Using Picture Talk in Chinese Classes for Kids

What Is Picture Talk?

Picture talk is one way of giving learners the input that they need in order to learn Chinese. We know that we don’t learn language by practicing speaking. We also know that we do not learn language without proper communication. We learn language through getting lots of comprehensible input. The idea behind picture talk is simple. The teacher shows the students a picture (or slowly reveals a picture) and talks to the students about what they see.

How to Do Picture Talk

In theory, a really good teacher could spend a 45 or 60 minute class talking about one picture with the students. Since I teach younger children, I think that it is really only reasonable to spend 10-15 minutes on one thing, such as picture talk. Some kids can stay on task for longer. Others still need to develop their attention spans to get to the point where they can focus on one thing for 10 minutes. Ten to fifteen minutes is about right for most young students, however.

To make it more interesting, the teacher can cover up all but just a small piece of the picture and then ask students questions about it. For example, if all the students can see of a picture is a bit of yellow, the teacher can ask: “What do you think that this is, a sun or a yellow house?” The students don’t need that much knowledge of Chinese in order to answer a question like this. If students are a little more advanced, the teacher can ask them “What do you think this is?” and other more open-ended questions.

What to Use for Picture Talk

Any interesting picture or photo can be good content for picture talk. A photo from a recent vacation might be good, or an illustration from a book can be good. Jimmy Liao is an illustrator from Taiwan. He makes really interesting pictures like this one which can be great for picture talk. There are so many elements to the picture to talk about. Who are the people? What are they looking at? What is the dog’s name? A class could easily talk about this picture for 10-15 minutes.

I also like using illustrations by Jimmy Liao because he is from the Chinese-speaking world. In general, I like using books and other materials that my students are already familiar with, such as the David books, and anything by Eric Carle. While these books are great for interest and comprehension, unfortunately they tend to lack diversity. I teach Chinese and I want the materials that I use to include authors from the Chinese-speaking world and Chinese/Chinese-American characters. If you’re interested, there is more information about the lack of diversity in children’s books here.

More information about picture talk from a Spanish teacher’s perspective

 

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.

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

More Tips for Adult Language Learners

How Adults Can Get the Most Out of their Chinese Classes

Many adult students want to learn Mandarin Chinese really want to speed up the learning process. Unfortunately, language acquisition is slow, ordered and complex. There really is no way to make the process go faster. It takes about the same number of hours to learn language no matter what an app promises. Students cannot “leap frog” the different stages. Sure, you can quit your job, move to China, sign up for language classes, and live with a host family. Your progress will be greater in one year than someone who just has class in the US for one hour per week. It will still take the same number of total hours to master the language, however. In any case, there are ways that adult learners can give their studies a shot in the arm. Below are a few tips.

Tips for Listening

Many students worry about their speaking. Output (speaking), however, comes long after input (listening). In other words, students need a flood of input in order to produce a trickle of output. Almost every adult student thinks that speaking practice is important. In fact, we do not learn to speak through practice, we learn through listening. Okay, okay, you say, that is great, but I REALLY want to improve my speaking, how can I do that? One way that students can get the most out of their listening (and thereby improve their speaking) is to pay close attention to how teachers and native speakers talk to them in Chinese. A good teacher will not spend much time at all on correcting grammar or pronunciation errors. More on that here. Instead, she will just use the more native-like structure or pronunciation in her response. Here is an example in English:

Students: “I goed to the store yesterday.”

Teacher: “So after you went to the store yesterday, what did you do?”

Note, that the teacher does not explicitly correct what the student said. She just uses the correct formation (“went” instead of  “goed”) in her response. So for students who are worried that they are making lots of mistakes when they speak in their second language, listen carefully to the response. Do you hear your teacher (or someone else) saying something a bit different? Paying attention to these differences might be useful to you.

Tips for Reading

Just like listening, reading is input. Input is how we learn language. We need to do lots of reading in Chinese in order to improve our language abilities. The problem with reading in Chinese is that students don’t want to do it :). It seems exhaustive and overwhelming. Because of these problems, students don’t even get started with it. Students can do two things to improve their reading experience in Chinese. Firstly, they should choose readings that are meant for language learners. Secondly, they should try to read shorter things.

Many ambitious students want to start reading authentic resources as soon as possible. Authentic resources are written by native speakers for native speakers. These are unfortunately too complex for beginner and intermediate students. They get frustrated and give up. A better choice for lower level students are graded readers. I’ve had great success with books like Susan You Mafan for beginner advanced and intermediate low students.

Students also get frustrated when they bite off more than they can chew. Instead of trying to read an entire book in one sitting, they should read shorter passages. Spending 15 minutes at a time reading is plenty for beginner and intermediate students. Social media often has nice, short options for reading.

 

Montessori tools and Mandarin Chinese

Why Montessori tools?

The Montessori method has been around for over a hundred years. Education is full of trends (remember New Math or the Open Classroom?). So it is worth paying attention to what stands the test of time in education. When working with children in early childhood, many of the tools developed in the Montessori approach adapt really well to Mandarin Chinese classes. Below are a few examples.

Three Part Cards

As written in an earlier post, three part cards are a great tool for introducing Chinese literacy. With three part cards, students have a card with an image, a card with the word that matches to that image and a card that has both the image and the word. The job of the students is to match all three cards together. When using the three part cards, students learn implicitly some of the important facts of Chinese literacy. For example, when matching the three part cards for colors, they notice that 粉红色 (pink) and 咖啡色 (brown) have three characters in their names instead or two, like the other colors. In this way they learn that each Chinese character represents one syllable.

photo of child using Montessori three part cards family
Putting together the words for different family members using Montessori three part cards

Practical Life Trays

Young children love practical life trays. These Montessori tools are also quite easy to put together. They are a great teaching tool for language because they are all about… practical life, i.e. things that we do every day. When students use practical life trays, I can talk to them about pouring water, cleaning up, counting, and using different utensils. In short, I can give them input about things that they probably do every day.

photo of Montessori practical life tray
Montessori practical life transfer activity tray

Sandpaper Characters

Sandpaper letters are a Montessori tool that parents and teachers can buy off the shelf. Sandpaper characters, on the other hand, take much more work. I have to make them myself. It is worth it however, because when children first hold the sandpaper characters in their hands, they immediately get it. One of the basics of teaching Chinese literacy is to make sure that children understand that Chinese characters must be written with a prescribed order. With the sandpaper characters, students get this immediately and we don’t have to spend too much class time on teaching this one feature of Chinese.

photo of Chinese sandpaper character
Sandpaper characters, like this one, can help young children learn how to write Chinese

The Pink Tower

The pink tower is one of the most iconic Montessori tools. When using the pink tower, we can talk about what is big/small, make comparisons, and use numbers. These are all great things to talk about with a novice student. The pink tower is also useful because everything is the same color. Sometimes lots of colors can be nice, but other times it can be distracting to have a bunch of different colored blocks. With the pink tower, they are all pink so we can focus more easily on other features.

Earlier posts on Montessori and language learning:

Mandarin and Montessori

Do you have any suggestions about using Montessori tools in the classroom? Please share in the comments!

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Use the contact page to get in touch.