Exploring habitus and writer identities : an ethnographic study of writer identity construction in the FET phase at two schools in the Western Cape
The purpose of this study is to investigate the writing identities constructed in the Further Education and Training (FET) Phase and the ways in which these identities either strengthen or impede academic writing at university. Success at university is predominantly dependent on students' ability to express their ideas through writing academic essays or assignments in most faculties. However, studies over the past decade highlight the inability of many South African learners, especially those for whom English is not a home language, to succeed at universities. The poor performance of such students is often linked to the lack of adequate preparation in the FET Phase, which is grades 10 to 12, the grades prior to entering first year undergraduate programmes. The significance of this study is that it sheds light on the discourse features of policy, texts, pedagogy and assessment in the FET Phase and the consequences of these for the construction of writers' identities. Further, it foregrounds the ways that policy positions teachers, learners and learning despite diversity in school cultures, identities and histories, and more importantly the ways that unique local pedagogical contexts construct writer identities as a bridge towards engagement in academic essays and the discourses valued at higher institutions. The intention was thus twofold: on the one hand to understand the writer identities constructed in the FET phase and secondly to shed light on the ways that these identities intersect with academic writing, in an attempt to inform first year writing programmes at universities. This was an ethnographic study that included participant observation, interviews with teachers and document analysis of national curriculum policies, grade 12 English Additional language external question papers and first year student texts. The participants were two grade 10 English classes from two schools with different profiles in terms of learner background, linguistic repertoire, and socio-economic circumstances. The rationale for focusing on grade 10 is that it is the first initiation point into the FET Phase and as such an important site to investigate the ways in which writing identities are activated. I thus ‘shadowed’ these learners for two years, up to the end of grade 11. Finally, I analysed first year student texts produced by learners from these two schools in their first year of study at a Cape Town university. In order to engage with my data, I first drew on Bourdieu's concepts of field, habitus and capital, to illuminate the ways in which national policies constructed theories and pedagogies of language teaching and learning, and positioned teachers, as well as the consequences of these policies and positionings for constructing sound writer identities. I then focused on the different organizing practices at the two schools, in order to foreground positionings enacted in local contexts. As a result, the study sheds light on the ways that writer identities were activated at two secondary schools in Cape Town, both of which served a previously disadvantaged population but with one classified as poorly resourced while the other enjoyed the status of a well-resourced school. My study centred on the visible and invisible curricula, the differing kinds of cultural capital they produce and the conversion of this capital into other forms of cultural and symbolic capital (such as access to university) which may eventually be converted to economic capital in the form of access to well-paid kinds of employment. Secondly, I drew on Systemic Functional Linguistics, with its conception of language as socially produced and politically situated and its development by the 'Sydney school' into genre-based pedagogy, as an analytical lens to unpack the language learning and teaching theories underpinning policy documents. This lens was also useful for evaluating the extent to which curriculum, pedagogy and assessment tools inducted learners into the key 'genres of schooling' (such as information report, explanation, and argument) that are necessary for success across the curriculum at school and university. Most importantly, it allowed for a rigorous linguistic analysis of first year student scripts and the extent to which writers managed the three metafunctions, ideational, interpersonal and textual. These metafunctions are the basis for coherent, well-structured, genreappropriate writing. The study found that mismatches between policy framing and the way that writing was taught and assessed in the FET Phase resulted in massive gaps between the writer identities constructed in the FET Phase and the first year writer identities valued at universities. Findings help to pinpoint some of the reasons why particular learners manage to make the transition into tertiary study and why a large number of learners studying through English as an additional language either fail to gain access into university or fail during their first year of study. Finally, findings pointed out the effects of post democracy curriculum shifts and national examinations on classroom discourse and pedagogy, especially in relation to constructing enabling writer identities, and more importantly on the ability of learners making the transition into university to produce academically valued texts in their first year of study.