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Influences on Pasifika students' achievement in literacy

Jo Fletcher, Faye Parkhill, Amosa Fa'afoi, and Leali'ie'e Tufulasi Taleni

How do students from minority groups develop effective literacy skills? The perceptions of two groups of Pasifika students—one achieving and one underachieving in literacy learning—are compared. They identify pedagogical practices and family or community factors as influential on their literacy learning.

Journal issue: 

Influences on Pasifika students’ achievement in literacy

Jo Fletcher, Faye Parkhill, Amosa Fa’afoi, and Leali’ie’e Tufulasi Taleni

Teachers face the challenge of teaching students from a rapidly changing ethnic population (Statistics New Zealand, 2006). Students from the minority groups within this population need particular help to develop literacy skills that will allow them to cope effectively with the range of curriculum areas covered in their primary, secondary, and tertiary study and thereafter to become competent members of today’s multiliterate society (Au, 2002; Kame’enui, Carnine, Dixon, Simmonds, & Coyne, 2002; McNaughton, 2002). In New Zealand, many Pasifika and Māori primary and secondary students are underachieving in literacy, and exhibiting disengagement and alienation at school (Alton-Lee, 2003; Flockton & Crooks, 2001, 2003; Ministry of Education, 2003; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2001). It would seem timely that we listen to the voices of these minority-group students so we can uncover the realities they face in their endeavour to become literate.

Considerations from the literature

Literacy learning

The acquisition of literacy is now perceived to be a multidimensional construction that extends beyond the acts of listening, speaking, reading, and writing (see, for example, Lankshear & Knobel, 2003; New London Group, 2000; Unsworth, 2002). Language-based literacies are no longer sufficient for students in the 21st century to attain the kinds of literacy practices that feature in a rapidly changing information age (Unsworth, 2002). For example, the explicit and continued acknowledgement of the value of their language and culture provides a meaningful and safe learning environment for many ethnic-minority students. It is imperative that the teaching of skills is contextualised within students’ social and cultural practices. Vygotsky (1978) emphasised that language acquisition depends on social interaction where students’ understandings of the world and their ability to articulate these are the essence of successful learning. Explicit teaching is constructed within the zone of proximal development where students are engaged in work that they can undertake with relevant support from peers and adults. The post-Vygotskian era views thinking and learning as social constructions where sociocultural and critical literacy approaches become integral to students’ learning (Cullen, 2001).

When schools and the designers of class programmes acknowledge and respect these differences, literacy learning becomes relevant and purposeful for minority-group students (McNaughton, 2002). Identification of practices that accommodate and acknowledge Pasifika culture, as well as those that can lead to alienation, should therefore help teachers and teacher-educators more effectively meet the literacy learning needs of Pasifika students.

Students’ perceptions of learning

Giving students a voice, by expressing their views and reflections of learning experiences, empowers them, as the process allows teachers to piece together students’ realities and lived experiences and offers a source of valuable information from which students can evaluate their own learning and contribute to knowledge about teacher effectiveness (Williams, 2001). For adults, truly hearing the student’s voice brings understanding of how they view their lives and feel towards certain realities. Once we acknowledge and respect the notion that students have a right to be heard by adults, we enable a framework of understanding that educational decision makers can draw on when endeavouring to improve learning outcomes for students, particularly those in minority ethnic groups.


A note on methodology

In this research, we sought students’ perspectives on the literacy practices that were effective, or less effective, during their primary schooling. Pasifika research methodology aligns with our premise that seeking students’ views of their school-related experiences helps uncover salient teacher-child interactions and practices that influence literacy and other forms of achievement. Pasifika research guidelines advocate collaboration and consultation with research participants and their stakeholders (Anae, Coxon, Mara, Wendt-Samu, & Finau, 2001; Health Research Council of New Zealand, 2005; Mara, 1999). Open-ended, focus-group interviews in a culturally appropriate setting provide the opportunity for the participants to share and reflect on their experiences. Requiring the researchers to share the data and emerging findings with the research participants, their community, and other key stakeholders allows joint articulation and interpretation of the findings and agreement on how this information can be used to improve outcomes for Pasifika students and their communities (Fletcher, Parkhill, & Fa’afoi, 2005; Parkhill, Fletcher, & Fa’afoi, 2005).

Two research phases

The research consisted of two phases. In Phase 1 we focused on Pasifika students who were achieving at or above their age-related peers in reading using standardised tests, while in Phase 2 we focused on Pasifika students achieving below their age-related peers in reading using standardised tests.

During Phase 1, we invited two schools in Christchurch to participate in this study, and both agreed to do so. In School A, an integrated, contributing, decile 1 school, the Pasifika students represented 54 percent of the total school population. In School B, an intermediate, decile 4 school, only 3.1 percent were Pasifika. There were 13 Pasifika students in the School A Years 5/6 class, and 28 in the School B Years 7/8 classes. Thirty of these students (12 students or 92 percent in School A, and 18 students or 64 percent in School B) were identified as achieving at or above their peers on standardised tests in reading and writing. The dominant Pasifika culture in this group was Samoan.

In School A, all 12 of these students had permission from their parents or caregivers to participate in the research. In School B, parents or caregivers gave permission for 12 of the 18 students to participate in the research. The senior staff in School B suggested that the lack of permission may have been because of limited contact between parents and the school, a comment that aligns with anecdotal evidence of less frequent parent-school contact in lower-decile than higher-decile schools.

Phase 2 involved four Christchurch schools, each of which agreed to participate on being invited to do so. In School W, a decile 1, state intermediate school, the Pasifika students represented 13 percent of the total school population. In School X, a decile 3, state full primary school, 25 percent were Pasifika. In School Y, a decile 5, state intermediate school, 6 percent were Pasifika, and in School Z, a decile 4, integrated Years 7–13 school, 17 percent were Pasifika. The dominant Pasifika culture in each school was Samoan, but the sample also included students of Tongan, Fijian, and mixed Pasifika heritage.

Of the Pasifika students in these four schools, we identified 37 as achieving below their age-related peers. Nineteen were from School W, five from School X, six from School Y, and seven from School Z. The students at School Z were in Years 7–9. At the other three schools, they were in Years 7–8. The proportion of Pasifika students underachieving in literacy relative to the total number of Pasifika students in their school varied between schools. The proportions for Schools W, X, Y, and Z were 86 percent, 38 percent, 37 percent, and 42 percent respectively.

Data collection

We conducted focus-group interviews at each school during both phases of the research. We arranged three or four sessions across time with the research participants, and with the approval of the school. All the students were present at each session, as were one or more staff members. In two schools (A and X), the principal attended all of the sessions, while at both Schools B and W, the Pasifika teacher was present. At Schools Yand Z, staff members, although invited, chose not to attend because of other commitments.

The interviews were open ended, with an emphasis on natural conversation. Questions such as, “What helped you to become readers/writers?” and, “Where did you get your ideas for writing from?” were asked at the beginning of the session at each school to get discussion underway. Initially, in both phases, some students were more forthcoming than others. However, with encouragement, more students contributed orally, and the responses of the more vocal students were frequently reinforced by the body language of the other students. A research assistant scribed the interviews, and after each session we and the assistant, along with the staff member(s) and two parents from School A, discussed and recorded observations about the students’ body language. In the second session at all schools, the students’ comments became increasingly spontaneous and flowed more readily. At the end of both phases of the research, we held meetings with members of the school’s staff and their Pasifika communities with the aim of drawing out themes and co-constructing conclusions from the interview information.

Results and discussion

Reading programmes

The high-achieving students identified as important, positive influences on their reading skills: reading to the teacher; some characteristics of the texts used in early reading instruction, such as the predominance of illustrations and repetitive text; and home reading. Most of these students, when recalling what helped them to become good readers, referred to the feedback given by their teachers. The low-achieving students found it difficult to recall or express any aspects supporting their learning to read. However, they were quite vocal about having difficulty in understanding the words. What they had to say indicated they were confident in decoding but not comprehending. None of them identified reading as a preferred classroom or leisure activity.

The low achievers reported that the reading material often was too difficult and did not reflect their culture:

I would like to have an easy book first, as I would feel more successful and then gradually increase the difficulty. (Year 8 girl, School W)

I don’t like English because of the teacher. The reading books are too hard and the teacher doesn’t care … all the reading books were about white people. (Year 9 boy, School Z)

The Ministry of Education (1997, 2006) strongly urges that texts used in literacy programmes contain authentic Pasifika perspectives and celebrate the life of Pasifika communities.

Reading by the teacher

Both groups reported that the benefits of the teacher reading aloud to them depended on the teacher’s ability to make the story “come alive”:

I stop listening unless they [the teachers] are really good readers and use voice characterisations. (Year 8 girl, School B)

It was annoying when teachers read too loud and had no expression. Sometimes the book was too boring because we couldn’t understand the meaning. (Year 8 girl, School Z)

The Ministry of Education (2006) highlights the benefits of the teacher reading aloud:

The way the teacher reads aloud is very important. The teacher should become familiar with the text in advance so they can relax and concentrate on reading it fluently and expressively. Through their voice, they can make the information accessible, bring the characters to life, create the mood effectively and express their own delight in reading. Such reading provides a good model for students and conveys many implicit messages about literacy learning. (p. 98)

Reading aloud

In both phases, the students expressed a deep concern about reading aloud in front of their peers, including oral-circle reading during guided reading lessons. Anecdotal reports made to us in our role as teacher-educators in literacy learning, as well as our personal observations, indicate oral-circle reading is still common practice in many schools. In New Zealand primary schools, for example, oral reading has been replaced by more pedagogically appropriate guided reading approaches that are often described as the heart of the reading programme (Ministry of Education, 2005): “For new learners of English in particular, guided reading provides invaluable scaffolding” (p. 5). The programme emphasises that placing students in small groups, formed according to reading age, and in which all members silently read the same text, allows the students to process the text for themselves. However, the teacher still needs to provide deliberate and explicit scaffolding through questioning and discussion.

Although, in our research, reading aloud also occurred in other contexts, such as students being required to read their personal writing, any situation that singles students out in this way puts them at risk of being publicly humiliated.

These students were particularly concerned if they had to read their work aloud to others in the class or in groups, with the low-achieving students the most vocal in their concern:

People made fun of us.

Brainy people laughed.

There was only one brainy Pasifika, and he didn’t make fun of us.

(Years 7 and 8 boys and girls, School X)

Library use

All of the high-achieving students in the sample belonged to the local community library and visited there with parents, friends, or by themselves. Just over 50 percent of the students at School B reported that their fathers regularly took them to the library. Over 70 percent of the high-achieving students reported that their parents themselves read at home, compared with less than 20 percent of the low-achieving students’ parents. Slightly less than 50 percent of the low-achieving students reported using the local library, but their visits and uptake of membership were minimal. When these students did go to the library, most went with their peers, occasionally with their mothers, and never with their fathers.


The high-achieving students expressed the importance of the teacher providing scaffolds, particularly in regard to the deeper features of writing (Ministry of Education & the Learning Centre Trust of New Zealand, 2003). They also considered choice of topic important. This view is captured in the words of one child, who, typical of others, commented:

It is so boring when the teacher tells me what to write about. (Year 8 girl, School B)

Many of the low-achieving students expressed a desire to write about their own culture and lives, but reported they rarely experienced opportunities to do so.

The students in the low-achieving group expressed a strong desire to have more detailed feedback and feedforward about their writing from teachers. They stated the need for confidentiality in this feedback to avoid experiencing embarrassment should their peers and/or parents hear what the teacher had to say.

The high-achieving students had developed a heightened spelling awareness, and they were conscientious users of the dictionary at school and at home. They stressed that their parents had prompted their motivation to be effective spellers. The low-achieving students demonstrated apathy towards spelling and gave no indication of parental support and guidance in the motivation to become effective spellers.

Classroom management

In all the focus group interviews with the high-achieving students, there was no mention of issues relating to ineffective classroom management and excessive noise affecting their engagement with learning. In stark contrast, many of the low-achieving Pasifika students stressed that they preferred a quiet room because it was easier to concentrate. When reflecting on their years of schooling, they indicated that classmates disturbed them with too much noise:

People talk too much, and I can’t concentrate. (Year 8 girl, School W)

Some of the low-achieving students expressed a general feeling of frustration at the lack of personal and cultural safety in the classroom:

When I ask the teacher, she often ignores me but she helps other students. Some of the teachers ignore me because they are racist. (Year 9 girl, School Z)

This comment and similar ones from these students conveyed feelings of powerlessness in this type of situation, whereas the high achievers indicated a passion for school, a sense of belonging, and a pride in their culture as promulgated by their school and its community.


Bullying can include a range of behaviours from verbal teasing to physical aggression (Geffner, Loring, & Young, 2001). Evident during our open-ended interviews at three of the schools attended by the low-achieving students was the low self-esteem of approximately 70 percent of the students as they shared experiences of verbal teasing, which frequently related to their literacy skills:

If the other students in your group think your story is no good, they pick on you to read in front of the class. This stops me from wanting to try harder. (Year 8 girl, School X)

Last year I gave some of my spelling work to a Pasifika friend to check and a Palagi girl looked at it. I had 19 words wrong, and the Palagi girl laughed and said I was dumb. (Year 7 girl, School X)

Over 70 percent of the students at Schools X and Z reported having experienced some form of bullying by Palagi students but none had reported it to the teachers. The students seemed to find solace in sharing their situation with fellow victims and keeping the matter to themselves:

We don’t complain [about bullying] and I don’t tell my auntie either. (Year 9 girl, School Z)

Only one student from the high-achieving group indicated that he had been the victim of bullying. However, his high self-esteem and strong network of Pasifika friends appeared to have dissipated any personal long-term negative effect. The Phase 1 students all exhibited higher levels of confidence as well as status among classmates than did the Phase 2 students.

Home and school influences

The high-achieving students in our research study reported that their parents played an active role in supporting their literacy learning during their preschool years and throughout their schooling. Our high-achieving Pasifika students all referred to their parents as role models, while the low-achieving students rarely mentioned their parents, and some struggled to identify a role model. The low-achieving students also reported a lack of time and space to do their homework, as they were often required to look after younger siblings and cousins.

Common to all the low-achieving students was the expressed desire for a quiet space to complete homework. The high-achieving students were encouraged to complete their homework by their parents, and often the fathers assumed an active role in ensuring all requirements were completed. One low-achieving child suggested that domestic tasks for parents during the week diminished opportunities for support with their schoolwork. Some of these students belonged to a homework club at their school, but found distractions within this environment limited their ability to concentrate:

Some students come to the club just to see their friends, and then they talk and laugh and distract others and bring their cellphones and text others. (Year 7 girl, School X)

Influence of church

The students participating in both phases of the research reported that they read the Bible to their family and, when finished, often discussed what they had read with their family. They reported that they read the Bible at home from an early age and often learnt passages to read at church:

I read in Sunday School, and read Bible stories and like sharing them with other people. (Year 6 boy, School A)

We had to do a family item and practise verse for a long time before White Sunday so that it was all right on the actual day. (Year 6 girl, School A)

Literacy, and reading in particular, are frequently first introduced using the Bible in a home and church setting. McNaughton (2002) has suggested the recitation of texts by Pasifika students in their church and home environments provides a basis for reinforcing skills that are fundamental to the decoding of text in classroom instruction. However, he cautions that a conflict can occur where students are required to evaluate and make inferences when comprehending text. Teachers need to be discriminatory about how to transfer the recitation skills learnt from home and church experiences into reading and comprehending in the classroom setting. As questioning the text in any form is considered completely inappropriate, and seen as challenging Fa’asamoa (traditional Samoan knowledge), there can be a tension between Fa’asamoa, where students listen and obey without question, and opportunities for discussion between students and adults (McCaffery & Tuafuti, 2003).

Culturally inclusive contexts

The need for culturally relevant contexts and resources was highlighted by the comments of our low-achieving students:

Some of the students wanted to write about Pasifika. When we did that last year, the other students got angry. When we had a reading group, and a Samoan teacher came in and showed a Pasifika video, the Palagi students asked if they could just change the subject. (Year 9 girl, School Z)

The two schools that made explicit efforts to include and affirm the cultural backgrounds of the Pasifika students were those in which the Pasifika students were generally performing at or above the average on standardised tests of literacy achievement. One of the six schools taking part in this research, School A, had a significantly higher percentage of Pasifika students succeeding on nationally normed tests in literacy. This school respected and affirmed the cultural identity of all the students, and student diversity was perceived and utilised as an effective pedagogical resource (see Alton-Lee, 2003, in this context).

School and culture

The Phase 1 and Phase 2 Pasifika students differed substantially in their perceptions of literacy learning and the influences that impacted on their achievement. The low-achieving students overall indicated a lack of understanding of how to develop the skills to become literate in the use of oral and written English. Their comments suggested that cultural mismatches, feelings of inadequacy or shyness, negative teacher responses, and poor classroom management were adversely affecting their achievement. The comments of the high-achieving students suggested that they more readily accommodated the culture of the classroom and conscientiously used and reinforced literacy practices such as personal reading, library use, and conventions of writing, including spelling, not only at school but also in their home environment.

Affirmation of the students’ culture was more explicit in the Phase 1 schools than it was in the Phase 2 schools. This affirmation was particularly evident in School A, where all students had Pasifika texts, a Pasifika uniform in addition to the usual school uniform, readily visible Pasifika artwork and posters, and their languages used in dialogue, song, and prayer. At this school, the percentage of Pasifika students achieving at or above their age-related peers was well above that of the participating students in the other schools in both phases. School A had 92 percent of students achieving; School B, 64 percent; School Y, 63 percent; School X, 62 percent; School Z, 58 percent; and School W, 14 percent.

Contribution to research findings from parents and Pasifika community members

In order to co-construct the research findings a community meeting was convened to share the outcomes from the interviews with the high-achieving students. It was attended by a significant number of parents, school staff, and Ministry of Education representatives, as well as all the students. In contrast, the two community meetings for the low-achieving students had only a small number of attendees despite encouragement to attend by a Pasifika matai (chief) who holds considerable status and influence in the wider Pasifika community. This lack of attendance may have highlighted a deficit in home-school connections. Many writers have deemed home-school alignment conducive to success in literacy, among them Biddulph, Biddulph, & Biddulph (2003) and Goldenberg (2004). However, this reticence to enter the school may be attributed in part to Pasifika culture where showing respect for people of high status, such as teachers and principals, means being silent and not challenging or questioning people. It should not be interpreted (as in Western society) as agreement, as it is simply respect for those who are considered experts (Tuafuti & McCaffery, 2005).

The comments of the Phase 1 parents during the community meeting reinforced the students’ comments that their parents had a high level of commitment to their children’s learning. The parents’ discourse also reflected a strong sense of home-school partnership. The Phase 2 parents all said they wanted their students to succeed but did not always know what was required for this to occur. It was clear from their comments that they lacked the cultural capital to know how best to assist their students (see McNaughton, 2002, for a discussion of cultural capital in relation to Pasifika students).


The findings in both phases of this research indicated that Pasifika students feel more secure and confident in their literacy learning in school settings that acknowledge their culture and seek alignment between school and home. We deem home influences highly important to the acquisition of the students’ literacy skills, and urge schools to consider these when seeking partnerships between home and school. These influences include:

•&&&&an emotionally secure and positive home environment, with time and space to study quietly

•&&&&acknowledgement of the role the church plays in Pasifika students’ literacy learning through the recitation of texts from the Bible

•&&&&a high level of commitment by parents to their children’s learning.

The school practices conducive to students’ literacy acquisition, apparent from the students’ responses in our discussions with them, and reinforced by comments of the students’ parents and members of the schools’ Pasifika communities, include:

•&&&&effective classroom management

•&&&&decreasing and discouraging instances of bullying both inside and outside the classroom

•&&&&provision of more culturally inclusive resources

•&&&&opportunities for students to read and write about their own culture

•&&&&quiet classrooms when students are writing and reading

•&&&&not forcing students to read aloud in a reading group or to the whole class

•&&&&teachers providing more explicit scaffolds for writing

•&&&&teachers developing the ability to actively engage all students when they (the teachers) read aloud

•&&&&teachers providing more detailed feedback and feedforward on the students’ writing.

As the ethnic diversity in classrooms continues to grow, the demands on teachers increase. Gibbs (2005) promotes the need for teachers to demonstrate cultural self-efficacy in multicultural settings, and for schools and their communities to help instil in teachers a self-belief that they can teach and organise in a manner that respects, values, and encourages students to know their cultural beliefs are central to their learning.


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The authors work in the College of Education at the University of Canterbury where Jo Fletcher and Faye Parkill are senior lecturers, Amosa Fa’afoi a lecturer, and Leali’ie’e Tufulasi Taleni the Pacific Nations Advisor.