Exploring Pacific children’s success in early learning

Dr. Alice Hyun Min Kim, University of Canterbury

Attending New Zealand schools as a student who speaks English as a second language and comes from a minority cultural background can be an experience fraught with confusion, miscommunication, misunderstanding and frustration. I have a first-hand experience of this having been born in South Korea and migrating to New Zealand at the age of 13. Like many of us, my cultural identity and values were internalised and not explicitly made aware, which meant that any cultural differences were difficult for me to articulate.

This was one of my personal motivations behind studying early language and learning success of Pacific children growing up in New Zealand for my doctoral study. Despite literacy being a fundamental human right, New Zealand’s track record in educational and literacy equity is far from being impressive (see here). Achieving equity in educational outcomes is a pressing issue for our society, but it is a complex task.

Measuring educational success is culturally biased

One reason why we see continued disparity in outcomes can be due to the way we measure educational success. Achievement results are often based on specifically set standards that allow for comparisons across different groups, countries and time, but it is often not free of language and cultural bias. Most currently available assessment tools are in the English language, and hence may disadvantage English as additional language students. Standardised assessments often get easier if you are familiar with the format so the students who are exposed to demonstrating their knowledge in a test setting tend to do better than those who are new to such settings. Unfortunately, most of the assessment tools that we use to measure academic progress do not cater well to the students from different cultures and who have different learning styles (for example, for New Zealand, PISA assesses student achievement in the English language only, see here).

In addition to this, the historical and current disparity in educational outcomes between Pacific students and their Pākehā and Asian peers is an unacceptable situation for educators, Pacific students and communities. It is important here to emphasise that the Pacific students are not the problem. We often overlook language and literacy development in their community languages. When there is an observed gap, early targeted literacy support programmes have shown efficacy in closing any differences in outcomes between Pacific learners and their peers.

My doctoral study

The government-funded “A Better Start: E Tipu e Rea” National Science Challenge sought to address this disparity by investigating effective ways to intervene early and improve language and literacy outcomes. In my doctoral study, we focused on ways we can support Pacific students’ learning success by looking for common characteristics among high-achieving Pacific learners. We paid particular attention to early school outcomes, as a strong start in language development and reading achievement can lead to later learning success. Drawing on data from the Pacific Islands Families Study, the only prospective birth cohort study dedicated to studying the long-term health and wellbeing outcomes of Pacific children growing up in New Zealand, the doctoral research sought to identify important predictors for English language development of Pacific children aged 6 years.

The results from my doctoral study highlighted the relevance of Pacific/Western New Zealand cultural and social connections in Pacific students’ English vocabulary development in the first year of primary school. We also noticed strong differences in cultural orientation and background across different Pacific ethnic groups, which raised important questions about how to define Pacific/Pasifika/Pacific Islands students – there is a lack of consensus even in our nomenclature used to capture this population. As a team, we learned more about Pacific students, and their experiences and responses to Pacific-New Zealand cultural differences and their relevance to language development, than we had anticipated. What struck me most was the importance of families’ selective acceptance of New Zealand Pākehā culture and the role of holistic development in determining Pacific children’s early English vocabulary development. For example, the factors that were predictive of Pacific children’s English vocabulary at age 6 years were:

  • Healthy birthweight
  • Age-appropriate development in motor, behavioural and emotional functions in the early childhood years
  • Maternal knowledge and the strength of their connections to Pacific and Western New Zealand cultures

These factors highlighted the relevance of physical, socio-emotional and cultural wellbeing in Pacific children’s language development. It also emphasised the importance of considering early life experiences in studying language development.

It seems that the main challenge for Pacific students and families in achieving educational success is navigating and negotiating the language and cultural differences in New Zealand schools. We tend to think that the school environment is without cultural bias, but often that is not the case. Cultural bias may include the way the students are expected to behave and think. Hence students are expected to leave their cultural identities at the school gate and learn to behave in ways that are more acceptable and expected of them. When the children are not feeling confident about their identity then it is very difficult for them to achieve (see here to learn more about learner identity, and here for the importance of Māori identity in an educational setting). The purpose and vision statement of the Ministry of Education clearly states delivering equitable and excellent outcomes is its main purpose and every New Zealander being strong in their national and cultural identity is one of its key visions.

Working together to achieve success

We (educators, Pacific families and communities) need to work together to achieve school environments that are more aware and accepting of cultural differences. Families and educators being partners in their children’s education may be a concept that is taken for granted among many Pākehā parents. But it is a concept that requires more negotiation for Pacific parents who traditionally value deference to authority. Empowerment of Pacific families and communities is an essential step in allowing them to voice their views of educational success and to allow Pacific students to self-determine their future path and success.

Key points:

  • Pacific children’s English language development and academic achievement are closely connected to their physical, mental and social wellbeing. Their developmental outcomes need to be considered in a holistic framework.
  • Pacific children are from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and can bring their own rich cultural basket of knowledge to school.
  • Empowerment of Pacific families and communities is essential in removing cultural and language barriers in home-school communication.

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Dr. Alice Hyun Min Kim is a Research Fellow/Lecturer in the School of Health Sciences and Child Well-being Research Institute at the University of Canterbury. Alice’s research areas include child development, health inequity, biostatistics, epidemiology and public health.   


  1. Arohamai Whanau NZARE But this appears to be and I say appears to be based on this brief report another example of an unconscious institutionally biased piece of research. If it is not then of course I apologise. However to measure Pasifika children’s development, progress and well-being requires a holistic approach -Not yet another English only piece of work – The Better Start programme needed to take wider dimensions of Well-being -Language/s Bilingualism-Culture- Identities- Belonging -Self-concept-Pasifika Values, childrearing parental aspirations .. into account .

    The project continues to talk research and report about language and literacy development but it usually really means ENGLISH ONLY & English literacy framing our children and mokopuna (Judy and mine included as well)as deficient, behind, delayed development and in need of interventions originally designed not for bilingual biliteracy development, but for children usually needing Special Education assistance.

    As a researcher in the field of bilinguailsm-biliteracy Bilinguals cognitive and academic educational development I simply claim that best evidence ove rthe last 40yrs at least, comprehensively reject these deficit approaches.

    I simply challenge anyone anywhere any time to publicly and academically debate this issue of what constitutes Well-being language literacy and conceptual Well being development for our grandchildren.

    Frankly we are sick and tired of having our own children and own grandchildren constantly being cast as second class citizens and students needing remedial approaches to education .The NZ system did exactly the same thing to Māori children for over 140 years until we as Te Reo Māori Soc- Nga Kaiwhakapumau took the Min of Education to the Waitangi Tribunal which produced Wai 11 Report in 1986- In deficit based education and speech development research we are actually simply repeating damaging unhelpful, monolingual sterotypes rather than getting on with providing better evidence based bilingual and biliteracy well-being holistic Education education. This below is what we want and thousands of others as the Education Conversation and the Lalangafou reports have said-
    A new Vision for Māori & Pacific Families

    1.1 To enjoy success in education as Māori/ Pasifika (Tongan , Niue, Samoan, Tokelaun, Cook Is Māori) peoples.

    1.2 To be able to grow up in NZ in the context of our own languages, cultures, values and beliefs.

    1.3 To be able to live life as Māori/ Pasifika (Tongan, Niue, Samoan, Tokelauan, Cook Is…) peoples in NZ.

    1.4 To gain the skills, knowledge and understandings to be productive citizens of the wider world and participate in all areas of NZ society sharing in its material wellbeing.

    Adapted from Professor Mason Durie’s 2001 Māori Education Strategy

    Mauri ora

    John McCaffery. Hon Senior Lecturer -Academic -Researcher- Consultant. Bilingual/ Biliteracy Immersion Education Te Puna Wananga – School of Māori and Indigenous Studies (Pacific), Faculty of Education, Epsom Campus. University of Auckland Aotearoa/ New Zealand
    Work and MOB: +64272083766
    email: j.mccaffery@auckland.ac.nz; jmcc084@aucklanduni.ac.nz j.mccafferynz@gmail.com

    Arohanui and nga mihi nui

    Bringing Theory & practice together- Watch Here
    Richmond Road School Bilingualism Conference presentation:
    Simultaneous Biliteracy

    1970-2020. 50 yrs since the formation of Te Reo Māori Soc (TRM) VUW Foundation Exec member
    1972-2022. 50 yrs since the 1972 TRM and Tamatoa Māori Language Petition to Parliament- Exec member

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kia ora John

    Thank you for your comment on the blog article.
    In short, I agree with you on your concerns regarding the inherent and institutional cultural bias in measuring educational, language and literacy success among Pacific students.

    Please see below the comment directly quoted from my article:
    “Achievement results are often based on specifically set standards that allow for comparisons across different groups, countries and time, but it is often not free of language and cultural bias. Most currently available assessment tools are in the English language, and hence may disadvantage English as additional language students.”

    On the other hand, I do not dispute the importance of English language in our day-to-day functioning and educational success. Many Pacific students and families also acknowledge this.
    I sense that it is a problem when Pacific languages and cultural values are undermined and discouraged.

    My research looked at English language development because that was the only standardised assessment tool available at the time. An important limitation that I discussed in length in my doctoral thesis and published papers.
    However, my research was also one of the first that have demonstrated the important connection between cultural factors and language development in Pacific children using quantitative analyses.

    A Better Start Challenge is also funding my colleague, Saili Aukuso’s doctoral study looking at developing Samoan language phonological awareness assessment tool. So we are far from finished in terms of catering to the needs of Pacific students in New Zealand and elsewhere.

    Thank you for sharing your views and online resources.

    Liked by 1 person

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