Literacy across UVI

The effects and challenges of literacy on student success at UVI

Markida Scotland |

ST. CROIX – In the Virgin Islands 90-95 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 of students upon entrance to UVI have to take remedial English, which often makes graduating in four years unlikely.

“I have about five students that are really stellar,” said visiting Professor, Alexis Walker. “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 the university, being literate is more than 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 factors such as their attitude, their teachers and practice, affects students’ 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.”

The University of the Virgin Islands takes part in many events that encourage students to read, write and communicate better, however, the population of students present are often slim.

Combie along with Dr. Nancy Morgan are members of the V.I council on Literacy, an organization which was developed through a federal grant awarded to the Department of Education.

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 (UNESCO), and focuses on worldwide literacy needs.

As a result, the University of the Virgin Islands also participated and hosted literacy activities in the writing center and the pavilion of the Albert A. Sheen campus, but the turnout of students wasn’t as large as they hoped.

The activities were held from 10 to 4 a.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 your choice during each hour of the program. Books were also given away for free.

At the program, students had the chance to learn that there were different types of literacy. Professor Jewel-Brathwaite presented a poem as part of the activities which was focused on literacy through culture. Other performances as well as musical selections were demonstrations of literacy through arts.

The reading portion of the 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. Combie wasn’t the only one that thought so. Dr. Morgan believes that reading was the key that opened the doors to the world and with it, one is able to visit and share 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,” said Jeanette Smith-Barry, the superintendent of education for the St. Thomas/St. John district 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.

The University of the Virgin Islands 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 an essays, editing and revisions, and guidance for the English proficiency exams.

Many English professors agree that while students do go to the writing center, it isn’t the amount that they expected 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” According to Dr. Combie, “They hand you the paper and want the corrections done for them.”

Professor Walker is trying a new approach this semester which requires 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.

Every year the professors have new students take a diagnostic test which shows their skill level in English. The pattern of problems aren’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 Cruzan, to Standard English,” said Professor Walker, “especially with the word ‘Would.’ It’s just a word in Cruzan, you can throw it anywhere you want, but in Standard English it is future tense.”

The University’s standards for literacy is so high that Students are also required to take an English Proficiency Exam (EPE). The purpose of the English Proficiency Requirement 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 (EPE).

“The EPE Has a passing rate of 70-708%, 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 as such. Many of the students believe that the course 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 the 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.”

Marine Biology Major, Andrew White, also agrees that remedial courses are needed.

“You need a strong basis in English to continue, especially if you have to do a research paper. A research paper can make or break you, especially if you end up plagiarizing and getting the big book thrown at you”

He also stated that students should be given the option to test of 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.”

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 student’s literacy levels are below upon entrance, another survey, according to Professor Walker, says that students are going leaps and beyond after graduating from the University.

“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.” said Professor Walker. “I have this retired engineer that told me the better he wrote the higher his salary went.”

If students saw that connection they could connect writing to their goals and see that better writing skills may lead to a higher salary and greater chances of success.