A wealth of multicultural voices

21:06, Dec 17 2012
BILINGUAL BUDDIES: Hard at work at English lessons at Corinna School are Samoan speakers Diana Uelese, 6, and Lueli Lio, 7, Tuvaluan speaker Kelvin Tautua, 9, and Samoan speaker Joanne Kopelani, 6. The wealth of knowledge bilingual children possess is not recognised by National Standards, the school says.

It's a blazing summer's day at the end of the school year, not far from Christmas. Inside a dark, cool classroom at Corinna School eight children start singing to the tune of Silent Night:

Po lelei,


La tatou,


Sa iloa ai le fetu


Mo Malia ma Iesu

Moe lelei ia oe, moe lelei ia oe.

Samoan language teacher Sia Nafatali takes the children through the vocab: Iesu means Jesus, Malia means Mary, fetu means star.

"How do you say 'shine'?" she asks in Samoan.

"Susulu", one kid pipes up. Ms Nafatali looks impressed until the students tell her she's written the translation on the whiteboard already, and the class collapses into giggles.

Outside in the sunshine five Tokelauan students are painting a picture of a Christmas tree covered in decorations.

Christmas trees don't really exist in Tokelau, so teacher aide Malia Fa'aololo is teaching the kids Tokelauan vocabulary like "Christmas tree", "decoration" and "star".

Corinna School is alive with language - 49 students, nearly a fifth of its roll, are being funded by the Ministry of Education to learn English, and dozens have been through the four- year Ministry programme but are still mastering English.

Funded language learners fall into three categories: migrants to New Zealand, refugees, and New Zealand-born kids who haven't learned English by the time they start school.

The school boasts speakers of Samoan, Cook Island Maori, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Khmer, Spanish and Burmese.

And "boast" is the operative word - Corinna very much sees its language learners as an asset, principal Michele Whiting says.

"They bring this amazing wealth of knowledge and another language and we value that."

As well as adding to the cultural fabric of the school, encouraging first languages makes for better learners of English and other subjects, Ms Whiting says.

"There's quite a bit of research that shows when you maintain someone's language and you value that, then you're also going to enhance their learning in English."

For example, a bilingual Samoan student might be achieving at the level of his peers by year 6, but by year 8 he might be achieving above them, she says.

"That's about respecting and valuing the language they have."

Corinna employs five bilingual teacher aides, and runs half-hour weekly language maintenance lessons for speakers of Samoan, Tokelauan, and Cook Island Maori.

All pupils learn Maori and there are extension Maori classes for kids who speak it at home.

But all the work Corinna puts into its bilingual children goes unrecognised when it comes to National Standards and league tables, Ms Whiting says.

At first language learners were exempt from National Standards, but last year that was reversed, even though the Ministry of Education has an equivalent assessment for language learners called Learning Literacy Progressions.

Students should simply progress to National Standards when they are ready, Ms Whiting says.

Assessing all students by the same standards betrays a "deficit" approach to bilingualism, which New Zealand had moved away from decades ago, until National Standards were introduced, she says.

Language learners' predictably poor results in National Standards skew Corinna's position in published league tables, Ms Whiting says.

"When you read our results in the paper you will see that we're significantly below [average]."

Many prospective parents would not realise Corinna's results are biased by its heavy load of language learners, Ms Whiting says.

"Using a standard to report a below, well below and above [score] does not give any picture of added value. It feeds a prejudice about the abilities of our students."

Most schools in Porirua East have a similar number of language learners to Corinna, and two years ago the schools created a moderation system for writing assessment, to make sure they were on the same page when it comes to marking.

Such collaboration could end now that league tables pit schools against each other, Ms Whiting says. "In this area if we're really going to improve achievement we're going to have to work collaboratively.

If any one school has success then it's 'what are you doing to make this work?"

Ms Whiting would like to see language learners exempt from National Standards until they are on a level footing with other students.

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