The Case Against Traditional Methods (Video)

Do you have two and a half minutes? Do you want to understand why Lotus Chinese Learning (and other high-quality programs) do not use textbooks? We don’t spend a lot of class time teaching grammar rules or encourage our students to memorize new vocabulary words (aka teaching using traditional methods). Watch this short video to learn why it is okay to ditch the textbook.

Want to learn more about classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Please get in touch via the contact page.

UT Credit by Exams: Chinese

What Are the UT Credit By Exams?

Are you a high school student in Texas? Does your school not offer Chinese? You can still get credit for two years of Chinese through the University of Texas Credit by Exams (UT Credit by Exams). If you have been studying Chinese independently, or if you learned Chinese in elementary or middle school, UT Credit by Exams could be a good way to get Chinese credit on your transcript. It may fulfill your school’s language requirement. It may also be a compelling part of your college applications. If your high school does offer Chinese, you may be able to use your test score to skip a level or two.

First things must come first, however. Check with your school’s guidance office about taking the UT Credit by Exams test in Chinese. They might be very excited about a student taking this test, or they can be bizarrely intransigent about helping you. I’ve seen both. In any case, you will need their help in scheduling the exams and getting your results.

There is More to Learning Than an Exam

For this blog post, I am mostly going to talk about the Chinese 1 exam, for the sake of brevity. Lots of what I have to say about the exam still applies to the Chinese 2 exam, however. The purpose of the exam is to show that a student has achieved the equivalent of passing a high school Chinese 1 class. I teach Mandarin Chinese so that students can use Mandarin Chinese to communicate with Chinese-speaking people. I don’t teach Chinese so that students can pass fancy-sounding exams. Learning a language is a lifelong journey and proficiency exams are the equivalent of getting your passport renewed. It is just proof that you are who you say you are (e.g., a proficient Chinese speaker).

The Speaking Section

The UT Credit by Exams test for Chinese 1 is three hours long and it tests ability in speaking, reading, writing and listening. The study guide for the exam starts with speaking, so we will start there too. The prompts are in English, but the students must respond in Chinese. Some of the prompts in the study guide are great examples of why standardized tests can be lame: “describe a house or a particular room in your house and why you like it.” I have yet to meet a teenager with a keen eye for decor. With speaking evaluations, test-takers are sort of at the mercy of the topic. Not having anything to say gets graded the same as not saying anything. So here is my top tip: make %¥@!up. No one grading your exam will know if you are telling the truth. If you have to pretend to like soccer for the sake of an exam, graders will not show up at your house to make sure you own a pair of cleats.

Look at the Rubric

The rubric for the speaking portion of the exam is telling. To answer the prompt “satisfactorily,” the test taker must briefly address the prompt, and use three or more words or phrases (emphasis theirs). They may be “understood with great effort” by a native speaker. So… they are really not looking for all that much. Which is realistic. Say through a Chinese 1 class, a student has had 180 hours of solid input in the language (you know I am all about that input). That means they should be able to recognize about 700-900 words MAXIMUM. The number of words that the learner can use in an communicative event will be a much smaller subset of those. So yeah, stringing together a few phrases about hobbies, places in the US, or a room in your house is all that is reasonable to expect. It is a a good thing that the test designers seem to recognize that.

The Listening Section

Like the speaking section, the listening section also uses English. Test takers must listen to the prompt and then answer multiple choice questions that are written in English. I assume that the section is designed this way so for validity, so that it does not accidentally become a test of reading comprehension as well. To prepare for this exam, students really do just need to do a lot of listening. Many classes, do not provide this opportunity. Instructors spend too much time explaining things like grammar in English, and too little time using Chinese to communicate with the students. If this sounds like a class you took, I recommend Learning Chinese Through Stories to make up for it.

Simulated Conversations

If I had to guess, I would say that the simulated conversations part of the exam would probably be the trickiest for most learners. Test takers have to choose the best response to a question or statement in Chinese. The samples given in the study guide show that the test designers expect an almost native-like understanding of how Chinese works in certain situations. For example, how 没关系 (it’s nothing/no problem) is not an appropriate response to thank you. Less than 200 hours of instruction in a Chinese 1 course is just not that much time.  There is a big question mark for me about whether this is appropriate for the level.

The Reading Section

Like the listening section, the answers for the reading section are in English. The right preparation for this is of course doing lots of reading in Chinese. A good teacher for high school students will supply leveled reading for beginner students. If you don’t have access to these kinds of materials, read more about them here.

The Writing Section

The writing section, like the speaking section, gives prompts in English. Students will need to handwrite their responses, so knowing how to handwrite a large number of characters is an important part of test preparation. I am not sure if this is a good use of an exam, considering how little we actually write things down with a pencil and paper. I am not in charge of the exam however, so here we are. The best preparation for this section is what I call “swinging the heavy bat.” I am not a baseball fan, but I have heard that they practice swinging with a heavier bat than what they actually use during a game. So in the game, they are prepared to swing harder than they really need to. If you practice writing a several responses to the practice prompts (under timed conditions), when the test comes around, it will be a breeze. Make sure you write much more than you think that you need.

Again, Look at the Rubric

Like with the speaking section, the bar for getting “satisfactory” marks on the writing section is pretty low. Scorers only look for a few phrases strung together that briefly address the prompt. If a test taker writes several complete sentences that fully respond to the prompt, they will probably get full points!

Last Words

A true test of Chinese proficiency would be to drop a learner in the middle of China (or Taiwan) and to see how they do. Since we can’t do that :), tests like the UT Credit by Exams is what we have. These exams are not really proficiency exams, either. The test is meant to award (or not award) high school credit for doing the equivalent work for a high school class. If you would like assistance in preparing for this exam, please get in touch.

Why Learning Chinese ISN’T so Damn Hard

An Essay from 1991 Makes Bold Claims

When I first started teaching Chinese, I suggested to a group of adult students that they check out an essay from 1991 by David Moser called “Why Chinese is so Damn Hard.” That was dumb, very dumb. I thought that the students would learn about the Chinese language and get some perspective about how long it actually takes to learn a language. They just ended up feeling discouraged. Several years later, re-reading that essay, I have come to disagree with most of what it says. So not only was it just discouraging, it perpetuates misunderstandings about how language learning actually works. I recommend reading the essay before reading the rest of this post. Please don’t forget to come back!

David Moser has a p.h.D and a book. By many measures, he is more successful than I am so I feel okay about picking apart his essay. I don’t think he will ever read this or get his feelings hurt :). More importantly, the essay is pretty tongue in cheek.

The Writing System Isn’t Ridiculous

Moser lays out nine points for why learning Chinese is allegedly more difficult than other languages, but I won’t go over each and every one of them. Let’s start at the beginning. Moser claims that “the writing system is ridiculous.” Lots of students, like Moser, are initially attracted to the writing system. I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too. There are a lot of assertions about learning Chinese characters in this paragraph. It is worth going over the claim about how much longer it takes Chinese children to become literate in Chinese than it does other children to become literate in their native languages.

So how long does it take Chinese kids to learn and write in Chinese? Interestingly enough, Chinese preschools and kindergartens (幼儿园) are not allowed to directly teach reading and writing.* Teachers still read books to the kids of course. Direct instruction in reading however, does not start until first grade. Why does this matter? Well, if you measure how much an American seven year old knows how to read and write, they may already have 3 years of literacy instruction under their belt. Lots of preschools in America teach reading quite early. It also only takes 4 seconds of Googling to find a book that promises to help you teach your toddler to read. In contrast, a Chinese seven year old has only had one year of literacy instruction. It is certainly possible that parents teach their kids many characters, but it is hard to tell who gets what.

So for comparison purposes, the age of a child is not particularly helpful. It might not tell us how many years it took for that child to actually learn to read and write. Okay, by you still want to know how long does it take to become literate in Chinese? Well, it does take longer than it does in English, but possibly only by a few months.** Out of curiosity, I asked a Chinese friend how long it took him to learn how to read and write in Chinese. He said, “It was pretty hard, it took me a few weeks.”

Misconceptions About Language Learning

Moser has several sections about why Chinese literacy is allegedly so hard to acquire are split into several sections. I am going to talk about most of them all together because I think that there are really only a couple issues that matter. First, let’s start with the easiest: writing Chinese by hand. Did I just say that writing Chinese is easy? Nope, not even close. Moser points out that even Chinese people forget how to write low frequency characters. I, too, remember the childish delight I felt when I saw Chinese people put pen to paper and not be able to write a word like 骰子 (dice).

Here is the thing, being able to read but not write is nothing new and not even unique Chinese. Less than a year ago, I was listening to a podcast about the Salem Witch Trials. From it, I learned that many of the women of Salem back in 1692 could read but not write. They had a low level of sign literacy. The things you learn, right? So while we often think of reading and writing as an inseparable pair, they are really two different things. It is 2019, I think that not being able to handwrite a character in Chinese is not a big deal. You can still be literate in Chinese. Most of of rarely write by hand in our day to day lives.

Moser talks about encountering the word for president: 总统 and then trying to retrieve it the next day and write it down. The process of acquiring a language is very different from what he is describing here. First, we need to hear a word in a meaningful context, several times over, like way more times than once or twice. Then, when must map the sounds of that word to its written representation, i.e. reading. We can also use this word in speech appropriately after getting enough input. The very last thing that we should expect ourselves to do with a new word is write it down. Hearing a word and trying to write it down the next day just isn’t how language acquisition works. What about making flashcards you say? This video explains why they are not that helpful.

The Importance of Sound

The biggest misconception at the heart of this essay is about what reading Chinese actually is. Chinese is not the poorer because it does not use an alphabet. Writing systems have their visual representations, whether they be the Roman alphabet, Cyrillic, or Chinese characters. They are “inherently also about phonology and semantics because that is what writing systems represent.”***

About 80% of Chinese characters have some sort of phonetic component. The vast majority of Chinese characters have a semantic component. When we encounter an unfamiliar character while reading, we use both our phonological knowledge and our semantic knowledge of Chinese. This goes for both words we know and words that we don’t know. Say you’re reading an article in Chinese about climate change and you come across a character you don’t recognize: 燃. The next character is 料 (liao). So the reader sees 燃料 and has to figure out what it means. The radical of the character is the fire radical. The right-hand side, which often suggests the meaning, looks like 然 (ran). Okay so, hmmmm, something with fire, the sound ran, followed by liao, hmmmmm, ah yes, ránliào is fuel! But here is the key, a student would already need to know the word ránliào in order to read 燃料.

This is the real problem with reading in Chinese, and I think it is at the root of Moser’s problems. You need a really good aural knowledge of Chinese words before you can read them. Think about it, kids have been exposed to their native languages for thousands of hours before they ever start to read. Sure, we learn some words from reading, but the vast majority of words we read are words that we already know. Moser writes about having 20 Chinese dictionaries and talking to tweedy professors, but not really any communication with ya know, Chinese people. It is those thousands of hours of meaningful input that is what helps us learn the language and how to read it.

Cognates Won’t Save You

Yes, Chinese does not really have cognates. Moser mentions being able to comprehend a great deal of a Spanish-language newspaper because of cognates. I have been seriously working on acquiring Spanish for about a year. I spend about 10 hours a week on task. The more Spanish I know, the less convinced I am that they are helpful. There are of course, the false cognates. Many students have a story about erroneously being “embarazada.” (For the uninitiated, that means pregnant, not embarrassed). But really, there is more to it than that. Are you looking for a sensible man who won’t gamble away your house or bring home five stray pit bulls? Be careful with your Spanish-language dating sites, because “un hombre sensible” is a sensitive man. Even something as simple as “contento/a” is complicated. It means happy, not content. I for one, would never say I am happy when I am merely content. The Spanish language provides a lot of clues to help a learner figure things out (presidente, acusar, económicos) but that is not the same as knowing the language. Flipping through a newspaper and making educated guessing about the content is not reading. Cognates and false cognates have that dangerous other side to the coin, which is making learners think they know more than they really do. That happens less often with Chinese :).

Technology Solved the Dictionary Problem, Mostly

When I started learning Chinese, I had a paper dictionary. Moser calls these dictionaries “user-hostile.” I don’t think that is correct. If I have my math correct, Moser was learning Chinese in the 1980s. He mentions looking up characters by radical, which is the method that I will talk about, although there are others. Before you could just scan a character with an app, to look up a character in a paper dictionary, you had to figure out the radical and then look up the individual character by the number of strokes. This is how I still do it, just with my iPhone. I could also scan with Google, but I never do because looking it up the old-fashioned way just is not that hard. So with technology, Moser’s point about looking up characters because it takes too long it is moot. In any case, the radical + stroke number method does not take as long as he claims. Furthermore, it forces students to consider the components of characters which helps learners recognize them when they see that character again. Lastly, we also lost something when we replaced the paper dictionary with the app. We lost the new things that we learned when we were trying to find out something else. The iPhone killed serendipity. I was dismayed to learn that the first character in my Chinese name is the same character in the Chinese word for syphilis. I learned that looking up that character in a paper dictionary. You better believe I never forgot it.

That Pesky Classical Chinese

Classical Chinese is a bit of a pickle. Moser does a good job of summarizing classical Chinese as “several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway.” The problem he really talks about is an emotional one: feeling embarrassed when someone asks you what something means and you don’t know. That is an ego problem, not a language problem. This is an imperfect analogy, but I wouldn’t expect English learners to understand Shakespeare. Plenty of natives don’t either.

Moaning About Tones

Moser also complains about the tones of Mandarin Chinese. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere. Moser forgets about the same thing that everyone else does: context. He Brings up the example of guòjiǎng (“you flatter me”) vs guǒjiàng (“fruit paste/jelly/jam). Sure, if you get the tones wrong, you’ll be saying the wrong word. But really, how often could you confuse flattery for a sandwich spread? I have a student who says “qǐng wěn” (please kiss) instead of “qǐngwèn” (may I ask a question.) I don’t think that he is constantly trying to kiss me because I am not a ding dong. He is a student in class with his hand raised. He wants to ask a question. Context people! Moser also tries to make a point about how the intonation we use in English interferes with correct tone pronunciation. All I can say is, huh? I’ve shouted “Shǎguā wázi!” at people who cut me off without changing all the words to the 4th (so-called “angry tone).

Bridging the Cultural Divide

I’ve saved the best for last. Moser makes one really good point, and it is the last one too. He suggests that one of the reasons that learning Chinese is do damn hard is because our cultures are so different. Bingo. Comprehension, whether it is listening comprehension or reading comprehension, depends so much on background knowledge. I wrote about that issue here. It matters for reading comprehension in our native languages too. The Five Great Mountains, Guanyin (the goddess of mercy), and the monkey king are just a few examples of things that I have taught my students in the past seven days along that are part of Chinese cultural literacy. Just recognizing the characters in the words 五岳,观音,猴王 (Five Great Mountains, Guanyin, and the Monkey King, respectively) is not enough to understand what they signify. You need background knowledge for that. If you are an average American college student in a Chinese 1 class, you’re just not gonna know these things. That is why I teach western stories that are already familiar to my students. Once they are a bit further along, they will need a lot of information about China, its history, and culture in order to understand the language. They will get that later, or in English, if needed. Lots of foreign students feel self-conscious about their limited vocabulary, tone pronunciation, or whatever, but it is really not knowing where Xi’an that makes them look silly.

* To be fair, this law was enacted many years after “Why Learning Chinese is So Damn Hard” was written. I do not know as much about early education in China prior to the 21st century.

** eMcNaughton and Ying, Reading and Writing Chinese (Revised edition)

*** Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight (2017)

It is all About the Content

Content is King (or Queen)

We have exciting news for 2020! We are finalizing plans to open a Mandarin Chinese immersion preschool and kindergarten program. (If you are interested, fill out this form here.) For this new program, I have been doing a lot of research on what makes a quality preschool curriculum. It turns out that the same elements that make a quality language program, are the same ones that make a quality regular curriculum. It is the content! I’ll get to the details, but in short, the problem with most language classes is the same one that afflicts the general curriculum: the kids are not learning anything.

An average (read: mediocre) language class is based on teaching students grammar rules, and a list of vocabulary words. Then, the students will have to demonstrate that they can use both of these things by making sentences or acting out some kind of dialogue. The major reason that classes like these don’t really teach languages effectively is because students do not get enough comprehensible input. Students need to hear (and later read) language that they can understand in order to learn a new language. It is important for students to be able to understand everything. This usually means shorter sentences, lots of repetition, slow speech, and lots of visual clues. I have written about that here and here.

Students need that slow, repetitious speech with lots of visual clues, but there also needs to be content. With little kids, we can talk about the colors on their clothes, and the numbers of chairs in the classroom, but we also need content to keep them learning new words. We can teach kids about lots of different things, from classic stories to facts about animals, but we need to teach them something in the desired language. They will learn the language as a byproduct of learning the content. This is how good language immersion programs work. They teach kids math, science, social studies and from these lessons, children learn Spanish, Chinese or French.

Having good content for kids to learn from is vital for language classes. For my classes that typically meet for one hour per week, we talk about animals, Chinese geography, classic Chinese stories, Western stories, food, and lots of other topics. The need for good content does not end there.

Perhaps you have read a headline recently about how terrible American public school children do on accountability tests. In case you haven’t, here is one article about reading scores to dampen your spirits. One explanation for why American kids don’t score well on reading tests is that they lack the background knowledge in order to comprehend a wide variety of texts.

American educator E. D. Hirsch has been talking about this problem in American education since the 1980s. His book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know was criticized for being elitist at best and discriminatory at worst. The evidence that students need more than just empty skills in order to be able to read is mounting. And of course reading is the key to advanced study in any field.

Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap (2019) takes up the case again. She demonstrates that American kids are doing so poorly in school because they are stuck learning “how to find the main idea” instead of actual knowledge. E.D. Hirsch may have seemed like an elitist by suggesting that all Americans know about Cotton Mather, Andrew Mellon, and Herman Melville, but he wasn’t wrong. We need good content for the kids to actually learn something. If we do it in a second language, they will learn that too.


The Ugly Truth About Learning Styles

Story time: When I was in high school, many of my teachers (perhaps all of them) went to a training about learning styles. They came back, clutching this newfound knowledge, ready to make a difference in the unfolding lives of the teenagers in their charge. The teachers gave us quizzes to asses our learning styles at the beginning of the semester. Curiously, I never seemed to get the “right” result. My answers never pointed to one learning style for me*. They were always pretty evenly distributed. I think that there is a reason for this: those quizzes don’t work because learning styles don’t exist.

If you are wondering what all this has to do with language learning, or learning Chinese, stick with me! I promise I will get to it

To illustrate just why quizzes like these are BS, let’s look at a few example questions. This quiz, assigns one of three learning styles: visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Most learning style quizzes focus on these three, however, some inventories of learning styles count up to 70. Here we go:

learning styles quiz question 1

Ummmm, how many students (assuming they are at least high school aged) would cop to preferring picture books? Are books of word searches and crossword puzzles even really considered books? They are great and all, but isn’t asking people to chose between Pride and Prejudice and Sudoku kind of an idiotic way to see if they like to read?

But wait, there is more!

learning styles quiz question 3

This quiz isn’t hosted on Geocities. The copyright says 2019. I am assuming that this is not some dusty corner of the internet that is still worried about Y2K. And yet, the writer of this quiz is seemingly unaware of smart phones. Maybe they do know about smart phones, but need to force some other choice for the sake of the quiz.

Let’s look at the options then. I understand that we need to pretend that smart phones don’t exist for the sake of this silly quiz, but surely if you can’t use a phone your next choice is not CHATTING TO THE PERSON NEXT TO YOU. I can’t think of a faster way to alienate my fellow humans than trying to chat them up at the checkout line. Maybe talking to oneself about how “everything must burn” will be slightly more alarming to strangers, but only slightly more.

This next questions is truly deranged:

learning styles question 10

Where do I even start with this question? Its just… so dumb. I think that I got dumber just by reading it. But why it is it so dumb? I think because it is a really good example of the problems with these kind of quizzes. The creators decide on whatever learning styles they believe in, and then crowbar in some questions that seem to “fit.” I don’t know any adult who would answer “act really hyper” in response to the question “what do you do when you are happy?” But you can see how each answer is supposed to align with visual learning, auditory learning and kinesthetic learning (in that order).

This one quiz is a great example of silly nonsense. I am aware there is no shortage of pointless quizzes on the internet. I am sure that there are also others that come off as more rigorous. I probably wouldn’t be able to tear those apart quite so easily. But I don’t have to, because some prominent psychologists and neuroscientists have done that for me. This is a letter that they wrote to the Guardian (the British Newspaper) in 2017 about how educators shouldn’t waste their time thinking about learning styles.

What I like about this letter is not that they explain that the supposed science behind learning styles is complete hokum. The problem with learning styles, as the authors point out, is not that they don’t exist. The problem is that every minute we waste talking about them, we are not doing something else. This is the opportunity cost of educational quackery.

When we are spending time taking bogus quizzes and thinking about how to make a lesson more kinesthetic for all those made-up kinesthetic learners out there we are not spending out time doing more valuable things.

This is what I think is really harmful for language learners. Folks who have really bought into the learning styles nonsense lose valuable time on task. Time spent on getting comprehensible input in the target language is really the name of the game in language learning. No amount looking at pictures is going to make up for not listening to Chinese, spoken at the appropriate level.

It gets worse. Beginner students really do just need to listen. Thinking about how to learn Chinese through interpretive dance is not going to help. Unfortunately, I think that the focus on learning styles has convinced a lot of people that they learn best by doing almost anything else other than listening. Every semester, I’ve got someone telling me that they’re a “visual learner” or that they need to make flashcards, or that they need a list of rules in order to learn. They don’t.

For better or for worse, we all learn languages the same way. If you are wondering if I am going to talk about comprehensible input again, you are correct! You learn language by listening to (and later reading) language that you can understand. Your brain doesn’t care that an online quiz told you learn best by drawing pictures, or chewing gum while studying.

I get a lot of resistance from telling people that they just need to listen in class (and of course they should tell me if they don’t understand something). I promise that is what you need to be doing, though.

If you have an auditory learning style (just kidding! :)), this podcast explains why they are bunk. More on the origin of this pernicious myth is in this article from the Atlantic.

*I think that I just… liked learning.

Never Suffer Learning to Read in Chinese Again

Many Students Resist Reading

Today’s topic is all about learning how to read in Chinese. When I first talk about learning how to read with adult students, most students respond with some variation of @#$! that. I’m serious. You would think I am try to teach people how to chew tinfoil or something. No one even wants to try. With young kids, they don’t realize it is “supposed to be” hard, so they don’t resist reading in Chinese as much. The struggle with learning to read in Chinese really is not the characters. It is something else. But we will get to that later.

Basics for the Littles

So, how do we teach people to read in Chinese? Let’s start at the beginning, with young children. Most preschool-aged children are pre-readers. What we do to teach them how to read in Chinese at this stage is similar to what we do for all pre-readers. We teach features of print. Features of print are things like: what is the beginning of a sentence? What is the end of a sentence? We read from left to right and top to bottom. Now, if you are learning to read in English, you will also learn that that there are spaces between words. Also, you will learn about capital letters.

So there is a lot of overlap in the early stages of learning how to read in English and in Chinese. I should also note that while modern Chinese texts go from left to right, older texts go the opposite way. Sentences are also on vertical, not horizontal, lines. I think that this is not really worth going over until later.

Readers Need to Read

Preschoolers will learn features of print in the early stages of reading instruction. There is considerable, but not complete, overlap between features of print in English and modern Chinese. At this stage, teachers need to read to students. A LOT. Eventually, students are going to need to read on their own. This usually goes much more smoothly if they like reading and think of it as a pleasurable activity.

What comes next? In English, most students start their reading journeys know many “sight words.” Often non-expert adults think that sight words are just simple words in English, like I, me, the, or she. Any word can be a sight word. Sight words are high frequency words that learners recognize “on sight.” They do not have to sound them out. For most kids learning to read in English, sight words end up being words like he, said, can, etc.

The highest frequency words in Chinese are nearly the same. Children who see 我、他、说 (I, he, say) over and over again will likely recognize them on sight, without any specific instruction.

An Important Tangent on Phonics (that you can totally skip if you don’t care)

Most children learning to read in English will need instruction in phonics. Now, people often refer to learning how to “decode.” I personally hate calling it “decoding.” I have a couple rational reasons for this and one that is more of the “old lady shouting at clouds” variety.

My first rational reason for disliking the word “decode” is that it is a case of rebranding. Many people believe that phonics lost the reading wars. Calling the same old thing by a new term in hopes of making it appealing again strikes me as a bit pathetic. Use phonics and let the results speak for themselves. Why else do I not like the word “decode” for sounding out words? Well, I think it makes it sound harder than it is. That puts people off, and then they don’t even try.

And what makes me an old lady shouting at clouds? Well, that gets back to the rebranding issue. The word “decode” sounds more… scientific? Technology-ish? I think it is a sad attempt to make learning how to read sound as sexy and important. Just like all the STEM stuff that is so fashionable right now. It is not. Reading is the most important academic skill a child will ever acquire. Making Lego robots isn’t. There, I said it. If you would like to skip to the comments section and tear me apart, go right ahead!

Phonics or decoding is all about about the connection between words are their sounds. This can be pretty simple. “M” sounds like mmmmmm.  “R” sounds like rrrrrrrrr. (Often the liquid sounds are easier). But English does not make things easy. Sometimes we produce a “g” like in signal. And sometimes we don’t, like in “sign.” Learning to read through phonics is not a walk in the park. This is why it must be complemented with other reading experiences, like listening to someone read a story. Little kids will need the reminder that reading is not a totally laborious process.

English, like any other language, has a limited number of sounds. Phonics is all about learning how those sounds map to the written word.

Back to Chinese

If it seems like I have forgotten that I write a blog about learning Chinese, I haven’t. Just like English, Chinese has a set of sounds. Chinese reading is all about learning how those sounds map to the written word too!

How Kids Learn to Read in China

Let’s look at how children in China learn how to read. Chinese children learn how to read in first grade. It is actually illegal to teach reading in Chinese preschools/kindergartens.* When a Chinese child learns how to read, they already know all of the words that they are reading AURALLY. That is, they know what all the words mean by sound. When they are learn to read, they begin to recognize that q+ing+falling then rising tone (meaning of please) maps to 请 in text. That is a lot of information to connect in less than one second, but the human brain is a wondrous thing.

Chinese children learn to read about 400 characters by the end of second grade. Chinese students also learn pinyin. This is the phonemic awareness part that is so important. A college-educated Chinese person knows about 4,000 characters. I’ve heard a minimum numbers for basic fluency in Chinese reading of anything between 500-2,000 characters. The HSK 6 tests about 2600 Chinese characters.

What is Different for our Learners

This is the key point: Chinese children already know the words that they are reading. For students learning both the spoken language and reading at the same time, the situation is different. These learners don’t have a fairly compete sound system for Chinese the way that Chinese first graders do. They’re learning the sounds and the visuals concurrently, and not sequentially.

So my students don’t know very many words in Chinese. That means that they can only learn a small number of words in Chinese. What they will be capable of reading is really just a subset of the words that they know aurally. This may seem simple and logical to you, but the number of people who don’t get this is…. er… high. Very high.

Keep is Simple at the Beginning

Readers for students learning to read in English use simple, short sentences. Readers should also mostly include words that the students can sound out. Readers in Chinese should also use simple, short sentences. I do mean simple. Painfully simple.  If students are expected to read independently, their readers should have a glossary with 100% of words in the text listed.

Yes, students need to be able to understand 100% of the words in a text (or very close to that) in order to read it on their own. Of course they can read texts with more unknown words, but that needs to include teacher support.

The Real Challenge of Learning to Read in Chinese

This brings us to the big challenge of teaching reading in Chinese to non-natives: the dearth of appropriate materials. There are just not enough readers out there for students learning to read in Chinese! Diane Neubauer has a blog post here that highlights a few options that are out there for beginning readers.

Diane mentions Terry Waltz and Haiyun Lu, both authors whose books I use in my classes. I also use books from Imagin8 Press, which are both appropriate for intermediate readers AND they also teach about Chinese culture. I could go one about books and other materials that are appropriate for students learning to read in Chinese, but this post is already 1400 words! This must be a record for me! Any suggestions for reading materials in Chinese? Share in the comments.

* If you would like a source on this, email me and I will send you my master’s thesis. Be careful though, I might die of shock if anyone actually wants to read my thesis.