Identity Markers in Educational Material for Language Arts

by Alma Rivera Collazo

The development of language arts skills is essential for learning and schooling. In some cases, the only experience children and young people have with print material – and the meanings contained therein – occurs in the classroom through curricula that has been chosen as part of an educational and language policy or planning process.

Lo Bianco (2010) states that it is “in the transfer from home to school [that] the language of learning is decided, and the messages, overt and covert, which this transfer signifies, are conveyed” (164). Since language is intrinsically linked to identity, the texts presented to children could include markers for the construction of their own identities. The educational authority can use text selection to influence the process of identity-formation in students.

After working in the educational publishing industry in Puerto Rico for more than eight years, I have become increasingly aware of the complexities of this process. Effective curriculum has to consider the mandates of the departments or ministries of education, and the standards and expectations established as performance goals. But the texts included in the curriculum have the potential to do more than educate; they shape the context where learning takes place and can play a significant role in the development of students' self-concept and identity. My work as an educational researcher and a doctoral student in Caribbean Literatures and Languages of the English-speaking Caribbean has allowed me to explore the importance of language in the educational process and its role in the social and economic progress of the individual.

The influence that educational material can have on children is particularly relevant during preadolescence and adolescence. Erickson states that this developmental stage is characterized by the construction of identity (Moshman, 2005, 76). Moje and Luke (2009) describe the relationship between literacy and adolescence as a process that focuses on the construction of identity and the development of the self. Being aware of the importance of the content of educational material, specifically for this stage of development, I chose to review the texts Language Tree: Student’s Book 6 from the Macmillan series, Primary Language Arts for the Caribbean, and Keskidee: Integrated Language Arts for the Caribbean – Pupils’ Book 7 from Pearson Longman. In this essay I will discuss some of the literary selections included in the textbooks, their authors, messages, and identity markers included, and some of the language activities.

Selection of texts and authors 

Language Tree and Keskidee have a comparable distribution of fiction and non-fiction selections Keskidee– 11 fiction and 7 non-fiction; Language Tree – 14 fiction and 9 non-fiction). On the MacMillan Caribbean webpage, the company states that the course material was written “through a close collaboration between experienced teachers and Language Arts specialists.” The readers also include writings from well-known authors. Most of these authors are of Caribbean origin. Non-Caribbean authors included are British or Canadian – places with well-known links to the Caribbean.

Topics related to identity 

Caribbean Ancestry

The first identity marker I would like to highlight is the ancestry of Caribbean people. Language Tree addresses this issue more extensively than Keskidee. There are two selections related to Africa (“The Shield of Kindness” and “How to Make Cornrows”), and one related to the Amerindian or indigenous inhabitants (“Aximu’s Awakening”). “The Shield of Kindness” is based on an Ethiopian fable that teaches the true meaning of kindness as being kind to your enemies. “How to Make Cornrows” teaches children how to braid their hair in this “traditional African hair art” (130). Through fiction and non-fiction texts, children are able to link African traditions with values and to relate a common and “cool” fashion with a centuries-old tradition that might have initiated in Africa.

The representation of Amerindians in Language Tree is very interesting. A poem, “Aximu’s Awakening,” written by the Jamaican author Pamela C. Mordecai, tells the story of the first sight of the Spanish vessels by Aximu, an indigenous child. What makes this representation significant is the use of illustrations to supplement meaning. Indigenous inhabitants are illustrated with a lighter color than the other illustrations of people in the book. Their houses are portrayed as being triangular, somewhat like a Native American teepee. Most Caribbean indigenous people are from Arawak origin and their houses will most likely be similar to those of the South American tribes. These are common misrepresentations that can lead to confusion in the development of important concepts related to Caribbean history.

There is not much explicit reference to race in either book, with the exception of “A Biography of Jennifer Hosten” (112) in Language Tree. This is the story of the first “non-white woman to win the title of Miss World.” The story of this Grenadian is very interesting, and she may serve as a role model, not only in terms of race, but also of gender. Not considering the folklore characters included in other texts, this might be one of the only representations of women, although, there is a balanced inclusion of girls and boys in the illustrations of the publications. Both books represent black boys and girls almost exclusively. Due to the importance of African descent in Caribbean societies, this representation is a positive identity marker. On the other hand, Language Tree appears to have given more importance to the aspect of diversity in Caribbean societies. This publication includes depictions of diverse children (38 and 135). It is also the only book to portray characters with Chinese features.


Both books work very well in representing sceneries with which the students can identify. These texts showcase environments from the Greater Caribbean. Places such as the rainforest (which could be experienced both in the islands and continental Caribbean) are described in “Rainforest Trip” (14) and “Climate Wipes Out Frogs” (20). Others places are very specific, such as in the poem “Darlington,” which describes a coastal region in Jamaica (94). The sea is referenced only in Keskidee (“Sea Timeless Songs” and “Hymns to the Sea”).


Language Tree includes texts with references to Caribbean folk tales. Because of the relevance of Caribbean folkloric characters and their prevalence in almost every Caribbean society, this is particularly significant. In “The Dancing Lady” (26), we are told the story of an encounter with a possible la diablesse or jablesse. Skilled ears would recognize the folkloric character after the author mentions an important characteristic: “this creature had a cow’s foot” (27). “Compère Tigre and The Princess” includes a significant introduction from the author, Esther O’Neale (Grenada). She refers to the tales she heard from her grandmother and the tradition of the trickster tale. The importance of oral tradition in maintaining the essence of Caribbean societies is stressed.

Finally, a very short text (“A Night I will Never Forget”) follows the tradition of “The Dancing Lady” by telling a mysterious story with a folkloric character. It is not until the end that the reader is given the clue for the identification: “A small man, about three feet high, with his feet turned backwards” (149). The tradition of the ciguapo might not be common to all Caribbean societies. This character manifests in some Caribbean societies as a figure similar to the duennes or douens. Both live in the forests and lure humans to them with different intentions. The figure of the ciguapa is very common in Dominican Republic’ folklore and the ciguapo is part of the folklore of Cuba.


Another identity marker is the use of language. With just a few exceptions, all material is written in Standard English. None of the texts reviewed in Language Tree use or make reference to Caribbean English, Creole/Patois dialects. Keskidee includes a very interesting exercise of working with verbs in Creole and in Standard English. The exercise presents a paragraph written “in dialect” and asks, “Can you write this in Standard English?” It clearly specifies that the paragraph represents a conversation the boy is having with “his school friend in dialect,” and continues: “If he wrote this in his school book he would not use dialect” (23). The inclusion of this statement seems to establish a boundary for the use of “dialect”. The message is clear: it is not appropriate to write in dialect in a schoolbook.

Some Caribbean authors have explored issues related to education and language. An example of this exploration can be seen in the novel School Days from Patrick Chamoiseau. In this text, this Martinican author describes the process of establishing a “language of learning” (as described by Lo Bianco) in a most powerful way. After school forced Chamoiseau’s character, a primary school student, to suppress his mother tongue, the narrator tells us: “His little inner voice grew ashamed; his natural chattiness deteriorated into an illicit activity” (65). And then, “Creole wasn’t used anymore to say nice things […] It became the language of bad guys, thugs, and delinquent crazy-buggers” (66). The turn-around of the boy’s familiar language to a scary and dangerous form of expression is something that needs to be taken very seriously.

The provision of markers to help our children construct their identity should include the promotion of opportunities for them to feel free to use their “mama-language.” There are ample examples of Creole languages used beautifully in literary texts that could be incorporated into language arts textbooks to educate about language diversity in the region and the way creative writers have valorized Creole. The value of using the first language as a foundation for learning the other languages students need for academic success and for life, has also been explored, researched and applied effectively in many educational arenas in the world. We cannot allow a mamma language to be turned into “the language of bad guys.” This is something that educational planners and policy makers should definitively consider.


Bharat, Meenakshi (2003). The ultimate colony: the child in postcolonial fiction. New Delhi: Allied Publishers.

Lo Bianco, Joseph (2010). “Language policy and planning” in Sociolinguistics in Language and Education. Ed. Nancy H. Hornberger and Sandra Lee McKay. New York: Multilingual Matters.

Educational Books: Primary School Books. MacMillan, 2012. Web. April 20, 2013.

Moje, E. B., & Luke, A. (2009). Literacy and identity: Examining the metaphors in history and contemporary research. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(4), 415-437.

Moshman, D. (2005). Adolescent psychological development: Rationality, morality, and identity. Erl- baum, Mahwah, NJ.


About the author

Alma Rivera-Collazo was born in Puerto Rico where she lives with her husband, three kids, a dog and a cat. Her work as an educational researcher has focused on literacy development and the consequences of reading difficulties. As a doctoral student in the Caribbean Literatures and Languages of the English-speaking Caribbean program at the University of Puerto Rico, she is exploring the areas of language acquisition and bilingualism. She worked for more than eight years in the educational publishing industry producing curricula for all educational levels. She is a published author of two children books. Other publications include support material for teachers and administrators on pedagogical skills and methods, and on issues such as bullying and violence prevention.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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  1. Thank you for those illustrations about the natural gender selection technique and the effects of those techniques. I am also going to use them myself because I have doubt on other methods.