emphasized. Many of the phrases can be generalized to other areas, and expanded if necessary. It will, undoubtedly, be necessary to modify the language is ways that best fit the individual. While each of the phrases is deliberate and effective, teacher needs to say more than the bold headings listed in the book (Johnston, 2004). 

Johnston, as Allington pointed out in the forward, has written a book that every teacher, quasi-teacher, parent, grandparent, and godparent should read. The impact of words on identity is overwhelming. Each of the phrases and explanations made perfect sense. They are great foundations for creating an incredible learning community (Johnston, 2004). 

Putting it All Together (top)

Students enter school with different understandings of how to “do school.” Some students’ language socialization fits the school mold, while others are in direct opposition (Heath, 1996; 1983). They come to school with a variety of acquired Discourses (Gee, 2008). However, the school Discourse is not often developed. Heath’s work illustrated this point beautifully. Of course, the implications may not have been clear, but Gee helps teachers see that there is no need to change existing Discourses, only to develop others that are more conducive to the school environment. This, of course, differs as teachers transform classroom environments into more authentic learning communities. Finally, Johnston (2004) helps teachers decide what is important enough to include in the Discourse. Also, he provides agentive ways to use language. In this case, literate identities are instilled through critical literacy. Additionally, Johnston’s suggested language use helps eliminate the inequity of power among students. All the students become literate, powerful participants in the classroom. The teacher’s power is also bequeathed to the students, so they become free to critically analyze a text. 

Including a Critical Aspect 

Critical literacy is often, in many contexts, only alluded to in reading instruction. Teachers encourage asking questions while reading, yet do not aim the questions as critical, only as means to understand how “good” readers move through a text to comprehend the intended message of the author. In fact, most questions observed are direct inversions of predictions such as questioning a character’s actions to infer character traits or predict likely future events. 

In the last year, data or text has been posed that require students to formulate their own theories based on the statements of writers, whether they are scientists or science fiction authors. The “what if” questions, or evaluative questions, or statements, were often neglected or conjured to fill a certain blank in comprehension instruction. 

Critical literacy can manifest itself in debates where judgments are based on the reader’s interpretations.  Though debates are common in classrooms, the preparation is not emphasized, therefore ignoring the most important aspect of the debate—the critical stance. It stands to reason that most “sides” are chosen for aesthetic value. This would be, of course, encouraged if students are debating author’s style, but not the content or deeper meaning presented in the text. Essentially, a framework for critical literacy exists in many classrooms, but depth of the questioning hardly meets the criteria for being truly critical. 

The following lesson was used to move towards critical literacy. The students were not confined to asking questions, making connections, or any other reading strategy. In fact, the lesson required students to use multiple strategies, both explicit and implicit, to evaluate a text.   


Eagle Elementary (students and locations are all pseudonyms) is a Title 1 school in a northern suburb of Dallas. All student participants are considered striving readers. The teacher meets with eleven groups for thirty minutes per day. The following lesson was used with third, fourth, and fifth grades. The groups ranged from three to six students.  Each group participated in the same lesson. 

An Example of Research into Practice 

The objective of the lesson was to prompt students to respond to and evaluate text.  The teacher’s role was to read the story. The student roles were to listen, think, respond, evaluate, and enjoy. I wrote “respond” and “evaluate” on a T chart. The chart was filled out after the reading was completed (see figure 1 for student responses and evaluations).

I began the thirty minute lesson by stating because we are all authors it is okay to evaluate other authors’ work. Students were identified as authors. I told them it was okay to evaluate author to author. Students have written many papers in school, therefore were labeled authors. Once their credibility was emphasized, the students were more apt to participate in the evaluation. In fact, they were eager. 

The language built agency and identified students as evaluators. As readers, I stated, we need to think about the author’s intention, and how it affects the reader. I selected Skippyjon Jones and the Big Bones by Judy Schachner for a think aloud. During the reading, I modeled how respond and evaluate. I would stop frequently to point out the author’s craft, style, or feelings I had as a reader.  None of the think aloud comments were written on the chart as I read. It was important to gather the thoughts and interpretations from the students. 

Once the reading was complete, we responded. I started by asking what they noticed about the book? Therefore, it was completely open for any responses. Students were encouraged to point out content or events, text structure, background about the author, illustrations, or anything remembered from the text. All of these responses were listed in the “respond” column. After each response, I asked them how they felt about what they had noticed. Why did the author include it? Did they like it? Would they change it? How did it add to the story? How did it help develop story variants or other aspects of the text? Students were not timid in their evaluations as they had completely assumed the role of “evaluator.” 

About the T Chart (top)

The idea for T chart came from the concept of note-taking/note-making. Students wrote down what they saw in the text, and evaluated what they noticed. The concept of noticing and naming was taken from Johnston work (2004). Asking what students notice frees the answers from judgment. There was no right or wrong answer. In fact, it was not an answer at all. They simply called out observations. More importantly, they reflected what the students thought was interesting from the text. Figure 1 is a chart completed by a fourth grade reading group. 

After completing the chart, I demonstrated how the chart could be turned into a reader response. I used their exact language to create a written response. I added some supplemental words and phrases to make it flow (see figure 2 for the written response).  The students agreed it would be better than any summary or main idea response. The students were extremely engaged as evaluators. (Coincidentally, my principal happened to be evaluating me at the time.) They begged to evaluate another book. 

We read Skippyjon Jones and the Big Bones by Judy Schachner, and we thought she wrote with good voice. It made the book really funny. The book also rhymed, so it made it songie. There were songs and we liked them. The problem was created in the story because Judy made Skippyjon Jones into a bad boy. Skippyjon’s big imagination made the story better. We noticed that Mama Junebug Jones did not get mad at Skippy. We though Judy should have made Mama angry with her son. The dinosaurs died because of Skippy’s stinky breath. We think Los Chimichangos should have attacked the dinosaurs. We liked how Judy Schachner used Spanglish. It helped with the voice. Even though the words sounded Spanish, we could still understand them. We think Judy should use more Spanglish. We liked the pictures because it looked like a child had drawn them. Skippyjon is a Siamese cat that thinks he is a Chihuahua. Judy should write more books like this with different animals. For example, a an animal that thinks it is a blue whale. His name is Skippyjon, but we think Slippyjon would be a funny name if he kept falling over because of his big head. In fact, all of the names Judy uses are funny. It was random when the sisters were all watching Darwin sleep, but it was funny. We think that Skippyjon should start listening to his mom. Also, Skippyjon steals dog bones, and that is a bad influence for kids, but he gets beat up for it. He deserved it because he stole the dog bones. We wish Judy had shown it happening. We think that Skippy’s mom is divorced because there is no father. 

Gradually, over the next few days, responsibility was released to the students. Groups read the same book independently. The student took notes on personal T-charts. Finally, the students evaluated the book as a group on chart paper (see figure 3). 

For an extension, as evaluators, the students are writing letters to their favorite authors in the form of responding and evaluating. First, students completed the T-chart (see figure 4 ). Next, a letter was drafted. Finally, the letter was typed and sent (see figure 5). 

Locating the authors contact information was relatively easy. The easiest authors to contact were those who had official websites. Typically, the authors email was listed under the contact information. If it was not, a general search of their name was sufficient. The email correspondences were returned quickly. However, it was necessary to send letters through the mail as well. Some authors’ addresses could be located on the internet. If no direct contact was found, we wrote to the publisher’s address c/o the author. In these cases, it took longer for a response. 

Authors who have responded to students, at the time of this writing include Nick Bruel, Alan Katz, Diane Ochiltree, Mo Willems, and Rhonda Gowler Green. Ochiltree noted the importance of elaboration with the following quote, “I am very glad that you read books, and have such interesting things to say about what you read.” Additionally, Nick Bruel agreed with a student’s interpretation between two of his characters, and elaborated with an analogy to help the student understand the dynamic relationship. 

The students truly assumed the role of evaluator, and understood that what they say does matter. They are readers, writers, and in this case, evaluators. Their literate identities have been strengthened through the language used and the authentic literate experience. It has also helped the students further develop a critically literate secondary Discourse. 

Digitizing Their Literate Identities 

The students are extremely empowered. They are eating up agency. So, in light of this, we built Literate Identity Webs Sites. Each student finished the sentences “As a reader…”, “As a writer…”, and “I like to write…” Students also recommended books to friends and various types of readers. The sites were published to world. Now, everyone on the planet knows the students in room E103 are readers and writers. 

Reflections (top)

It seems like a lot of research for one lesson, but of course, it is certainly not limited—the possibilities are endless. Many lessons have already stemmed from this framework. Understanding and valuing the language socialization of the students in a classroom is foundational in growing literate citizens. Honoring the primary Discourse of students and inviting it into their literate secondary Discourse. Activating schema (Anderson & Pearson, 1984) from their primary Discourse to strengthen the secondary is paramount in becoming a critical reader. 
The students were intensely engaged, and their sense of agency was exemplified by the careful evaluations provided by the students. They were able to communicate their personal thoughts in an authentic literate environment. It was thrilling to see the students connect with the author.  It also shifted literate power. Students viewed themselves as evaluators, one step above authors. 
The principal, who happened to be observing the teacher for the summative evaluation saw the benefits of the lesson first hand. The principal noticed the struggling readers were empowered, and wrote, “Students were successful in responding and sharing their feelings about the reading they had completed.  Given that these are striving learners, they are very willing to participate in class discussions without fear of making mistakes.” She also commented on the higher order thinking brought on by the lesson; “Students are pushed to think at higher levels.” Although she did not comment directly on the language’s impact on agency, it was clear the lesson exceeded the expectations. It was a great example how research could easily be included in an existing curriculum. 

The teacher credits the research done on language in advancing the significance of literacy.  In the beginning, it was unclear to this author how extensive knowledge of sociolinguistics could be practical in a classroom, but it was transparent in the lessons that followed. It was not simply a change in lessons. It resulted in a radical change of this author’s epistemology (Cunningham & Fitzgerald, 1996). 


Anderson, R. C., & Pearson, P. D. (1984). A schema-theoretic view of basic processes in reading comprehension. technical report no. 306. Cambridge, MA: Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Inc. 

Bruner, J. (1983). Play, thought, and language. Peabody Journal of Education, 60(3, The Legacy of Nicholas Hobbs: Research on Education and Human Development in the Public Interest: Part 1), 60-69. 

Cunningham, J. W., & Fitzgerald, J. (1996). Epistemology and reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 31(1), 36-60. 

Garrett, P. B., & Baquedano-Lopez, P. (2002). LANGUAGE SOCIALIZATION: Reproduction and continuity, transformation and change. Annual Review of Anthropology, 31(1), 339-361. 

Gee, J. P. (2008). Social linguistics and literacies : Ideology in discourses (3rd ed.). London ; New York: Routledge. 

Heath, S. B. (1982). What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school. Language in Society, 11(1), 49-76. 

Heath, S. B. (1989). Oral and literate traditions among black americans living in poverty. American Psychologist, 44(2), 367-73. 

Heath, S. B. (1996; 1983). Ways with words :Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. 

Heath, S. B., & Mangiola, L. (1991). Children of promise: Literate activity in linguistically and culturally diverse classrooms. West Haven, CT: National Education Association. 

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children's learning. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse Publishers. 

Schieffelin, B. B. (2008). Speaking only your own mind: Reflections on talk, gossip and intentionality in bosavi (PNG). Anthropological Quarterly, 81(2), 431-441. 

Schieffelin, B. B., & Ochs, E. (1986). Language socialization. Annual Review of Anthropology, 15, 163-191. 

HomeAboutTeachersDownloadsReaders Theater ScriptsProfessional DevelopmentFor KidsContact

© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.