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Snapshot 10: Theme-based programme design

This snapshot describes how a school designed an effective, whole-year programme based around a theme that was of particular interest to its students and aligned with their needs. The programme was integrated across English and physical education.


We are a decile 1 school in South Auckland. Most of our students are Pasifika; many of whom are English language learners. The three largest groups are Sāmoan, Tongan, and Cook Islands Māori. 12–15 percent of our students identify as Māori.

This particular programme was designed to develop students’ literacy and language learning knowledge and skills so that they were prepared for the literacy demands of everyday life, learning, and work. Like all our programmes, it followed a thematic approach. Used alongside The New Zealand Curriculum, the adult literacy learning progressions provide the framework for the level 1 literacy unit standards that were a goal of this programme.

Curriculum focus


  •  4–5


  • Making meaning; creating meaning

Adult Literacy Learning progressions

The literacy learning progressions provide a framework that shows what adult learners know and can do at successive points as they develop their expertise in literacy learning. Although constructed for adults, they are also suitable for use with senior secondary students – if teachers understand the progressions, they can help their students develop the required literacy skills.

The progressions framework can be used as a guide to identifying next steps. Each progression covers a particular aspect of literacy learning.

Teacher action

Most of the students in this year 11, level 4–5 English class were boys who were seriously into sport (like all year 11 students at our school, they were also taking physical education). Most were not particularly motivated to improve their literacy and language skills. Having identified their strengths and needs from past records and beginning-of-year diagnostic assessments, we thought that the theme of sport would engage their interests and offer many opportunities to develop their skills. So we based the entire programme around this theme.

Throughout the year, we were able to develop the students’ literacy, language, and thinking skills via a range of written, oral and visual tasks, all based on sports-related contexts.

To ensure greater ownership of learning, we also involved the students in decisions about what activities they would do. 

Topics for the various reading, writing, speaking, and presenting activities included:

  • non-mainstream sports such as BMX, bungy jumping, windsurfing
  • famous sports people
  • games rules
  • sport events (Rugby World Cup, Olympics)
  • sports safety
  • health and fitness.

Wherever possible, we selected authentic tasks as activities; for example, letters of thanks to the Eden Park tour guide after a field trip to the Māori All Blacks exhibition or emails to the sports coordinator about issues that concerned them (e.g. marking of fields or quality of jerseys). We would follow viewing a film or creating a static image with related reading, writing, and oral tasks.

What happened?

Overall, we were very pleased with the results in terms of both academic and personal achievement. We had succeeded in connecting learning in English with the students’ own experiences, identities, and cultures – as young people engaged in sports, and as young Māori and Pasifika people.

The programme helped the students develop the skills to think about, record, and communicate experiences, ideas, and information orally and in writing. For some, the writing was a challenge as they struggled with the mechanics of grammar and spelling; for others – those who were shy and lacked the confidence to speak up in a group – the oral tasks were the bigger challenge. However, all students had many opportunities during the year to strengthen their writing skills and gain confidence in front of others.

As the students became engaged in their learning, their attendance and attitudes improved. At the same time, they had many opportunities to develop all five of the key competencies: participating and contributing, thinking, managing self, relating to others, and using language symbols and texts.

The students were also given the opportunity to gain NCEA level 1 literacy via the literacy unit standards. 100 percent gained the reading standard, 76 percent the writing standard, and 76 percent the speaking standard. The programme was not however driven by formal assessments: we collected naturally occurring evidence from the students while they were engaged in learning things that interested them.

Last updated February 8, 2022