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What helps students to learn?

Most parents want to help their children achieve.

The best results for children come about when their teachers establish good relationships with the children’s parents and families. Genuine and effective collaboration between home and school can lift children’s achievement significantly.

Like all students, bilingual Pasifika students need a classroom environment that encourages them to be highly motivated to learn and enables them to participate fully. 

Bilingual students’ individual differences and needs are part of the language-learning context that teachers need to take into account.

It’s important to explore and work with students’ attitudes, beliefs, and issues in relation to their two languages, to language learning, and to education.

The best evidence synthesis of the research on Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling (Ministry of Education, 2003) gives us important principles in relation to inclusive practices, whole-school alignment and integration, goals and assessment, and teaching and learning practices.

Being a good learner

Teaching is a demanding profession.

One of its most interesting challenges is to establish effective teacher–learner relationships with students from diverse backgrounds. (The video Effective teaching relationships looks at this.)

Our personal attitudes and beliefs affect the relationships we create with people, including our relationships with our students.

It is helpful to re-examine our personal beliefs from time to time to see if they match our goals for our own teaching practice.

Exploring your practice

What makes a good learner

Do this investigation with some colleagues.

Begin by thinking about your own views and writing them down.

Then discuss with your colleagues the similarities and differences in your views on these prompts:

  • What are characteristics of good learners?
  • What do you think are some characteristics of typical Pacific learners?

Explore if the the traits of Pacific learners are similar to characteristics of good learners. If the traits are different, how do will that affect your engagement with Pacific learners?

Traits of high-achieving Pacific students – teachers' perceptions

The writers of this resource asked a group of 168 teachers of Pasifika students to describe the characteristics of high-achieving Pasifika students in their schools. Interestingly, the most frequent answers were about the students’ families, but the next most frequent answers were the following:

  • The student has good self-esteem and confidence.
  • The student is focused, self-motivated, and enthusiastic about learning.
  • The student is confident with and involved in Pasifika culture.

It seems that many New Zealand teachers consider confidence and enthusiasm in learning to be characteristics of good learners.

Were these on your list of characteristics of good learners? 

The benefits of a first language

Students’ beliefs about learning and their opportunities to continue to develop and use their first language will make a difference to how confident, enthusiastic, and successful they are as learners.

Teachers can help students to continue to use their Pasifika languages and also to develop positive learning beliefs and attitudes.

What do students believe about learning?

There are three kinds of beliefs that teachers of bilingual Pasifika students should be aware of:

  • epistemological beliefs
  • self-efficacy beliefs
  • language-learning beliefs.

It’s also very important for teachers to reflect on the beliefs they hold about learning and learners, as these will inevitably affect the way they plan, teach, and interact with their students. 

Epistemological beliefs

Epistemological beliefs – that is, beliefs about learning and knowledge in general – relate to the following areas:

  • How certain is knowledge?
  • Who "holds" knowledge?
  • What is the learning process like?
  • Where does learning ability come from?

Students will learn more effectively if their beliefs reflect their awareness that:

  • knowledge, skills, and attitudes are more tentative and unpredictable than fixed and rigid
  • knowledge does not exist in the mind of the teacher to be handed down; rather, it develops through independent reasoning and collaboration
  • learning is a slow and sometimes irregular process of accumulating knowledge, skills, and attitudes
  • the ability to learn is not entirely innate; it can be enhanced in a number of ways.

To a certain extent, epistemological beliefs are culturally prescribed. As well, not all teachers hold these more effective beliefs and, even when they do, the beliefs of teachers and students are not always aligned.

Jones (1991) investigated the fourth area above – where does learning ability come from? – with Pasifika girls at secondary level. She found that the girls in her study attributed their lack of success almost entirely to a lack of "brains", rather than to the need for a particular kind of effort. Jones and, more recently, Nakhid (2003) found that this "lack of brains" belief was frequently and unhelpfully reinforced by teachers in various ways.

Self-efficacy beliefs

Self-efficacy beliefs are the beliefs students have about how effective they are as learners.

All students hold beliefs about how capable they are in a particular area or in a subject domain (for example, mathematics or language).

Students who believe they are good at a subject often put a lot more effort into learning in that area, and consequently tend to be more successful.

Woolfolk Hoy (2004) suggests that it can be helpful for students to reflect on their self-efficacy beliefs, to evaluate them, and to regulate them. She explains that teachers can help students improve by providing specific feedback on their performance. She also makes the point that teachers can help their students become aware of the effects of their efforts and of the improvements in their work over time.

"Self-efficacy influences motivation through the choices we make and the goals we set … Even when students have the same level of academic skills, those with higher self-efficacy for the task perform better on schoolwork … when sense of efficacy in a given area is high, we will set higher goals, are less afraid of failure, and find new strategies when old ones fail." (Woolfolk Hoy, 2004, pages 4–5)

When teachers set relatively short-term goals with their students and ensure that the students know the criteria for success and can tell when they have achieved their goals, they help their students to be aware of how their effort has led to achievement. 

Language-learning beliefs 

The beliefs bilingual Pasifika students have about language learning are particularly important. Students’ beliefs in this area centre on:

  • whether or not success is determined by language aptitude
  • how difficult it is to learn another language successfully
  • how long it may take to learn a language
  • how a language is best learned.

You can see that these areas are closely related to self-efficacy.

Bilingual students’ beliefs about language learning will probably influence their use of strategies, their motivation, and their confidence.

Influence, pitfalls, and positives

Students’ epistemological beliefs, self-efficacy beliefs, and beliefs about language learning are not permanently fixed. They can be strongly influenced by teachers, who may either encourage or discourage the learners.

The video Effective teaching relationships looks at some ways of encouraging Pasifika learners’ positive beliefs.

Beliefs about language learning are different from beliefs about other learning areas because they are associated with another set of beliefs and attitudes about the language that is being learned, its culture, and its speakers.

Language learners also have attitudes about their own language, its associated culture, and its speakers. They may devalue their own first language but value the majority language. In New Zealand, for example, they may perceive English as being more useful for getting a job.

Learners’ motivation and need to learn a majority language may be greater than their motivation to learn their first language, and there is also likely to be greater support in the community for learning the majority language. In that sense, bilingual Pasifika children’s learning of English is supported by the values and resources of the wider community.

 Exploring your practice

What do your students believe about learning? 

Think about how to get statements of belief from students in each of the three areas:

  • epistemological beliefs (beliefs about learning and knowledge in general)
  • self-efficacy beliefs (students’ beliefs about how successful they are as learners)
  • beliefs about language learning.

You could find out about the students’ views by getting them to brainstorm their ideas, conduct role-plays, write and rank statements about learning, or write advice for younger students about how to learn well.

Alternatively, you could conduct a "Say it", with roles for teachers and various different students. (See The "Say it" activity – example).

Consider how widely shared these beliefs are.

Then categorise the statements and think about the possible effects they may have. (For example, the majority of your students may believe that learning is rigid and unchanging, and "held" by the teacher. One possible effect of this belief may be that your students are not comfortable about working independently or with other students to refine their understanding of concepts in a subject area – they just want to be told by the teacher.)

Your students need to believe:

  • that they can be good learners
  • that they have the guidance and support they need
  • that they know what effective learning is like, and how to do it.

Work with a colleague or colleagues to read, brainstorm, and plan how you can ensure your learners have experiences that lead them to hold the more effective beliefs about learning that are discussed above.

Effective Literacy Practice in Years 1 to 4 (Ministry of Education, 2003b), Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8 (Ministry of Education, 2006), and Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9 to 13 (Ministry of Education, 2004) all have suggestions for helping students become more effective and independent as learners.

Identity and motivation

Identity and motivation

  • Students’ personal identity is linked to their use of language and languages.
  • Students’ identity is also linked to their motivation to learn.
  • Identity is a critical issue for many young Pasifika people.
  • Schools and teachers have a role to play in minimising identity conflicts for the students by strongly supporting their first languages and cultures.

Personal identity is linked to motivation in learning. Both affect learning in general, and language learning in particular. 

Pasifika learners in New Zealand and identity issues

Most Pasifika learners will experience some of the feelings and choices described in the statements above.

This means that they and their parents may have to make some difficult choices or juggle some conflicting factors in their lives. Some of these issues are discussed in the video Parents and bilingual learning.

Pasifika researchers Anae and Pasikale have identified three different types of identity commonly available to Pasifika youth. The differences are based on the extent to which the person relates to the Pasifika cultural traditions and practices, including the languages, of their parents and grandparents.

  1. Traditional identity: Keen to follow and preserve traditions.
  2. New Zealand blend: Tries to keep the Pasifika culture alive, while blending it with other New Zealand cultural practices and life choices.
  3. New Zealand made: Mainly follows New Zealand mainstream cultural practices.

Pasikale writes about these identity issues:

… suffice to say that 'identity' is a critical issue for many Pacific Islands learners, and understanding the issues can mean the difference to our positive cultural continuity and the alienation of a generation more comfortable with other forms of sub-culture. It can also mean the difference to continued academic failure and educational success based on the realities of future Pacific Islands generations. I have come to appreciate that 'identity’ is not a static product but a process of constant navigation, based on a core of convictions that provide a foundation for self-acceptance.

Cited in Coxon et al., 2002, page 91

Various conflicts related to other students, friends, family, schooling, and the wider community may push Pasifika students to reject success in curriculum learning and academic English, and/or to reject the continued development of their home language.

What contributes to the best outcomes

The best educational outcomes for students come about when they are able to use both their home language and English in their schooling, in a context where they are both valued. This reduces identity conflicts for Pasifika students and motivates them to learn both languages and succeed at school.

Exploring your practice

Identity and motivation

Here are some statements for you to consider.

If possible, discuss them with colleagues. Print the statements and, next to each one, note down an example from your personal experience or that of your students, or make a comment.

The way you speak reflects who you are. If you speak in an accent that is different from what is considered usual, or use different words, you feel uncomfortable.

Family, friends, and colleagues are likely to tease you if you start speaking differently (for example, in a "posher" accent, more formally, or in a less "educated" way).

When you speak another language, you feel a bit different and not entirely relaxed.

When you speak another language, you feel you can’t express yourself as well as usual.

As an adolescent, you have to make choices about how much you are going to conform to, or diverge from, the expectations of your family and friends.

If you decide as a young person to put a lot of effort into academic study, it may separate you to some extent from friends or family members who have not followed the same path.

If you go to live in another place and stop using your first language a lot, you feel a sense of sadness and homesickness.

You become a slightly different person after spending several years being very involved in learning something new.

Part 1

Explore some issues about language and identity with your class, using some of the statements listed above. You may have to rewrite them to suit your class.In the associated material Student Voice, you can see the statements one teacher used with his secondary students, and the comments they made.

  • Do your students agree with the statements or not?
  • Can they think of examples?
  • How do they think these experiences affect language learning and language use?

As an aid to exploring the statements, get your students to use the Individual, Pair, Group (IPG) approach.

Part 2

  • Discuss the students’ responses with a colleague.
  • Identify any responses that suggest factors which could have a negative effect on the students’ motivation to learn at school.
  • Identify the focus and source of the conflict in the table below.

The cross in the first box (which is given as an example) indicates that the student has a conflict about whether or not to use academic English – this is the focus of the conflict. The source of the conflict is the student’s classmates, perhaps because they don’t support using more complex language and "fancy words", as one student expressed it.

  Classmates School Friends Other people
Academic English X      
Developing the Pasifika language(s)        
Curriculum learning        

Brainstorm some more ways in which your classroom or school could help reduce the conflicts or difficulties for the students.

Ensuring all Pasifika students are confident and enthusiastic

Give bilingual Pacific learners good opportunities

Teachers can ensure that bilingual Pasifika learners have good opportunities to show their confidence and enthusiasm and to develop their confidence further in more demanding contexts at school.

How can teachers help all their Pasifika students become confident and enthusiastic in the classroom?

How will they judge whether their learners are confident or not?

Perceptions and assumptions of speakers

The person who speaks most in a group is often seen as or labelled the most confident and enthusiastic. Possibly, that person is perceived as the most knowledgeable as well.

However, studies of how people speak in groups show that certain groups and individuals get far more opportunities to talk and look confident than others (Holmes, 2001). For examples, read some of the study results that follow.

  • Men tend to talk more than women and often dominate group discussion.
  • Better-educated people are likely to dominate if turns to speak and length of speaking time are not shared out equally.
  • First-language speakers of the "dominant" language are likely to speak more than second language speakers / learners.

Impressions of time-allotments

Impressions of the amount of time different people in a group have to speak are often quite incorrect.

To be really sure, you have to measure the actual amounts of time different people speak.

  • Time how the speaking time is shared in some adult groups you are part of – perhaps in staff meetings, club meetings, or social groups.
  • Now find out how the speaking time is shared in your classroom.

It is difficult to teach and time students’ talking at the same time, so this is a good opportunity to collaborate with another teacher. You can check out patterns of speaking time in each other’s classrooms.

You could compare some of the following groups:

  • Pasifika students and other students
  • girls and boys
  • students who learn quickly in curriculum areas and those who take longer
  • social leaders and the followers or the independent loners.

You may find that those who are effective learners get more chances to become even better learners through their dominant role in classroom interaction

Create opportune conditions

The next step is to find out how to create conditions so that all students have good opportunities to participate and to show competence, confidence, and enthusiasm. 

Explore ideas, and find a way that works for you, for extending your contacts with one family or a group of families of your Pasifika students. (See items 3 and 4 under the heading below.)

  • Use this as an opportunity to exchange views informally with them about a range of issues related to education.
  • Offer your own views for discussion and evaluation, as well as discussing theirs.
  • Note down any differences in values or approach.
  • Discuss with a colleague how you can take account of these differences in your teaching.
  • Record your conclusions and plan future actions.

Student engagement

"Connecting with your students" means caring for them and creating a caring and inclusive learning community.

It also means connecting with their wish to be taken seriously as learners by teaching them in the best possible way.

Best practice for teaching bilingual Pasifika students integrates understandings from research in bilingualism, second language learning, and teaching diverse student groups.

Exploring your practice

Student engagement

  • Work with some other teachers in your school to conduct a stocktake of how you compare with the statements of best practice below.
  • Tick off the statements that describe your current practices.
  • Identify some statements where your practices need fine-tuning and further development.
  • Plan how and when you can initiate some of the remaining practices. Some big changes can be begun in a small way by doing something a little differently, just in your syndicate or class.
  • Try out a small new development for a week or two.
  • Meet again with the other teachers and report on how your students responded. 

Best practice statements for mainstream schools with bilingual Pasifika students

Major categories of best practice statements Specific characteristics of best practice
1. Inclusive school

 School practices and policies are inclusive of all the school’s languages and cultures.


 Collaborative links are made with Pasifika families and communities, and schools build on these links as resources for learning.


2. Whole-school alignment

 The goals, resources, and pedagogical practices of school programmes for English as an additional language (EAL), English Language Learner (ELL), or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) are aligned with curriculum and school activities.


3. Appropriate goals for learning and assessment

 Language learning and assessment is systematic, comprehensive, regular, and meaningful to learners and their families and communities.


 Goals for bilingual Pasifika students are age-appropriate and are not limited to performance in easier contexts or on easier objectives.


Bilingual Pasifika students are encouraged to develop their Pasifika languages wherever possible.


4. General teaching and learning practices

 Pedagogical practices enable classes and other learning groupings to work as inclusive and cohesive learning communities.


 Teachers build constructively on learning strategies and practices from all the students’ languages and cultural backgrounds and educational contexts.


 All students are taught to be skilled learners who take an active part in managing their own learning. The pedagogy used promotes positive learning orientations, student self-regulation, the development of metacognitive strategies, and thoughtful discussion.


5. Curriculum-related and language-related practices

 Students are given substantial exposure to English language input about curriculum-related topics. Pasifika language input is also provided for bilingual Pasifika students, to the greatest extent possible. 


 Bilingual Pasifika students have substantial opportunities to speak and write in extended curriculum contexts, both in English and in their Pasifika languages. 


 Students are given learning opportunities that allow for significant recycling of language and content. There are planned opportunities for repetition of new vocabulary and other language features, and expansion of the way they are used in different contexts.


 Students are scaffolded in learning the language needed in curriculum contexts to facilitate their further progress in developing language accuracy, fluency, and complexity, as well as in curriculum learning.


 Students receive appropriate and sufficient feedback on both their language learning and their curriculum learning.


 Bilingual Pasifika students are given explicit and focused instruction for English language development.


6. Content of language learning

 Teachers consider the content of English language learning for their bilingual Pasifika students and consult with colleagues who have relevant expertise, such as ESOL teachers or advisers and teachers or advisers who speak a Pasifika language. Where possible, they base their decisions on research into second language learning in school contexts.


 Schools consider whether they can provide learning programmes in Pasifika languages for their bilingual Pasifika students (and others), using the curriculum documents for Sāmoan, Cook Islands Māori, Tongan, and Niue language (and bearing in mind that these are intended primarily for L2 learning rather than for L1 maintenance and development).


 Vocabulary development is targeted, especially in the area of academic vocabulary, and bilingual Pasifika students are encouraged to use both their languages to discuss curriculum-related concepts.


 Bilingual Pasifika students encounter an appropriate range of texts in both their languages.


(Adapted from Franken and McComish, 2005, Figure 2.)

What do students want of their teachers?

Teachers have a wide range of responsibilities, which range from finding out whether a student is integrating their reading strategies appropriately to deciding what to do for a student who may not have had enough to eat.

Connecting with students so that they can learn well involves that whole spectrum. Some things are quick and easy, and others require a lot of planning and organisation.

Research from many countries and groups of students has come up with similar findings about what students need of their teachers.

Connect, support, be well-prepared, persist, add variety

They like their teachers to connect with them as friendly and supportive people who care about them and respect them as individuals. They want teachers to collaborate with them on setting goals and working out how to achieve them.

Students also want their teachers to be well prepared, to persist with teaching them step by step until they learn, and not to give up on expecting them to learn. They like to have variety in their learning activities to keep up their interest in learning and to suit the demands of various types of content.

Family background and teachers

Teachers on family background: Primary importance

The LEAP writers asked 168 teachers of Pasifika students to describe the characteristics of their high-achieving Pasifika students. The teachers considered family background to be of primary importance.

In order of frequency, they mentioned the following top four characteristics:

  • The student’s family is supportive and values education.
  • The family is involved with school and schooling.
  • The family is educated and achieving.
  • The family has high expectations of the student.

Throughout the world, most parents have high aspirations and want their children to succeed in education. Pasifika parents want this, too, and for some of them an important aspect is that the children can be useful to their community as a result.

Pasifika families may support their children’s education in a range of ways that are not always obvious to teachers.

In one study, some Tongan parents said they felt that they contributed in a very significant way to their children’s education, but they gave their support in a general way to "education", rather than to the school in particular.

For example, the mothers believed that their role was to give their children a grounding in religion and values, and to emotionally orientate their families. Their involvement with the details of their children’s schooling was less direct and intimate.

Community and family influences

The Complexity of Community and Family Influences on Children’s Achievement in New Zealand is a synthesis of the best evidence about family and community influences on students' achievement (Ministry of Education, 2003).

It shows that although various community and family factors are associated with low achievement for whole groups of children, this is not inevitable.

Some children do achieve in spite of unfavourable conditions, and teachers and schools are able to improve outcomes for groups of children by developing effective partnerships with their families and communities.

The extracts below relate to these points.

A significant proportion of New Zealand children live in homes that have scarce economic resources, or worse, and about a fifth are living in families in poverty. The incidence of poverty is more than two and a half times greater among Māori, and more than three and a half times greater among Pasifika families than it is among Pākehā families. As a group, the achievement of these low SES children is significantly below that of children from middle and higher SES homes in all curriculum areas. (Page 80)

Extract 1


The association between low achievement and low SES (when children are considered as a group) is highly complex. It is not inevitable that living in a low SES family means low achievement for a child; the association does not hold for some individual low SES children who are high achievers. (Page 81)

Extract 2


The research evidence suggests that effective centre/school–home partnerships can enhance children's learning in both home and centre/school settings. The positive impacts of such partnerships … on children’s achievement can be substantial, compared to institutionally based educational interventions alone. The benefits for children and young people can include better health and well-being, greater educational achievement, and increased economic well-being. (Page 172)

Extract 3


There are various forms of partnership, but not all are effective. Those which are poorly designed, based on deficit views, and not responsive to the needs of families can be ineffective, and even counter-productive. Programmes which are effective respect parents and children, are socially responsible, and are responsive to families and the social conditions that shape their lives. Constructive partnerships empower those involved by (a) fostering autonomy and self-reliance within families, schools and communities, (b) building on the strong aspirations and motivation that most parents have for their children's development, and (c) adding to (rather than undermining) the values, experiences and competencies of parents and children. The evidence is that teachers can do much to initiate such constructive partnerships. (Page 172)

Extract 4

Exploring your practice 

Ways of supporting students and families

Schooling is easier for students when their families support their education in all the direct ways that teachers generally hope for.

If this does not happen, then the students depend even more on their teacher and school to ensure they get an effective education.

What can teachers of Pasifika students do to make sure these students succeed at school?

  • Operate on the assumption that all students need and want to learn, and can do so with appropriate support. 
  • Establish good learning relationships with the students so that they trust you, as their teacher, to show them what to learn and how to learn it. (See the video Effective teaching relationships.)
  • Establish relationships with the students’ families and exchange views and information.  
  • Establish relationships with Pasifika organisations and groups.  
  • Ensure the school has effective policies for pastoral care for students or their families’ health care or safety.

With two colleagues, follow these steps to role-play a meeting with a Pasifika parent who you do not communicate with easily.

  1. One of you is the teacher, one is the parent, and the third is the observer and note taker.
  2. The teacher explains to the parent the "what", "why", and "how" of a particular aspect of their child’s current learning.
  3. The parent responds in various ways, and the teacher’s explanation continues until a common understanding is reached.
  4. The observer records points of difference, the reasons for these differences, and how, or whether, they were resolved.
  5. Finally, all three colleagues discuss and record the lessons learned from the role-play.