Addressing cultural and linguistic diversity

Diversity is a defining feature of our world in this time of increasing globalisation and migration, and it is reflected in our communities. The learning environment is no exception. New Zealand ranks third among OECD countries for the highest proportion of overseas born residents (OECD, 2017) and Auckland city now has one of the highest proportions of immigrants of any city in the OECD.

Part 1 of this report defines diversity, its benefits and challenges, describes who are our diverse learners, what diversity in schools in Auckland looks like, and the policy settings and expectations set for addressing diversity.  This section concludes with the key evaluation questions and methodology used here to evaluate principles and practice addressing diversity in New Zealand services and schools.

Defining diversity

Diversity is a fundamental aspect of our society and therefore of our communities, workplaces, schools, and early learning services. Culture is one significant contributor to diversity. In itself culture is a comprehensive concept and encompasses many components such as values and behavioural styles, language and dialects, non‑verbal communications, and perspectives, worldviews and frames of reference (Banks, 2006). Culture is also dynamic in that individuals, practices and environments are constantly changing and so it is difficult to have a single definition of culture.  

A culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) learner is typically used to identify a learner who differs from the mainstream culture in terms of ethnicity, social class, and or language (Perez, 1988). In this sense, linguistic diversity is a subset of cultural diversity (Parla, 1994). “CLD learners” refers to learners whose home language is a language other than English, who are second language learners, limited English proficiency, bilingual, language minority learners, and mainstream dialect speakers. In the context of migration, the CLD population could include migrants and refugees, those with migrant backgrounds, temporary and permanent migrants and first- and second‑generation migrants. Immigrant status can reflect duration of settlement, distance to integration etc. and could also serve as a proxy for factors such as birthplace, ethnicity, race and language.

Benefits and challenges of diversity

Research (CaDDANZ, 2014) finds there are economic and social benefits to diversity, from economic innovation associated with immigrant entrepreneurialism to exposure of local people to new values, practices, institutions, foods, languages and world views. Diversity is seen as comparative advantage and opportunity.[1] To reap this diversity dividend, we must prepare teachers, early learning services, schools and learners to adapt, respond and mutually benefit.

Gearing up a system‑wide response is no mean task. To make sure social mobility and inclusion are achieved for all, an education system must be successful in teaching every child to communicate and interact with people from different backgrounds and with different abilities (Kendall, 2010). This means teachers must excel in engaging and making sure learning happens for all learners, irrespective of background, and early learning services and schools need to have the right guidance and support systems for learners and teachers alike.

Is diversity in the classroom a challenge or an opportunity? When considering CLD learners it is important to remember that difference does not mean deficient. People everywhere learn differently, process information in different ways, and look to different external cues for understanding the world. The priorities of diverse learners are broader than just learning English, which is the main medium of instruction. Research (Geay et al., 2013) has shown that an increased presence of learners who do not speak English as their home language is not detrimental to the educational attainment of native English speakers. On the contrary, a diverse mix of learners can potentially enrich each other’s world through their unique cultures and sense making.

Learners need the ability to work with a diversity of people — because the changing global environment requires us to engage with people from many different backgrounds and world views — and to work with a diversity of ideas to solve increasingly complex, real‑world challenges.

In schools, the task of managing heterogeneous classrooms is a key teaching challenge (Bryk, 2015). It is essential for teachers and schools to create positive learning environments and instructional strategies that support learning outcomes which are aligned to standards and core curriculum.

Supporting future‑oriented learning & teaching—a New Zealand perspective (Bolstad et al., 2012) explores the ideas of diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools. It argues for the need to recognise, actively foster and teach diversity as a strength of any education system. This was exemplified in a particular school with only five percent of learners from Chinese families.  Chinese cultural classes challenged and stimulated curiosity and inquiry learning, and opened doors to the wider world.[2] International evidence shows learning a second language can also contribute to the development of a learner’s literacy skills in their home language.

ERO reports about Raising Student Achievement through Targeted Actions (2015) and the Early Learning Curriculum (2016) draw attention to the associations between teacher commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion and positive shifts in learning outcomes. One of the four aspects that ERO (2015) identifies as distinguishing successful schools from less/unsuccessful schools in shifting achievement, is the explicit commitment to equity and excellence.

Super diverse Auckland

Diversity is no more apparent than in Auckland, our super diverse metropolis and gateway city, which many new migrants call home. Auckland recorded the highest net gain of permanent and long‑term (PLT)[3] migrants from 1997 to 2017 (see Figure 1) when compared with all the other regions in New Zealand, and was one of only four to record a net gain over this period. Auckland’s largest net gain of migrants was a record high in 2017 (36,800).  The increased annual net gain of migrants in Auckland was driven by more arrivals (up 6,335 people) and slightly more departures (up 1,726 people).

This image is a line graph. It shows the migration rate in Auckland versus the rest of New Zesland. The Y axis is thousands of migrants and goes from -20 to 80 in increments of 10. The X axis is the years from 2010 - 2017. There are two lines the orange line is overall New Zealand and the blue line is Auckland. This graph shows the increase in migrants of which represents half of the total migrants settling in Auckland. Source: MBIE Note: Year ending August 2017.

In 2017 the largest numbers of PLT migrants intended to settle in the Auckland region (59,100 or 52 percent of total arrivals) and the most popular destination for senior high and tertiary learners migrants was also the Auckland region (11,500 or 57 percent of total learner migrants).  Auckland has a higher proportion of overseas‑born residents than other regions, especially migrants from Asia and the Pacific.[4]

Since 2000 New Zealand has had one of the highest rates of immigration per head of population in the OECD. In the 2013 Census, 39 percent of the Auckland population was born overseas (up from 37 percent in the 2006 Census). This is much higher than the 18 percent recorded for the other regions in the 2013 Census. Of the overseas‑born population in Auckland, 39 percent were born in Asia, compared with 23 percent in the other regions. Auckland also had more of its overseas‑born people from the Pacific (21 percent) than the other regions (nine percent). Changes in migration source countries since the 1990s has added new layers to the earlier and ongoing migration from the Pacific.[5]

As well as a higher proportion of overseas born residents, the Auckland region also has a higher share of ethnic diversity.  According to Census 2013, Asian, Pacific peoples and MELAA (Middle Eastern, Latin American or African) account for 38 percent of Auckland’s population (See Figure 2), double the size of their share in the national population (19 percent). It is important to note that there is huge variability within each of these categories.

Figure 2: There is greater ethnic diversity in Auckland than the rest of New Zealand

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Fast‑changing ethnic composition mean that in another two decades, Auckland is projected to be much more diverse with non‑Europeans accounting for over half the population (see Figure3).

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Linguistic diversity

Over the three most recent censuses, the number and proportion of multilingual speakers in New Zealand has increased from 15.8 percent in 2001 to 18.6 percent in 2013. In Auckland just over 50 percent of the population are multilingual speakers. In 2013, the picture of linguistic diversity highlights that English is one of the main languages for the majority of people both nationally and in Auckland (Figure 4).  However, with the increasing diversity of New Zealand’s population and spoken languages, the education system’s ability to respond to CLD learners is critical for the future.  

Figure 4: Five most common languages spoken in New Zealand

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Source: Statistics New Zealand, Census of Population and Dwellings, 2006 and 2013.

We know from other recent research (Ho et al., 2017) that maintaining cultural knowledge and language skills is a challenge for the growing number of under‑five year old Asian children in New Zealand. While families of Asian ethnicity in New Zealand place great importance on their heritage, culture and language, researchers say parents noticed that as soon as their children started school, English became the main language at home and their home language was less used. 

We have an idea of the percentage of 15 year olds by immigrant status. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 data shows that New Zealand is at the upper end of OECD countries who have a high share of immigrant learners – both first and second generation (see Figure 5). This is not surprising given the high percentage of overseas born and the history of migration settlement as described earlier.

Figure 5: New Zealand (in bold) has higher percentage of 15 year old first-generation immigrants than other OECD countries

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Source: PISA 2015 results Volume 1, table 1.7.1

Differences in achievement across ethnic groups

Are there broad patterns of difference in achievement across ethnic groups? Analysing by ethnicity, school leaver numbers by levels of achievement present a mixed picture. Asian, Pākehā and Middle Eastern/Latin American/African (MELAA groups) have relatively higher proportion of learners qualifying for University Entrance (Table 1) than Māori and Pacific learners. The share of Māori and Pacific learners achieving at NCEA Level 2 and below is higher than their share of NCEA Level 3 and above.

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Source: Education Counts

PISA data enables comparison of immigrant learners (first and second generation) to their non‑immigrant peers, and measures the performance gap between the two groups. A snapshot from the 2015 PISA results for mathematics shows that first and second generation immigrant learners in New Zealand perform well above the OECD average for immigrant learners (see Figure 6). Whereas immigrant learners perform worse than non-immigrant learners on average across the OECD, there are no statistically significant differences between these groups in New Zealand. A similar trend is observed in other new settlement countries such as Australia and Canada. However, it must be noted the average scores shown here can mask groups of immigrant learners who would perform below or above the average. 

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Source: This report was generated using the 2015 data from the PISA International Data Explorer.

Teacher and learner diversity

While there is considerable diversity among learners, the same is not true for the teaching workforce. Pākehā teachers are strongly represented, accounting for 71 percent in 2017, slightly decreasing from 75 percent in 2004. The 2017 statistics for Auckland show the percentage of teachers belonging to Asian, Pacific and other cultural groups were higher than national percentages (Figure 7).

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Source: Teacher Headcount by Designation (grouped), Gender and Ethnicity in State and State Integrated Schools, Education Counts

During the period 2013-2017, the number of ESOL-funded learners in Auckland has increased relative to the rest of New Zealand (Table 2). 

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Source: Ministry of Education, ESOL data 2013-2017[6]

For the same period, there was 360 ESOL-funded learners for every TESSOL scholarship awarded in Auckland (Figure 8), compared to 257 for the rest of New Zealand. The growing number and diversity of ESOL-funded learners in Auckland compared to the number of TESSOL scholarships may have an impact on the teaching workforce’s capability to provide equitable access and support for these learners.

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Source: Ministry of Education, ESOL data 2013-2017

In summary, Auckland and New Zealand have increasing numbers of CLD learners with varying capacity within the teaching workforce of those qualified or equipped to support the learning priorities of these learners.

Supporting CLD learners: policy and practice

Strategies, policies and practices to address the learning priorities of CLD learners vary across jurisdictions. With regard to language support specifically for migrant learners (Christensen & Sanat, 2007), the most common approach in primary and secondary school is immersion with systematic language support.[7] Bilingual support, either for transition or maintenance, is limited. A mapping of language policies in the European Union (Sirius, 2014) showed that in a rare case as in Croatia, mother tongue instruction was a constitutionally protected right.

An OECD study found that several types of school‑level policies arguably could improve the educational attainment of migrant learners, such as including migrants’ mother tongue in the curriculum. However, in all countries the emphasis was on the successful acquisition of the host country language while some pursued a bilingual approach by integrating the mother tongue of migrant pupils into the education programme.

The above however does not throw light on what approaches could be used effectively for meeting the learning priorities of linguistically diverse learners who are proficient in English, but have a home environment or community experience that reflects a different cultural worldview. This evaluation focused on support for CLD learners to become proficient in English as the main academic language but to learn through a lens that reflects their home languages and cultural world.  

Policy settings for CLD learners

In the Best Evidence Synthesis about Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling, Alton-Lee concludes that the central professional challenge for teachers is to manage simultaneously the learning priorities of diverse learners. It draws attention to diversity and difference as a key part of quality teaching, honouring Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty of Waitangi. The idea of Māori achieving success as Māori is consistent with such an approach.

Te Whāriki, New Zealand’s early learning curriculum is based on a sociocultural theory that places the learning experiences of children in a broader social and cultural context. It “builds on family and community values and supporting children’s transition from home to schooled knowledge.”(Brooker and Woodhead, 2010, p.35). Te Whāriki is also the first bicultural curriculum developed in New Zealand that contains curriculum specifically for Māori immersion early learning services and establishes the bicultural nature of curriculum for all services.

The main strands of Te Whāriki that acknowledge cultural and linguistic diversity are:

Strand 2: Belonging – Mana Whenua
  • children and their families experience an environment where connecting links with the family and the wider world are affirmed and extended. The social context - within which children are cared for and learning takes place - is one of the foundations of the curriculum.

Strand 3: Contribution – Mana Tangata

  • provides opportunities for each child to make a valued contribution to their learning. Children experience an environment where there are equitable opportunities for learning, irrespective of gender, ability, age, ethnicity, or background; they are affirmed as individuals; and they are encouraged to learn with and alongside others.
Strand 4: Communications – Mana Reo
  • acknowledges linguistic diversity where the languages and symbols of the children’s own and other cultures are promoted and protected. The children experience an environment where they develop non‑verbal and verbal communication skills for a range of purposes.

The New Zealand Curriculum is designed for native speakers of English, and so its progressions follow a pattern based on learners’ normal cognitive, social, and physical development when learning in their home language. The main features of the curriculum that relate to language diversity are:


  • High expectations ‑ the curriculum supports and empowers all learners to learn and achieve personal excellence, regardless of their individual circumstances
  • Treaty of Waitangi ‑ the curriculum acknowledges the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, and the bicultural foundations of Aotearoa New Zealand; all learners have the opportunity to acquire knowledge of te reo Māori me ōna tikanga
  • Community engagement ‑ the curriculum has meaning for learners, connects with their wider lives, and engages the support of their families, whānau, and communities
  • Cultural diversity ‑ the curriculum reflects New Zealand’s cultural diversity and values the histories and traditions of all its people
  • Coherence ‑ the curriculum offers all learners a broad education that makes links within and across learning areas, provides for coherent transitions, and opens up pathways to further learning
  • Inclusion ‑ the curriculum is non‑sexist, non‑racist, and non‑discriminatory; it ensures that learners’ identities, languages, abilities, and talents are recognised and affirmed and that their learning priorities are addressed
  • Future focused ‑ the curriculum encourages learners to look to the future by exploring such significant future‑focused issues as sustainability, citizenship, enterprise, and globalisation.


Learners will be encouraged to value:

  • excellence, by aiming high and by persevering in the face of difficulties
  • innovation, inquiry, and curiosity, by thinking critically, creatively, and reflectively
  • diversity, as found in our different cultures, languages, and heritages
  • equity, through fairness and social justice
  • community and participation for the common good
  • ecological sustainability, which includes care for the environment
  • integrity, which involves being honest, responsible, accountable and acting ethically
  • to respect themselves, others, and human rights.

The English Language Learning Progressions (ELLPs) explain how ESOL specialists and mainstream teachers can help to maximise learning and participation for English language learners. Incorporating the seven ESOL principles into planning will help learners to make both academic and language progress in all curriculum areas.

In addition, there are specifically funded programmes to support English language learning for new migrants and refugees. ESOL funding is targeted at learners with the highest demand for English language learning. The need for ESOL funding is assessed using the ELLPs. English language learners from a refugee background qualify for ESOL funding in the same way as other English language learners. Refugees receive more intensive funding support for the first two years at school, followed by three years of standard funding. If a learner has been in the New Zealand school system for at least two terms, and the school has already provided extra support through ESOL funding and they are still concerned about the learner, the school may be able to apply for a bilingual assessment.

A bilingual assessment will assess a learner’s functioning and achievement in their home language, and collect information about social and emotional health, and other factors that might be affecting their performance at school. The Bilingual Assessment Service (BAS) is delivered by the Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs). Over 75 RTLBs around the country are trained to do these assessments. They work with a bilingual support person, and recommend ways to help support the learner. A bilingual assessment can distinguish between language learning priorities, additional special learning priorities and social/emotional priorities, through dual assessment in the learner’s home languages and English.

Creating the right environment for cultural and linguistic diversity 

New Zealand researchers (Alton‑Lee (2003) and Franken and McComish (2005)) reinforce the ESOL principles in their findings. It is very important to create learning environments which promote positive interactions between CLD learners, their teachers and other learners. Students learning English need opportunities to extend their language learning and apply language skills already in their repertoire. What this means is that ESOL programme, goals and instructions should be aligned and integrated with other curriculum teaching and school activities, as should home language maintenance and development. Appendix 1 outlines the characteristics of quality teaching for culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

Zeichner (1992) identified 12 key elements for effectively teaching ethnic-and language-minority learners: It is very important for teachers to believe that all CLD learners can succeed in learning English, and to communicate this to the learners. Equally important is the personal commitment by teachers to work towards success for all learners, including those who are struggling to succeed. To better serve an increasingly diverse population, leaders and teachers need to have general sociocultural knowledge, know about second-language acquisition, and the ways in which socioeconomic issues shape educational achievement, as well as specific knowledge about the languages, cultures, and circumstances of particular learners.

Sense making and knowledge construction is key for CLD learners. Teachers should create opportunities for students to try, use, and manipulate language, symbols, and information to make sense and create meaning for themselves. Teachers’ use of particular strategies, and the reorganisation of lesson formats, standards for behaviour, curriculum materials, and assessment practices can make the learning environment more inclusive and responsive to these children.     

Appendix 2 provides a detailed summary of the teaching principles for CLD learners drawn from the curricula, the seven ESOL principles, and research‑based approaches for teaching English language learners. The conceptual framework (Figure 9) for this evaluation was developed based on these sources. It outlines principles for curriculum decision making and are a guide for every aspect of pedagogy and practice, with additional development for English language learners.

Figure 9: Evaluation framework

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Evaluation focus

ERO’s overarching evaluation question was ‘How are the early learning services and school sectors responding to culturally and linguistically diverse learners in Auckland?’

In particular, ERO sought to find out:

  • who are our culturally and linguistically diverse learners in Auckland and why does diversity matter?
  • how well are Auckland early learning services and schools responding to the increase in culturally and linguistically diverse learners?
  • what are the effective practices of Auckland services and schools’ responses to the challenges and opportunities for these learners?  

Evaluation information strands

During 2016 ERO undertook this evaluation in the Auckland region, in three phases:  

  • qualitative research with a diverse array of Auckland stakeholders about what was important for Auckland early learning services and schools in responding to cultural and language diversity; and perceived challenges and support or advice given to services, schools and families of CLD learners (Part 1)
  • external evaluation of 74 early learning services and 38 schools in Auckland and their responses to increasing cultural and language diversity in their learning community (Part 2)
  • interviews and focus groups with a sample of early learning services and schools that exemplified aspects of effective practice. The sample was based on suggestions from stakeholders and schools identified from the evaluation (Part 3).

[3] A PLT measure based on the passenger card and retrospective travel history determines a) NZ resident status as ‘living’ or ‘not living’ in New Zealand for 12 months or more and b) migrant status as intention to stay in, or be absent from, New Zealand for 12 months or more.


[6] This data is collated from information available publicly in Terms 3 and 4 of each year.

[7] “immersed” in the language of instruction within mainstream classrooms; structured support is where learners are taught in the mainstream classroom, but they receive specified periods of instruction aimed at increasing proficiency in the language of instruction over a period of time.