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ESOL Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

First voice – empowering bilingual learners

Building confident, motivated learners and an inclusive school environment is achieved through acknowledging and celebrating the cultures, languages and life stories learners bring with them. Palmerston North Intermediate Normal School (PNINS) is an inclusive multicultural school. In 2020, 44 languages are spoken with families at home, by around 170 students. 

For 21 years, the annual Multicultural Assembly at PNINS has been a highlight of the school's calendar. It coincides with the publication of the First Voice magazine - a collaboration between the school, the Palmerston North City Library and the Manawatu Multicultural Centre.

PNINS ESOL teacher, Barb Drake has been the driving force behind these initiatives. Barb really knows her learners, recognises who they are and what they bring, and works hard to grow their confidence. "That's my role. If they are confident in themselves and in the New Zealand school system, they will learn."

Part of the 'proof of the pudding' are the ex-students (usually in Year 13 at local high schools) who return as guest speakers at the First Voice workshops and digital launches.

Barb takes great pleasure in helping her students to develop confidence.


First Voice started in 2000. In the magazine each student introduces themselves in English and then completes a page of writing in their first language. Each year the students' writing is based on a different theme, including food, famous people and places, special events, and hobbies and sports. This year the theme was school. 

Key to the whole process are the language mentors, recruited by the Manawatu Multicultural Centre, who assist students to produce their writing. While the students may be fluent in their heritage language, their writing skills are at different stages. The aim is to maintain the written language that they have and encourage the use of it. The variety of scripts used makes for a fascinating end product. 

Barb says:

"The mentors feel extremely valued being able to use their first language in New Zealand to support the students with their writing." A mentor once said, "Every parent's and grandparent's dream is for their child to be able to speak and write in their language."

Over the last 21 years, Barb has built a great relationship with the Palmerston North City Library. The library has always supported First Voice, hosting the workshops where the mentors and students work together, publishing the magazine, and presenting each student with a copy of the finished publication.

Palestinian students writing in Arabic.
Writing in Samoan and Cook Islands Māori.
Writing in Punjabi, Sinhalese and Vietnamese.
Writing in Burmese/Myanmarese, Malayalam and Portuguese.


Barb is passionate about the benefits she sees from involvement in First Voice for students, mentors, and in connecting the school with the wider community, and the speakers at First Voice launches echo her sentiments about bilingualism each year. Salma Abdalla, the guest speaker at the 20th anniversary launch said:

"Your mother tongue language is critical to maintaining your identity, especially in a place like New Zealand where it isn't the main language. Being able to speak your first language helps to value your culture and heritage. It connects us to a part of our identity that can never be replaced."

Even a pandemic could not keep Barb down.

"This year the launch was delayed. We moved from the PN Library to the Convention Centre. The Multicultural Assembly was also delayed, and rather than have an audience of 750, we presented it five times to groups of 100. The kids love it, and I wasn't going to let them down."

In 2009, First Voice won a Human Rights Commission award. It has gained recognition as a wonderful initiative over many years.

Last year, Barb was surprised by the presentation of a First Voice 20th edition celebration cake by the Palmerston North Mayor and the President of the Manawatu Multicultural Centre. 

First Voice 20th anniversary celebration at the PN City Library.


PNINS Principal, Hamish Ruawai says:

"First Voice has been an amazing community-building event that embraces cultural responsiveness, by involving families and community groups, to nurture the native languages of so many of our students. It connects people, and values their identity so they can truly belong in our diverse community."

First Voice 2020 and for the last 20 years

Each year, a video is made of some of the students presenting their work. The 2020 video of a selection of presentations is available on YouTube and Vimeo.

Support for migrant students at PNINS doesn't begin and end with First Voice

When a new student starts, they can look at the language board close to reception which has large photos of bilingual and multilingual speakers and think, "Oh look! There is someone who speaks the same language as me in Room 3."

The PNINS photo board.


Every week, 'Country of the Week' is presented by students. Maps, photos and flags are displayed. Specific information (languages spoken, capital, largest city etc.) is given out at the end of the previous week and Monday morning's assembly includes a hotly contested quiz.

This week the 'Country of the Week' is South Africa.


For the last ten years, Term 4 has ended with a 'My Journey' discussion. Why did we come to New Zealand? Who made that decision? What are the differences? What was hard? Some of the stories are extraordinary, and they are now made into booklets kept in the library which other students love to read. Says Barb:

"This has become even deeper and more effective than First Voice. It is a revelation for our students to read about a former refugee whose family struggled to find clean water to drink." 

Four student journeys (Word)

Updated on: 25 Sep 2022