Taking the Guesswork out of learning Te Reo


As a language teacher and linguist I’m shocked and disappointed with the general way Te Reo is taught to adults.

A favourite game of one teacher in a Te Reo learning program on Maori TV is to get the students to guess at answers. This is known in teaching circles as ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s mind?’ It’s also known in teaching circles that this is not a good way to teach. Another technique the same teacher uses is to present two or more items and ask the students to guess which one is correct. Again, it is a big no no to do this. You don’t present examples of wrong language to a student.

The reason these are bad techniques is that they try to get students to analyse and intellectualise. And quite often teachers who encourage this are asking students to analyse and intellectualise and memorise grammar. I’ve written before about why grammar-based learning is a bad idea.

Better by far is to help the student to the point where the correct answer simply ‘feels’ right. There is no need to analyse; the human brain does this by itself. We are hardwired to acquire languages – it’s just a matter of proper teaching/learning technique.

The best techniques give students substitution drills, minimal pairs where needed and plenty of parrot practice. It’s the parrot practice where the brain really absorbs grammar all by itself without the student even knowing. The student shouldn’t be wasting time pondering and guessing. It’s really painful for me to watch these shows on TV where the student is looking confused and defeated because they can’t produce the “correct” answer. Language learning can be joyful communication if it’s done right.

Unfortunately if you go into any New Zealand library and look at the shelf for teaching Te Reo, nine out of ten books are grammar-based rather than using communicative techniques. I have no idea why NZ lags behind the rest of the world in this respect.

The survival of Te Reo needs this whole culture of bad teaching to change. I urge the industry to adopt best practice. I urge the industry to do the studies. Find out for yourselves which methods work and which don’t. You may be surprised by the answers.

Good luck.

PS. One more thing. Macrons. Dumb macrons.

We Need to Kick the Macron.

Maori macrons were invented before the rise of computers. Maybe they made sense then, maybe.

But they make no sense now.

Even the word Maori should be written with a macron on the a. How many of us have the font installed or can switch between fonts?

If we really want to promote Te Reo an awareness of proper pronunciation is essential. Typing Maaori and Taamaki, typing the extra letter instead of a macron would help enormously.

Time for a change.

Vote to kick the macron.


7 thoughts on “Taking the Guesswork out of learning Te Reo

  1. From my memory of learning French and German at school in the UK, much the same thing applied – we spent ages learning the correct way to decline German verbs, with the result that I can barely do shopping in German.

    It all goes back to the idea of education as an intellectual sifting exercise rather than a way to develop skills and knowledge. (See also the almost obsolete practice of learning Latin when one isn’t set on a career in either linguistics or ancient history).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Same here in Thailand where schools focus on grammar when teaching English resulting in Thailand being ranked the the second lowest in English proficiency in Asia.


  3. I urge you to do your own research…start with Te Ataarangi, research by actually attending a class, then move on to Te Ara Reo, again repeat the method of data collection. By then this post should read completely differently. You may find that there is no premise to what you’re saying other than watching one programme on Māori TV, which if I’m guessing was ‘Ako’ – an intermediate to advanced level tutorial. Do not assume, you seem ignorant.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tautoko Marire Kuka. I totally agree about Ako, those are students who are already speaking te reo with quite a lot of fluency and they are being taught grammar so they can understand their language in a more abstract way. I agree with the author that learning grammar rules isn’t the best way to start, but it shouldn’t only be linguists who have access to those rules either. There are bright young Māori already speaking their language who are interested in pursuing this learning and its wonderful that its being made available to them. Plenty of lower-level content is available on Māori TV as well.


  5. Thanks Marire and Phil, I’ll follow up. Yes I was referring to Ako. I’m not sure you are defending Ako? Have I got it wrong about grammar? To me learning grammar is like learning to be a motor mechanic in order to drive a car.


  6. I bet all motor mechanics know how to drive the car before they become mechanics.

    Have you ever noticed when kids make mistakes in their first language and then their mother (usually) corrects them. This in a way is what grammar does to learners of higher fluency. So, my first point is, there is a place for grammar. Secondly, there is also a place for fluency. In language learning typically there is a give/take relationship between fluency and grammar (or more accurately, “accuracy”). Depending on the learner and where they are at with the target language the balance between fluency and accuracy will change.

    Finally, I think you raise some great points about: how we teach the target language?

    Does the Ako program know what it is doing? Is it aware of the level of language and the target audience? Is it aware of the linguistic pedagogy and the influences both positive and negative? Hmmm…he wharo tenei.


  7. i think first and formost when learning the Reo for those that do struggle, just speaking te reo is awesome and yes some of the grammar might very much be out of context but we all know just hearing it will benefit our people, as you become more fluent and confident with te reo then you can delve into the grammar to help your self and others to articulate our beautiful language in which it is. Maori language has so many diffent aspects to our reo, different levels of speaking, also alot of iwi have their own unique dialect, we will for ever be learning with our beautiful language. but 1 thing i do say is have a open mind to our reo as their are many and different meanings to our beautiful kupu,
    “kotahi te kupu, nui te whakamarama”!!!!!


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