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 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

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.

The way that many teachers, particularly TPRS teachers, tackle this is through micro fluency. They teach students some language and then have them read only those words.

Keep is Simple at the Beginning

Readers for students learning to read in English use simple, short sentences. They 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.

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)

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

 

Twister in Chinese Class

Class Content for Little Kids

One of the challenges of planning my classes is integrating what I know many parents want their children to learn, with what I know about how students learn. Many parents want to make sure that their children are learning the “basics” of Chinese, especially if their kids are young. This usually means things like numbers, colors, body parts, and food.

Learning Chinese with Games

Anyone who has watched this video knows that Lotus Chinese Learning classes are not about memorizing lists of vocabulary words. You also know that I’m a big believer in making sure that students are having fun in Chinese class. There is good evidence that students learn more easily when they are relaxed and having fun. In other words, learning Chinese can be all fun and games. Luckily, there are ways to integrate what parents want their kids to learn with an input-based curriculum.

How to Use Twister in Chinese Class

The game of Twister is a fun game that almost everyone knows how to play. This saves time in class since we do not have to spend that much time explaining the rules to the students. The game is all about colors and body parts, with right and left thrown in. When playing Twister for the first time or with a group of novices, I will write out the English translations of the words that we are using on the board. If the students already know they their colors pretty well, then all I have to write is hand, foot, left and right.

If you have not played Twister since childhood, let me warn you that the mats have gotten tiny now! Just kidding, of course it is us who have gotten bigger J. If you have more than a few kids per class, you might need more than one mat so the kids have enough room.

By playing Twister, the kids will hear the words for colors, hand, foot, and right and left over and over again. It is this type of input that will help them acquire these words in the long run. Additionally, by watching the students, the teacher will also be able to see if the students understand these words.

IMG_0884

Making Sandpaper Characters

Making Sandpaper Characters

Parents and teachers familiar with the Montessori approach probably know about the sandpaper letters. Sandpaper letters are exactly what they sound like. The letters are formed out of sandpaper and glued to small boards. Students trace the letters with their fingers as they practice their sounds. They build up a muscle memory of how to write the letters as well.

Are there Too Many Characters?

There are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, but many thousands of Chinese characters*. This sounds like bad news for making sets of sandpaper characters, but I will argue that using sandpaper characters in Chinese class is still doable. Firstly, students do not need to learn all the characters at the same time. For a one hour per week Chinese enrichment class, a reasonable goal is learning about 50-100 words per 14 week semester. Even if we used sandpaper characters for each word (which we might not), that is only 50-100 for a whole semester. Seems much more manageable, right?

We can still use the sandpaper technique with Chinese, even though we are dealing with many more characters than letters. Making these things, however, is still not easy. It is pretty time-consuming, so I no longer lend out my materials to students and their families. So here is a step-by-step guide to making sandpaper letters at home. You don’t even need to speak Chinese in order to make these for your kids!

The Step by Step Process

Step 1: Get the materials.

Everything that you need to make sandpaper characters you can get at Michaels or similar crafts store. You will need: graphite paper, stiff paperboard that is still thin enough to cut, a list of characters that you want to make (with pinyin), glue (Elmer’s is fine), scissors, sand, a paint brush, a marker, a computer and printer.

Step 2: Trace the characters to the paperboard.

I type up the characters I want to make on a MS Word document. If you don’t know Chinese, ask for a list of characters from your child’s teacher. The font that I prefer is ST Kaiti because it shows the way the strokes look when they are written with a brush and ink. I print them out with just the outline (to save on ink) in 200 point font. With the carbon paper, I then trace the characters to the paperboard with the graphite paper., leaving about an inch of space between each character. I also like to color in the characters with a gold Sharpie.

outline of character "zhong"
Printing out just the outlines of the characters saves on printer ink.

Step 3: Write in stroke order. 

This is the really time consuming part. Each character needs to be written in a certain stroke order. On the sandpaper characters, I write in arrows with numbers next to them to show the order. This is important to show the kids that they have to follow the stroke order. If you don’t know Chinese, you will need to look up the stroke orders for the different characters on a website like this one.

photo showing process of making sandpaper characters
This is the most time-consuming part of making sandpaper characters, writing in the stroke order.

Step 4: Cut up the characters.

At this point, I cut up the characters into individual cards.

Step 5: Glue and sand.

With a paintbrush if you need it, make sure that the characters have a thin coating of glue. I do about 5-6 at a time, any more than that and I find that the glue starts to dry before I get to the sand. I put the cards on a piece of tin foil so I can easily pour the excess sand back in the bag and reuse it.

photo of sandpaper character "我"
The finished product!

Step 6: Let dry and use!

Again, this process is incredibly time-consuming, but it is not exactly difficult. It can be done without any knowledge of Chinese, but writing in the stroke order will be extra tedious. Doing about 20 characters takes me several hours. On the bright side, they last a long time. So far, I have been using my first sandpaper characters for 2 years.

More on Chinese and Montessori tools.

Mandarin and Montessori (one of my most popular blog posts, ever).

*Most sources agree that there are about 20,000 characters in modern use, with about 2-3,000 needed to read a newspaper in China.