Research to understand the features of quality Pacific bilingual education: Review of best practices

Publication Details

This report brings together New Zealand and international research to better understand the features of quality Pacific bilingual education.

Author(s): Professor Stephen May PhD, FRSNZ, Te Puna Wānanga, University of Auckland.

Date Published: July 2020

Executive summary


Educational inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand on the basis of socio-economic class and language background remains persistent and endemic.

As a consequence, Aotearoa New Zealand has one of the largest ‘home-language gaps’ of any OECD country – that is, the achievement gap between those students whose first language (L1) is the language of the school and those for whom it is not.

This explains why bilingual students, including Pasifika students, are consistently over-represented in the so-called ‘literacy tail’. New Zealand’s increasing demographic diversity, along with the younger age structure of the Pasifika population, highlight the importance of changing these persistent patterns of educational inequality.

The current lack of a nationally-coordinated policy supporting Pasifika primary school bilingual educational programs means that the majority of Pasifika students are educated monolingually in English-language classroom settings in Aotearoa New Zealand. These English-language classroom contexts have been consistently found in the international literature to be the least effective in successfully educating bilingual students.

Expanding the provision of Pasifika bilingual education in New Zealand primary schools is thus a key to improved educational outcomes for Pasifika students. Such improvement could also impact positively on the nation’s GDP.

In light of this, there are three key reasons to support the expansion of Pasifika bilingual education:

  • language revitalisation and maintenance for Pasifika communities
  • the bilingual continuum – building on students’ emergent bilingualism
  • moving from subtractive to additive bilingual educational approaches.

International and national bilingual research including best practice

English-only ‘submersion’ approaches are ‘subtractive bilingual’ contexts, which presume that other languages will ‘interfere’ with the learning of English, resulting in ‘cognitive overload’ for students.

Submersion approaches focus on the acquisition of English via the notion of ‘time on task’ (the more focus on English, the more likely one is to acquire English).

60 years of research on the relationships between bilingualism, cognition and language learning, however, has shown that submersion education approaches are highly ineffective in educating bilingual students.

A far more effective model of language learning is underpinned by the principle of ‘linguistic interdependence’. Linguistic Interdependence highlights the interconnectedness of language learning – specifically, how knowledge of one’s first language (L1) supports the development of a second language (L2) or target language.

Leveraging Linguistic Interdependence effectively for students can only be achieved in ‘additive bilingual’ programs, which specifically value and include all the languages students know, as well as aiming for bilingualism and biliteracy for students by program end.

Research findings over the last 60 years have demonstrated that bilingual students in additive bilingual contexts have clear and consistent advantages over monolingual speakers in the following key areas: cognitive flexibility, communicative sensitivity, and metalinguistic awareness.

Additive bilingual programs have been found to be consistently more effective in achieving bilingualism and biliteracy, as well as wider high-level educational achievement, for bilingual students. Such programs include maintenance bilingual (MB) programs, enrichment/heritage bilingual (EH) programs, and dual language (DL) programs.

In contrast, subtractive bilingual programs are consistently the least effective academically for bilingual students. In effect, the ‘time on task’ principle does not work – hence, the persistence of the so-called ‘literacy tail’ in Aotearoa New Zealand. Along with English-only language submersion programs, these latter programs include English second language (ESL) and transitional bilingual (TB) programs.

Effective features of current Pacific bilingual education in New Zealand

There is a still relatively limited pool of research that directly addresses Pasifika bilingual education in Aotearoa New Zealand. This research ranges from Spolsky’s initial study into the potential for Samoan bilingual education in the 1980s to more recent case studies of (mainly) Samoan language programs, as well as related studies into the benefits of bilingual programs for Pasifika (and other bilingual) learners.

However, the research that has been conducted on Pasifika bilingual education in Aotearoa New Zealand thus far is strongly consistent with the wider international research on the benefits of additive bilingual education.

In addition, there are important generalist professional development resources and frameworks – such as LEAP (Language Enhancing the Achievement of Pasifika) and the Va‘atele Framework – that both make specific links to additive bilingualism and language learning for Pasifika bilingual students. These could be leveraged more widely in resource and professional development for teachers.

Implications of the best practice research for policy and practice in Pacific bilingual education in New Zealand and related recommendations

In light of the review’s findings, there is an urgent need to develop the following:

  • An overarching policy rationale for Pasifika bilingual education. This should combine a focus on:
    • Pasifika language maintenance/revitalisation
    • The attested academic benefits of Level 1 (80%+) and Level 2 (50%+) bilingual education programs
    • Enhancing the wider social and economic advancement of Pasifika peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • A school-based targeted funding model to directly and immediately support the current New Zealand primary schools with Level 1 and 2 Pasifika bilingual programs.
  • A nationally coordinated, and appropriately funded and resourced, policy approach to Pasifika bilingual education, prioritising the consolidation and expansion of primary Level 1 and 2 bilingual education programs over the next decade.
  • A range of strong additive Level 1 and 2 Pasifika bilingual approaches/options in primary schools, including maintenance bilingual (MB) programs, enrichment/heritage (EH) programs, and dual language programs.
  • Funded specialist bilingual teacher education pathways for Pasifika bilingual education in both initial teacher education and at in-service/postgraduate level.
  • Targeted in-service professional development support for teachers in Pasifika bilingual education, as well as updating and expanding existing related research and professional development resources.
  • Additional Pasifika language and literacy resources, and related assessment measures, to support the ongoing consolidation and expansion of Level 1 and 2 Pasifika bilingual education programs in primary schools, as well as the expansion of NCEA Pasifika language subjects in secondary schools.
  • A related community (and wider public) dissemination strategy on the attested benefits of Pasifika bilingualism and bilingual education, along with the limits of English monolingualism in an increasingly linguistically superdiverse Aotearoa New Zealand.

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