A Conversation with Dr. Bonny Norton


by Natalia Balyasnikova

[This article was first printed in the Fall 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

BC TEAL sat down with Dr. Bonny Norton, one of BC TEAL’s 50 at 50, to discuss current issues in language teaching and learning. Dr. Norton is a Professor and Distinguished University Scholar in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Her extensive publications and research focus on identity and language learning, critical literacy, and international development. More information about Dr. Norton’s research can be found at http://faculty.educ.ubc.ca/norton.

Thank you for agreeing to talk with us today. The first question we have is what brought you and inspired you to do the work in the field of language education?

I was born in South Africa, which is a multilingual country, but I was aware at a young age that some languages were considered more powerful than others. Because of this, I became interested in learning how language can be used to promote democracy, rather than perpetuate inequality.

I started my profession as a high school teacher, and then proceeded to more advanced degrees in applied linguistics and sociolinguistics. I was very interested in language as a social practice, and the ways in which identities get constructed through different language practices.

I’ve been very privileged to be an academic, because I have been able to pursue the questions I am passionate about. The connection between theory and practice is very important to me, and the link between them is often research. How does practice inform theory and how does theory inform practice?

And speaking more locally, how did you start your journey with BC TEAL?

Wherever I go, I like to connect locally, because this is where I live and these are the people I see on a day-to-day basis. It also provides another research site for my work. When I did my PhD degree in Toronto and lived in the Toronto area, I did research in that context. It was very interesting and rewarding. When I came to BC, I thought: “What are the local issues I need to address and in what ways is British Columbia different from Ontario?” I immediately got involved in the BC TEAL organization, because this is where ideas are debated, where work gets done, where research findings are shared. I’ve been an active member of BC TEAL ever since I arrived in British Columbia, which was over twenty years ago.

This year you were named among BC TEAL’s 50 at 50. What does it mean for you to have this distinction?

I am greatly honoured to be recognized that way. I was at the ceremony when we were all recognized, and it was wonderful to be part of a group of colleagues that I respect so much. It was a privilege to see that my work has had some impact locally, as one of my goals is to work both globally and locally.

You have been in the profession for many years. How have you seen the field change over this time?

It has certainly grown enormously. Applied linguistics as a field is 30-40 years old, and I was in the second generation, learning from those who had established the field. The field of applied linguistics and language learning has multiple dimensions, which can be seen partly though the increasing diversity of academic journals, and the growth of impact of these journals.

Because English is a very important part of our world, it raises many questions for educators: What does it mean for practice, for policy, for local languages?

The theme of this issue is Reaching Out with Technology. How do you see the connect ion between technology and language learning?

As technology became more powerful, one of my first tasks as a professor was to develop my own website, which has many resources. Having my work on a website makes access much easier for many students, particularly in poorly resourced communities. Thus technology can be very powerful in democratizing information flows. In 2006 I also helped set up the Africa Research Network on Applied Linguistics and Literacy, to ensure that people in more remote parts of the word are part of our global professional conversation.

Through technology we can make language more accessible, and we can use digital systems so that people can learn languages by reading, by listening, and through other multimodal means. At the same time—if you look at the work of Ron Darvin—we have to ask who is not part of this conversation? We need to be cautious about embracing technology unthinkingly. We need to understand what innovations works best, what some of the downsides are, and how we can use technology for democratic purposes.

Speaking of that, what are some of the challenges and opportunities in using technology for language learning or with language learners?

Well, this is where research comes in. You go into classrooms and schools, you go into families and community centres, and you see how people are using technology. You need resources in many parts of Africa that many people take for granted in wealthy regions of the world. However, even in poorly resourced parts of the world, the cellphone is ubiquitous. As a result, many of our projects are geared towards the use of the cellphone, such as our Storybooks Canada project. That’s the beauty of technology: we can promote multilingualism and mother tongue maintenance by having open access stories in English, French, and home languages. We are only limited by our imagination.

How do you think the practice of language teaching is going to change with the increase of technology?

One exciting feature of technology is that computers are very patient; you can repeat the same exercise until you are confident of your understanding. For example, with Storybooks Canada, if children don’t understand the story the first time, they can listen to it again, reflect on the illustrations, and discuss it with friends. This process is very learner-centred, and can help children pace themselves. Teachers have limited time, so they can refer students to websites and materials for self-directed learning.

At the same time, the human connection is always important and language is central to this connection. Even though we have technology, we still want to have human interaction as well. People want to be able to feel comfortable in the classroom, to go to a store and use the language. While the human element will always be there, technology is entering those conversations in multiple and diverse ways. In fact, people are saying that knowing how to use technology is now a human right. We help our learners by teaching them language through technology. As the world changes, we must keep up with that changing world.

In your opinion, what is the most important thing to remember, while working with language learners?

At some level it depends on what age you are working with; you can have one type of conversation with a child and another with an adult. Sometimes adults feel infantilized in our language classrooms. We must always remember that while a language learner’s English might be limited, they have a wealth of knowledge in their mother tongues. We need to value our learners as people who have complex identities, histories, and talents that go beyond the identity of the language learner.

In many ways, children have different needs. I try to encourage teachers to consider the talents of children beyond language proficiency, and to help other children recognize the multiple talents that language learners have. Children need to see that their peers are not just language learners; they are also musicians, artists, swimmers, and soccer players, with extensive knowledge of their mother tongue. This will help language learners connect with others, build relationships, and improve their language learning.

We would like to conclude with your advice to those just starting their teaching journeys. What would to say to them?

Good language teachers are also good teachers. Language learners need to learn language as a linguistic system—the formal structures of the language—but they also need to understand language as a social practice – how to connect with the wider community. How can teachers expand possibilities for learners to engage more broadly, while learning the language? Teachers can help students develop a wide range of identities inside and outside the classroom. I often talk about language learners being ethnographers of their communities who can bring their observations and questions back to the classroom. If students see themselves as ethnographers and not just language learners, they have more powerful identity positions in the wider community. In a way, teachers are cultural brokers between their students and the social world, and are ideally placed to help students make connections between the classroom, the home, and the community.

At the same time, there are many unexpected events in the classroom, and teachers must navigate the unexpected. Flexibility helps teachers find the best fit between pedagogy, curriculum, and the needs of individual students. I’ve been a teacher for 30 years and I am always learning, trying out new ideas, and continually reassessing my practice. This is what makes teaching such an exciting and rewarding profession. If I have a bad day, I can start again tomorrow!

Biographical Information

From the Fall 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Natalia Balyasnikova is a PhD Candidate in TESL and a sessional instructor at the University of British Columbia. (Editor’s Note:  Dr. Balyasnikova has now completed her PhD program, and she is an assistant professor at York University.)

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Balyasnikova, N. (2017, Fall). A Conversation with Dr. Bonny Norton. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/TEAL-News-Fall-2017.pdf


Promising Practices: A Peer-led English Conversation Program that Works


by Natalia Balyasnikova

[This article was first printed in the Summer 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

I came to Canada in 2013 as a PhD student at the University of British Columbia; however, my most influential and transformative learning occurred when I started volunteering as an English language facilitator at the UBC Learning Exchange, located in the Downtown Eastside. I was so enraptured by the program and the way it was set up, that in 2015 I proposed to interview other facilitators in the English Conversation program in order to find out what encourages them to volunteer. I was hired by the UBC Learning Exchange to conduct this study and single out promising practices from the perspective of the volunteers, who facilitate English language conversation groups. In this article, I would like to share some of these practices in the hope that other community-based practitioners would find them useful for their work.

A historical sketch

The UBC Learning Exchange is a community-engagement initiative of the University of British Columbia. Founded with a goal to find ways to link the University of British Columbia to Downtown Eastside community groups, to this day the Learning Exchange continues to bring together people from different walks of life and experiences. Over the years, building on multiple strengths of a vibrant Downtown Eastside community, the Learning Exchange has grown from a drop-in computer workshop to a well-known presence in the community, offering a range of workshops, public talks, and educational and arts-based programs.

One of the programs at the Learning Exchange is English Conversation. This program aims not only to develop the conversational proficiency of language learners but also to provide them with opportunities to gain confidence and leadership skills. The program is divided into four levels of English language proficiency and is led by community and university volunteers.

The learners are typically allowed to take one English language class per week during a 10-week session. English as an Additional Language (EAL) conversation groups meet for 75-minute sessions once a week for ten weeks to discuss a range of topics chosen by the program coordinator and student staff. These topics include cultural holidays, Canadian traditions and customs, popular culture, famous people, internationally famous places, etc. Additionally, there is free reading material that could be interesting for adult EAL learners, such as the West Coast Reader and Canadian Immigrant available for all learners of the program to read at the centre or take home. During each session, learners use various worksheets with a short text and follow-up questions that guide their conversations. The role of the facilitator in the class is to use the worksheet as a starting point for their class and to encourage learners to speak as much as they can. Facilitators are encouraged to choose topics that they think could be interesting to learners in their group; some of the more experienced facilitators bring their own worksheets or use the reading material provided by the centre in their classes.

All learners are free to use Learning Exchange resources such as free access to computers and Wi-Fi or attend free workshops for learning computer skills. They can also spend time at the centre having coffee or tea, reading, or socializing with other language learners and other patrons of the centre.

Volunteer community

The facilitator community is quite diverse; there are both native and non-native speakers of English who lead the classes. However, similar to the learners, many of the facilitators are either retired or currently not employed and are residents of the area where the Learning Exchange is located. Moreover, many of the facilitators are non-native speakers who have previously attended the program and advanced to higher levels of proficiency. One of the salient characteristics of this community is the peer-to-peer nature of interaction in and outside the classroom.

Most facilitators in the Learning Exchange do not have substantial pedagogical training. In order to make their transition into a facilitator role an easier one, the incoming volunteers are required to participate in a series of training workshops delivered by the coordinator of the English Conversation Program. (Currently the facilitator training program is being restructured to offer more holistic and diverse training for incoming facilitators.) During the course of these workshops, the incoming volunteers are presented with the goals of the EAL program, the philosophy behind the Learning Exchange, class management techniques, foundations of intercultural communication, and other topics that are relevant for the context they are entering as facilitators. The training workshops run in tandem with facilitators’ first classes. This gives the novice facilitators an opportunity to put the workshop materials into practice. Upon the completion of the workshop series, the new facilitators are assigned a group of learners and begin their volunteering with the Learning Exchange. At times, these facilitators are given an opportunity to team-teach the first sessions and to collaborate with more experienced facilitators. In addition to facilitating, some volunteers are allowed to take other classes offered by the Learning Exchange. For example, at the time of this study, some EAL facilitators were enrolled in the Spanish language classes offered by volunteers.

Promising practices

I must acknowledge that adult language and literacy programs are diverse and pursue different goals. For this reason, it is hard to give clear best practices that will undoubtedly work in any context. Nevertheless, there are promising practices that I have noticed at the English Conversation program. I believe they could be applied across various contexts. The three promising practices that I have observed in the Learning Exchange are 1) development of the English Conversation program as a community of practice 2) sustaining of an informal context of learning and interaction and 3) recognition of experiences shared by learners and facilitators and building upon them.

The English conversation program as a community of practice

The first promising practice is sustaining the English Conversation program as a community of practice. It’s a model of volunteer/learner support that can enhance many programs that rely on volunteers in their work.

A community of practice is an organizational model that was developed by Etienne Wenger. A community of practice is first and foremost a joint enterprise, whose members share a repertoire, activities, and mutually support each other. Through their participation in shared activities, the members of a community of practice move from novice to expert status simultaneously drawing upon and contributing to the strengths of the community. While communities of practice can be quite diverse, they have specific characteristics that distinguish them from formal professional groups. The main difference is that the purpose of a community of practice is to develop individual potential by encouraging knowledge exchange among members who select themselves.

The volunteers at the Learning Exchange are participating in a community of practice and thrive through doing so. First, they are engaged in a joint enterprise of facilitating English language conversational groups, and, due to a pre-established curriculum, share a repertoire, both pedagogical and conceptual. Second, they participate in shared activities, such as facilitator training workshops, and feel the necessity to continue doing so. Third, as facilitators move from the novice status to a more experienced one, they grow in confidence to add their knowledge to enrich the practices at the centre, while still relying on those who are located in the centre of the community—the core staff and student staff—for support in some cases. These changes inform the growth of the program and add to the reasons why facilitators continue to stay active with the program. As communities of practice, adult EAL programs can be maintained through the commitment of individuals and their interest in sustaining their group.

Informal context of learning and interaction

The second promising practice that I observed in the Learning Exchange is the informal context that shapes the interaction between the learners and the facilitators. Facilitators and learners are engaged in a collaborative learning practice that benefits both learners and volunteer facilitators and constructs this learning community of practice. In the Learning Exchange, facilitator/learner roles are multilayered and fluid in nature. Some of the facilitators are non-native speakers of English, others are not experienced teachers of English. Despite this, they bring strengths to the community. For example, the non-native speakers of English bring an understanding of the challenges that learners face. At the same time, they are increasing their language proficiency through leading the classes. More importantly, facilitators maintain their roles as learners, albeit more experienced ones, in their interaction with novice learners. Native English speaking facilitators bring knowledge about life in Canada and some culturally-specific aspects of language use. At the same time, they develop awareness about challenges that newcomers to Canada face in their everyday interactions with native speakers of English. The Learning Exchange has created a system of informal interactions between people, which supports both learners and facilitators and ensures their persistence in the educational setting.

Recognition of experiences shared by learners and facilitators

The third promising practice at the Learning Exchange is that the program takes individual lives into account and draws upon members’ shared life experiences. Because of this, volunteers at the Learning Exchange have deep altruistic motives for volunteering and they appreciate feeling needed and being in demand. They share the experience of trying to learn a new language, learning at a mature age, or understanding the importance of access to education. This attests to the power of altruism and community-building in adult learning contexts where learners might struggle due to their socio-economic status, level of education, or language proficiency.


In this short article, I wanted to introduce the UBC Learning Exchange that grew from one program into a multifaceted community-engagement initiative that is trusted and respected by many members of the community. Moreover, I wanted to highlight three promising practices elaborated in the English Conversation program. These practices stood out for me during a small-scale study conducted in 2015. These three practices are: 1) development of the English Conversation program as a community of practice 2) sustaining of an informal context of learning and interaction, and 3) recognition of experiences shared by learners and facilitators and building upon them. The English Conversation at the Learning Exchange is driven and sustained by volunteers, some of whom are former learners—and that is perhaps the greatest strength of this program. If you would like to learn more about UBC Learning Exchange and work done there, please visit their website.


I would like to thank Spring Gillard, UBC Learning Exchange English Conversation Coordinator, and Angela Towle, UBC Learning Exchange Academic Director, for their support and feedback on this article.

Biographical Information

From the Summer 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Natalia Balyasnikova has collaborated on a range of research and outreach projects with community-based initiatives in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Her research explores English language education in community-based settings, and through this work Natalia aims to support older adults learning English as an additional language.


This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Balyasnikova, N. (2017, Summer). Promising practices: A peer-led English conversation program that works. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Summer-2017.pdf


My Experience with English: The Game of Chutes and Ladders


By Natalia Balyasnikova

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

Drawing inspiration from Suresh Canagarajah’s article titled: “Teacher development in a global profession: An autoethnography” (Canagarajah, 2012) in this article I examine my own journey from an English language classroom at a Russian school to a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) doctoral program at the University of British Columbia (UBC). I see my academic life experiences as a process of socialisation to various communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) that shapes who we are and what we do.

At the start

It seemed that the rigor, efficiency and devotion to quality I had so admired in 1989 had been undermined” Rosabi (1991).

I started learning English at the age of 11, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I was learning new strange sounds and words, the country around me was changing. Perestroika brought new hopes and excitement for the people, along with the confusion and loss of all existing social and educational paradigms. English was not among my favourite subjects in school. I was not a good student, and my teachers had nothing nice to say to me. “She will never speak a foreign language because she doesn’t understand the rules,” I overheard one of my teachers telling my mother. The teaching methodology heavily relied on the grammar-translation method, with very little emphasis on practice. Even younger learners memorized densely worded grammatical rules formulated by Soviet linguists, and failing to repeat the rule word by word resulted in low grades. Very little attention was paid to students’ individual learning styles, visual support, group work, and creative tasks. The results of this teaching philosophy for me were devastating: after completing six years of English language courses in school, my proficiency was limited to memorized dialogues, poems, and short monologues about my family, my hobbies, and myself. I felt zero confidence in speaking because I was terrified of making a mistake. The label of “not capable” has become a part of my learner identity and I have struggled to prove otherwise.

Going up a ladder…

In 1996, my mother took me to the USA, where she was working as a visiting professor at Brown University. I arrived in the US without any background knowledge about this country. Because of my limited English language proficiency, I attended special classes with other ESL students. Our classes were nothing but fun, and I enjoyed coming to class. It was a safe space, free from direct judgment. In contrast to my previous experience, this community was democratic and free from “negative labelling” (Labov, 1982). This is where I learned the power of positive reinforcement and a collaborative learning environment, where everything from posters on the walls to stickers used for grading were designed to increase students’ interest and motivation. This pedagogical model had its own impact on me. While I felt like an outsider during the lunch break, I thrived in my ESL classes and saw this education as a fun after school club where we played games and sang songs.

…or down a chute?

My return to Russia was traumatic: I came back with an accent in my native language and giant gaps in my theoretical knowledge about the English language. All those games and songs left me completely unprepared for the exams required to graduate from high school and enter university. I could speak, but I had a hard time with writing, spelling and grammar. I again felt incapable. I had to hit the books and cram for entrance exams. Has anything changed since I was in elementary school? Not much. This transformation from a fluent speaker to a struggling student wasn’t easy and unfortunately my experience is not unique. Many returning students have to learn how to adapt to different educational systems and expectations and they have to do so very quickly.

Climbing up…

“A contemporary teacher of English in Russia is less educated theoretically and more pragmatically oriented” Ter-Minasova (2005)

When I graduated from university, brand new diploma in hand, I was a trained teacher. What that really meant was that I was, as Canagarajah writes, filled with a “blur of confusing terms and labels” (Canagarajah, 2012) of theories, methods, and approaches all mixed in together with extensive knowledge in literature, linguistics, history of the UK and the USA, comparative pedagogy, but little teaching practice. For me, having a solid theoretical knowledge in linguistics, psychology, theories of language acquisition, approaches to teaching, and classroom techniques was crucial to becoming a teacher. Recently, however, the increased mobility of many Russians, the possibilities of travelling to English speaking countries, and the influx of native-speakers have weaken the positions of theoretically trained, but less proficient professionals. This brought other issues to light, such as the quality of materials used for teaching, native-speaker privilege, and high labour turnover. I had two jobs: as a university instructor and as a teacher at a private language school. At the private language school where I worked, my students explicitly expressed that they needed to learn “survival English” for communicative purposes. I had to play the role of an English speaking, ever-happy entertainer, and a guidebook for tourists. At university, I had to project an image of a serious, scholarly, reserved lecturer. Important lesson here – while the private sector of the EFL world in Russia was moving towards a client-service provider model in education, the formal education sector still valued “correct” British English, a “correct” way of teaching, and teachers’ authority in class. Learning to navigate between these two diverse communities was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I have lived through the turning point in English language teaching in Russia and had to learn to navigate from the periphery to the centre of the community of practice at the same time when the community itself was undergoing a major change.

…and starting over

After 12 successful years as a teacher of English in Russia, I decided to come to Canada for a doctorate degree. I left my job, family, and friends to start a new chapter of my life in one of the best universities in the world. And again I am learning: new words, new literacies, and new ways of being. This learning process brings new questions. As a former teacher, I wonder if those of us, who return to the “battlefield” of teaching practice will ever be recognized for trying to implement all of our complex theories in their classrooms. Nevertheless, I am hopeful. I have been fortunate to experience different teaching systems, styles, and methods. The fact that as a child I had been exposed to different styles of teaching, allowed me to develop my own teaching practice by calling on all my lived experience. Therefore, my learner’s story can provide yet another argument in favor of the exchange of experiences and the collaborative search for best practices. Had my teachers been exposed to other teaching philosophies or given freedom to experiment with alternative approaches to teaching, my learner’s identity would have been formed in a very different way. However, years of formal training in linguistics, history, and literature are helping me in my studies in graduate school. This is another message I am hoping to send by sharing my story: learn from your students; talk to your colleagues, especially those who come from other countries, and most importantly don’t be discouraged if you find yourself at the starting point again. Never stop learning and this transformation will be a ladder you can use to climb up again.


Canagarajah, S. (2012). Teacher development in a global profession: an autoethnography. TESOL Quaterly, 46(2), pp. 258-279.

Labov, W. (1982). Objectivity and commitment in linguistic science: The case of the Black English trial in Ann Arbor. Language in Society, 11(2), pp. 165-202

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Rossabi, M. (1991). The ball keeps rolling. Independent School, 51(1), 25.

Ter-Minasova, S. (2005). Traditions and innovations: English language teaching in Russia. World Englishes, 24 (4), pp. 445–454

Biographical Information

From the Winter 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Natalia Balyasnikova was a doctoral student in Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada at the time of this article. Originally from Russia, Natalia moved to Canada in 2013 to pursue her degree in TESL with a focus on adult education, community-based research, and intercultural communication.


This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Balyasnikova, N. (2016, Winter). My Experience with English: The Game of Chutes and Ladders. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-TEAL-Newsletter-Winter-2016-FINAL.pdf