Tasks are a great tool for the language learning classroom. A task is different from an activity in that we are actually doing something that has a purpose other than just using the language. More posts about tasks in Chinese language class are here and here. This week I have been doing different versions of a task about African animals with my lower elementary students.
Reading as Task Warm Up
First, we look at the book Draw! by Raul Colon. It is a wordless picture book, so the teacher can talk as much or as little about the pictures as she likes. It is the story of a boy who travels to Africa through his drawings. The book features an elephant, giraffes, gorillas, monkeys and a rhino. While we read the book, I like to talk about what the animals are doing, and what they are eating. It could also work to talk about how they look and their different body parts.
Completing the Task
The next step after the book is the quiz, “Is this Animal from Africa?” I have pictures of different animals on a Powerpoint presentation. We click through about ten different animals and write down the students’ guesses about whether the animal is from Africa or not. Some they are get, like knowing the lion is from Africa and the polar bear isn’t. There are a few that stump the kids, though. So far, no one has know that there are penguins from Africa!
I am a big fan of using Chinese language story books in class. Students learn new words best when they encounter them in a meaningful context. This means that going over flashcards is not a good way to learn a new language! Stories not only provide a meaningful context for new words, but everyone also likes being read to! This week, I got a new book: 365 Penguins (365只企鹅）.
365 Penguins (365只 企鹅）
There is a new book on the Lotus Chinese Learning bookshelf: 365只企鹅 (Penguins). Originally written in French, it details the story of a family that mysteriously receives a penguin in the mail every day for a year. This story easily lends itself to including talking about math, the calendar and seasons. An English version of the story is available here.
The story, as written, uses language that is too complex for beginner or novice learners. I would not read it word for word with students who are just starting out in their Chinese studies. It is perfectly fine to “read” the story by telling a simplified version of the story to the students instead of reading it word for word.
Incorporating a Math Segment
I like incorporating math into class when I use this story. There are math problems already in the box. For example, one page asks the reader to calculate 6x6x6. This is too hard for most of my young students. But we can always count together. For example, we can chart how many penguins the family has on January 1, 2, 3, and so on.
There are many different jumping off points for a lesson based on the book 365只 企鹅 (365 Penguins.) Different groups of students might be interested in different things. The key to making using the book a successful lesson for learning Chinese is to make sure that the students understand what they are hearing and reading. Adding in tasks like charting the number of penguins is useful for keeping kids engaged and on task.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
** Many of these books are also available in Spanish and French
For most Americans, the words “graded readers” probably bring the Dick and Jane series to mind. Graded readers, also known as basal readers, use a very controlled set of vocabulary words to tell a story, typically in a series. While many schoolchildren in the US encounter graded readers in English, they are also available in Chinese.
How Graded Readers Work
Graded readers are a great resource for students learning to read in Chinese. Many adult students are highly motivated and want to start reading in Chinese right away. So they pull up an article in the New York Times in Chinese and try to read it. But they have to look up every other word. With copy, paste, and Google Translate, this is not too difficult, but it is not reading. Students just don’t get the fluency that comes with reading. To a fluent reader, graded readers seem really repetitive. It is this repetition however, that helps students learn. This guiding reading about Mid-Autumn Festival is an example of how repetitive a reader should be. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, you can still see that the same characters are repeated over and over again.
Why Use Graded Readers?
In contrast, some adult students really don’t care about learning to read. This is unfortunate because it really limits their ability to learn later on and leads to misunderstandings later on. I recall one person who was fairly fluent in Chinese telling meant that the word for shark was “killer fish.” It’s not. They’re both sha1yu2 in pinyin, but shark is actually 鲨鱼 NOT 杀鱼. With graded readers, students can learn to read in Chinese as they acquire their oral proficiency. This is far less daunting than building a vocabulary in written Chinese much later.
All About Authres
So where does that leave authentic resources? Authentic resources (or #authres on teacher Twitter), are those texts written by native speakers for native speakers. Many teachers love using authres because they give students a glimpse of the target culture(s). The trouble with authres is that they are often too difficult for beginner and intermediate students. Some adults try reading children’s books only to find that they too are filled with words that they don’t know. Furthermore, children’s books often contain low-frequency words. The example below has a lot of high-frequency words like 吃 （eat), but also low-frequency words like 粽子 (a type of food).
Make it Short and Use Pictures
While it is challenging to use authres for beginner and intermediate students, it is worth it for the cultural knowledge. To work around the issue of authres having too many unfamiliar words, I usually use very short texts. This way students don’t get overwhelmed from having too many words. In an hour-long class, we definitely have enough time to go over a few short texts.
I also like to make sure that my authres have a strong context. If there are accompanying photos/illustrations it is so much easier for students to figure out the meaning. Remember, students need to connect the words that they see and hear to meaning if they want to acquire language. If they don’t “get” what they are reading, it just will not sink in.
Two is Better Than One
In order to acquire reading proficiency in Chinese, students should use both graded readers and authres. Graded readers help non-native speakers read fluently (without checking the dictionary every other word). Authres give students a view into the target culture and by their very nature, are interesting to students.