Bilingual approaches open linguistic spaces

Issue: Volume 99, Number 16

Posted: 8 October 2020
Reference #: 1HACPR

Children and their families are benefitting from the Pasifika Early Literacy Project (PELP) – and some Auckland teachers are finding the programme has transformed their teaching practice.

PELP offers up to 25 dual language books in English and five Pacific languages – gagana Sāmoa, lea faka Tonga, vagahau Niue, te reo Māori Kūki Āirani (Cook Islands Māori) and gagana Tokelau – along with support to grow Pacific children’s language and literacy capabilities.

The project is targeted at Years 0–2 teachers and, for the first time this year, early learning teachers. Over 40 teachers from 20 schools and early learning services in Auckland were invited to participate in PELP this year.

“The resources are catalysts to support teachers to open up the linguistic space in their classrooms. They go beyond English-only approaches and support them to tap into the language and cultural resources that children bring with them to early learning or school, that may have been overlooked by some teachers,” says Dr Rae Si‘ilata, director of Va‘atele Education Consulting Ltd and senior lecturer at
Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi.

“The books help them to create those opportunities for children to speak, read and write in their own languages.”

Stories connect with lives

The dual language books have been repurposed from Pacific-focused Ready to Read books and Tupu readers, with some new stories written by Pacific authors. Rae says the underpinning principle is that the stories connect with Pacific learners’ lives and lived experiences.

“For example, one of the books is titled My name is Laloifi in the Samoan version and My Name is Melepaea in the Tongan version. It’s about a little girl who goes to school and her mother talks to her about the importance of her name and that the other children learn to say her name correctly. Whenever we use that book in a family fono (meetings) it resonates a lot, not just with children, but with families and parents. Many of them say ‘that’s my story – my name was changed when I went to school’,” she says.

PLD strengthens connections

Teachers can attend three professional learning and development (PLD) workshops which cover: connecting book stories with child and family experiences; co-creating classrooms which respond to children’s multimodal literacies and experiences; and making connections with oracy and literacy by interacting with books to support deep thinking.

Rae says that while the expertise of teachers in their junior classrooms and early learning centres is recognised, PELP aims to open up teachers’ ideas about what constitutes literacy and strengthen connections with Te Whāriki and the idea of embodied Pacific language and literacy practices.

“When we first piloted this work, I told teachers that getting them to work bilingually or multilingually with their Pasifika children was a new approach in English medium classrooms, so we wanted to co-construct this with teachers. They have to make the choices and decisions around how much they are able to put into practice and, when they feel they have ownership of it, they are willing to have a go.”

Different literacies validated

The PLD project also features family fono where whānau learn about the importance and value of maintaining their own languages and cultures to support their children’s success, as well as about making connections between the books, their lives and experiences.

“What we have found at those fono is that it can be quite an emotional time for some Pacific families because it could well be the first time they have been told by schools or people in educational authority, that their language is important and that it is the foundational basis on which their success in English can be accomplished.

“For so many years, our families have been told that the way to be successful is through English. Earlier generations were not allowed to speak their languages in the classroom. Actually, coming to a school fono where they are told that their languages, cultures and ways of being embody literacies that are just as important as palagi literacies to children’s success, is life changing,” explains Rae.

Pedagogy of second language acquisition

Stephen May’s recently released report on (see box page 19) Pacific bilingual education discusses the theoretical justification of using Pacific languages in school. Founded on theory that English-only submersion approaches are subtractive bilingual contexts, Rae argues that these approaches assume that children are experiencing cognitive overload.

“In fact, if we create space for them to use their languages, we are creating opportunity for children to tap into their common underlying proficiency where all languages operate out of the same central processing system.

“When I’m trying to make sense of something that the teacher is saying, and I’m not a fluent speaker of English, I translate that into my stronger language, make sense of it and then I think about my response in my stronger language. Then I translate my response in my head, and I output it in English.

“Translanguaging is the idea of having input in one language and output in another language: listening, reading or viewing in one language and speaking, writing or presenting in another language across different text purposes or types,” explains Rae.

Success through linguistic identity

Rae says it’s important that Pacific young people and children see that success includes all of their linguistic and cultural identities.

“For too long we have had a particular idea of what success looks like – what does that really mean? Does it mean I am able to be strong in a whānau-cultural space as much as in a palagi space? We want Pacific children to be equally at home whether they go home to their island nations of Samoa or Tonga etc. as they are here in an English medium space – it shouldn’t be an either/or option.”

The connection between language and identity can even be seen with children who are not fully productive speakers of their heritage languages, when they begin to hear their languages at school and have opportunities to read books in their languages, explains Rae.

“We had a lovely example in a school in 2018, a little Samoan boy was not really a productive speaker of Samoan, but his grandmother and mother both attended the family fono. Although the grandmother was a fluent Samoan speaker, her daughter was not. But because the child was so keen to read and write in Samoan, it had a big impact on the mother who then also wanted to work on her own Samoan proficiency, and of course the grandmother was delighted.

“We talk a lot about wellbeing, but what does it mean to be well? It’s that we are secure and strong in who we are. I believe that part of enabling Pasifika tamariki to be fully who they are includes the maintenance and revitalisation of their Pacific languages.”

Bigger picture

The Ministry of Education developed PELP, first piloted in 2014, because research around the importance of inter-dependence across languages showed that strengthening Pacific languages for Pacific children would have an impact on their English literacy, says Rae.

“The ultimate goal is that they become biliterate (speaking, reading, writing) in their own language and in English. For the Ministry, it was initially about using Pacific languages as a transitional tool to support English language and literacy development, but for us, it’s a bigger picture than that.

“It’s not just about using Pacific language resources to support English literacy, it’s about strengthening Pacific language and literacy development as well as their Pacific identities to support children and families to become bilingual and biliterate. PELP cannot achieve that on its own. The ideal is Pacific Bilingual/Immersion Education, and PELP is part of the journey we are on, to achieving that goal,” she says.

The 2019 Budget allocated $2.3 million over four years to extend the Pasifika Early Literacy Project to early learning services and more English medium primary schools. Next year, the project will be rolled out to another 10 schools and 10 early learning services.

Pasifika Early Literacy Project resources 

Tamariki are language experts

Jo Gormly, a SENCo and junior team leader at Tāmaki Primary School, has written a blog post about how PELP has changed her practice and understanding about valuing language, culture, and identity in literacy acquisition.

She bubbles with enthusiasm when talking about her journey with the Pasifika Early Literacy Project (PELP). Having previously taught at schools with mainly European students, she jumped at the opportunity to do the PELP workshops.

“I didn’t know how to be culturally responsive. I remember on that first workshop feeling out of my comfort zone and thinking, how can I teach using bilingual books when I can’t speak Tongan? How can I teach in Tongan or Samoan? I remember that fear!” she says.

Faces light up

Jo was surprised at how easy it was to use the PELP dual language books, and says that children love reading and talking about the pictures and stories in their heritage language.

“You don’t need to be fluent in the language, let the children be the experts. They just step up and shine and it just transforms your classroom culture – the children love it. It strengthens their literacy in English too because of the way you are working with the dual books. The ESOL activities shared at the PELP workshops are brilliant,” she says.

“The first time I used the books was during guided reading, playing the dual language audio book online. We’d stop and talk about the text at different parts of the story. As soon as we began, they said: ‘Oh – this is Tongan!’ and their little faces lit up.”

Culture of expression and pride

“They start making connections between languages. We might be talking about a picture in a story – then they start talking to each other in their language and explain to me what words mean. What is lovely is they start using both languages, they will start translating and even have little arguments about what the English word is.

“They are constantly translating for me but also they are talking to each other in their heritage language. They love seeing me being the learner. They are at the point now where they will slow their speech down for me so I can repeat new words, they are the experts and they are so proud!”

Jo explains that there’s significant transference across the curriculum now that children know they can speak their first language at school.

“The change in classroom culture is mind-blowing. It’s a culture of talk and expressing themselves, of being proud of who you are and your language and country and accepting of everybody else’s language and culture.”

Jo says her connections with whānau have improved, with better attendance at school hui and fono. Families have become more confident in communicating with the school.

“That’s quite big. It’s given them more of an understanding of how they can help their children and how important heritage language is.

“Many of my parents said they didn’t know the importance of learning in their first language. They said, ‘we thought that schools wanted English’.”

Easy transition

Talk flows naturally in a classroom where English, te reo Māori, Cook Islands Māori, Samoan or Tongan may be spoken by tamariki and Jo is sure this helped a boy recently arrived from Tonga to feel at home in the classroom.

“He’s a really confident boy and he has so much to share. He can speak and write in Tongan, but I can imagine what it might have been like for him coming into a New Zealand school not speaking much English. But instead of him sitting quietly, he is just totally involved in what we are doing. And I think, ‘how much does that have to do with the fact that he can speak Tongan in the class?’ He feels this is his learning place where his language is valued and used.”

See Jo's blog – How PELP changed my practice(external link) 

Tamaki Primary School whānau kōrero

Tamariki Q&A

Q: What do you like the most about reading stories in your first language?

A: Because it is my language. I have to speak more so I can be a Tongan person and know people that have passed away. It makes me happy to read books. It is hard to think about the story if you get stuck on it in English. Toko, 7

A: They make me smart. The books have stories and pictures, some are easy and some are hard. Virginia, 7

Q: What do you like the most about speaking your own language at school?

A: You get to teach people different languages and you get to see if anyone else knows your language. I don’t really know much about Niuean and I get to learn about it. Saryah, 6

A: I can teach the teachers how to speak in Tongan. I can speak in Tongan to my friends. Epalahame, 7

Whānau Q&A

Q: Has the Pasifika Early Literacy Project (PELP) helped your child?

A: YES, it has helped my child learn more about our language and culture and it has encouraged our family to speak more of our language at home.

Q: What do you like the most about the dual-language books?

A: The fact that the books have both English and Tongan versions; that way our children can understand what they are reading about and make connections to their culture.

Q: What difference does it make for you (and your child) that they can do some classroom learning in their own language?

A: It makes a huge difference, especially in today’s world. My children are encouraged in the classroom to use their language and it’s amazing for me as a mother, to hear them speak and understand. My child has also taken on the role of sharing and helping other students and teachers to speak our language and he shows great pride in sharing our Lea-fakatonga.

Q: Why do you think this is important?

A: It is significant that my children learn our Lea-fakatonga and to do that in the classroom is amazing. This is a part of their identity as a person and I believe that all our tamariki need to have access to learn their language and about their culture in order for our culture to thrive. This will also teach them how sacred all cultures are no matter the differences and beliefs; we are fortunate to live in Aotearoa as a country that encourages diversity. Jade Fonua

Research consistent with international findings

Sixty years of research on the relationships between bilingualism, cognition and language learning has shown that English-only submersion approaches, or subtractive bilingual programmes, are highly ineffective in the education of bilingual students, says Professor Stephen May from the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.

In a November 2019 report, Research to understand the features of quality Pacific bilingual education: review of best practices, Stephen writes that a more effective model of language learning is underpinned by the interconnectedness of language learning, specifically the way knowledge of a first language supports the development of another language.

“Additive bilingual programmes specifically value and include all the languages students know, as well as aiming for bilingualism and biliteracy. These programmes are found to be consistently more effective in achieving bilingualism and biliteracy as well as wider high-level education for bilingual students,” he writes.

Stephen states there are three key reasons to support the expansion of Pacific bilingual education:

  • Language revitalisation and maintenance of Pacific communities.
  • Building on students’ emergent bilingualism.
  • Moving from subtractive to additive bilingual educational approaches.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:46 am, 8 October 2020

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