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Language and school

The language used in classrooms and by teachers has special characteristics not found in everyday speech.

Effective teachers observe the classroom language environment and make changes in it to provide the best curriculum learning and language learning environment for their students. 

Academic language is the new language all students have to be taught at school so that they succeed in learning. This is especially true in such learning tasks as reading curriculum material, discussing it, and writing about it.

To develop students’ academic language, teachers need to know how to talk about language and how to teach vocabulary and language skills.

Interaction between students is a powerful source of language learning. Teachers can organise the interactions in their classes to provide favourable conditions for bilingual Pasifika students. This includes maximising opportunities for them to use their Pasifika languages in their learning.

How do we use language in school?

Effective learning environments for all students ensure that:

  • there is a focus on important features of language
  • students process language forms and meaning
  • students know what they are doing and why.

Effective learning environments for bilingual students also enable those students to use both their languages in increasingly complex ways.

Who could be marginalised

Minority students, or those whose home language is not the medium of instruction, could be marginalised and silenced in the classroom. Because this can happen in New Zealand to Pasifika learners, as well as to other students, teachers must be alert to processes that could make students feel excluded from what is going on at school.

What researchers revealed

Camille Nakhid set out to find an explanation for the failure of schools to address the lack of academic achievement of Pasifika students in New Zealand education. She talked in depth to five New Zealand teachers and 12 students about their perceptions of schooling.

The Pasifika students she interviewed talked about how they felt:

  • different from the non-Pasifika students, who were confident about speaking up in the class and talked easily to the teacher 
  • they were not as articulate as the non-Pasifika students, and did not feel able to respond to the teacher in the same way as the non-Pasifika students
  • as if the teachers and non-Pasifika students made it seem that they worked harder and were faster learners than Pasifika students. (This came about because of the way their requests for further information or for clarification about the lesson were responded to.)

Difference in perceptions

The students Nakhid interviewed had some perceptions that were quite different from the teachers’ perceptions. One example was that the teachers believed that the students valued specific individual attention and one-to-one opportunities with them. In fact, the students expressed considerable discomfort about classroom practices that singled them out and “exposed them to the class as ‘less capable’ students” (Nakhid, 2003, page 218).

In her 1991 work At School I’ve Got a Chance, Alison Jones examined the different experiences offered in New Zealand classrooms. She found disparity between the skills many pupils have and the skills schools rewarded.

Jones found a situation similar to Nakhid's. The Pasifika girls she worked with thought there was no point in engaging in talk and discussion with teachers. They also felt that there was something about the way Pākehā girls related to schooling that was different and more successful, in spite of the fact that both they and the Pākehā girls spoke English and worked hard.

The teachers in Jones’ study wanted to get the Pasifika students to engage in learning behaviour that would help them to be more successful in the long run. They would say, for example, “You need to work this out for yourself.” Unfortunately, the teachers failed to establish a successful dialogue with the students to find a common understanding.

Media gallery
You can hear some teachers’ views on effective teaching relationships in the video "Effective teaching for Pasifika students".


Jones, Alison.  (1991).  "At school I've got a chance" : culture/privilege : Pacific Islands and Pakeha girls at school.  Palmerston North [N.Z.] :  Dunmore Press

Nakhid, C. (2003). "Intercultural" Perceptions, Academic Achievement, and the Identifying Process of Pacific Islands Students in New Zealand Schools. Journal of Negro Education, 72, 297-317.

Patterns of interaction and discourse

How can it be that Pasifika students who have had all or most of their schooling in New Zealand don’t feel comfortable with classroom interactions?

One possible answer lies in the effects of a European tradition that began nearly 2500 years ago. For example, consider this exchange.

Parent: What’s that over there?

Child: Dak.

Parent: Yes, it’s a duck, isn’t it? Do you think it’s going to swim across the pond to eat our bread?

Child: Bwet.

Parent: Our old bread.

This common European question-and-answer session has links with the method of teaching that Socrates developed, that is, getting knowledge from students through skillful questioning.

Parents use it; when babies are too young to speak, parents provide the answers as well as the questions.

Initiation, Response, Feedback

In the example above, the parents uses a technique called the "IRF pattern" – Initiation, Response, Feedback.

Teachers might use this techniques in the classroom. They might included feedback also.

Sometimes the feedback is an evaluation, for example, "Good" or "No". Other times, the teacher may elaborate on the student’s response, as the parent does in the example above.

Thus, it is understandable that some children of Pākehā backgrounds feel comfortable when the teacher does the same thing their parents and other caregivers have done.

Some children are also used to interrogating adults at length. 

Child: Why isn’t that train going?

Parent: It’s waiting for the other one to go past.

Child: What other one? Where’s the other train?

Parent: You can’t see it. It’s further up the line. The signal is red, and that tells the driver not to go yet.

Child: Who makes the signal red?

Pākehā children, especially those in middle-class families, are generally encouraged to ask questions like this.

However, in other cultural groups it may be impolite or unacceptable for anyone to question in such a direct and persistent manner, and this may apply especially to children.

Alternatives to the encourage-to-ask-questions approach

Consider these examples of important approaches other social groups might use.

  • Children are trained in different types of oral performance.
  • Children are encouraged to observe quietly and to copy.
  • Children are directly instructed.
  • Children are talked to mainly by older children.

All these methods, and others, allow children to learn to speak, interact, and solve problems in the manner of their community.

Despise this, the patterns of interaction described above are often the norm in New Zealand classrooms.

Armed with this information, you can see why sone students might feel excluded if they have not been brought up to engage in this type of interaction.

Exploring your practice

Who talks in class

Find out who contributes most and least in your whole-class sessions and in small groups by observing your class interactions for a day. You may need help to carry out this activity.

  • Put a tick next to a student’s name on your class roll each time they speak in a whole-class session.
  • Put a cross next to the name each time a student speaks to you one-to-one or in a small group about curriculum content.
  • Identify those who spoke most and those who spoke least. 
    • Do those who spoke most have anything in common? 
    • Do those who spoke least have anything in common?

Encouraging oral participation

To try some techniques for ensuring that all students participate equally, see the associated material on the dropdown "Encouraging oral participation", which follows this section. Here, you will find suggested techniques and teachers’ comments. 

Notice whether those who participated least often were able to participate more often when you tried these two techniques. 

You may then like to present them and discuss them with your syndicate, department, or school during professional discussions among the staff.

Encouraging oral participation

The following techniques are good ways to encourage everyone to speak. 

Taking turns, everyone speaks

This works best for topics where everyone can either express an opinion or feeling or contribute an experience.

Keep in mind that this approach might pressure students to answer a difficult question or to make a decision quickly. So,, make sure you choose carefully topics. Select ones that will result in everyone being willing and able to contribute.

 In addition, set an inclusive space and establish a supportive tone. Include rules are that keep others from mocking or contradicting what has been said. Strive for a space where all answers are accepted with interest, empathy, or insight.

Individual Pair Group (IPG) technique

IPG is one method that helps students prepare to speak publicly. 

To begin, ask a question or set a problem. Then, get the class to work in three stages.

First, students individually write “first thoughts” – what they first thought when they heard the question or problem.

Next, students work in pairs. With a partner, they talk about their first thoughts.  

Finally, the pairs join to form groups of four to six students. The groups discuss the topic further. After some time talking together, the group choose a spokesperson who will report to the whole class.

Note: This approach is similar to Think, Pair, Share (TPS).

Each student as a spokesperson

Over the course of a week, each student in the class should have the same number of turns at being the spokesperson. You might have to establish a turn-taking system to ensure this.

Make equal the number of times talking

To equalise the talking roles, give each student three "talking chips".

Each time a student speaks, they put one chip in the centre.

When their three chips are in the centre, that student has no more speaking turns until all of the students in the group have put all three of their chips in the centre.

Nominate a friend

The students each nominate a friend, someone they know has something to say.

To be effective, this technique requires good relationships exist in the class. If unity is present in your learning community, students hesitant to volunteer may be more willing to speak if a friend asks them to do so.

Have a management role

Reciprocal teaching of reading develops students’ ability to lead and take part in an exploratory discussion about a text.

In this activity, the students take turns in roles that rotate. The roles include:

  • summarising
  • predicting
  • clarifying
  • questioning.

About the roles

The summariser give says the main ideas of the text. This person could also can ask the other group members if the summary was accurate and if they agree with the points made.

The predictor says what they expected to happen. They tell the others if these did or did not take place in the text and explain their thoughts about this. The predictor could ask others what they expected to happen in the text.

The clarifier says what was good or bad, interesting or confusing about the text. This could include word choices, how the text was organised, the writing style, and so on.

The questioner says what questions readers might have said to themselves as they read. Also, the person in this role could ask the group a question that makes them think deeply.

For example,

  • Why does [this] matter?
  • What can this text teach us about [our lives, what life is like for immigrants]?
  • What is another way to look at [this issue]?

"Be an expert"

Each student has responsibility for a part of the content matter.

This means the whole group depends on that person to inform them about part of what they need to know.

Jigsaw learning, where students are given different pieces of information to work with, uses this approach. 

About the Jigsaw technique

To find out about Jigsaw learning:

A caring and inclusive classroom environment

Many studies highlight the importance of having caring and inclusive learning environments, especially when there are students from diverse backgrounds.

Without this attention to caring relationships, students are sometimes marginalised (pushed aside as unimportant or powerless) in class, subjected to racist attacks, or bullied by peers.

Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8 discusses the classroom as a learning community.

The quality of the classroom ‘climate’ is crucial to the students’ emotional and social well-being and to the progress that they make. Students need to feel that they are part of a warm and supportive classroom environment where it is safe and appropriate to take risks in their learning. 

Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8, page 195

Peers and teachers create the quality climate in the classroom. Make this part of curriculum learning, for example in the learning areas of social studies, and health and physical education.

Exploring your practice

Find out what support: exists, is desired, should be added

You might like to find out how well all your students feel supported by you and their classmates. 

Over the course of a week, your students could work in small groups with a grid like the one below. Tell students to fill in the types of support and an example of that type of support.

They could also think about what support they would like and what support they could give to other people.

If you want to support bilingual students in using both their languages in your classroom, it would be a good idea for the class to think about how languages are involved in supporting others. Ask the students:

  •  how they feel when they use their first language in learning
  •  how they would feel if they could not use their first language for learning
  •  whether they support and encourage other students in using their first language and if so, how?

Helping each other in our school

 Ways we can support one another  Who is involved?
 Our teacher  Other students in the class  Other students in the school  The whole school community
 What supports us in our learning?  Kind of support  For example, when the teacher notices that we’re having trouble and comes to help.      
 Example  For example, Miss Baker asked Michaela if she wanted to see an example of how the report should be written.      
 What do we do to support others?  Kind of support        
 What could provide better support?  Kind of support        
 How could it be done?  Kind of support        

A starting point for adding support

If your bilingual students say they would like more support, try out some new approaches, such as a cooperative learning approach.

You could also try some of the many other approaches to establishing caring learning environments suggested in Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis.

The benefits of cooperative learning

Cooperative learning is one way to establish an inclusive environment where students support one another’s learning.

Through cooperative learning, members of the group develop a positive relationships, gain social skills, and get better at face-to-face communication. Group members also learn how to:

  •  take responsibility for their own actions
  • work together to find solutions
  • think about their contributions or improvements.

Engaging in cooperative learning activities can help students to:

  • understand that the teacher: 
    • cares about them and about their learning
    • wants them to do their best
    • wants to see students' work so they can give feedback on it.
  • be: 
    • motivated to work with other students
    • willing to help and be helped by other students.

Cooperative learning and academic achievement

A positive association exists between academic achievement and students' awareness of a teacher's support during cooperative learning. Similarly, students' motivation is positively correlated with an awareness that teachers care about them.

An investigation you could try: Jigsaw learning

Jigsaw learning is a form of cooperative learning that is ideal for enabling bilingual students to support each other, using their Pasifika languages.

If this cooperative learning approach is new to you, try this investigation.

Find a colleague who would like to undertake this investigation too. Both of you will benefit from the collaborating, planning, and reviewing your results. The cooperative learning approach could be the basis for some planned curriculum learning.

Some guidelines
Randomly mixing selected groups for each activity helps students gain experience in working with a variety of groups.

Make sure:

  • individual and shared learning outcomes for each group are set
  • it is likely that all group members can succeed in meeting their learning outcomes
  • the groups share materials
  • the groups divide the work among themselves.

Observe and record:

  • to what extent all students participated equally
  • any differences between the processes the groups used
  • the ways and time students used to do interactive speaking, relevant reading, and writing
  • how well the groups and individuals achieved their learning outcomes.

Affirming Pasifika languages in the mainstream

Key to affirmation

  • Become familiar with the range of Pasifika materials available.
  • Organise and add to the Pasifika materials in your school.
  • Give your Pasifika students easy access to these materials.
  • Introduce learning practices that will help your Pasifika students use and set goals for their Pasifika language(s).
  • Help your students to integrate their Pasifika language, English, and curriculum learning.

Other benefits

A multilingual learning environment is interesting and valuable for both teachers and students alike. Having a good understanding of how language works supports all students’ curriculum learning.

By participating in a classroom where several languages are used, students who know only English will learn about language and how it works. It may also give them the confidence and interest to learn other languages.

Exploring your practice

Affirming Pasifika languages

Part 1

For this investigation, work with as many colleagues as possible, including the librarian or teacher with library responsibility. 

  • Find ways of collecting and using materials in Pasifika languages, and do this regularly so that you become familiar with using these materials.
  • Find ways of becoming more familiar with the content of Pasifika material in the school so that you can give students information about it.

Some sources of information include: 

  • student reading materials in Pasifika languages and the teachers’ notes that accompany them 
  • the Pasifika songbooks and accompanying CDs in primary schools
  • publishing company staff
  • your students and other students in the school
  • bilingual and ESOL staff
  • family and community members.

Part 2

Some ways of using Pasifika language materials in your school are listed below.

Try some of these things out in your classroom, taking note of how the students use their languages, and have a follow-up session with your colleagues to discuss what you observed.

Easy-access to resources their first language (L1)

Have plenty of printed and audio materials in the students’ first languages in the classroom such as CDs, Pasifika song resources, books, newspapers, and magazines (in Pasifika languages). 

Display the material well and classify it to help students select what they want.

Ask the school librarian or teacher with library responsibility to help you ensure that all the school’s Pasifika material at appropriate levels is accessible to your students.

Use ICT resources, including websites, to help students access more L1 materials.

Create or find listening material in the students’ L1s to be recorded and available for use.

Tuakana–teina buddy system

Encourage older Pasifika students in your school to write material for younger students.

Arrange for Pasifika staff or people in the community to:

  • bring in L1 materials and help you organise them
  • speak to your students or record short tapes for them.
 Helping your students use their L1
  • Ask the students to take home L1 material and read it to members of their family or tell them about it. 
  • Encourage the students to refer to any L1 material that is directly relevant to their curriculum learning and to share what they discover with the rest of the class.
  • Provide them with L1 dictionaries and other reference supports.
  • Ask them to get family members to explain or discuss L1 material with them.
  • Arrange for Pasifika staff or people in the community to respond to students’ questions about L1 material. 
    • They could do this by recording questions digitally, writing them on paper, or emailing them.

Helping your students to integrate their learning

Ways to boost language skills

When it serves an authentic learning purpose, encourage your students to:

  • compare first language (L1) material and English language material on the same topic
  • engage in information transfer activities based on texts in English and in their L1 
  • produce visual work (such as charts, diagrams, or poetry) in bilingual versions
  • translate material from their L1 into English for the rest of the class
  • translate and/or proofread simple material (like captions for pictures) from English into the L1 for younger bilingual Pasifika students in the school
  • build up bilingual lists of key vocabulary from their curriculum learning
  • talk to their peers about their skills and knowledge in their first language and second language.

Incorporating first language texts

Look through some first language texts, and find an item that relates to some of the curriculum learning your class is going to cover. No worries if you cannot understand the text – your Pasifika students can still work with it!

Ask all the students, Pasifika and non-Pasifika, to look at this material as part of their work on the topic and include some reference to it in their responses.

  • The Pasifika students may be able to use it as a basis for bilingual discussions and produce bilingual written or spoken responses. 
  • Other students can respond to the visual material and recognise or predict the meanings of some words. They can also make observations about similarities or differences between the Pasifika material and materials in English.

Thinking about the effects of using first language material

Observe how your students make use of the Pasifika material, talk about it, and write about it.

With both bilingual Pasifika students and the other students, discuss how using the Pasifika material has affected their learning.

What is academic language?

The language used in classrooms – termed "academic language" – is different from everyday language and takes significantly longer to learn.

Academic language is more abstract (an idea, rather than a concrete thing), more formal (follows the rules), and has more specific vocabulary than everyday language. Language used in academic settings is less common than language used in everyday life.

All students need to learn academic language, but bilingual students face particular challenges when learning it in their second language.

Some patterns of classroom talk (for example, the way to ask questions in class) may also be new to bilingual Pasifika (and other bilingual) students.

Be aware of these language differences.  Teaching these, in a clearly expressed way, to bilingual students (actually, to all students) is more effective than assuming they'll "just get it".

Exploring your practice

Turning academic language into simple language 

Choose a section from a book that you plan to use with learners for curriculum-related purposes. Examine the section and find specific examples of academic language. Note these down, and then rewrite the section in ordinary, conversational English.

Ask your class to do the same thing. Divide the class into groups and get them to examine the section of text for meaning.

  • What structures, sentences, concepts, or words do they understand or not understand?

Note what the students identify. Use it to teach specific academic language or to teach the characteristics of academic language.

Ask them to rewrite the section of text, as they understand it, in ordinary English – as if they were explaining what it says to a friend or relative. Compare and contrast this with your own rewritten section to identify your students’ needs in this area.

Examining your classroom habits

How much exploratory talk goes on in your classroom? Ask a colleague to observe how you ask questions in class, to whom, and how often. (Alternatively, audio record or videotape your own lesson; afterwards, listen to the talk that occurs in the lesson.)

Questions to consider could include:

  • Which students are most often "called upon" to speak?
    • If so, to what degree?
  • To what extent do you allow for exploratory talk among students?
  • In which contexts does exploratory talk occur (if it does)?

Having undertaken this kind of analysis, examine and discuss the patterns that currently exist in your classroom. Consider how these might need to be changed to foster more exploratory talk, particularly for bilingual students.

For ideas based on good practice, refer to Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8. Go to the sections on classroom conversations (pages 94–95), expanding students’ vocabulary (pages 126–127), and meeting many needs (pages 127–130).

Chapter 2 of Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9 to 13  has information and ideas for secondary school teachers about teaching academic vocabulary. Trial one or more new patterns that you think would be appropriate for your class.

Language and school: Further exploration

What students need to know 

What students need to know
On this page, you will find information about traits of language, how many and which words students need to know, how to analyse vocabulary, ways to explore your practice, materials for vocabulary analysis, and extracts for measuring readability.

Ideas and tools for reading, writing, and speaking

Ideas and tools for reading, writing, and speaking
Has idea for helping students:

  • make hard sentences easier
  • tap into knowledge of text structures and features
  • find information in complex texts
  • scaffold writing
  • extend student vocabulary 
  • explore generic texts
  • and more.