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.

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Concentration: The Evergreen Game

Games for Chinese Class

One of the great joys of working with children is seeing that so many games stick around through the generations. Kids are still playing freeze tag, because it is awesome. Unfortunately, we cannot play freeze tag all day for Chinese class. There are other evergreen games that we can play so the children can learn Mandarin Chinese while having fun. One of those games is concentration (also called memory). 

The Game of Concentration

You remember playing concentration, right? There is a set of cards based on a theme, with matching pairs. They are placed face down on a table or the floor. Players take turns turning two cards over at a time to try and find the matching pairs. I like playing games that the kids already know how to play because then we can spend more time with actual game play and less with explaining directions.

kids playing concentration
Kids in one of my classes playing a homemade version of concentration.

Sure, you could play this game in utter silence, but I have actually found that it works well as a game for Chinese class. I play a few variations with the kids, but this post is about a version that I do with Chinese animals.

How to Play it

First, I introduce the map of China. We Chinese teachers are lucky since we can cover most of the Chinese-speaking world (or least places where Mandarin is an official language) with just a map of China and Taiwan. I honestly don’t know how Spanish teachers manage to cover the geography of the Spanish-speaking world. There are so many countries! Then, I introduce animals that live in China.

In general, kids love animals. They like looking at pictures of pandas, snow leopards, and camels. They don’t even notice that they are learning Chinese while we look at the fun pictures (it’s all part of my evil plan, mwah haha!) Sure, camel is not a high-frequency word. A person could certainly argue that spending precious class time talking going over the word for camel is a waste. In talking about camels, however, I am using lots of high frequency expressions. I ask, “what animal is this?” “Where does it live?” “Is is from China?”

photo of baby panda
If all else fails, a cute picture of a panda will get them to pay attention.

Why this Game is Useful

Some of the animals we talk about are only found in specific regions of China. Some you can find all over. Once we finish with this part of the lesson, we move on to actual game play. Again, a person could argue that talking about exotic animals (well, exotic to Americans) is not a good use of class time. But really, the kids hear lots of high-frequency words during game play. They hear “what is it?” “is it a xx?” “no, it is not xx” “Shelby has two xx” The children hear the words for “to be” and “to have” over and over again.

As we know with language learning, repetition is the name of the game. We can also play the game more than once in class so that the kids can get even more of that sweet, sweet repetition.

By playing concentration with Chinese animals, children learn loads of different things. They learn Chinese geography, the names of different animals, and also the high frequency expressions mentioned above. The best part is, they don’t even realize that we are learning! They think that we are just playing a game!

Do you have suggestions for a game to play in Chinese class? Please share in the comments!

More posts on SPECIFIC activities that we can do in Chinese class:

How well do you know African animals?

Movie talk: Bao (short film)

The Secret to Language Learning: Comprehensible Input

Let’s Get Right to it, What is the Secret?

It is really not that much of a secret for language learning, since there is decades of research of proof for it. But since there are so many language education programs out there who don’t seem to “get it,” we will go ahead and still call it a secret. The secret to being able to acquire a language is something called comprehensible input. What is comprehensible input, you say? There are already so many posts on this blog about it. Here, here and here, for example. I realize, however, that I have never written a standalone piece that is all about comprehensible input. We also call it CI.

Why Have I Not Heard of Comprehensible Input Before?

In short, comprehensible input is language that we hear or read that we can understand. Many students (or their parents) start from the assumption that we learn language by breaking it down into lists of vocabulary and grammar “rules.” This actually is not a very good way to learn. It is how many high school programs still teach language. They’re not very effective, are they? Ask most people what language they studied in high school and they will probably tell you that they don’t remember a word of it. To understand more about why the old grammar + vocabulary recipe usually only yields disappointing results, check here.

Finally, a Definition

Back to comprehensible input. We know it is not teaching students a grammar “rule”, handing out a sheet of words and telling students to “make a sentence.” What is it exactly then? Comprehensible input is language that the students can understand. For beginner students, this means that the language is slower, uses simple words, and also uses shorter sentences. Where does this language come from? It comes from the teacher. In a beginner language class, the teacher has to do a lot of talking.


But wait, you say, everything you have ever read about quality education for the past ten years tells you that if a teacher in the classroom does all the talking, the class is bad, bad, bad! Ah yes, student-centered learning. Of course, all teaching should be focused on outcomes for the students. If you are not there for the students, find another career. Teaching is not for you. Having said that, in a good beginner language class, the teacher needs to do most of the talking.

Where Can Students Get Comprehensible Input?

Why? The short answer is that the students don’t know any Chinese yet! The students need to hear language that they can understand in order to learn it. They can’t learn it from each other since the other students don’t speak Chinese. They have to learn it from the teacher since she is the only person in the room who knows the language. There are of course videos, songs, etc., that can also provide input to the students. The main source of input is still going to be the teacher, however. She has to do a lot of talking so that students can get the input that they need.

girl listening to headphones
Get that comprehensible input

Don’t Look to the Other Students for CI

I know that talking about a teacher doing most of the talking, while students just listen gives a lot of education people a case of the vapors. But it true. Students can’t learn from each other in the language classroom because they DON’T KNOW ANYTHING. That is why they’re there. You simply can’t learn from someone who does not know how to do it themselves.

The teacher not only has to do most of the talking, but she also can’t just talk the way she normally would to another person who is fluent in Chinese. Nope. She has to make sure that the students can understand what she is saying. Remember the Charlie Brown teacher voice? Wah wah wah wah, wah. Yep, that is what we are trying to avoid.

So, teachers need to talk slowly to their students, using words that the students know (or can quickly get the meaning of), and using short sentences. What exactly does that look like? It can look like this. This is a Chinese teacher doing a basic picture talk example on Twitter (video). Notice all the repetition, easy to understand words, and short sentences. This is comprehensible input. It is language that the students hear and understand.

Reading is an Important Source of Comprehensible Input Too

We do not just hear language, we read it too. Reading is a major source of comprehensible input. For beginners, comprehensible input is usually not a storybook meant for native speakers. Nor is it a photo of a menu from a restaurant in China. Just like with aural/oral langue, it has simple words, short sentences, and most importantly: the students can understand it!

person reading at the beach
Read your way to comprehensible input

More Sources of Input

There are many teachers who have worked on developing great books that provide comprehensible input for beginner readers. Haiyun Lu has a whole series about kittens that I have used with beginner students. Terry Waltz has also written many chapter books that beginner students can read. Her books are available on her website.

As for aural/oral langauge, there are several ways for teachers to make sure that there students get comprehensible input. I like movie talk, which you can read more about here. Picture talk is also a great tool for getting students the input that they need. I talk more about picture talk here. Movie talk and picture talk are great ideas that several teachers who have come before me developed.

There is another way to give students the comprehensible input that they need. It is the ancient art of having a conversation. It is not easy to create a conversation between 2-15 people in a second language that most of the participants don’t speak yet. It can be done, however. It won’t look like a conversation between native speakers. That is okay. Often, in my adult classes we will talk about the siblings we have, and look for commonalities.

Why isn’t Everyone Using CI?

So if comprehensible input is the secret sauce for language learning, why are so many schools still handing out textbooks and teaching grammar “rules”? Well, it is much easier to follow a textbook than is it do create comprehensible input. In district schools, there are also lots of pesky rules that teachers need to follow. Sadly, many teachers don’t have the confidence to ditch the textbook. What’s worse, is that they might not have the level of fluency needed to come up with lessons on their own. So there we are. Comprehensible input is what the students need. Very often, however, it is not what they get in the classroom.

One Thing You Must Know About Language Learning

Or, Why You Took 3 Years of Spanish and Still Can’t Say a Word

Or maybe it was French or German or Chinese (get in touch if you want to fix that) or Japanese. Whatever the language was, most people you will run into at Target will say the same thing. That thing is “I took x number of years of language y and and still can’t say a word.” I will use my completely non-psychic abilities to explain exactly why. Why is language learning in American high schools so difficult?

cartoon of dragon holding sign that says "hola"
We are taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming about Chinese to talk about Spanish. Particularly, learning Spanish as part of an American high school education

It’s All About Time on Task

First thing we need to look is exactly how long you have really been “learning.” You’re probably measuring the wrong thing. X number of years of study is just not that useful a metric. In a typical high school, you get 4-5 hours a week of class. For elementary school students, a language class might be 45 minutes a week. One of my former students was in the military and he attended the Defense Language Institute. He told me all they did for 8+ hours a day or more was study Arabic. See how X number of years can actually be wildly different amounts of time?

graphic of main post office in Madrid and soft serve ice cream
Which image best describes your summers as a teenager? If you’re like most people, it is probably the one on the right.

We haven’t even gotten to summers. Were you terrorizing the streets of Madrid as a teenager or working in the Dairy Queen like I did? One of those scenarios implies Spanish immersion all the waking hours of the day. The other only includes immersion in the soft serve refrigerator (soft serve comes in bags! They are very unwieldy).

Let’s Do Some Math

Back to the typical high school experience… If you get one hour per day of language class (more likely less) for 180 school days a year, that is 540 hours TOTAL in exposure to Spanish (or language y). If you were worried about getting into college and took four years of Spanish, that is still only 720 hours.

These Days, Who Has the Time?

Let’s look at someone who has learned a language really well. That person is a typical five year old. Five year olds are terrible at many things. They are often bad at eating food that is not beige. They dress like Tinkerbell in rehab. They have done one thing really well, though: learning a language. It also helps that five year olds don’t have jobs.

A five year old has been alive for 1,825 days, at least. Plus add in a leap year or two. They have been hearing their native language (and maybe another one or two) for all their waking hours. So that is at least 14 x 1,825= 25,550 hours! Wow! That is loads of time!

One More Thing…

Compare your measly 540 high school hours with that hypothetical five year old! It is starting to make sense why you are still watching Gran Hotel with the subtitles. They keyword here is input. A young child gets a lot of it (those 25,000+ hours of hearing language). A high school student gets very little (less than 1,000 hours.)

There is more to the story, however. This is just the beginning of exploring why you still don’t speak Spanish. Now you know, those three whole years, were not that much time for learning a language after all. It is little wonder that you are not proficient in another language.

drawing of angry bull
Don’t be angry like this bull! Now you know why spending three years in high school Spanish really was not enough to learn the language

Check out more information on language learning in the FAQ

Much research on second language learning is available (for free!) from Stephen Krashen, phD via his website.

Teaching Spanish in China

Why teach Spanish in China?

So calling in teaching Spanish in China might be a bit of an exaggeration. I did a bit of teacher training during my last trip to China. The teachers over there teach English to Chinese kids, of course. My purpose was to talk about best practices for language teaching in general. Most people think it sounds a little crazy to tell American language teachers that they don’t need a textbook or to teach grammar rules. Well, to most Chinese teachers it sounds certifiably insane.

It was going to be a challenge to explain what I do here in the United States to a group of highly skeptical teachers in China. I decided to do what I usually do, which is to show and not tell. That is where the idea to teach Spanish* came in. I could explain that you don’t need to teach a grammar word and show the kids a list of words all day long, but seeing is believing. The idea was to teach the teachers a class in Spanish and show them that they could understand everything without a chart that starts with “yo soy.”

What Happened During the Lesson

I did a 20 minute “mini lesson” about my family with the Chinese teachers. This was similar to what I usually do with my students here in the US when we talk about family. I taught the class pretty much the same way I normally do, except instead of me talking in Chinese with English translations on the board, I spoke Spanish while pointing at Chinese translations. I told the students the simple story of my family. Basically: I am from a family of three daughters, my husband is from a family of three boys, we got married, the end. The students demonstrated their comprehension by answering questions about my story. Some examples of questions are: “Who is David?” “Do I have a brother?” “Does Teresa have a daughter?”

photo of Spanish lesson in China
Teaching Spanish in China

It worked. By the end of the 20 minutes, the students answered my questions with ease. They could tell that they understood everything that was in the story. I never explained anything about Spanish grammar. They did not look at a list of vocabulary words before the lesson. I did not quiz them on how to conjugate the verb “tener” (to have) in Spanish. I asked instead comprehension questions about the story that I told them. They got all the questions right.

teacher showing student a picture while teaching Spanish
They’re getting it!

Important Points

Sometimes the students responded to me in English or Chinese, instead of Spanish. They also pointed at names instead of saying them. This is all perfectly fine. It is completely unreasonable to expect students to speak in the target language after only a few minutes of instruction. Honestly, it is unreasonable to expect students to speak in the target language after only a few hours of instruction, too.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to talk to Chinese teachers of English about what I do here in the United States. There is plenty of room to improve the quality of language teaching all over the world. Below is a summary of what I think are the most important things for language teachers to remember.

1. Go slow. If you do nothing else, going slowly will help the students understand what the teacher is saying. When the students understand the teacher, they can acquire the language.

2. Use lots of repetition. Studies show that students may need to hear a word 50-100 times before they truly can remember it.

3. Teach content, not language. The lesson should be about an interesting topic that will hold everyone’s attention. The students will learn about the topic and through the topic, they will learn the language.

4. Maintain communication throughout the class. We learn language through communication. Talk with the students, not at the students.

5. Keep checking comprehension. The students need to understand what they are hearing in order to learn.

teacher with students
Hanging out with the kids at the center

*I’m not proficient in Spanish (yet) but I can certainly talk simply and slowly about my family in Spanish.

NB- I got the idea to teach a Spanish lesson from the training that I did with Blaine Ray, in which he taught us German through TPRS.

Chinese Currency: A Lesson

Why Chinese Currency?

Chinese currency is an easy way to talk about not only money and numbers but also to look at the geography and history of China. For a class with adults, I look at the backs of the Chinese RMB 1, RMB5, RMB 10, RMB 20, RMB 50 and RMB 100 notes. As anyone who has been to China knows, the front of most Chinese paper currency all feature the same guy, Mao Zedong. The backs, however, are all different.

How it Works

My class based on Chinese currency is geared for beginner adult students, but could be modified for different groups. At the end of the day it is a content class about different places in China, so it could be fine for a group with different ability levels. I start by showing the class a photo of the 1 RMB note and then ask, “what is it in Chinese.” It is very simple language for the students to follow.

back of the 1 RMB note (Chinese currency) with a photo of the West Lake scene it is based on
back of the 1RMB notes

Then I show the back of the bill. I ask the students, “what is this?” or “what place is this?” The students can respond in English. Responding to the question in English shows that they at least understand the question. For a typical class, it is not likely that they know exactly the place in China that is pictured on the bill. But they might have a few good guesses. All of the scenes are of very famous places in China.

To go through the RMB 1-100 notes and show the students on the map of China where all the locations are, takes about 30-40 minutes. The class may take longer, depending on whether we have a big group or not. In case you are wondering, the places pictured on the backs of the Chinese bills from 1-100 are West Lake, Mount Tai, the Three Gorges, Guilin scenery, Potala Palace and the Great Hall of the People.

Back of 5 RMB note (Chinese currency)
View of Mount Tai
Back of 10 RMB note (Chinese currency)
View of the Three Gorges

Relating the Money to Something Bigger

These are famous places from all over China. West Lake and Mount Tai are both near the eastern coast. The Three Gorges are in the heart of China. Guilin is in the south. Potala is in Tibet. The Great Hall of the People is in the north, in Beijing. They represent the history, geography and the political ambitions of China. One of the great projects of the Chinese civilization is to stitch together a nation from peoples spread over a large area. The currency in a person’s pocket seem mundane, but it hints at the larger project of Chinese civilization.

back of 20 RMB (Chinese currency)
View of Guilin Scenery
back of 50 RMB notes (Chinese currency)
View of Potala Palace
Back of 100 RMB note (Chinese currency)
The Great Hall of the People


More on learning about Chinese culture through language classes:

Is it Chinese Food?

MovieTalk: Bao