Tuakana/teina approach helps oral language development

Issue: Volume 99, Number 18

Posted: 5 November 2020
Reference #: 1HADqu

A tuakana programme to support oral language development in which tamariki mentor their younger peers, is beginning to have a wide-ranging impact in Taranaki schools.

Ako Mai I Nga Kōrero (Learning through Stories) has been developed and trialled by a group of Taranaki resource teachers of learning and behaviour (RTLB) in response to a growing trend of declining oral language skills in new entrant classes.

The trial group consisted of 16 students (eight tuakana and eight teina) from five schools across the region.

Ako Mai has now been introduced to 16 different schools in Taranaki. The programme uses many of the concepts from the Hei Awhiawhi Tamariki ki te Panui Pukapuka (HPP) programme developed in Rotorua in which parent tutors are trained to enrich students’ oral language.

Instead of relying on whānau to work with their tamariki, Ako Mai uses a tuakana/teina approach, with senior students working with new entrants at the school.

“The HPP programme has been around for a long time, but here in Taranaki, it was getting hard to sustain it. A group of us RTLB were talking about how great the HPP programme was, but we couldn’t get the parents and it was expensive to fund the teaching assistant,” says Lyndsey Marment. She has worked alongside colleagues Wade Scott, Jeni Portway, Gayleen Combes, Tennille Yandle, Charis Le Master and Helen Jenkins RTLIt to develop the Ako Mai programme.

Both programmes develop oral language by providing opportunities which encourage conversations about the stories being read.

Tamariki engaged

Tuakana and teina work together three or four times each week for eight to 10 weeks. Older children, with a reading age of eight and over, were trained to work with the younger children.

“The tuakana love the responsibility of being the tutor. They take it very seriously when they start off in the programme.
I did the training with a group, and one of the tuakana came up to me and said: ‘Mrs Marment, it’s such a privilege to be able to work with these children’,” laughs Lyndsey.

“The children are amazing little tutors,” adds Jeni. “In one school we’d only been going for two days. The new principal wanted to see it: when she walked in, all of the tamariki were engaged, they were all on task and she was really impressed. They don’t need teachers or adults in the room – they manage it themselves really well,” she says.

Kate Reacher, a teacher at Stratford Primary School, explains Ako Mai: “When you see Ako Mai in action, you see the children completely relaxed, engaged, learning and having fun all at the same time.

“One of the most powerful things we have seen is the relationships between the tuakana and teina. Such as seeing the tuakana, seeing the tuakana voluntarily visiting and playing with their teina during their play times,” she says.

Kate’s observations were reinforced by a Year 8 tuakana: “My buddy would hardly speak at the beginning but now I can’t stop them talking when I am reading.

“You can see them just glow – they really take that responsibility and their chest puffs up. It’s just wonderful: they feel valued,” explains Jeni.

Progress and results

Results from the Ako Mai trial show that all of the teina involved made progress in oral language and reading levels. In the oral narrative post-assessment, tamariki improved between 10 to 45 per cent and by one to five reading levels.

The greatest gains were made by Māori students, with all three Māori tamariki in the trial improving by four reading levels. These results support the commonly held view that Māori children learn well through an oral approach and tuakana/teina methods.

“Another thing we have learnt about the tuakana/teina approach is it’s not always necessary to have your best readers doing it. That’s because the tamariki who are sometimes a little less able in reading understand what they need to say and do because they have been in that situation themselves. It actually makes them better teachers,” explains Wade.

The trial also showed improvements in understanding and oral language for tuakana, although to a lesser extent than the teina.

The RTLB team’s next area of study will be around whether tamariki who have taken part in Ako Mai continue to show positive progress back in the classroom once they leave the programme.

“So that when they are writing stories, rich vocabulary is being used and when they are reading, they come across more and more familiar words and will keep making uniform progress right through,” says Wade.


One school involved in Ako Mai reported improved interactions between younger and older students in the playground.

“This isn’t part of our programme, but the relationships that the kids built together are just phenomenal in that they go and talk to each other in the playground. In that one school, all the behaviour problems they had in the playground basically went away because there was the positive mixing and role modelling.

“That was just a beautiful spinoff that we never thought would happen. And of course, the little kids love the big kids,” says Wade.

Another offshoot of the trial has been the development of an in-school whānau programme: Ako Mai I Nga Korero – Whānau. The whānau system has a class working three times a week together with another class, using a tuakana/teina approach. Several schools are now successfully implementing this programme in their classrooms.

Impact of poor oral skills

Oral language is an essential precursor to early literacy and students successfully accessing The New Zealand Curriculum. Concerns have been anecdotally noted by a number of RTLB and teachers about the impact that poor oral language can have on wider learning and social progress at school.

Some research suggests that children from lower socioeconomic families are more likely to have lower vocabulary scores when compared to their age peers in higher socioeconomic families; with children of professional parents hearing on average 2,153 words per hour, compared with 616 words per hour heard by children of parents on welfare benefits.

“If a lack of oral skills isn’t addressed early, research indicates that up to 80 per cent of youth offenders could track back to an oral language deficit,” says Jeni.

“In Taranaki, some of the speech language therapists have got together and started a group called Taranaki Talking. They have approached Police, Oranga Tamariki and businesses in New Plymouth to make people in those organisations aware that a lot of people coming up in Youth Justice do have this oral language deficit,” she says.

More than a language programme

Schools are looking for interventions that are cost effective and don’t require a huge amount of training or set up, explains Lyndsey.

“There are a lot of five-year-olds coming to school with low oral language skills and teachers are looking for something different to what is already out there,” she says.

“It started off as a language programme, but it’s now become a relationship programme which builds some kids’ self-esteem and has helped in the playground. It’s amazing how one little programme makes such a difference in so many ways,” says Wade.

The skills that students can learn through programmes like Ako Mai, are likely to improve learning engagement, social interactions, and lay a solid foundation for children to become lifelong learners,” he adds.

For more information about the Ako Mai programme, contact the Taranaki RTLB cluster manager rtlb.manager@npbhs.school.nz.


Teacher kōrero 

Q: What difference has the Ako Mai programme made for your tamariki? 

A: Increased interaction with the senior students and it was a good chance to get to know the students again after Covid-19. It allowed for interaction in books and gave the students a chance to enjoy a range of books. Children love stories so they enjoy being read to – so more story time is welcome. For the ESOL children hearing the structure of English sentences is very important. This was very structured and gave great input.  

Q: How difficult or easy has it been to implement in your class?

A: Very easy. The senior students did the work and I just provided the students. 

Q: What do you think the key benefits of the programme are?

A: Oral language; listening to more stories; collaborative approach. Stephanie Van Vuuren, St Joseph’s, Opunake. 

Tuakana kōrero 

Q: What do you most like about being a tuakana in the Ako Mai programme? 

A:  That the little kids look up and rely on you and that you are trusted to be the bigger person. Chloe, Year 7

A:   It was fun to interact with the junior kids and just have a conversation with them. Ayla, Year 7 

Q: What do you think you offer to teina? 

A: I offer the experience of working with older kids, because when we were younger we loved having the bigger kids looking after us and it takes the pressure off the teacher. It is really special for them: a positive change for them. Chloe, Year 7

A: Modelling of the school values. Ayla, Year 7

Q: Have you learnt anything by being involved?

A: You need to take your time to allow them to process the stories, statements and the questions. 

It was great to interact with the younger kids. You get to show the younger kids what you have learnt and be a positive influence on the younger kids like the teachers’ positive influence on us. Chloe, Year 7 

A: Each teina is different and it was great to use patience and see their progress. You need to take time to get to know each of them. Getting to know the children, spending quality time and learning about their characteristics was exciting. Ayla, Year 7 

Teina kōrero 

Q: What do you like most about working with a tuakana in the Ako Mai programme and what have you learnt?  

A: I liked to answer the questions as they were funny! We learnt about building a birdhouse. I learnt a lot from the questions. Isla, NE

A: I like doing the questions because it was easy to answer them and cool. I have learnt to work with a big boy and he talked to me when I answered questions. Lucas, NE 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 10:58 am, 5 November 2020

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