Māori Literacy Definition from Te Kawai Ora – Complete Executive Summary of 6 Chapters

Māori Literacy Definition from Te Kawai Ora -Including Executive Summary

Te Kawai Ora including the Executive Summary

In Aotearoa New Zealand we’ve long worked with a definition of Māori literacy which includes numeracy as follows:

Literacy is the lifelong journey of building the capacity to ‘read’ and shape Māori and other worlds.


This definition comes from Te Kawai Ora which was a report by the Maori Adult Literacy Reference Group in 2001 to the Hon. Tariana Turia, who was Associate Minister of Maori Affairs at the time.

More on Māori Literacy and Te Kawai Ora

You can read the full text of Te Kawai Ora here courtesy of the archives at the Beehive. But if you’d like a shorter version, I’ve pasted in the the executive summary below with a APA reference in case you need to cite it.

Te Kawai Ora – Executive Summary

Näu te rourou, näku te rourou,

ka ora te manuhiri.

From your food basket and from mine,

The well-being of the people will be assured.

At the edge of the third millennium how do we view the task of nation building? What do we understand about the rights and responsibilities of ‘citizenship’ in this society at this time? How do we create a society that is just, equitable and fair and is based in the lived reality of social and economic inclusion, rather than the rhetoric of it? These are vital questions of the day.

These are the kinds of questions which ‘literacy’ addresses. Literacy is, at its very heart, a pivotal component of nation building. Fully realized, it enables people to take part in the fullness of the society that they live in. In this report it speaks to the fullness of the meaning of literacy that is expressed in the title “Te Käwai Ora: reading the world, reading the word, being the world”. The title has emerged as a natural expression of the discussions of the group. It begins in Mäori, and is accompanied by an English subtitle. They are not translations of each other; they are interdependent and each is needed in order for the full meaning to be gleaned. They speak to the possibilities of biliteracy and biculturalism that are central features of our journey towards nationhood.

The title identifies critical themes about literacy. These are the social and historical contexts in which literacy is understood; the skill bases that literacy, when broadly defined, encompasses, and the competencies that the literate person is able to demonstrate. The report speaks to the significance of each of these ideas in a range of settings, from policy to programmes. The ancient wisdoms expressed in the whakataukï ‘näu te rourou, näku te rourou, ka ora te manuhiri’ provide insights into how literacy can contribute to the goals of national development in Aotearoa. The ‘rourou’ referred to in this context is nothing less than Aotearoa itself, a diverse society; indeed, one comprising many ‘rourou’. The themes of ‘authenticity’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘partnership’ emerge from the proverb.

It will take more than one rourou to feed the people: that speaks to the need for partnership to be paramount. The Treaty of Waitangi is fundamental to the nation building process of Aotearoa and it provides an excellent model for the exercise of partnership. Importantly, it provides an inclusive model that enables everyone to have a place and to be provided for in our society. More than a passing notion, the ‘well-being’ of the people is premised on this. There is no sense of uniformity suggested by this, no need for ‘one size fits all’. The gifts of each rourou are accepted and valued for the diversity that they represent. Our society is enriched by that diversity and our challenge is to engage it.

Background to Te Kāwai Ora

The main aim of the establishment of the Mäori Adult Literacy Reference Group was “to provide advice on policy development with respect to adult literacy outcomes”. This is particularly important given the current disparities between Mäori and non-Mäori in this area. There is a dearth of research available in the field of adult literacy that is able to inform the development of effective policy. This has a number of implications. One set relates to current government policy as outlined in More Than Words. Another set relates to the effective relationships that will be required between the Crown and stakeholders in the field if the policy is to be successfully implemented. In the absence of a research base to inform policy development the opinion of experts in the field has been called for. Those on the group represent major, national stakeholders who have proven records in the field. It was the gathering of this experience that the methodology informing the conduct of the reference group was designed to facilitate. This expert opinion comprises the data from which this report has been written. The members of the group were:

  • Bronwyn Yates, Literacy Aotearoa;
  • Susan Reid, Workbase: The National Centre for Work Place Literacy and Language;
  • Te Ripowai Higgins, Te Ataarangi Educational Trust;
  • Wally Penetito, He Parekereke: Institute for Research and Development, School of Education, Victoria University of Wellington;
  • Mereana Selby, Te Wänanga o Raukawa;
  • Bubs Taipana, Whäia Te Ara Tika Literacy Programme; and
  • Rachel Wikaira, NZ Correspondence School.

The Life of the Group

The group started its journey by considering three major focus questions that addressed critical notions informing policy scholarship in this field. The questions were:

  • how do Mäori define a literate Mäori?
  • how do we define literacy?
  • what are some of the major issues in the field?

Ch 1: How do Māori define a literate Māori?

A number of main themes emerged from a discussion of the question “How do Mäori define a literate Mäori?” They included responses to the opening question; becoming biliterate; and barriers to Mäori literacy – historical, structural (systemic), institutional/programme, personal. The question: “How do we define a literate Mäori?” was responded to by one group member in a way that summarised the group view. It is as follows:

Literacy in Mäori terms should include the ability to read and write in both Mäori and English, i.e biliteracy and be able to use that ability competently, i.e. to be functionally biliterate in Mäori and English. Being literate in Mäori should also include having the capacity to ‘read’ the geography of the land, i.e. to be able to name the main land features of one’s environment (the mountains, rivers, lakes, creeks, bluffs, valleys etc.), being able to recite one’s tribal/hapü boundaries and be able to point them out on a map if not in actuality as well as the key features of adjacent tribal/hapü boundaries and being able to ‘read’ Mäori symbols such as carvings, tukutuku, köwhaiwhai and their context within the wharenui (poupou, heke etc.) and the marae (ätea, ärongo etc.). I’m not sure but even the ability to ‘read’ body language (paralinguistics) should not be outside the scope of a definition of ‘literacy’ in Mäori terms. This is the sort of work that ‘the politics of everyday life’ structured in the nature of relationships has much to say about.

This might be taking a definition of literacy too far but then again perhaps the definition that has been imposed has been far too limiting … which might account for the fact that many people know how to read but don’t do it very much because it is such an anti-social activity (Wally Penetito, 2001).

In the last twenty-five years many New Zealanders have been taking part in a social movement which is based on just these notions. A biliteracy strategy is already being implemented in Aotearoa today. It is being led by Mäori. It is changing the social and economic fabric of this country forever. Te Köhanga Reo, Te Ataarangi, Te Wänanga o Raukawa and the Mäori providers in Literacy Aotearoa, for example, are among the organisations leading the biliteracy strategy. Profiles of these organisations/movements reveal that not only have Mäori have been instrumental in changing the face of literacy in this country, they show how this transformation has occurred.

These programmes exhibit a number of ‘critical success’ factors:

  • they are ‘flax roots’ initiatives, which have been developed by Mäori, for Mäori and in Mäori;
  • they have been developed outside of what has been known as ‘the mainstream’;
  • they are informed by mätauranga Mäori and kaupapa Mäori;
  • they have each created transformative, solutions-focussed, radical alternatives to mainstream models;
  • they now have each achieved over two decades of effective praxis and lead their respective sectors;
  • they have each transformed participation and achievement rates in their respective sectors;
  • equitable resourcing of the initiatives has been a huge issue, but it has not stopped the momentum of development; and
  • they are now each recognised and celebrated internationally as ‘authentic’, ‘global exemplars’ of indigenous development.


Year of Formation

Te Ataarangi1979
Te Köhanga Reo1982
Literacy Aotearoa1982
Te Wänanga o Raukawa1981

These programmes draw from a number of bodies of knowledge that inform Mäori development. It is in the synthesis of these bodies of knowledge that their ‘authenticity’ is to be found. The bodies of knowledge tell us about ‘knowing about Mäori knowledge, doing things the Mäori way and being Mäori’ and are termed ‘epistemological, methodological and ontological’. Key concepts in this chapter draw from diverse bodies of knowledge. They refer to the difference between ‘Mäori realities’ (ontology), ‘Mäori world views’ (epistemology) and ‘Kaupapa Mäori’ (methodology).

There is no single ‘Mäori reality’. ‘Being Mäori’ is informed by diverse Mäori realities. Diversity in this sense is ontological in nature, referring to the nature of being. Literacy programmes for Mäori will need to provide for multiple pathways in response to this notion of ‘diverse Mäori realities’. There is no single ‘Mäori world view’. Mäori world views are known at the whänau, hapü and iwi levels. In this sense mätauranga Mäori (Mäori knowledge) can be differentiated as mätauranga whänau, hapü, iwi and Mäori. Diversity in this sense is epistemological in nature, referring to the theory of/methods/the grounds of knowledge. Literacy programmes based in mätauranga whänau, hapü, iwi and Mäori knowledge give expression to Mäori world views. ‘Kaupapa Mäori’ articulates how Mäori world views, mätauranga Mäori, inform the development of methodologies authentic to Mäori. Literacy programmes that are based on kaupapa Mäori will implement processes and protocols which are drawn from the mätauranga whänau, hapü, iwi and Mäori.

The question of what is Mäori about mätauranga Mäori, and therefore about analyses of Mäori literacy, must be answered in epistemological as well as methodological and ontological terms if it is to be identified as authentic and not a feature which, it could be argued, is found in any population or any general programme.

Ch 2: How do we define literacy?

The group identified the following as the parameters of the task of defining literacy in Aotearoa: literacy and ‘survivability’ (meaning the ability to survive sustainably); Te Wheke and universal laws of literacy; clashing world views – colonisation and adaptability; and whänau, hapü and iwi literacy.

At stake in the deliberations of the group was the critical issue of the survivability of Mäori. ‘Being Mäori’ was identified as a starting point. The challenge was to work from this point, through an assessment of the notion of survivability, to literacy. A member of the group asked the following focus question: “How will we recognise ourselves in a thousand years’ time? By measures of blood alone? Or will there be a world view, which is an expression of a lived culture, articulated in our own language, which will be recognisable as Mäori?”

One of the questions being explored is the question of “what is Mäori literacy?” Literacy programmes for Mäori are not only about reading and writing, which are associated with ‘reading the word’, though they include this. They are also about outcomes that show that people have increased cultural and political knowledge. As well as knowing how to speak te reo this includes knowledge about whakapapa, knowledge about who you are and where you come from. When asked “What is it about learning te reo that is a literacy outcome?” the answer lies in the ability for Mäori to be able to read the Mäori world view.

Te reo Mäori was a major theme of the analysis of this discussion. The reason is clear: it is language that gives expression to culture. Further, the group argued that the Mäori world view can only be expressed through the Mäori language. In arguing this they are arguing a position which suggests that there is a philosophical difference between Mäori realities and Mäori world views. The former are identified as ontological considerations, the latter as epistemological considerations.

The retention, maintenance and revitalisation of the Mäori language are identified as critical issues for the survivability of whänau, hapü, iwi Mäori in epistemological terms. Without te reo Mäori, Mäori lose the ability to define what is ‘Mäori’ about ‘being Mäori’ in terms which are authentic to Mäori in Aotearoa. Te reo Mäori, therefore, comprises one of our defining characteristics as a people. At the end of the day the survival of our culture is expressed as a function of our ability to express ourselves by way of a number of mediums including those that link us to the e-world.

The group identified that in the work of Rangimarie Rose Pere, as expressed in “Te Wheke”, universal laws of literacy were to be found . “Te Wheke” identifies central principles of mätauranga Mäori which, when taken together, enable the Mäori world view to be explored. A critical function of the model of “Te Wheke” in the field of literacy is that it provides a means to analyze and explore Mäori epistemology, at a range of levels; namely, at the whänau, hapü and iwi levels.

The politics of being literate in a global community in authentic terms, defined from within cultures, rather than being externally imposed, was inescapable. With regards to Mäori, however, there still seemed to be a view by sections of the wider society that we need to conform to someone else’s view of how we celebrate who we are. At issue here are questions about power and control: Who has the power to control Mäori affairs? How did they get that control? And, how do they maintain it? At the macro, structural level the answers to these questions are shaped by the impact of colonisation on our ontological journey as a nation. Knowing about colonisation, about how and why our people came to be in the position that we are, was considered a vital component of literacy by the group. Political literacy was identified as a central feature of literacy in this country. Colonisation brought together different world views: and they clashed! Much about the world view of one was oppositional to the world view of the other.

A strong theme emerged that literacy was tribally located and that whänau, hapü and iwi were literacy providers. As well as the epistemological aspects of this, which relate to mätauranga whänau, hapü, iwi and Mäori, there are also ontological aspects; for example, as these relate to historical grievances and issues. Two major issues are noteworthy in this section. Given the principles of the Mataatua Declaration, this would suggest that the development of the field of literacy in Aotearoa must be undertaken with Mäori, as tangata whenua, in partnership with the Crown. Te reo Mäori and mätauranga whänau, hapü, iwi and Mäori would sit alongside the English language and Päkehä culture, equal in status, in any framework developed for use in this field: ‘quality’, as a consequence, will have its parameters set by the biliteracy strategy. It follows from this that with a biliteracy strategy it will not be possible to “address both the capability of providers and the development of effective tools for the measurement of learning gains”   in monolingual or monocultural terms.

The ability to define and control what counts as Mäori knowledge remains with Mäori. With these notions of definition and control articulated, Mäori knowledge could then become available to humanity through its partnership with the Crown. The theme of effective partnerships in this context is vital. The Mataatua Declaration notes that “existing protection mechanisms are insufficient for the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights”. This initiative should not become a means for the Crown to appropriate Mäori knowledge. Further, access to Mäori knowledge would first be given to Mäori and direct descendants of Mäori as a priority right. These notions have implications both for policy and operations.

The definition of literacy offered by the group is:

Literacy is the lifelong journey of building the capacity to ‘read’ and shape Mäori and other worlds.

Ch 3: Recommendations

The group’s view of the grounds for the recommendations made are set out in this chapter. The chapter also develops an overview of the effective policy interventions that are needed to improve the literacy outcomes of adult Mäori. Twenty issues/themes were identified and then briefly explored. They are: education and literacy broadly defined; biliteracy and language issues; coordination; what is meaningful for Mäori?; national definition of literacy; partnerships and the Treaty of Waitangi; shared vision; fear and ignorance about Mäori development: the role of education; lifelong learning; beyond party politics; multiple pathways; student-centred literacy; resourcing; mana enhancement; whakamä/whakamana; time; research; capacity building; communication strategy; and networking.

Ch 4: Stakeholder Profiles

A selection of stakeholder profiles is included in Chapter Four. These profiles have been developed in order to glean a sense of the history of literacy provision in Aotearoa. Taken together the stories provide insight into a number of the critical issues that this report addresses. They are also testimony of the experience in this field which has been built in the last twenty-five years.

The lessons offered from the profiles include models of:

  • whänau, hapü, iwi literacy (Te Wänanga o Raukawa);
  • te reo Mäori programme development based on notions of ‘ako’ (Te Ataarangi Educational Trust);
  • how the Crown / Mäori relationship at the policy level can be implemented as well as a model of whänau based, intergenerational learning (Te Köhanga Reo);
  • organisational development based on the Treaty of Waitangi and programme development based on notions of ‘reading the world, reading the word and being the world’ (Literacy Aotearoa);
  • workplace literacy and language (Workbase: The National Centre for Workplace Literacy and language); and
  • distance learning and flexible learning pathways (The New Zealand Correspondence School).

Ch 5: Current Literacy Programmes

The diversity that is the ‘lived reality’ of Mäori people is such that there is now general agreement that there is no ‘one Mäori voice’ or ‘one Mäori pathway’ in any field, and that holds true for the field of literacy. Mäori are everywhere: expressed as many voices and taking many pathways. This chapter aims to open up some of the possibilities that the group explored. One notion that the group was keen to dispel was the possibility that establishing best practice could, if they were not careful, become a new way to create a ‘one size fits all’ approach … a normative new orthodoxy. This was not an outcome that they wanted to contribute to. In the early part of the chapter a general discussion on programme effectiveness and the concept of best practice is outlined. The key themes generated here were: decolonisation, tutors, student-centred learning, value structure, resourcing to provide quality, ‘sticking to the kaupapa’, literacy resource centre and technology. A set of reflections on Mäori pedagogies/Mäori world views follows. Finally, two case studies of literacy programmes have been included to enable the issues presented in this chapter to be considered in context. The programmes are ‘Whäia Te Ara Tika’ and ‘Te Whare Ako’, each an example of effective programmes exhibiting best practice in their own right.

Ch 6: Other Matters

Several issues that the group felt warranted discussion were identified at the first meeting. The first three have been discussed in earlier chapters in this report (How do Mäori define a literate Mäori? How do we define literacy? What are the main issues in the field of literacy?). This chapter sets out initial responses to two issues (a compilation of government spending in the field of literacy and statistics on Mäori Literacy/Achievement). It was beyond the resources of this report to provide comprehensive responses to the remaining issues, but we have recommended that they be followed up in policy work projects at a later date.


The idea of ‘looking back to the future’, is an ancient wisdom that introduces this conclusion. The future is known through the past, literally, in the Mäori world view, by facing the past. The relationship is not linear but cyclic: past, present, future, each known in relation to each other, and each adding to the wisdom of the other. The group wanted reference to the early experiences Mäori had of literacy in Aotearoa included in this report. A series of facts and observations about this experience are included as quotations from published texts to set the scene in the early chapters. They show that the early experience of literacy for Mäori, in Mäori, was illuminating. The lessons are many.

One of the major themes from this time was that it was initially a ‘success’ story for Mäori and for the major stakeholder in the field at the time, the missionaries and the churches that they represented. The quotations were chosen carefully to show the rapid, positive response Mäori had to early print literacy and their success with it. They also give an indication of the volume of texts that were procured by Mäori at this time.

The initial ‘success’ story was tempered by time, for reasons that are worth revisiting here. History records that Mäori saw in literacy a key to a new future, a grand, inclusive and prosperous new future in which they could be partners in national development, walking tall alongside their newly arrived fellow citizens. The vision was bold, brave and exciting – and Mäori took to it with passion! What they learned was that they did not, in fact, share the same vision as other stakeholders in the field. The vision of those working with Mäori was not of equality or partnership. It was far more limited.

C.J.Parr offers some insights:

It is only fair to add that the major task of the Missions of all denominations, as envisaged in the 1830’s and 1840’s, was the Mäoris’ spiritual conversion. Though recognised as important, the Mäoris’ material welfare was secondary to this primary task

The title of this report speaks to the fullness of the vision of what literacy, properly defined, could be, and in the view of this group, should be in Aotearoa.

Te Kawai Ora: Reading the world, reading the word, being the world.

It is a vision in which literacy is the lifelong journey of building the capacity to read and shape Mäori and other worlds. It is an inclusive vision. It is a vision, which connects the history of this nation with its future. It is a vision that speaks to the urgent task of nation building in Aotearoa and the possibilities of globalisation.

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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