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Supporting language development

" ... like coaching a sport."

Teaching and supporting students’ language development is like coaching a sport.

The students are the ones running around with the ball – reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and presenting.

Lika a coach, the teachers observe the students "doing" language and look for holes in the game plan. Teachers assess students’ current skills, decide what they must learn next, and find strategies for teaching them those skills.

Students need plenty of practice with each skill. They need to be “match fit”, that is, able to put the skills together into a whole game – that of language use and interaction in relation to curriculum learning.

Cyclical progression

Language-learning progression involves moving from basic construction and vocabulary to advanced features and structures. The teaching process is cyclical, that Is, ongoing and repeated at regular times.

Teachers need to make sure students are aware of these parts of language and how they are used. Also, provide feedback – something helpful and doable – on students’ efforts to use the new language they are trying to grasp.

Language is the medium through which all curriculum learning is expressed, and language learning can easily be incorporated into (be part of) curriculum learning.

Whole-school support for language development

Just as teachers develop ICT (Information and Communications Technology) skills through all curriculum areas, they can plan to support language development throughout the school day. Planning in this way means students who speak two (or sometimes more) Pacific languages have their needs met and can work toward their accomplishments.


For teachers of bilingual Pasifika students, key overall teaching goals are to ensure that bilingual students:

  • are learning the same curriculum concepts as their year-group classmates who speak English as their first language (L1)
  • make use of and develop both their languages as far as possible. 

Plan language learning across the entire curriculum. Build on learners’ prior knowledge of language and concepts and help learners extend their existing language-learning strategies.

Closing the language gap

For Pasifika students able to speak two (or more) language and who start school mainly speaking a Pasifika language, it will take seven or more years for them to catch up with their cohort in terms of learning academic language.

Throughout this time, monitor bilingual Pasifika students’ English-language development. Set aside time for specific language tasks, ones that meet students’ present needs.

Remember …

Clearly specify language-learning goals and talk with the students and their families so that together, you can decide on things that are most important to each student. Make sure you have put in place ongoing assessment that records students’ progress and clearly identifies goals they have gained through their efforts.

Language for learning

Good language-learning activities develop students’ speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. In turn, students have tools for curriculum learning.

Effective teachers make sure all students learn the full range of language needed for:

  • full participation in the learning community
  • successful and continued learning.

The language component of your programme should cover the language modes of speaking, listening, reading, writing, viewing, and presenting. Within each of these ways of using language, you will also focus on words (vocabulary), phrases, sentences, and whole texts. 

Written language

Throughout the year, show students different types of writing and give them many opportunities to accomplish success in various types of writing.

Linking the reading programme with the writing programme means students can develop skills in reading different kinds of material. Like writing, reading has many styles and approaches to suit the audience and the purpose.

Use your professional ability to do things well, such as deciding which texts their students can read or write independently and which they need guidance with – as a class, in pairs, or in groups.

Oral language

Teachers of students in the early years of schooling are usually familiar with developing oral language. However, oral language remains important for learning throughout a student’s schooling (and beyond).

Many experts believe conceptual (idea-based) thought and all knowledge come from and develop through language processes that start in spoken conversation between people. 

How students learn

Naiman, Frohlich, Stern, and Tedesco (1996) identify the following ways that effective language learners apply their learning strategies.

  • They have an active approach (for example, they imitate, practise, identify, and deal with problems).
  • They work with language as a system (for example, they analyse, infer, guess, translate, compare, and build up systematic knowledge).
  • They work with language as a means of communication and interaction (for example, they seek out opportunities to use it, develop fluency, and develop awareness of social and cultural meanings).
  • They take responsibility for managing their own learning and meeting personal challenges.
  • They monitor their language performance (for example, they check, correct, look for new information and examples, and ask for feedback).

At the heart of success

In learning two or more languages, bilingual Pacific students will have developed successful ways for:

  • learning another language
  • gaining reading and writing skills
  • reaching goals in all types learning.

To some extent, Pacific students will be able to apply these ways of reaching goals in two different languages and cultures: the Pasifika language and the English-speaking context.

An effective teacher, you help all students to continue extending their success plans. Know that you can also help bilingual students apply their established ways of reaching goals to curriculum learning.

Specifying the language-learning outcomes

Teachers need to make clear words like “explain”.

In the level 3 science exemplar Gears, one of the students’ intended outcomes is to explain, scientifically, how their model works. The word "explain" hints that students do this through the use of language – but how, exactly?

If teachers are to make clear the language outcomes used in curriculum objectives, they need to break down the meaning of words like "explain".

Effective literacy strategies

On page 132 of Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9 to 13 (Ministry of Education, 2004), the main purposes for academic writing are listed as: identify, describe, explain, discuss, argue, justify, apply, analyse, and evaluate.

Beside each of these purposes is a definition that gives more detail about what the word means and what student needs to do. For example, "explain" is defined as: “Write a detailed account of how and why – procedures or methods; how things happen or work; reasons for action or event.”

Thus, an explanation is giving details about how something happens or works and/or the reasons why it happens or works in that way. This means that an explanation is likely to include some language features that tell about the sequence in which something happens, others that give detail about cause and effect.

Give EAL (English as an Additional Language) and all students clear teaching about these conventions.

Even though real texts are usually a mix of types of writing, students need to be able to recognise the conventions or patterns that will help them identify and analyse the writing types the mix. By understanding the conventions of a specific type of text, students can gradually organise the texts they hear, read, say, and write.

Exploring your practice

Find about ways to look at, study, and add to your practices in these areas:

Curriculum outcomes and language outcomes

Think about the language-learning requirements of a curriculum text. Or think about a type of task you would like your students to complete, one they may come across in the future. (You may like to consult with an ESOL-trained colleague to do this.)

Write language-learning outcomes for each curriculum outcome. Share both kinds of outcomes with your students. Agree on success criteria (how you will measure success) for each.

Plan multiple ways of teaching students the language they need for this curriculum learning. For example, using word maps, introduce key terms and language features that relate to the new concepts. Then, engage students in purposeful discussions. Ask them to use the language in appropriate types of oral texts and to define, in both words, key terms and language features.

In the next lesson, begin with a brainstorm (a list of possible ideas) that revisits the key terms and language features. After that, show students how they are expected to use that language to meet a curriculum-based learning outcome.

In the final review of the unit of work:

  • analyse students’ learning to both kinds of outcomes
  • identify what worked well for students
  • plan ways to build on what worked well.

Extending students’ existing learning strategies

Part 1 – Learning strategies

Over a week, note the learning strategies two or three of your bilingual Pasifika students use.

For the students you are observing, notice and record all examples of:

  • specific language-learning strategies, such as repeating words and phrases, using dictionaries, or asking for feedback on their language usage
  • more general learning strategies, such as identifying new learning, clarifying goals, or making connections with previous learning.
At the end of the observation week
  1. Think about any other learning strategies you observed your students using. Write these down.
  2. Ask students to tell you about what they used each strategy for.
  3. Together (with the students' input), figure out how successful of their ways of learning were. 
  4. Work with them to set a plan for the next step or steps: how can students improve; how can they continue using their most successful ways of learning or reaching goals.
Example of an observation log
Language-learning strategies What the students did General learning strategies What the students did
Repeating words or phrases   Relating new learning to previous learning  
Asking for explanations   Identifying new learning  
Trying out new words   Clarifying goals  
Asking for feedback on language usage   Setting personal goals and monitoring their own progress  
Using dictionaries      
Using familiar language in new contexts      

Part 2 – Bilingual strategies

In certain situations, bilingual students may use some bilingual strategies. For example, when they speak in two or more languages while working cooperatively in groups.

The bilingual skills they draw on may include translation, comparison, code switching, and using different languages for different purposes. 

Thinking about students' bilingual use

  • Did you observe your students using bilingual strategies?
  • Look over the observations you recorded. Consider whether there are any patterns in how the students used their strategies,  individually or in groups.
  • Work with a colleague to find ways to help students make the best use of these strategies for classroom work.
Strategies for bilingual learners

Being bilingual – In this video, students discuss how they use bilingual and group strategies.

Reciprocal teaching of reading – The dropdown on "Approaches to teaching reading" (Literacy Online) has information about this reading approach that helps develop the comprehension and critical thinking. Groups of Pasifika bilingual speakers can benefit greatly from this approach.

Promoting language learning

For one of your classes, write a set of outcomes that covers all (or part of) one unit of work for oral language. If possible, work with a colleague. Together, you can discuss priorities and work through different aspects of the planning.

Suggested guidelines

You could follow these guidelines.

Links to curriculum or subject
If you are a primary school teacher, link your programme to one or more curriculum areas (for example, mathematics, science, social sciences, or the arts). If you are a secondary teacher, use your own main subject area.

Speaking and listening contexts
Cover a range of speaking and listening contexts (for example, interactions with one or more peers, the teacher, or with other adults, and addresses to a small or a large group).

Listening and speaking situations
Cover a range of listening and speaking situations (for example, with preparation time or impromptu, with or without support materials, working with new or well-known material, speaking for a short or a longer time).

Cover a range of purposes (for example, understanding or expressing a feeling or opinion, getting or giving information, debating ideas or facts, appreciating imaginative language, or using language imaginatively).

Supporting bilingual Pasifika students

If possible, include some outcomes that relate to bilingual Pasifika students developing oral language skills in both languages and transferring the skills they learn between the two languages.

Working with colleagues, brainstorm ways of making sure Pasifika students get feedback on how they use their Pasifika language. Then, try these ideas; ask the students to give feedback on how useful they find them.

As well as arranging for feedback from bilingual school staff and adults in their family and the wider community, students can reflect on their own first language development and give informal feedback to their first language (L1) peers.

Other ways to support language development

You can find more information about supporting langauge development. Look through the practical guidance, key points, explanations, ways to explore your practice, and examples in these topics.

Assessment to support learning

Learning from interactions

Learning from talking and writing

Learning from listening and reading

Helping students to notice vocabulary and grammatical features

Using feedback

Learning to use more complex sentences

Scaffolding language

Fluency, accuracy, and complexity in language