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How to Use a Wordless Picture Book in Class

Hooray for Wordless Picture Books

I have sung the praises of using wordless picture books in class. This post is about how exactly how I use them in class. Remember, the best use of class time is giving input (through listening and reading) to students that they can understand. Story books are a great teaching too because they help students catch the meaning of what the teacher says in the target language. The beauty of wordless picture books is two-fold. They are an easy way to add books to your library even if books in your target language are not easily available. Teachers can also easily adjust how they tell the story to suit the level of the students.

Pancakes for Breakfast

One popular wordless picture book is Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie DePaola. When I am using it with beginner students, one of the first things we do is to count all the pancakes! Even though they are often not ready yet, kids love to participate in class by talking. While we are counting the pancakes, advanced students can count along with me. Students who are not as advanced can just listen and follow along and still get that good input.

photo of cover of Pancakes for Breakfast
An example of a wordless picture book
photo of pancakes illustration
There are lots of pancakes to count here!

Asking the Story with Students

The beginning of the book shows a picture of a little red house in the snow. For very beginner students, I would talk about the picture, very slowly, with lots of pointing and giving translations. With students who have a bit higher level of Chinese, I will ask them questions to help me tell the story. For example, I will ask “Is the house big or small?” “What color is the house?” Asking the students these questions helps to keep their attention on what we are doing in class.

photo of illustration from Pancakes for Breakfast, a wordless picture book
There are so many questions that you can ask students about this illustration!

While we are looking at the story, we can go as slow or as fast as we need to. If we are going slowly, I can ask the students to give all the characters names. With little kids, we are going to end up with names like “Pickle Juice” or “Maluma Baby,” but that is okay :). If we need to move through the story faster so we have time for other things, I will skip this step.

photo of illustration of Pancakes for Breakfast, a wordless picture books
It is easy for students to participate in telling the story by giving characters names. The names don’t even have to be Chinese names!

Wordless Picture Books and Assessment

Wordless picture books are also useful for assessment tasks. Having students describe a page from a wordless picture book will give some idea about what kind of a student is capable of producing. This by no means everything that you should use to assess student learning. There is so much that a student may be capable of doing with the target language that is not captured through looking at output. However, lots of people** (parents and administrators) like to see some sort of output for assessment and wordless picture books can be a tool to elicit output.

The ACTFL Can-do Statements are all about student output for example.

Why My MIL is a Good Language Teacher

How Do You Teach Languages?

My mother-in-law, Tere Fuentes, is a great Spanish teacher. Why? Because she talks to me in Spanish. She also talks slowly and uses gestures, pointing and rephrasing when I don’t understand. That is it really. I did not know any Spanish when I met her son in 2014. I’d never taken any Spanish classes. I’ve learned all the Spanish that I know in the past through year through listening to people speak Spanish.*

photo of me, husband and MIL
I’ve learned a lot of Spanish from my MIL

Learning a Second Language Vs. Learning A First

Learning a second language is very similar to learning your first. How did you learn your first language? Your parents talked to you. Maybe other adults or older children talked to you too. You learned to say a few words within two years, and were reasonably fluent within five years. No one sat you down at a tiny chalkboard to teach you how to conjugate verbs. Sure, some parents spend their money on flashcards. Millions of children, however, seem to learn words perfectly well without any flashcards.

My mother-in-law taught three kids how to speak Spanish. Now she is teaching me using pretty much the same method. She just talks to me. She doesn’t get annoyed when I answer with one word, or in English. Like all other learners, I will learn Spanish through hearing and reading it.

Letting Mistakes Slide

My mother-in-law has another great teaching habit that helps language learning. She does not explicitly correct my mistakes. If I make a mistake in Spanish, she either uses the correct wording in her response to me or she just ignores it. This is effective because explicit error correction does not help students learn a language. If anything, it hurts the language learning process by raising a student’s affective filter.

While she is not a language teacher by training, Tere is a teacher. She has owned her own dance school in Monterrey for forty years. Although not every teacher is a great language teacher, and not every person who speaks a language can be a teacher, I do think that her experience has been useful to her. As evidenced by her willingness to speak slowly and use words that I know, she is very patient.

*I took one 8 week Spanish class three years ago. I’ve written elsewhere that the only thing I learned was “El mono es curioso.”

Top Resources for 2018

Top Resources for 2018

Today’s blog post is something that is a little bit different. It is a list of the resources (e.g. books, toys, games, etc.) that were the most useful in class this year. I will probably realize in early 2019 that I left something important off of this list! For now, here are my top five resources from 2018.

Wordless picture books

photo of illustration from Journey
Illustration from Journey, a wordless picture book

Story books and stories in general are great resources for learning a second language, including Mandarin Chinese. Unfortunately, Chinese teachers have slim pickings for Chinese-language books available in the United States. The alternative is to bring home books from annual trips to China or Taiwan. Most teachers do this too, but as everyone know, books are heavy! It is certainly possible to use English-language books in class and just tell the story in Mandarin Chinese. The drawback to doing this is that it can be a little distracting when kids are already starting to read in English. Enter wordless story books. Teachers can use them to tell a story in Chinese, and they have the added benefit of not having distracting English text. There are many, many wordless picture books out there and they can quickly increase the size of your library.

Story Listening Stories

photo of white board from story listening lesson on Mid-Autumn Festival
Pictures of the characters help students keep track of who is in the story

Story listening is a great use of class time. The beauty of story listening is that it is very easy to modify stories for different proficiency levels and different age groups. For teachers who have a decent drawing ability (illustrations help students get the meaning), prep for story listening is also very little. If teachers tell stories from the culture of the target language they also can kill two birds with one stone, or two eagles with one arrow as we say in Chinese*. This way, students get both cultural knowledge and input in the target language.

Susan You Mafan

Cover of Susan You Mafan
Cover of Susan You Mafan

Books that are written for language learners are worth their weight in gold. The novel, Susan You Mafan, is great for first year language classes. The story and characters appeal to middle and high schoolers. This year, I tried it out on adults. To my delight, they really enjoyed reading this novel, even though it is about a 14 year old. We learn to read by reading. The struggle for students is to have appropriate material for them to read. It is great that Susan You Mafan works for students of all ages.

The David Series

pages from No David!
Photo from inside pages of Chinese-language version of No David!

These books are a bullet-proof resource for my classes with young children. I think that there really is something about the character of David that really resonates with the little ones. Chinese-language versions of the David books are in the Lotus Chinese Learning library. They are great for learning Chinese because children often already know the story. This way they can focus on matching the new words into the story that they already understand.**

Map of China

photo of map of China in classroom
Map of China in beginner Mandarin class for adults

While my main task with students is to teach them Mandarin Chinese, it is also important that they learn a bit about the culture and geography. This map of China does not have any Chinese characters, but it does have nice illustrations that pique the students’ interest. It is also super useful for adult classes when we talk about where the students have been in China and where they would like to go!

The Importance of Stories

Is there a theme here? Yes, with the exception of my pretty map, all of my favorite resources for 2018 have to do with stories. Stories are perfect for language instruction for two reasons. Firstly, they give students the input (i.e. hearing the language) that they need in order to learn. They are also interesting to students. Students have an easier time paying attention and staying engaged when the class content is something interesting to them. Stories are inherently interesting, pretending to buy tickets in a train station is not.

*一箭双雕

** Many of these books are also available in Spanish and French

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.

Humor and Story Listening

Story Listening Basics

Story listening is a great use of class time that can both build student vocabulary and also help students learn about the culture(s) of your target language. In story listening, a teacher tells the class a story in the target language using a pictures, drawings and sometimes translations to convey the meaning. I use story listening to teach students about traditional Chinese stories and holidays, like the Empty Flowerpot and Mid-Autumn Festival. Another strategy that I like to use is Chinese is to tell students a humorous story. They students may not learn anything extra about Chinese culture, but they will still get valuable input in the language.

A Caveat about Humor

We know that language acquisition is a slow, ordered, and complex process. One of the last pieces of the puzzle to fall into the place is humor. Because there is such a huge cultural component to humor, it is possible to speak a second language with a high degree of proficiency without really “getting” the local jokes. So if I tell a funny story in class, it will have an American sensibility (and not a Chinese one necessarily), but that is okay. We can’t always do everything at once.

Why Humor Helps

Several years ago, I was on a tour bus in Vietnam. I was traveling alone, so I actually listened to the tour guide give his spiel. I noticed that he punctuated every fact and warning that he wanted to tell us with a joke. It occurred to me then that this was a good strategy to check if the people on the tour were paying attention. The same principle works for story listening. If the story is supposed to be funny, and no one laughs, then you can be sure that the audience did not understand.

An Example of a Story that Uses Humor

A story that I have used before in class is about how my father-in-law (a consummate bargain-hunter), once served a group of friends cat food by accident. The punch line of the story is the last line, I know that if the students laugh after they hear it, then they “get it.” Remember that comprehension of the input is a key part of language learning. If students don’t understand what the teacher says to them, they won’t learn. We can’t just turn on the radio and hope that we will learn language by osmosis.

photo of cat hiding in shame
Be sure to check the labels next time you think you are getting a good deal on people food!

 

More on story listening as a method:

From the grande dame of story listening herself, Beniko Mason

Story listening and Chinese