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Succeeding against the odds: Torres Strait Islanders at university

Helen McDonald
Department of Social and Cultural Studies in Education
James Cook University

Since the inception of the Aboriginal and Islander Teacher Education Program (AITEP) in 1977, applicants have included Torres Strait Islanders who have been working as teachers in reserve islands of the Torres Strait. These Island teachers have sought to gain formal qualifications equivalent to those of other Australian teachers, both for their own personal benefit and for the development of their communities. Their aspirations towards this goal have been supported by the Torres Strait community as a whole, and, to some extent, by education authorities at both state and federal levels. For such people, who have traditionally been excluded from tertiary education, the provision of affirmative action programs such as AITEP provides a chance of attaining individual and community goals.

While access to tertiary education is a relatively new phenomenon for many groups, Torres Strait Islanders, particularly from the outer islands, come to university from a particular linguistic and educational background that is vastly different from that of the majority of other commencing students. This different background has been one of the reasons why they have not had direct access to tertiary education. Hence, any affirmative action program that seeks to provide the opportunity for success, rather than merely access, must be developed around an understanding of how the linguistic and educational background of the students will affect their initial performance within the institution. This paper explores the way in which this background has influenced the development of literacy in Torres Strait Islander students as they begin studies at university.

Linguistic Background

Traditionally Torres Strait Islanders spoke two distinct languages. The Eastern Islanders (from Mer, Erub, and Ugar) spoke Meriam Mir, a Papuan language (Shnukal, 1983, p. 26). In the western and Central Islands, Kala Lagaw Ya (or Mabuiag), a member of the Australian Pama Nyungan family of language, was spoken (Bani, 1976, p. 3). According to Shnukal (1983), there was little communication between the two language groups prior to European colonisation (p. 28). Although there were probably bilingual individuals who participated in inter-island trading, there was little need for a common language between the two groups.

The coming of the pearling industry and the London Missionary Society in the 19th Century brought to the Torres Strait large numbers of Pacific Islanders, many who spoke, as well as their own Island vernacular, a Pacific Pidgin English which formed the basis of communication between the Islanders, Aborigines, and New Guineans employed in the pearling boats. As well, many of the Pacific Islanders settled in the Torres Strait, specifically on Erub and Ugar, and at St. Pauls, an Anglican mission on Moa.

When these men married local women and had children, the children adopted their father's common language (Shnukal, 1983, p. 27). The adoption of this language, rather than the mother's language, was partly due to the prestige of the South Sea Islanders, many of whom were literate, world travellers, and who could mediate between the Islanders and the Europeans. In addition, Europeans and South Sea Islanders with the Missionary Society encouraged the use of English. They believed that the Pacific Island Pidgin was a form of English and so they promoted the use of this language.

The colonisation process in the Torres Strait resulted in far greater interaction between the different island groups. The Maritime Strike of 1936 and the formation of the Torres Strait Battalion brought together different language groups who chose to speak a common language based on the Pacific Island Pidgin that many had already learnt (Sharpe, 1980, p. 80; Shnukal, 1983, p. 30).

As this Pidgin became the first language of more and more Island people, its functions broadened and it changed and developed to become a creole, a distinctive language in its own right (Shnukal, 1982). However, many Islanders believed that they were actually speaking English. The gradual realisation that Torres Strait Creole was not the English that would give them access to wider Australian society caused much resentment (Shnukal, 1983). For many Islanders, Torres Strait Creole is still considered a substandard form of English and this attitude is often reinforced by Europeans and by the education system which had discouraged its use.

During interviews fer admission into the Aboriginal and Islander Teacher Education Program (AITEP), Islanders will often answer "No" to the question, "Do you speak any language other than English?" To elicit a more accurate response requires the interviewers to establish the legitimacy of Torres Strait Creole as a language before some Islanders feel comfortable in answering "Yes". They often appear surprised that the Creole is recognised and valued as a language within the University. The denigration of creoles as marginal languages has been "widespread throughout the world and the acceptance of merit and validity of creole language is a relatively recent phenomenon" (Harris and Sandefer, 1984, p. 9).

However, for many younger Torres Strait Islanders today, Torres Strait Creole has become a sign of Islander identity and of Islander separateness, particularly amongst those on the mainland (Shnukal, 1983, p. 32). This is also evident amongst the students at James Cook University, who use Torres Strait Creole frequently amongst themselves. The use of Torres Strait Creole seems to cement the link between students from different Islands and these who have grown up in the mainland. As a personal observation, the amount of Torres Strait Creole spoken openly seems to have increased since 1984. Shnukal (19t3) claims that official educational support for Torres Strait Creole since 1981 has contributed to the increased status of Torres Strait Creole amongst Islanders (p. 31). Within the University, the apparent increase in the degree of Torres Strait Creole used coincides with the introduction of the Diploma of Teaching (Early Childhood Education) in which introductory and applied linguistic subjects pay specific attention to pidgins and creoles.

Among the 28 students enrolled in the diploma of Teaching (Early Childhood Education) in November, 1985, nine of them claim to have learnt a language other than Standard Australian English as their first language. One student was born and lived in Cairns but in a primarily Islander community within the city. Of the nine, eight claim Torres Strait Creole as their first language. Seven of these students still use Torres Strait Creole as their everyday language. One student has Meriam Mir as her first language and used this language most frequently, although she also speaks Torres Strait Creole fluently and frequently. Of those who spoke Creole as their first language, one can also speak Meriam Mir; one can understand "simple" Meriam Mir and one can speak Kala Lagaw Ya.

The age at which students first learnt English varies considerably. One student began to learn English at aged four years. Four began to learn English when they attended primary school. The remainder learned English at the ages of 10 years, 11 years, 13 years, and 14 years, respectively.

It should be noted that neither Meriam Mir nor Kala Lagaw Ya traditionally had a written form, although there is work being carried out in developing written forms of both languages (Finch, 1977, p. 13). As yet, Torres Strait Creole has not standard orthography, although individuals, including students in AITEP, are writing in Creole.

Educational Background

Nature of Schooling

European style education came with the missionaries to the Torres Strait and was further developed with the establishment in 1879 of the Papuan Institute on Murray Island. This institution included an industrial school and a teacher training seminary and was attended by Islanders from all parts of the Torres Strait. From the beginning, English was the medium of instruction and subjects taught included reading and writing in English and English grammar (Sharp, 1980, pp. 70-71).

Following annexation of the Torres Strait Islands by Queensland, also in 1879, European Administrators were appointed to the more populated islands. Their duties included instructing children in primary subjects (Boxall and Duncan, 1979, p. 4). The control of the islands by the white administration of Queensland Government departments - Department of Native Affairs (D.N.A.), Department of Aboriginal and Islander Advancement (D.A.I.A.), Department of Community Service (D.C.S.) - increased in the 20th Century and extended into the education system. Unlike other parts of Queensland, schools on the reserve islands were not part of the Queensland Education Department but were under the control of D.N.A., and subsequently D.A.I.A., and then D.C.S. (Fuary, 1984). These schools came under the control of the Queensland Department of Education in 1985. Island schools cater only for primary-aged children. To obtain a secondary education, children had to attend schools at Thursday Island, or at Bamaga where a residential college controlled by the D.A.I.A. was established in 1972. Students could also attend secondary boarding schools in mainland towns through the Aboriginal Secondary Grant Scheme, a Commonwealth funding scheme.

However, the control exerted by the Government administration over the education of Islanders has been demonstrated clearly during interviews with Islander adults wishing to enter AITEP. In response to the question, "why didn't you continue on at high school?", a frequent answer is, "D.A.I.A. wouldn't let me", or words to that effect.

Of the nine students in the Early Childhood Education course who speak English as a second language, seven attended primary schools on reserve islands. Except for Department of Education principals on Badu, Murray, Yorke, Darnley, and Mabuiag Islands, reserve island schools were staffed (until 1986) entirely by Island teachers. In 1975, there were 51 Island teachers employed in the schools. Of these only half had attended secondary school and only one had gone to Year 12. Of these 51 teachers, 31% were untrained, 12X had one year of training, and 57% had two years of training (Boxall and Duncan, 1979, p. 7~. The training undertaken by Islander teachers was a special course at the then Kedron Park College of Advanced Education. The course did not lead to any formal qualification.

For Torres Strait Islanders, facility in the English language is seen as a basic necessity if education is to fit children for future employment, either in the Islands or the mainland, and if education is to contribute to Islander development and self-management (Boxall and Duncan, 1979, p. 35). However, given the nature of island schools, attainment of such facility in English appears difficult and unlikely. Currently, an English as a Second Language (E.S.L.) program is being developed for the reserve islands but previously Island schools relied mainly on the Queensland Education Department's Language Arts Syllabus, a program designed with the assumption that children would start school with considerable English-language competence. Island teachers also have difficulty in providing adequate English language education because, firstly, many of them have limited competence in English themselves, and secondly, they have had little experience in E.S.L. teaching techniques (Boxall and Duncan, 1979, p. 57).

The desire for competence in English has frequently resulted in rigid insistence that all instruction in schools be carried out in English, and there is some fear that the use of Islander languages would only be confusing for the child (Boxall and Duncan, 1979, p. 36). However, the insistence that children use a second, and largely unknown language, rather than the language in which they are competent, can affect the children's development in both their mother tongue and the second language, particularly in relation to the attainment of literacy. It can also inhibit opportunities for cognitive development.

In terms of language development, research findings from bilingual programs in the Northern Territory appear relevant to the Torres Strait Islands situation. They indicate definite trends towards the superiority of bilingual schooling over monolingual schooling for Creole speaking students with regard to oral language proficiency in both the mother tongue, Creole, and the second language, English (Murtagh, 1979, p. 98). This increased proficiency is due partly to the student's ability to separate the two languages and to allocate each language to specific domains. By contrast, for the Torres Strait Islanders, informal bilingualism exists where Island teachers have used Torres Strait Creole surreptitiously in the classroom to explain what they could not explain in English (Boxall and Duncan, 1979, p. 37). Thus, separation of Creole from English in the minds of Islander children may be more difficult as clear domains of usage are not established.

It is interesting to note that, while English was the official language of the Island schools, four of the students claim that they first learned English at age 11 or older. This perhaps indicated that the students felt that what they were learning and speaking at school was not English.

Bilingual education programs, in which initial literacy is in the child's first language and English reading instruction is delayed until first language literacy is well established, appear to provide more effective means of developing literacy than monolingual programs in which literacy is achieved in the second language of the child (Cummins, 1981). Learning to read in an unfamiliar language, with texts that do not reflect the cultural experiences of the learner, is unnecessarily difficult.

Developing Reading Skills

If it is accepted that reading depends upon the background knowledge that is brought to it, then a language experience approach to reading should be a significant component of any effective reading program. Within Torres Strait schools, reading instruction has followed Anglo-European programs such as Happy Venture. Because students have had little knowledge of both the language structures and the cultural context of such books, extracting meaning from these readings has been difficult. If this is combined with certain characteristics of island schools as outlined by Boxall and Duncan (1979), then reading becomes merely a word-identification task. Boxall and Duncan (1979) indicate that the island schools worked on the following assumptions which are of significance in terms of reading instruction: "There is an emphasis on meaningless symbols rather than the stressing of meaning and understanding" (p. 48), and "Language can be learnt through reading" (p. 57).

AITEP students have clear recollections of some reading lessons. One reported:

The teacher would be on one side of the room and we would be on the other side and have to read to him. We didn't understand what we were reading. He would sit there and just say, "Speak up". What was that for?
In particular, they remember learning to read before they could speak English. Students also recollect learning lists of spelling words, yet never knowing the meaning of the words they were spelling.

The inadequacy of reading instruction in reserve schools was made evident in the results of testing carried out by the Department of Education in 1975, as indicated in Table 1.

Table 1: Retardation in Terms of Reading Age/Chronological Age (R.A./C.A.)

Year% with R.A. = C.A.% with R.A. 1-2
years behind C.A.
% with R.A. more than
2 years behind C.A.


(Boxall and Duncan, 1979, p. 53)

The finding that 93% of children listed in year seven had a reading age of more than two years below chronological age indicates clearly that primary education did not adequately equip children to achieve at high school, nor did it achieve the Islanders' goal of attaining English competency.

Basal readers, such as Happy Venture, have been criticised by current reading experts on the grounds that, in the effort to control vocabulary, they provide linguistically and semantically impoverished texts, often lacking in the textual details that give meaning to stories. However, this is exacerbated in the Torres Strait where programs appear to be based on the principle that children learn language through reading. In this situation, where teachers lack competence in English, the English of the basal readers may been seen as exemplifying English. A look at a random selection from Happy Venture books clearly shows that the English is not the same as spoken English, nor is it similar to the English of authentic literature.

Language and Cognition

In terms of cognitive development, evidence suggests that there is a need to promote development of the child's first language through storytelling and through interaction in order to promote the cognitive and academic language proficiency that underlies the development of literacy and disembedded thought (Cummins, 1981). Whilst children may develop interpersonal communicative skills in a second language (a surface manifestation of the language), they may not develop the deeper cognitive and academic skills in the second language if those skills are not initially developed in their first language.

In addition, Boxall and Duncan (1979) suggest that Torres Strait schools operate within the dimensions of "mechanical drill rather than active pupil-orientated teaching", and "memorisation rather than problem solving and creativity" (p. 48).

While it would be wrong to imply that the cognitive abilities from Torres Strait Islanders from reserve islands are not well developed, and student performance at university certainly disproves it, it appears that the education delivered by Island schools has done little to promote the sort of cognitive abilities or literacy necessary for successful direct entry to university studies, or even to cope confidently within affirmative action support systems such as AITEP, without enormous effort on the part of the students and the time commitment of unrealistic proportions on the part of support staff.


Torres Strait Islanders from reserve islands enter AITEP from a historical background that has denied them self-determination and given them a language which does not provide access to mainstream society; from a linguistic background where English is their second or third language, and their first language has been denigrated; and from an educational background which has failed to capitalise on their first language skills and has not provided adequate English language skills or literacy development to equip them for tertiary studies.

Islander Students at James Cook University

Entry Conditions

Entry into AITEP is based on a selection process involving AITEP staff and Aboriginal and Islander community representatives. Applicants undertake a series of tests, including standardised ones in reading and comprehension. As well, each applicant is interviewed by a panel of three people including an AITEP staff member and an AITEP student. This ensures that at least one member of the interview panel is Aboriginal or Islander.

Despite the effort of AITEP to ensure that the interview situation is as nonthreatening as possible, and to take into account cultural differences, some Islanders experience great difficulty in communicating effectively. It appears that this may be due to an inability to communicate in Standard Australian English. For some applicants, insecurity about their English proficiency seems to inhibit communicative competence in this situation. It could also be due to an inability to communicate with Anglo-Australians, reflecting ..the legacy of long term paternalism" which "continue to have a profound effect on Islander interactions with white authorities" (Osborne and Henderson, 1985, p. 8). However, those applicants, who do perform well in this specific sociolinguistic context, tend also to be able to deal well with situations such as teaching practice.

Many Islander applicants do not score well on the reading, comprehension, and essay tests, all of which reflect proficiency in English. In addition, the reading and comprehension tests make no concessions for different cultural experiences. In the first two intakes into the Diploma of Teaching (Early Childhood Education) in 1984 and 1985, successful Torres Strait Islander applicants have had reading ages, as scored on a Gapadol cloze test, ranging from 16 years 11 months for a student who had lived on the mainland since she was four and had completed year 12, to 9 years 8 months for a mature-age students who had attended a reserve island school and high school on Thursday Island, leaving in Year 8. Five students had reading ages, as scored by Gapadol, between 10 years 5 months and 11 years 5 months. While it would certainly not be suggested that scores on one test are accurate or infallible, they do indicate that some students would be expected to encounter difficulties with tertiary level reading. (Scores such as these are also lower than those of Aboriginal students entering the program.)

It should be noted that those students who did not score well on one test would need to score well in other areas to be selected for the program. The students mentioned above had all worked in varying roles in preschools or schools and had all performed well in the interviews. It was anticipated that their experience in schools would provide them with additional skills and knowledge that would compensate for any initial reading difficulties.

Initial Reading at University

Observation made of the students' reading behaviours in various situations, including small group E.S.L. sessions, and in conducting informal reading inventories, indicate that students could successfully decode the words of texts but frequently failed to understand what they had read. This was evident in the students' ability to read texts aloud, but inability to give the information back in their own words. This seems to be a clear reflection of the reading instruction received in Islander schools. Other behaviours also reflect instructional methods that emphasise word identification rather than comprehension. Observation indicates that students read word-by-word believing that every word must be correctly processed to understand anything at all. Thus students, like many E.S.L. students, will frequently look up all the problematic words in a sentence and lose the overall meaning (Elson, 1984, p. 27).

However, effective reading appears to work in reverse if meaning is to be obtained. Meaning brought to the reading allows one to predict the words ahead rather than knowing the words, enabling one to predict the meaning ahead (Smith, 1982, p. 78).

Observation also indicates that students appear to process all academic reading in the same word-by-word way rather than by varying the reading techniques according to their purposes in reading. Yet, in the nonacademic area, they appear to be able to read novels satisfactorily and can skim and scan as they wish, gaining meaning without relying on every word. In reading for leisure, they may feel less pressure to understand everything and have more control over the experience.

Despite these reading problems, the crux of Islander students' difficulties appears to lie with the background knowledge that they bring to the reading. For readers to extract meaning from text, they must share with the writer not only the same language code, but also the same assumptions about the world and the way it works (Nuttall, 1982, p. 7). Islander students seem to be competent in dealing with visual information provided by texts, but lack the nonvisual information, such as language and world view, that is the source of comprehension. One's model of the world is a vital consideration in the reading process. The reading process starts with the individual's model of the world. For the reader to obtain meaning from writing, he or she must have a range of alternatives of meaning from which to choose. If the view of the world of the reader does not coincide with that of the writer, the reader will not have sufficient meanings from which to predict the author's intentional meaning (Elias and Ingram, n.d.). Academic texts used in Australian universities not only assume a shared language code of English and a shared Anglo-Australian-American view of the world, they also reflect a specifically academic view of the world.

In searching for meaning in written language at university, Islander students face problems similar to those experienced by many new university students coming to terms with the specific language of university as it reflects the culture of the university and university thought. Students must learn to deal with a formal discourse style not widely appreciated or used outside academia (Bock and Lewit, 1984, p. 7). In addition, each discipline has its own specific register that reflects the nature of the discipline.

Islander students come from backgrounds totally divorced from university life. For them, studying at a university is a new phenomenon and ways of thinking at university are equally unfamiliar. For people from small Island cultures based on kinship and reciprocity, the "objective" nature of academic discourse is alien, and they find the readings cold and unfeeling. Nor do texts contain information that can be easily related to the students' existing background knowledge. Hence students may not possess appropriate schemata to understand the text. Alternatively, the culturally specific nature of some texts may interfere with the students' access to existing schemata in order to comprehend the texts (Carrell and Eisterhold, 1983, pp. 562-566).

Elson (1984) estimates that in academic writing, 75% of information provided is there to support the 25X that is the main concern of the text (p. 30). However, observations suggest that when students are unfamiliar with the nature to the examples because of their cultural specificity, students have problems deciding what are main points and what are supporting ideas. This often leads to students worrying unnecessarily about lack of comprehension of minor details. An example of this comes from the textbook used in a first semester subject, Contemporary Australian Society: A Sociological Perspective:

The individual develops through interaction in the social environment; the social environment "determines" the results. This is not to imply that if baby Willie Mays and baby Leonard Bernstein had been switched in the nursery shortly after birth, Bernstein would have played centre field for the New York Mets and Mays would have directed the New York PhiIharmonic. (Landis, 1977, p. 31)
The text was not about baseball or music, and knowing who Bernstein and Mays were was not an assessable part of the course, but this section of the text gave Islander students typical problems. The example did nothing to increase their understanding of the concept of socialisation. It did add to their feelings of inadequacy and ignorance. In terms of the total text, the students were unable to judge that this example was not essential to the understanding of the main point.

Thus students lack background information in the content of readings and also background information about the genre schemes of academic texts. The characteristic forms of text book chapters or journal articles help readers by "giving them a basis for predicting what the text will be like" (Smith, 1982, p. 64). Islander students frequently do not make use of chapter headings and subheadings, introductions, and conclusions to derive clues as to the content of the reading. This, it could be suggested, is a reflection of an emphasis on narrative rather than expository reading in schools. Other students entering university may behave similarly, but their background knowledge helps them learn to use techniques such as these.

The nature of argument in academic discourse also provides problems for students. Texts will frequently cite hypotheses that have since been refuted; experiments whose research bases have been doubted; teaching strategies whose effectiveness has been questioned. Often Islander students will fail to see the linguistic markers that indicate that the hypothesis no longer has credence. The refuting of previously held hypotheses is a significant component of academic discourse, but to Islander students, this is not reasonable. "Why write about it if it isn't right?" was the response of one student to an article arguing against traditional prereading programs in Year 1.

For many Islander students, reading problems lie beyond the sentence level with the ability to decode connected discourse. This is not only to do with linguistics structures, it is also to do with the logical and psychological structure of academic discourse. Thus students need to decode the writer's presuppositions anticipating the available rhetorical structures (Kaplan, 1978, p. 9). In particular, students need to understand how passives are used; how modal adjuncts function, and how referencing material is more than merely the prevention of plagiarism, but is a reflection of orientation towards sources (Bock and Lewit, 1984, p. 6). Islander students had difficulty appreciating the logic of referencing, and voiced surprise that academics needed to refer constantly to others to substantiate their arguments. The students, possibly from their experiences with white administrators, were prepared to accept that what academics wrote was not open to question.

A fundamental issue in relation to reading comprehension is language competency. Many Islander students understandably find the language structure and vocabulary of texts difficult. However, all students would be expected to be unfamiliar with some of the vocabulary - for example, that of developmental psychology. The tendency within Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) has been to maintain that reading is based on oral language but the language of academic texts is certainly not characteristic of oral language (Saville-Troike, 1979, p. 26). In addition, university study requires a change in the E.S.L. student's perception of English. The shift is from Language as a subject to be learnt, with an emphasis on structural characteristics (form), to language as a medium for learning, with an emphasis on function (Elson, 1984, p. 26). However, reading to learn and learning to read at university level are made easier if students have the relevant background knowledge. "Language comprehension depends on the availability of relevant knowledge to fill in the gaps in messages" (Bransford, Stein and Shelton, 1984, p. 42). Without such background knowledge, Islander students not only have difficulty in learning from reading, but there are also insufficient cues in the reading to allow them to make sense for themselves of the specific new vocabulary and language structures of academic texts. Thus, whereas other students might initially have difficulty in reading texts set at university, their background knowledge of both the language and culture most frequently referred to in texts helps them acquire the ability to read such texts.

Initial writing at University

All examples given in the following discussion come from writing undertaken by Torres Strait Islander students in the first year of the Diploma of Teaching (Early Childhood Education).

The writing of Torres Strait Islanders in early stages of their university careers displays many of the problems of basic writers in open university admission programs as described by Shaughnessy (1977). These include errors in syntax and vocabulary.

Errors in Syntax

Examples of these are:
  1. sentence fragments
    Halliday mentions that children use language to regulate or control the behaviour of others. Whether it be by commands or gentlest of persuasions.

  2. lack of agreement in number
    Teachers have a very important role at Preschool, and I'd look at them as very responsible, trustworthy, reliable and accepting person.

  3. shifts in tense
    There were something like forty displays ranging from culture to assorted dances which referring to how the people has survived during the war and how they have lived before the Child Endowment was introduced to them.

  4. inflection
    They might want to become better, especially seeing an Aboriginal teachers with the responsibilities might help them to think that they also might study further to become a qualified students.
In each of the above examples, the student's meaning is clear but the presence of these errors does pose serious problems to students. Such errors are often seen by lecturers as a sign of uneducatability (Shaughnessy, 1977, p. 8), and errors carry messages to the reader that Torres Strait Islanders, struggling with university study, cannot afford to send. This is particularly so when related to writing for practice teaching in schools where grammatical correctness is highly prized, and where principals and supervising teachers are often unaware that English is the student's second language (Osborne and Henderson, 1985, p. 10). Some of the features discussed appear to transfer from the student's first language. For example, in all three Torres Strait Island languages, nouns are not inflected for plurals as they are in English (Shnukal, 1984, p. 16). In addition, the tense systems in Creole varies considerably from English.

These features also are seen as problematic by Islander students themselves. The students have grown up in an education system which focused on producing (and frequently just reproducing) correctly written English, rather than on writing as a composing process. Thus, correct writing is more important than good writing, and students will often concentrate on writing correctly rather than see writing as an opportunity for discovery. As in the writing of the unskilled E.S.L. students described by Zameal (1983, p. 174), local errors act to distract the students, who therefore tend to see revision as an opportunity to "fix up" such problems, changing words and phrases, but rarely revising in a way that further develops meaning, and rarely beyond the sentence level. It is interesting to observe students' reactions to written responses to their first piece of writing in the Communications subject in Semester 1. They appear genuinely surprised and delighted that the teacher is interested in the content of the writing, rather than form. This is not to suggest the syntactical error is unimportant in writing. However, students do need to recognise that writing is about conveying meaning, both to oneself and others, and that meaning extends beyond the sentence level.

Vocabulary Problems

Obviously students will avoid using vocabulary that they do not "know". However, often their writing indicates that they have uncertain understanding of particular words, as in the following example: "Therefore more consideration should be acquired."

More frequently, they are unable to manipulate words to fit in the particular semantic and syntactical context:

Therefore now I have learnt and read all about blocks explains my curiosity.

Research by Bernstein and his colleagues was first in the field and they looked at the kind of differences that manifest in the way in which children use language.

Sometimes problems stem from inappropriate use of prefixes and suffixes:
She doesn't seem to be scared or even show a frightening feeling.

She has an unperfect walking balance.

Errors can also occur when students confuse phonetically similar, but semantically unrelated words: "I acceptionally agreed with the article's statements."

The above examples indicate errors in vocabulary. Students are also limited initially by their lack of what might be called academic vocabulary. This prevents them from producing the appropriate formal style despite the value of their statements:

In the curriculum, it would be better to have Aboriginal and Islander people have a say in making up the curriculum best suited to teach white students about our culture.
Students themselves recognise the need to master academic vocabulary including the specialist terms of specific disciplines, but they display an ambivalence towards using these words themselves, recognising that such vocabulary can serve to exclude people from understanding. In particular, both Aboriginal and Islander students, when using university vocabulary, will frequently exclaim, "Too big, that word!"

Students are unfamiliar not only with using the vocabulary of the university, but also with the discourse patterns of academic texts. without prior engagement with these texts, they understandably have difficulty reproducing such discourse patterns. Smith (1982) claims that reading is the "essential fundamental source of knowledge about writing, from the conventions of transcription to the subtle differences of register and discourse structures in various genres" (p. 177).

Thus students learn to write in academic style from reading academic texts and drawing conclusions about the structure and lexicon. However, for Islander students, struggling to comprehend academic reading may interfere with their ability to draw such conclusions. Krashen (1981) speculates that, for second language learners, the simple codes such as those used by teachers, advanced second language performers, and native speakers attempting to communicate with second language learners, may be as useful in second language acquisition as caretaker speech is in first language acquisition in children. However, in reading academic texts, students only see the sophisticated language of experts, often in sustained pieces of discourse that are somewhat different to the shorter pieces of writing expected of students. In the normal course of early university study, students rarely have the opportunity to see the writing of other students. Such writing may be able to function similarly to simple codes in oral language development, in that it would provide a simpler model of academic writing, from which students could make hypotheses which they could then test in their own writing.

For students from a culture where personal relationships are all important, their ability to come to terms with the impersonal nature of academic writing is problematic. Frequently Islander students are puzzled by what appears to be contradictory messages from lecturers who claim to want the student's reaction to set readings, yet at the same time expect such reactions to be couched in an impersonal tone. The following extract from a student's work reflects the intensely personal nature of Islander students' evaluations:

I have a feeling that this will be a bit difficult at times. Sometimes you see a child struggling with a practical activity and you desperately want to help. Don't get me wrong when I say that preschoolers shouldn't have any help at all.
Some students have actively resisted the impersonal nature of academic writing. During writing sessions with students, mature Islander students have been found unwilling to edit out personal information that has appeared to lecturers to be irrelevant to the particular assignment. Essentially, the students feel strongly that lecturers should know about their experiences, their family, and their culture, and so see personal data as important. Often students will take any opportunity possible to talk about their own experience and to present Islander perspectives, using language which indicates that they are part of the group they are writing about:
In many colleges today we have white lecturers teaching us our culture. It would be more appropriate to have our people represent us in that situation.
This appears stylistically different to much academic writing but so far has met with acceptance.

As with interpreting argument in reading academic texts, students experience problems in writing arguments. According to Shaughnessy, (1977), it is

a politely polemic situation in which the reader is assumed to be, if not hostile to the writer's view, at least obliged to consider it carefully, according to criteria for evidence and sound reasoning that are themselves part of the legacy of the academic language. (p. 187)
Thus students do not adequately develop their statements, failing to provide evidence and reasoning. Often this appears to be because they have difficulty in extending beyond the sentence to write fully developed paragraphs. Shaughnessy (1977) suggests that this may be partly due to students' worries about correctness which may inhibit their ability to access thoughts which might be present in less restricting situations (p. 227).

Islander students coming from a different cultural background from their lecturers have difficulty determining what can be assumed as common knowledge and what needs to be stated explicitly. Often this is made more confusing by the difference between a known lecturer and the same lecturer as an anonymous reader of assignments. Islander students often express irritation at the necessity to expand on points they write - "But they know" is a frequent response to what students see as a futile exercise.

Of course it must be recognised that, in some instances, the problems with a student's writing may reflect the difficulty the student is having coming to terms with the new and difficult concepts that are an integral part of university studies.


The intention of this account was not to create a pessimistic picture of massive problems that some Torres Strait Islanders may face as they begin university. It was written as a tribute to those students who do take on university studies and who do achieve academically, despite "the odds" being against them. Any institution that accepts students under such circumstances needs to ensure that it provides specialised, professional assistance to help students overcome initial problems with literacy. Students also need time to make use of any assistance. All lecturers need to be aware of the background of these students and the difficulties they face, and the effort involved in developing literacy within the University, so that they can place student learning in perspective. Considering the degree of learning achieved by Islanders who obtain passes and, in some cases, credits and distinctions in any tertiary subjects, such results are indeed dramatic and spectacular.


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Please cite as: McDonald, H. (1988). Succeeding against the odds: Torres Strait Islanders at university. Queensland Researcher, 4(2), 21-44. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr4/mcdonald.html

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