How the Māori language is taught in schools

Learning te reo Māori starts early and can continue through your child’s schooling. Being bilingual improves brain function, and te reo Māori is easy to learn.

Cluey Learning Sunday, 18 April 2021

Under the Treaty of Waitangi, te reo Māori is a taonga (treasure) to be protected as the indigenous language of New Zealand. Just like NZ sign language, it’s an official language of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Many schools incorporate the Māori language into their learning, and the debate on if it should be compulsory is ongoing.

Learning te reo Māori often starts at early learning centres and playschools, where kids learn greetings, numbers and colours in both English and te reo Māori. They sing waiata (songs) and learn the names of the native trees and birds.

Māori traditions, customs, and concepts like whanaungatanga (the importance of family) and manaakitanga (caring) teaches children how to care for one another and respect their environment. Values of tikanga Māori include the importance of te reo (language), whenua (land) and Whānau (family and extended family groups).

Kaitiakitanga (looking after the land) is a good example. When children understand what’s gone before, they become more passionate about taking care of the land in the future. The importance of taking care of the planet, starting with our own neighbourhood, is driven home through everyday actions such as picking up rubbish, that ultimately become habits.

How being bilingual boosts the brain

It’s said that the ability to understand and speak a second language improves brain function and, especially for children, it supports the ability to focus attention and perform mental tasks. Numerous studies have found that bilingualism improves problem solving, multi-tasking and decision-making.

Research also suggests that learning a second language while young makes it easier to learn a third.

One of the arguments sometimes used to oppose the teaching of te reo is that speaking Māori isn’t of much use in the rest of the world, so school students should learn an international language such as Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin Chinese. But te reo Māori is the language outside of English that we are most likely to encounter here in New Zealand, so why not learn it?

Māori is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn because the sounds generally stay the same no matter how the letters are grouped. Māori has only 13 letters — English has 26 — and complex English phrases and idioms are easy to translate into basic Māori statements and expressions.

For children who speak basic English, the transition into learning a basic language like Māori is easy. Add to this the fact that te reo Māori is our indigenous language, and you have plenty of reasons to embrace learning it as a second language.

Learning Te Reo Māori in school

With interest in the Māori language and culture growing in New Zealand, more families are choosing a Māori medium education for their tamariki (children). This is where students are taught all or some curriculum subjects in te reo Māori for at least 51 percent of the time (Māori Language Immersion Levels 1-2). It gives children a sense of belonging where their identity, language and culture are celebrated.

In New Zealand, opportunities in Māori medium education begin at a young age and can continue through your child’s schooling. The New Zealand Curriculum Guidelines for Teaching and Learning Te Reo Māori in mainstream state schools is divided into eight levels. These are:

  • Level 1 and 2: Beginning to use te reo Māori
  • Level 3 and 4: Developing communication skills in te reo Māori
  • Level 5 and 6: Achieving social competence in te reo Māori
  • Level 7 and 8: Achieving personal independence in te reo Māori

The New Zealand education system encourages teachers to use te reo Māori as the language of classroom instruction. This reinforces the use of the language for communication purposes. It also provides opportunities for students to learn pronunciation and basic sentence patterns. This is usually limited to simple expressions with beginner learners and increases in complexity as students’ progress through the eight levels.

Resources such as books, music and posters are also used to reinforce te reo Māori learning throughout the day. Secondary schools also find ways to reinforce students’ learning by using te reo Māori in school communications and by integrating it into other learning areas in the school curriculum. Both primary and secondary schools can set up self-access centres where students can access te reo Māori resources independently.

Does technology support learning te reo Māori?

If you search the Internet, you will find many sites and resources with information about te reo Mā Whānau ori, Māori communities and tikanga Māori. However, there are two recent developments that have made a difference to learning in the classroom: the launch of I-Papakupu (the Internet version of the monolingual dictionary of te reo Māori) and the te reo Māori version of Google.
There are some great apps that help teach children te reo Māori, such as iMarae, He Aha Tēnei? and Tae.

On Facebook you’ll find pages you can engage with to learn more about the language and give you tips on how to use it at home, such as:

What’s a Māori medium education?

Kohanga reo (Māori medium early childhood education services) are Māori cultural environments that care for young children from birth to six years old. Lessons are in te reo Māori with a strong emphasis on customs, values and Whānau.

Once your child is ready for school, there are several options available. Kura kaupapa Māori are state schools where the teaching is in te reo Māori and is based on Māori culture and values. There are also Kura reorua (bilingual and Māori language immersion classes in mainstream schools).

If your child is enrolled at a Māori medium school, te reo Māori is consistently spoken and heard. It is used in formal and informal situations and is not limited to the school grounds. Your child will be expected to speak te reo Māori whether they are playing sports, visiting a marae, going on an excursion or talking to Whānau at home.

Māori medium education provides a supportive environment where your child is encouraged to learn as Māori. Tikanga Māori is an essential part of this curriculum where students learn about Māori beliefs, values and concepts that have been practised for generations.

The concept of Ako is highly regarded in a Māori medium education. This means teaching and learning take place in an environment where we are all connected. Ako represents a reciprocal, non-hierarchical relationship between your child and the teacher where knowledge and experiences of both are respected.

Strong family and ancestral connections mean that children in a Māori medium education experience a sense of belonging at school, home and in the wider community. Whānau provide knowledge of the past and support learners through relevant curriculum content and practical learning situations such as visits to marae.

When Māori students see that their Whānau are involved in their school and that teaching content is relevant to their lives, they become confident to live and participate as Māori at school. Where possible, interactions with first language speakers are arranged and students have opportunities to take part in Māori cultural events in the community.

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