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Pacific language champion honoured

A champion of Pacific learners, Dr Rae Si’ilata, had her work recognised at the SunPix Pacific People's Awards 2018 last week.

Dr Si’ilata, a lecturer in Biliteracy-Pasifika Education at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work, received a Pacific Education Award for her leadership in the Pasifika Early Literacy Project, the Pasifika Teacher Aide Project, TESSOL and Pacific Bilingual Education. This award was sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Her work was also recognised in the Pacific Service Excellence Award which went to the Ministry of Education for the development of the Pasifika Dual Language books.

A team at the University of Auckland, led by Dr Si’ilata, was instrumental in developing and designing the professional learning and development project which began in 2014 as the Pasifika New Entrant Project and involved supporting teachers, families and children to use dual language books in Samoan and English. In 2017 the project expanded to include five Pacific languages and the first three years of school.

The renamed Pasifika Early Literacy Project (PELP) has continued to support teachers of Pasifika learners in using the Ministry of Education’s dual language books to enable bilingual and biliteracy development. The Pasifika Teacher Aide Project (PTAP) was piloted in 2005 and is now in use by more than 1,000 teacher aides in 365 schools, helping them to tap into and utilise the rich language and cultural resources of Pacific children and families.

“My work is about supporting teachers to see that Māori and Pacific children can and should be able to be successful as who they are,” says Dr Si’ilata. “It is such rewarding work because we’ve found that teachers who are not Pacific themselves can learn to create space for Pacific children to use their language resources to support their learning.”

Dr Si’ilata works closely with practising teachers in primary and secondary schools who are studying the Graduate Diploma in Teaching English in Schools to Speakers of Other Languages (TESSOL), and with those focused on postgraduate research in bilingualism, biliteracy and culturally sustaining pedagogies.

Her passion for bilingualism is personal and relates to the experiences of her mother who came to New Zealand when she was aged 12, from Savusavu, Fiji, on board the Matua. “On her first day of school, the teacher wanted her to write an essay. She had no idea what an essay was and for a long time, felt overwhelmed and inadequate at school. She came in as a strong speaker of Fijian but she wasn’t allowed to use her language in the classroom,” says Dr Si’ilata.

“And so for me what gives me one of the greatest joys is changing classroom spaces for Pacific children and young people so that they have opportunity to become bilingual and biliterate, and where they see their own languages, cultures and identities as being central to their success at school.”


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