What will it take to make a difference for learners of te reo Māori?

Nicola Bright, New Zealand Council for Educational Research

Imagine 10 or 20 years from now, hearing te reo Māori alive and well and thriving in all its beauty and complexity. That’s the dream te reo Māori advocates have been striving for over the last few decades. We’ve made some gains and have some success stories – Kōhanga Reo, Kura Kaupapa Māori. However, we still have a way to go, and we need all the support we can get!

How can schools contribute? English-medium as well as Māori-medium schools have an important role to play in te reo Māori revitalisation. The more schools think critically about what they can do to support ākonga reo Māori (te reo Māori learners), the better position they will be in to make a difference.

How can schools contribute?

Schools have little control over some things, such as increasing the supply of teachers who can teach te reo Māori or teach through the medium of Māori. That will need some deliberate and strategic resourcing from the Government. However, assuming such a move is made, it may take a few years before all schools see the benefits. It brings us back to the question, what can schools do to help make a difference for te reo Māori? Schools can:

  • choose to have te reo Māori as part of the core curriculum
  • plan to provide te reo Māori education at basic, moderate and high levels of immersion
  • make school a place where te reo Māori is heard every day and everywhere.

Proposing to make te reo Māori a core curriculum subject to increase the population of te reo Māori speakers is not new, and for various reasons it has not gained popular support. However, this idea was back in the media in July with the Te Ahu o te Reo Overview Report (which investigated the health of te reo Māori in 9 communities) that included a recommendation to “raise the status and increase the use of te reo Māori by making te reo Māori a core curriculum subject in the compulsory education sector”. Green Party Māori Development spokesperson Marama Davidson has also come out in support of te reo Māori for all, saying:

“We have a responsibility to ensure that our first language not just survives, but thrives in Aotearoa, and introducing all children to it at school is one of the best ways to make that happen.”

In what could be viewed as a case of fortuitous timing, two schools in affluent areas have chosen to make te reo Māori compulsory this year. Auckland Grammar has hired a teacher of te reo Māori for the first time in its 147 year history, and have announced that te reo Māori is now a compulsory subject for all year nine students. Christ’s College have likewise recently made te reo Māori compulsory for their year nine students:

“One of New Zealand’s most prestigious, private all-boys schools is embracing the Māori culture and language for the first time in 167 years. Christ’s College, a predominant English boarding and day school based in Christchurch, introduced Te Reo Māori as a compulsory course for all Year 9 students.”

School can support future generations of te reo Māori speakers

Actions that schools like Auckland Grammar and Christ’s College have taken are important. They make a difference. Schools have the potential to support generations of current and future te reo Māori speakers to acquire and grow their language – in ways that support Māori identity and go beyond classroom learning. Te reo Māori is closely linked to identity, so strengthening te reo in schools is likely to contribute to ākonga Māori feeling like they belong, and being more open to learning. Te reo Māori is not just a subject, and schools can do more than just offer basic te reo Māori programmes for a couple of hours a week. Schools are a part of a complex support system, including homes and communities, for many te reo Māori learners and their whānau. Schools have an important role in helping students learn and use te reo Māori in a place where they spend a lot of time, a place that is dedicated to learning.

So why aren’t more schools thinking more about how they can support their ākonga reo Māori? Is it because it’s not a priority? Is it perceived as being someone else’s responsibility? Do schools realise what a huge impact they could make if every school were to critically think about their role in revitalising te reo Māori and implement practices and processes that support te reo Māori learning and everyday use in their schools?

Most ākonga reo Māori are learning in English-medium schools

Most ākonga reo Māori are learning te reo Māori in English-medium schools where te reo Māori is unlikely to be part of the core curriculum, and where positive attitudes towards the reo are largely yet to be translated into action. That said, there are some schools with practices and processes in place to support reo Māori learning and use on an everyday basis, and we want to encourage more schools to do this.

Unsurprisingly, it’s within Māori-medium kura that such practices and processes are strongest because te reo Māori is an integral part of the philosophy and foundation of kura. Outside of these spaces, whānau have limited access to immersion learning, and it can be difficult to maintain reo proficiency levels and use. The relationship between learning te reo Māori through Māori-medium education and increased use of te reo Māori in adulthood means that it’s really important to make sure that whānau can access quality Māori language immersion education as early as possible, and consistently as they move through the education system.

The role of schools will change as the population of te reo Māori speakers develops, and their need for learning support changes. One day, whānau might be choosing schools or kura because they have the very best advanced academic te reo Māori programmes in Aotearoa, or they may go straight to their local marae for advanced learning. Who knows what is to come, but we know that right now schools are sometimes the only source of te reo Māori learning for students and their whanau.

Ka Whānau mai te Reo

Through my current role as a kairangahau matua (senior researcher) in Te Wāhanga – NZCER, I have been involved in the kaupapa Māori research project Kā Whānau mai te Reo which focuses on how to support continuity of whānau reo Māori development during key educational transitions. As part of this project we pose critical questions for schools to think about their role in supporting te reo Māori revitalisation right now. Here are some questions for schools about learning pathways for te reo Māori, transition processes, involving whānau, creating environments that support te reo Māori use, and links between school and home from our recent article in set:

Learning pathways for te reo Māori

  • Are you connected with other ECE/Kōhanga Reo/schools/kura/tertiary institutions in a way that forms a clear learning pathway for learners and speakers of te reo Māori?
  • Can whānau access all Māori-language education options in your school (e.g. immersion, bilingual, or as a subject)? If not, how else are you supporting reo Māori learners?
  • What information are you providing to whānau about Māori-language education in your school? Is it clear and realistic about the impact you expect it will have on learners’ reo Māori development?

Transition processes and te reo Māori

  • How do your transition processes ensure that your school can support reo Māori learners’ learning continuity at the point of entry into and exit from the school?

Involving whānau in decisions about te reo Māori

  • How are you involving whānau in decisions about te reo Māori in your school?
  • How are you finding out about whānau reo Māori aspirations? How are you incorporating those aspirations in your planning?

Creating positive environments that encourage te reo Māori use inside and outside of the classroom

  • How is your school culture/environment supporting reo Māori use in both formal and informal ways?
  • What everyday opportunities are there to kōrero Māori at school inside and outside of the classroom?

Strengthening links between school and home learning

  • How are you strengthening connections between school, home and community to support reo Māori learning and use?

Schools can make a real difference for ākonga reo Māori when they critically reflect on their practices, attitudes and values about te reo Māori and tikanga Māori, and work out how they can better support these learners. We hope that these kinds of questions prompt schools to ask themselves about their plans for te reo Māori provision in the long term, and ask: What kind of contribution to te reo Māori revitalisation do they want their school to make?


Nicola.jpgNicola Bright is of Tūhoe and Ngāti Awa descent. She is a Kairangahau Matua (Senior Researcher) in the Te Wāhanga team at NZCER. Her primary interests are in contributing to the revitalisation of te reo Māori, and exploring the ways in which kaupapa Māori research approaches can contribute to making a positive difference for Māori learners. 

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