Assessment for Mandarin Chinese Class

Why is assessment important?

It can be challenging for parents who do not speak Mandarin to understand their children’s progress in the language. Teachers also need to check in with students frequently, in order to understand what the students “know.” School administrators also require teachers to give grades. We need to do periodic assessments for all of these reasons.

What kind of assessment works with TPRS?

Lotus Chinese Learning classes for upper elementary and older students use TPRS. TPRS is a language teaching method that uses storytelling and reading to help students learn second language. TPRS is different from “teach and practice” language teaching methods because students actually hear and use the language. The TPRS method does not use a traditional textbook, so there are not pre-packaged tests for teachers to use.

In TPRS, students make up stories with the guidance of their teachers. The students later read the stories that they created. Since the students created the stories themselves, they are naturally more interested in them than anything that comes out of a textbook.One type of assessment that works with a TPRS class is story writing. With this type of assessment, students have 2-4 minutes to write down a story. They can re-tell the story that we are working on in class. They can also go in a completely new direction with their story.

What counts as “good”

A good piece of student writing shows that the student can use the words and structures we have learned so far in class. The writing is a snapshot of what is inside the child’s head. If I am doing a good job helping the students acquire Mandarin Chinese, then the students should feel like writing is natural and fun.

Writing in Chinese is a different challenge than writing in the FIGS languages (French, Italian, German and Spanish). Chinese characters are more complex than letters. When handwriting Chinese, students must write each character in the correct order. Students (and sometimes even native speakers!) can often read a character but still be unable to write it from memory.

Caveats for Chinese

There are a few suggestions for how to deal with this issue in assessing progress in Mandarin Chinese. One is to let the students write in pinyin if they cannot remember the characters. I think that this is fine, since 95% of any Chinese writing that the students will do in the future will be using pinyin to type on a computer or phone. Another idea to have the most frequently used characters on display in the classroom so that the kids can refer to them. In any case, the mechanics of Chinese writing should not get in the way of an assessment of what the kids know how to say in Mandarin Chinese.

photo of story written for assessment in Chinese class
A student had 2 minutes to write this story for an quick assessment


Further reading:

Mechanics of Chinese Writing


Can Do Statements

What Are Can-Do Statements?

Can-do statements are a way for students to track their progress. They do more than that of course, but an immediate use for them is to help students recognize what they “can do” in the target language. Language classrooms that are based on comprehensible input often do not use textbooks.  This is because most textbooks actually don’t contain that much L2 that is comprehensible to students. In lesson 6 of a widely-used textbook for college Chinese classes, there is actually more text in English explaining a dialogue than there is actual Chinese-language content for the students to read! So if students are not using a textbook, how can they (or their parents) recognize their progress? The answer is in can-do statements.

An Example

Pictured below is a sample of can do statements made by a group of elementary students. I wrote their answers on a mini white board, but the actual content came from the students. These kids have had about 7 hours of Chinese and they say that they can understand and talk about families, colors, numbers, and likes/dislikes. There is no page in a textbook that we can point to and say “We have come this far,” however these can do statements show that they are acquiring language and they know it.

Photo of white board with can do statement written
Can do statement in my very poor handwriting!

What is pictured is pretty informal, and a mini version of what the American Language on the Teaching of Foreign Languages promotes. A can do statement for a first semester college course might be more like: “I can describe my family members and what they look like.” Can-do statements can be much more than this. They are a great tool to demonstrate to students (and their parents) what progress they have made.

More on Assessment in the language classroom