Responding to linguistically diverse learners

Most people in the world speak two or more languages. Although New Zealand has three official languages, including New Zealand Sign Language, many children do not have the opportunity to develop competency in more than one language.

Two or more languages are learned relatively easily in the first three years of life, which is a sensitive period for language learning. Babies are born with the innate ability to recognise every sound in any language, but this ability declines after about the age of six or seven years. This provides a window of opportunity for every child to become bilingual or multilingual, by supporting their exposure to and use of more than one language between the ages of eighteen months and six years.

Speaking two or more languages is a proven advantage in any language learning. Research has established that being bilingual promotes key aspects of children’s cognitive development.23 There are also other educational advantages from planned bilingual development in early learning services and early schooling.

For example, being bilingual at an early age:

  • allows the young bilingual learner to communicate with people in their families and communities, as well as in their service or school
  • gives children access to additional literatures, traditions and ideas to enrich their later learning
  • makes it easier for them to learn further additional languages.

Children learn an additional language best when they are able to draw on prior knowledge of their first language/s. Cummins describes this as the principle of language interdependence: knowledge of one language inevitably informs knowledge of another.24 Teachers in services and schools can support the English language learning of speakers of other languages by:

  • understanding children’s linguistic background and capabilities
  • encouraging use of children’s first language/s, for example by creating opportunities for children with the same first language to work together, or having adults who speak the same language using it in the classroom
  • helping children to make links between their first language/s and new English words and structures
  • making first language print and audio materials available where possible.

Diversity of first languages is rapidly increasing, particularly in Auckland. This provides us with new and exciting opportunities to extend the range of languages spoken by all children. As New Zealand’s international population continues to grow, there is a need for greater responsiveness to language diversity.

ERO has been concurrently undertaking a separate evaluation in Auckland25 focusing on how well schools and early learning services responded to the diversity of languages in their learning communities. ERO will publish a separate report on its full findings from this evaluation, but we include here some of what we found in those services and schools that were most responsive in supporting early bilingual learning.

There are approximately 160 languages spoken in Auckland. Thirty-nine percent of Auckland residents were born outside of New Zealand. The city continues to attract new migrants and its demographic is increasingly diverse. This provides significant opportunities and challenges for the education sector to ensure that all learners are effectively supported to reach their potential, enjoy success and recognise themselves as capable and confident learners, in a multilingual context.

ERO found that the more responsive early learning services in Auckland made strategic appointment decisions and appointed staff who either spoke the home language of the children or more than one language. Children’s home language was valued and acknowledged through cultural celebrations, sharing of food and stories, and the teachers’ commitment to learn about and share each other’s languages and cultures. Teachers created a learning environment that supported children’s home language through strong relationships with parents, whānau and communities, regular reflections about their practice, development of progressions in assessment information, and accessing professional learning and resources to further support teaching practice.

In the more responsive primary schools, leaders understood the changing nature of the demographics of the school community and had good knowledge of networks to support the language diversity of the community. Teachers used multiple sources of information to get to know their learners, and had established processes for identifying their interests, strengths and needs. Teachers were expected to have, or were supported to attain, an appropriate qualification such as a Teaching English in Schools to Speakers of Other Languages (TESSOL) Graduate Diploma, and Boards of Trustees employed bilingual staff. Schools valued learners’ home language and culture by celebrating cultural events and by providing some learning opportunities in the learner’s home language. Teachers used relevant tools and resources to support the programme such as English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP).26 Home-school partnerships were a priority, parent workshops such as Reading Together27 were held, as were regular parent fono/ hui/meetings in their language. Important school information was provided in more than one language.





23        Refer to LEAP

24        Cummins, J. (2000). Language, Power and Pedagogy. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

25        Data for this second ERO evaluation was being gathered in the Auckland region at the same time as the data for this oral language report was being collected in services and schools outside Auckland.

26        See

27        See