It’s Investment, My Dear Watson!

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No, this is not a blog about Sherlock Homes. It’s about investment, a termed coined by linguist Bonny Norton.[1]

Bonny Norton is one of my favourite linguists. She takes a critical, post-structuralism theory approach to explain how adults become engaged (or disengaged) with their own second language (L2) learning. For those of you who are new to this topic, post-structuralism looks at language from the perspective of language as capital, dominance/non-dominance, and possibilities.

Norton’s view – as I understand it – goes beyond grammar acquisition and cultural competence. It focuses more on the learner’s need to be and feel part of a community of practice, to feel accepted, and to be legitimized – where the target language (L2) symbolizes access to jobs, career progression, and recognition. This concept is of particular significance in a LINC and adult ESL context, where some students come with degrees and qualifications, but lack required language skills and work experience. LINC and adult ESL students that fall in a professional category need to be in an environment that legitimizes their aspirations and identity; otherwise the learning loses its purpose and significance.

Investment formula:

professional category + legitimization = success

Norton calls this formula for success ‘investment.’ Her research shows that without investment, L2 adult learners lose interest and, as a result, give up and stop attending L2 classes.

To clarify, investment is not to be confused with motivation. In a classroom environment, motivation has more to do with positive feedback, grades, and tokens. Motivation, in this context, follows Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs, which is meant to help teachers propel students’ desire to want to learn. In other words, motivation is meant to engage students into liking course content and performing to classroom expectation. As such, motivation is a humanistic approach aimed at enhancing individualistic needs. Investment, on the other hand, is sociocultural – as such, it is collaborative and participatory.

Although motivation is important, Norton notes that it is the student’s investment in their learning that is pivotal to both retention and the L2 student’s feeling of belonging. Therefore, L2 students need to feel part of a community which extends beyond the one inside their classroom. For investment to work, students need to be given opportunities to imagine being members of their chosen groups to see the value of learning.

How can we as language teachers do this?

The suggestions below are meant for intermediate to advanced students. However, they could be adapted to meet the needs of beginners by incorporating visuals and role-playing (students can follow a script or template).


  1. Getting to know our students’ career goals and interests so learning material is related to their community of practice;
  2. Creating mini-communities inside our classroom so students can begin to network and develop job readiness skills that match their interests;
  3. Recognizing our students’ expertise in their field and past work experiences through activities that include both “show and tell” and presentations.
  4. Mounting a career bulletin board and having students bring in job advertisements to begin noticing and adjusting to the Canadian job market. Students could also keep a list of specific job requirements to begin creating a career goal checklist and portfolio;
  5. Inviting guest speakers (be sure to secure permission from administration). Preferably, invitees should be new residents or Canadians that share similar past experiences.
  6. Developing a personal brand. We could help our students with their one-minute elevator talk by having them introduce themselves using their professional brand (instead of the usual personal introduction).

Why wait until students reach level 5 or 6 to be exposed to English for specific purposes? They should be able to see that their ‘investment’ has value from the very start.

What do you do in your classroom to help students’ sense of investment? Please share!

[1] If you want to learn more about ‘investment’, I highly recommend that you read Norton’s article available in TESOL Quarterly, Vol.29, No.1, Spring 1995, and her 2011 article (along with Kelleen Toohey) published in Language Teaching, Vol. 44, No. 4.



8 thoughts on “It’s Investment, My Dear Watson!”

  1. Cecilia, I think you’re spot on about investment. I had been teaching an SLT course for about 5 years, and one project that I gave my learners really stands out. They were my retail class, who would go on to do a placement at Home Depot.

    The project I gave was to redesign the landscaping of our inner courtyard at school – well, come up with a plan. There were a number of elements involved that made good use of their professional backgrounds. The architects (2) were directing the design of the plan, the accountants or banking professionals looked after the finances, the managers organized who did what, etc. There was a role for everyone.

    These learners were so invested that I often had to tell them it was time to go home.

    Knowing the learners’ backgrounds is key to developing a language course that takes full advantage of their skills. I love project based learning!

  2. That’s amazing! I applaud you, your students, and your program administrators. Everyone needs to be invested in the idea of creating communities of practice to execute programs that challenge the old, traditional ways of teaching. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hmmm, I’m not sure if this concept would apply to my classes. One is a multi-level class for seniors. They are all retired and not seeking jobs. However, they yearn for social integration. My afternoon class is literacy. They aren’t thinking about jobs at this point, either.

    1. Good points Kelly. However, investment can take many forms. Work life is just one example of it.
      For your golden agers, going to class might be all the investment they need. As you stated, their main aspiration Is to use the class as a social avenue. Do they like to talk about their experiences?
      Although, your literacy group might not be thinking about working just yet – they probably have a vision of who they can be. Investment is grounded on aspirations. Imagine the possibilities!

  4. I read Jen’s comment more closely and now I understand a bit better. That project sounds SO cool. In my seniors class, I have (all retired): two physicians, one chemist, one physics teacher, an aerospace engineer… What couldn’t we do? We could probably fly to the moon if we had the budget. How can I harness all this expertise? I need someone who thinks like Jen. One of my students was in the paper because he started growing rice in an empty lot.

  5. I have experience on the ELT class, all the teaching ways mention above is very helpful to me but the downside is that my CLB mark is not recognized in the real field. However, I still invest my time in this course as it helps me improve my authentic English.

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