Aligning Maori/English Instructional Programmes For Academic Success

The ACIE Newsletter, May 2007, Vol. 13, No. 1

By Cath Rau, Chairperson, Kia Ata Mai Educational Trust,1 Ngaruawahia, Aotearoa/New Zealand

Editor’s note: Normally the school profile focuses on the experiences of a single school. For this issue’s feature, we invited Ms. Rau to describe how the school system in New Zealand is organized to deliver Maori-medium instruction.

Schools have become critical sites of Maori language regeneration which is ironic given that, historically, education in the Aotearoa/New Zealand context has been effectively used as a mechanism to replace the Maori language and culture and pathologise and position indigenous experiences within deficit frameworks. Maori have insisted upon and are experiencing unprecedented influence upon the education system to reenergise the language and culture and impact positively on student achievement.

Maori immersion education2 catering for students from kindergarten through to the 7th grade3 has evolved dramatically since the first kura kaupapa Maori (total immersion in Maori school) was officially recognised by the state in 1985. Early immersion programmes were characterised by the exclusive use of the target language (Maori) in a desperate effort to regenerate the Maori language and its attendant culture. Most programmes today, however, accommodate English language instruction for academic learning in some form. At least six years in high quality Maori immersion programmes is recommended for students to acquire the cognitive academic language proficiency required to achieve grade level norms (May, Hill & Tiakiwai, 2004). Not all schools, however, are in the position to control the language learning environment for their student population beyond six years, and for many communities there is no guarantee of continuity in Maori language learning provision beyond this as students move through the education system.

Differentiating programs in the Aotearoa/New Zealand context

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, Maori medium education has become the umbrella term to describe the various schooling options in the compulsory education sector where Maori language is used either partially or exclusively to deliver a national curriculum. Schools are funded according to the extent Maori is the language of instruction, the higher levels of immersion in Maori attracting higher levels of funding.

The most recent statistics collated from school roll returns in 2008 reveal that Maori represent about one quarter (25%) of the total student population in schools from kindergarten through to seventh grade. The vast majority of Maori students (98,546 or 82.5%) are in English medium programmes despite a long and continuing legacy of significant Maori underachievement in those learning settings.

The balance, 17.5% or 20,844 Maori students are in some form of Maori medium education. Student numbers and distribution across programme type4 are further broken down in Table 1.
Number and Percentage of Students in Maori Education in 2008

Language demographics of kindergarten students

Maori medium education must cater for a diverse range of students. The following hierarchy represents the least to the most common Maori language proficiency groups of 5 year-old students.

  1. Children for whom Maori is their first and only language

  2. Children who have mixed competencies in more than two languages

  3. Children who have dual proficiency in both English and Maori

  4. Children for whom English is their first language but also have some competency in the Maori language

  5. Children for whom English is their first and only language and who will begin their Maori language learning at school

State funded schools are legislatively unable to regulate admissions. For schools with Maori immersion programmes, this means that they are unable to prevent children from enrolling on the basis that they have little or no Maori language proficiency. Schools, therefore, need to be responsive to the language demographics of their student intake if they wish to cater for the non-homogenous nature of that intake.

Rau's Children The author’s children attend Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Bernard Fergusson in Ngaruawahia, a level 1 immersion school with a current roll of 110 students. This school introduces explicit English language instruction at fifth grade for five hours per week.
Her third and eldest child is in her sophomore year of high school at a continuation Maori immersion program.

Descriptions of Maori/English language configurations

Students in level 3 and 4 bilingual programmes do not become sufficiently proficient in the Maori language to carry out academically demanding tasks in that language because of the limited use of the Maori language for instruction. They do, however, experience other benefits such as an increased sense of (Maori) identity and an improved attitude toward school and learning. Systematic investigation and research into the impact such programmes have on academic performance in English has yet to be undertaken and reported.

English and Maori instruction in level 2 immersion programmes invariably occurs simultaneously where both languages are used in tandem often within a curriculum subject so that there is no clear separation of these languages for instruction. These immersion classes are usually located on English medium sites and struggle to balance equally demanding expectations. Teachers find they are navigating at least two mandated national curricula (English and Maori) while a tendency to only validate and value English language performance measures promotes English instruction over Maori language instruction. Like the level 3 and 4 bilingual programmes, information about the achievement of Maori students in level 2 programmes in either or both languages requires further systematic investigation.

Level 1 Maori immersion programmes (81 – 100% use of Maori), on the other hand, tend to deliver the curriculum by starting instruction exclusively in Maori at kindergarten grade and then introducing English language instruction successively (i.e., later) around grade 4 and at higher grades. There are two competing and sometimes contradictory perspectives that play out and influence decisions about language balance; that is, when to introduce English language instruction and for how long.

Maori Immersion

The overwhelming presence of English in wider society and a relative lack of Maori language reinforcements outside the classroom means that there is a persistent residual fear particularly among Maori medium educationalists, that too much English in immersion programmes will undermine their Maori language regeneration efforts. Conversely, schools experience the premature withdrawal of students starting at third grade onwards who are then transferred to English medium programmes as parents become more and more concerned about proficiency and achievement in English.

The Maori Language is a Treasure, created by a level 1 immersion student.
The Maori Language is a Treasure, created by a level 1 immersion student.

There is increasing evidence of very high academic performance on both Maori and English measures for students and graduates from level 1 immersion programmes. This is particularly evident at the 9th to 12th grades where students are attaining better results in the state wide qualification framework than Maori students in English medium schools and where a high proportion of candidates achieve qualifications above their grade level.5

A common denominator

Much has been learned about the conditions that contribute to effective bilingual and immersion programme design in the Aotearoa/New Zealand education context; however, promulgation of this information is poorly coordinated. A sound knowledge of bilingual education and second language acquisition theory and practice is viewed as a bonus rather than a requirement and is still largely absent from the preservice and inservice experiences of the vast majority of teachers and senior managers. Level 3 bilingual programmes and level 1 and 2 immersion programmes on English medium sites are particularly vulnerable. There is little awareness and appreciation of the competing demands on these teachers, and the learning programme is often viewed as a concession rather than treated as a legitimate and highly desirable educational response. Networking with teachers in similar programmes in other schools tends to increase workload because the expectation of full participation in their own school’s professional community remains.
The Maori Language is a Treasure, created by a level 1 immersion student.
Forums for developing shared understandings of best practice for Maori/English bilinguality are also still quite limited for teachers in level 1 immersion schools because state agendas continue to have a heavy impact on professional development decisions. Schools are unsure of where or how to access the information in comprehensive ways that will ensure the whole school community (teachers and parents) become highly knowledgable, and geographical distance between schools prevents easy networking.

There is much reflection but limited systematic monitoring of the efficacy of various dual language arrangements and even less use of student performance measures in English and Maori to substantiate a status quo or to guide further modification or to argue for extensive change.

The full potential of Maori/English bilingualism is a long way from being realised because the common denominator that distinguishes and defines ‘Maori medium education’ is the very thing that is the most neglected: adequate preparation and support of teachers to work in these contexts. An investment of energy and resource into promulgating best practice for bilingual and immersion programmes and greater shared understandings of second language acquisition pedagogy is a solid investment in the continuing development and evolution of Maori medium education in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Rau Cath Rau can be reached at Visit the Kia Ata Educational Trust at


May, S., Hill, R., & Tiakiwai, S. (2004). Bilingual/immersion education: Indicators of good practice. Final report to the Ministry of Education. Hamilton (New Zealand): University of Waikato.


  1. Kia Ata Mai Educational Trust specialises in initiatives that support indigenous language and literacy development.

  2. Maori medium education has become the umbrella term to describe the various schooling options in the compulsory education sector where Maori language is used to deliver a national curriculum.

  3. Aotearoa/New Zealand equivalents are students in year 1 (aged 5) through to year 8 of primary schooling (aged 12 – 13).

  4. Levels and % of time in instruction is how the Ministry of Education differentiates Maori medium programmes in New Zealand for funding purposes and reporting statistics. The higher the level of immersion in Maori the higher level of funding those programmes receive.

  5. Refer to Ministry of Education (2006/07, 2005, 2004) Ngahaeata matauaranga: Annual report on Maori education. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Indigenous Language articles in the ACIE archives

Top Ten Reasons For Becoming An Immersion Teacher of An Indigenous Language (May 2007)

Immersion Learning and Language Rights in France: The Case of the Diwan Schools (November 2004)

First Stop: Alaska! CARLA Immersion Workshops on the Road (February 2003)
Hawaiian Immersion: Revitalizing a Cultural Heritage (May 1999)

Conference presentations on indigenous languages

The following presentations from the 2008 immersion conference can be viewed online with pdf files of the handouts that were made available to attendees:

Constructing Language Assessments in Indigenous Languages to Inform Immersion Instruction

Indigenous Immersion Teacher Education: Three Perspectives

Collective Visioning: The Development of an Indigenous Immersion Education Model in British Columbia

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