Supporting early language and biliteracy for Pacific learners

Issue: Volume 103, Number 2

Posted: 22 February 2024
Reference #: 1HAfGb

The Pasifika Early Literacy Project (PELP) was created to support both whānau and teachers to create an educational environment of multiple literacies in which to celebrate, value, and utilise the heritage languages and cultures of Pacific peoples.

Ina Ropu Tengaru shares a dual language story session with Gloria and Meari.

Ina Ropu Tengaru shares a dual language story session with Gloria and Meari.

Ko toku tokiga e mau ai toku hikohikomaga.

A Tokelauan proverb that underlines the way in which language and culture are interwoven with the learning environments of children. 

The Pasifika Early Literacy Project (PELP) delivers professional learning and development workshops, in-school visits to teachers, and family fono with Pacific communities, each facilitated by PLD facilitators, researchers, and experienced Pacific bilingual teachers.

PELP was first piloted in 2014 by a team from the University of Auckland, led by Dr Rae Siʻilata, and contracted by the Ministry of Education.

The pilot supported the use of Sāmoan/English dual language books to foster biliteracy learning in Pacific languages and in English, with 27 teachers across seven schools in the Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland area.

It was expanded to include the five Pacific languages of gagana Sāmoa, te gagana Tokelau, lea faka-Tonga, te reo Māori Kuki ‘Airani, and vagahau Niue in 2015-2016.

Primary school clusters in Tāmaki Makaurau continued to participate in PELP in 2018-2019, and since 2020, early learning services have also been included. Last year the project was expanded to include Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington region.

As one of a group of researchers and facilitators associated with the project, Dr Rae Siʻilata is an honorary academic at the University of Auckland and a director of Vaʻatele Education Consulting, the team currently contracted to provide PELP PLD.

Vaʻatele Education Consulting(external link)

Rae references the promotion of language, culture, identity, and wellbeing, saying PELP is all of those things enacted in practice.

“It promotes Pacific languages as the languages of our hearts, minds, and spirits. The project encourages teachers and whānau to share their own lives with tamariki, and to support tamariki to share their lives and experiences at early learning and school. We want children to feel at home when they come to learn.”

PELP has opened up opportunities for both personal and professional growth.

PELP has opened up opportunities for both personal and professional growth.

Shared PLD experience

PELP project coordinator and workshop facilitator Kyla Hansell explains that the PLD sessions are delivered Pacific-style.

“There’s singing and lots of laughter with a whole team of facilitators – not just one person talking at you for the day. It gives the teachers the chance to explore teaching pedagogy and cultures in a safe, non-judgemental space.”

Bronwen Walters, a non-Pacific teacher at St Joseph’s School in Levin, found the sessions immensely inspiring.

“I think it was the best PLD I ever did. Up on our feet, talking, singing, and dancing. It spoke to my heart about how these children will best learn.”

She relates an example in the power of shared experience, which occurred after her partner told her that he had spotted a large fishing net on the front lawn of a student’s home nearby, a boy from Kiribati who had previously struggled with writing.

 “I like to pull together different stories around a theme, so we were talking about fishing, and I mentioned the net. Suddenly he was coming up with a whole bundle of stories and we were able to use the books as a catalyst to get them down together.”

Fono sessions

The project’s fono sessions can be an emotional setting for families, who bring their previous experiences of education to the table.

“Pacific parents really want the best for their children and fono nights provide an opportunity to affirm what they’re already doing at home,” explains Kyla. “They don’t have to stop what they’re doing to be successful in education.”

Sheila Tagiilima-Lemalie has two children attending Toru Fetu Kindergarten in Porirua and found the first fono that she attended was a great opportunity to refresh her thoughts as a teacher, mother, and carer.

“It reminded me of all the important little things that add to their learning and development each day. Everything around us these days affects the way we respond to things. At the same time, not everyone is learning the same way as other children.

“Children in the past, present and future have different gifts and we all need to support them in their education journey.”

Dual language books

Rae explains that a key difference between PELP and other literacy programmes is that these books validate and value children’s ways of being, languages, cultures, and lived experiences. PELP supports tamariki and whānau to see that Pacific languages are included in the valued knowledge of early learning services and schools.

Dual language books have been created in five Pacific languages.

Dual language books have been created in five Pacific languages.

“Reading should be fun, enjoyable, and a place where parents and tamariki can share their experiences that relate to the stories in the books.

“During the second fono we also talk about how to engage in deeper conversations with tamariki about the messages in the books, but we do it in ways that are culturally authentic and real.”

Marama Ruau’s daughter also attends Toru Fetu. Marama has found that the dual language resources are having a positive impact on all her family.

“As parents who speak our reo fluently we want our children to learn to do the same.”

Along with helping her daughter to pronounce and understand words in her language, Marama’s other two primary school-aged children get to be involved in the learning too.

Retaining identities

Ngaretta Strong (Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa) and Ina Ropu Tengaru are the learning communities liaison and senior head teacher respectively, for Toru Fetu and Nuanua kindergartens.

Both have found that families are initially most focused on the importance of their children learning English.

“Being part of the PELP has been a journey. We feel privileged but it’s also such a huge responsibility, because we know we need to sustain this project on behalf of our community,” says Ina.

The two feel that the project embodies a need for a mind-shift towards asking the children: who are you and what are you bringing?

“It’s about unpacking and removing the westernised perspective, so that we are fully supporting the cultural identity of our children. This is the gift that teachers and whānau can give.”

Toru Fetu Kindergarten is one of the early learning services participating in the project.

Toru Fetu Kindergarten is one of the early learning services participating in the project.


PELP has supported Pacific learners to view language and literacy as relevant and engaging and to use oral language and prior knowledge to inspire meaning.

Many learners demonstrate levels of metalinguistic awareness that enable them to make distinctions between different Pacific language texts, and English.

Pasifika Early Literacy Project (PELP)(external link)

Pasifika dual language books(external link)

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:46 am, 22 February 2024

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