How literacy impacts success and unique challenges facing UVI students
MARKIDA SCOTLAND | Published on UVI VOICE on 9/19/13
ST. CROIX – In the Virgin Islands, 90 to 95 percent of the population is literate. However, according to professors at the University of the Virgin Islands, while the students can all read and write, 88 percent have to take remedial English, which often makes graduating in four years unlikely.
“I have about five students that are really stellar,” visiting Professor Alexis Walker, said. “My expectations are stringent, so I would say that out of my 60 students, there are about 16 that are below college level. The rest are just average.”
According to Dr. Valerie Combie, an English professor at UVI, being literate is more than just being able to read and write. It all comes down to communication and the students are not aware of this.
“I don’t think that students understand the importance of communicating clearly and it affects their writing,” she said.
Professor Walker believes that a student’s attitude, their teachers and practice impacts their level of literacy.
“Most students do not like to read nor write. I didn’t like to write and didn’t learn how to write well until I graduated,” Professor Walker confessed. “I think we don’t realize in college why it’s important. We think because we have electronics we don’t have to write, but it’s just a tool, you still have to do the writing part.”
UVI takes part in many events that encourage students to read, write and even communicate better, however, student attendance is minimal.
Combie, along with Dr. Nancy Morgan, are members of the VI Council on Literacy, an organization developed through a federal grant awarded to the VI Department of Education.
International Literacy Day
This year, the council hosted literacy activities on Sept. 9 across the territory in observance of International Literacy day, which is typically help on Sept. 8 by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and focuses on worldwide literacy needs. As a result, UVI also participated and hosted literacy activities in the writing center and the pavilion on the Albert A. Sheen campus, but the turnout of students wasn’t as large as they hoped.
The activities were held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., where they encouraged participants to read from their favorite author, favorite book or favorite literary period for 15 minutes, as well as participate in any literary activities of their choice during each hour of the program. Books were given away for free.
At the program, students had the chance to learn that there are different types of literacy. Professor Jewel-Brathwaite presented a poem as part of the activities, focusing on literacy through culture. Other performances and musical selections demonstrated literacy through arts.
The importance of reading
The reading portion of the Literacy Day program was especially important. According to Dr. Combie, students that do not read for pleasure typically do not write as well as those that do.
Dr. Morgan also believes that reading is the key to open doors to the world, while visiting and sharing the same experiences as the author.
However, this key is unattainable to some as statistics from the International Reading Association state that more than 780 million of the world’s adults do not know how to read or write and between 94 and 115 million children lack access to an education.
For Professor Walker, it’s not just about reading, but “what” you read that opens doors.
“I am on Facebook so I see what other teachers and writers post and they always say ‘as long as they read, as long as they read’ and that’s good for reading literacy, but not for writing literacy,” she said. “One of things I found in the textbooks is they are putting informal essays in there and so I try to avoid assigning those to my students because if they read those they are just going to continue to write informally because that’s what is being used as an example.”
Along with participating in International Literacy Day, there is an annual writing conference held on Nov. 1 in the Great Hall.
This conference, while open for students, is used to provide information to teachers that will better aid them in helping students improve their literacy.
“Literacy is not about reading. It’s about respect, and your rights as a human being,” Jeanette Smith-Barry, the superintendent of schools for the St. Thomas-St. John District, said during the 2010 conference.
This year’s theme: “Write (Right) in the Heart of the Common Core” explores the all-encompassing facets of literacy as it relates to the Common Core State Standards.
Students in St. Croix Campus’s Writing Center Photo Cred: Arige Shrouf
Writing resources at UVI
UVI also provides a Writing Center on both campuses for students to improve their writing.
The center provides tutoring and offers assistance in several areas, including prewriting, writing research papers and essays, editing and revisions, and guidance for the English proficiency exams.
Many English professors agree that while students do go to the Writing Center, there should be more considering how many need the assistance.
There are students that do come to learn, but there are others that do not take it seriously.
“They want quick fixes,” Dr. Combie said. “They hand you the paper and want the corrections done for them.”
Professor Walker is trying a new approach this semester, requiring mandatory participation in the Writing Center before submission of their final papers.
“Those 16 students need to visit the Writing Center if they expect to pass my class,” she said.
How Crucian dialect impacts writing
Every year the professors have new students take a diagnostic test which shows their skill level in English. The pattern of problems isn’t just from one class to another, but a general problem that is often heard, even for returning students.
“The students write how they speak,” is a common phrase mentioned among professors.
“Their problem is having to switch from Crucian, to standard English,” Professor Walker said, “especially with the word ‘Would.’ It’s just a word in Crucian, you can throw it anywhere you want, but in standard English it is future tense.”
English Proficiency Exam
The university’s standards for literacy are so high that students also are required to take an English Proficiency Exam. The purpose of the EPR is to ensure that all UVI graduates have demonstrated a required level of proficiency in using English as an effective means of written communication.
According to Combie, students typically do well on the English Proficiency Exam.
“The EPE has a passing rate of 70 to 78 percent, which isn’t so bad, but it could be better,” She said.
From the perspective of most teachers, the “skill courses,” as they are often called as opposed to “remedial.” are beneficial for students. But the students do not see it that way. Many students believe that the courses are a “waste of time,” a “waste of money” and a “waste of credits.”
However, there are some students that disagree.
“I didn’t take remedial English. I took remedial math,” said Zoe Walker, a psychology major at the university.
From her experience, she believes that remedial classes are both needed and beneficial to students.
“The remedial courses reinforces information students may have forgotten upon transitioning to college from high school, or provides a better understanding for those that are shaky in that particular subject matter,” Walker said.
Marine biology major Andrew White agrees that remedial courses are needed.
“You need a strong basis in English to continue, especially if you have to do a research paper,” said White. “A research paper can make or break you, especially if you end up plagiarizing and getting the big book thrown at you”
He also said students should be given the option to test courses.
Another student at the university, Abigail Vidale, took remedial English as well. “The classes did help me. I don’t think they are a waste of time and it also built my vocabulary,” Vidale said.
Literacy as the key to success
But where does the foundation for literacy begin? A typical answer would be from birth, however, Dr. Combie believes that if students have solid foundations before attending institutions of higher learning they would be better prepared upon entrance.
While the statistics show that students’ literacy levels are below average upon entrance, another survey, according to Professor Walker, says that students are jumping leaps and bounds after graduating from UVI.
“I don’t know if it’s because they come at such a low level and teachers bring them up to where they should be or because they come in at regular level and become outstanding,” Professor Walker said. “I have this retired engineer that told me the better he wrote the higher his salary went.”
Perhaps it is that connection that the students are missing. Better writing skills equate to a higher salary and better chances of success.