Becoming bi-literate: Storytelling from the centre (Transitions in ECE)

See this case study to help you to foster biliteracy in English and te reo Māori at your service.

Level of compliance Main audience Other



  • All Early Learning Services
  • Educators, Teachers and Kaiako
  • Service Managers
  • Parents, Caregivers and Whānau

This information can help you to foster biliteracy at your service. 


Te reo Māori (the Māori language) is an endangered language.

This is the documentation of part of a journey into the development of an alphabet tool (Māori) in a focussed language-learning programme. Its creation has assisted very young children’s language development (both oral and written) and their pathway into being knowledgeable users of language(s) and critical thinkers about language.

The pathway

A four-year-old came into Kōhanga Reo one day singing the Sesame Street alphabet song.  She was a balanced bilingual, able to walk confidently and comfortably in both the Māori world of her mother, and the Pākehā world of her father.  I was immediately alerted, yet again, to an area of need – the development of an alphabet ditty, which would promote Māori literacy, English/Māori biliteracy.  We did not have such a tool in Māori medium ‘early childhood’.

As a Māori language teacher who had for many years been fighting the 'battle-for-the-book' (Kōhanga Reo were 'ordained' non-promoters of print literacy [Skerrett White, M.E. (2003). Kia Mate Rā Anō A Tama-nui-te-rā: Reversing Language Shift in Kōhanga Reo. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Waikato, New Zealand.]), the lack of development of a tool to promote the emergent print literacy skills was brought into sharp relief. We were aiming for a natural print-in-culture pedagogical tool for our gifted young bilingual/bilateral/bicultural children in Kōhanga Reo in order to exploit their already advanced meta linguistic/meta cognitive awareness. So the Sesame Street alphabet song became a prompt.

At around about that time, I had been preoccupied with trying to create an alphabet frieze using the ‘a ha ka ma na pa ra ta wa nga wha’ song – without much success! The topic became 'top-of-the-list' for the Kōhanga kaiako (parent inclusive) and wider whānau. A conversation ensued with a cousin on the naming of the Māori letters.

Secretly, in a domain outside Kōhanga Reo, I experimented with my then two-year-old daughter at home – singing the Sesame Street song to her (a first language speaker of Māori) to see if she could master another alphabet system. She did after just two rounds of singing.  That sealed it! Next day we were driven kaiako! Working collaboratively, by the end of that day we had come up with an alphabet song together with a new title – 'Te Arapū Māori' (which included a newly coined word 'arapū').

That term was apt. We had been singing the beautiful lyrics of the late Dr Hirini Melbourne’s song "Anei ngā pūkupu Māori, A E I O U". When I declared that I didn’t want our song to use the words 'te arareta' – a transliteration of 'the alphabet' – the notion of 'arapū' fitted with our Kōhanga Reo philosophy and aspirations of tino rangatiratanga.  A double bonus; not only did we have 'te ara' (a pathway) 'pū' (Māori morphemes), but we had a new sovereignty word meaning so much more than just 'alphabet'. Te arapū Maori – a pathway into print literacy to support our reo, a brand new literary tool!

We then set about teaching the mokos, who took to it like ducks to water. Even our youngest member of the Kōhanga Reo – just around six months old – got caught up in the excitement. We were sure she was singing the alphabet song alongside the others who sang it in the sandpit, on the swings - wherever and everywhere.

Reaction and research have been ongoing. The concept behind the naming of the sounds of language is not new. Letters have been given names in many languages, including the English alphabet which has its antecedents in other language alphabets, including that of the Greeks - the oldest known alphabet.

Reflective questions

  • What does Te Whāriki say about such matters as biculturalism/bilingualism?
  • What does it mean to be biliterate/bilingual?
  • Could such a tool support all the nation’s children to become biliterate/bilingual?
  • What does it mean to be bilingual?
  • How does meta linguistic awareness shape meta cognitive awareness?
  • What does it mean to be bicultural?
  • Can you be bicultural if you are monolingual?
  • What does such a tool mean for teachers in both early childhood in Aotearoa and primary schools in Aotearoa?
  • What is the history of print literacy in Māori society?
  • What is the history of print literacy in English society?

For discussion

  • The politics of print literacy across cultures

Te Arapū Māori

a-a a-a e h i k m n ng o p r t u w wh (x2)

Ko tēnei te arapū Māori e

Kia kore ai to tātou reo e ngaro ne!

Arā, a-a e h i k m n ng o p r t u w wh

Ko tēnei te arapū tuhituhi
Hei awhina mai i te panui

Arā, a-a e h i k m n ng

o p r t u w wh, hei ha!

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