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Tracked identities, resistance, and cultural production of yeongpoja : critical ethnography of tracked English classes in a Korean middle school Byean, Hyera

Abstract

In South Korea, English is implicated in local political processes, mediating relations of class and social (re)production (Park, 2013). Unequal access to English restricts the prospects of the disadvantaged in education and the job market (Kubota, 2011). Tracking, an institutional practice which groups students by performance, is one way in which these inequalities manifest in the neoliberalized landscape of Korean education. Situated within the frameworks of cultural production (Willis, 1977, 2004) and language socialization (Duff & Talmy, 2011), this critical ethnography explores the language learning trajectories of ninth-grade students in a Korean school over one semester who have been tracked since entering middle school. Classroom interactions and interviews are analyzed using critical discourse approaches (Talmy, 2010a). This study finds that teachers oriented to the significance of English in high-stakes exams, and naturalized tracking to provide students appropriately leveled lessons. However, their beliefs about homogenously-constituted tracks steered them to conflate students’ language competence with track categories and prevented them from attending to the multiple levels and needs of learners within each track. More importantly, there were very few differences in the instructional materials used across tracks because teachers based their lessons on the same textbook in preparation for the same tests. Consequently, many students, regardless of track, deemed tracking unconducive to learning, engaging in acts of resistance to grammar-translation-oriented classroom practices. Nevertheless, students displayed disaffiliative stances towards detracking out of concerns of being held back or tacitly positioned as having deficits. In this sense, this study argues that socialization into tracking led students to track not only their abilities but also their habitus (Bourdieu, 1990) and identities. Such tracked identities created conditions to reinforce a school hierarchy in which many low-track students were discursively co-produced as yeongpoja, i.e., students who have given up on English. This study demonstrates that the yeongpoja identity is a consequence of socialization into low tracks, manifesting students’ resistance to their stigmatized identities as well as the test-oriented instructional practices. The study concludes with a call for reexamining tracking, suggesting implications for instruction which integrate and recognize the needs, interests, and knowledge of students from diverse backgrounds.

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