Chinese New Year 2019

Happy Chinese New Year!

The year of the pig is right around the corner! Every since I have been back in the US I have been surprised at how many references to Chinese New Year (CNY) I see here. This year, I saw a mailer from Office Depot, special CNY mums at Trader Joe’s (?) and an ad from Kate Spade. The lunar new year is probably one of the most widely celebrated holiday in the world, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see references to it everywhere. Yet, it still is part of our job as Chinese language educators to teach our students and communities about the holiday.

photo of red lanterns
It’s Chinese New Year Y’all

Chinese New Year Or….

Chinese New Year is more commonly known as Spring Festival in China. That is direct translation of the most common Chinese name for it: 春节. People also often refer to the holiday as the lunar new year. This is also an umbrella term that includes the holiday as it is celebrated in other countries. These include Korean New Year or Tet in Vietnam. Here is San Antonio we have the annual Asian Festival at the Institute of Texan Cultures which coincides with the lunar new year and it includes a variety of different cultures.

Students should at the very least know that Spring Festival is another word for Chinese New Year. They should also know that it is the first day of spring in the traditional Chinese calendar. There is of course so much more to learn.  It really depends on time and other factors how much we explore this holiday. I write more here about why it is okay to use English when learning about culture in class sometimes. Just knowing the basic facts about this holiday is the absolute minimum, and where we go from there depends on how much class time we have, student interest, and what their prior knowledge is.

More than Just Lip-service

It used to be that even including something about Spring Festival in k-12 was a check box on a list for including diversity. Now, educators, students and parents are a lot want more than just lip-service towards diversity. We are not just ticking boxes anymore. In recent years there has been a push to do more than just talk about “food and flags.” That is a great goal and good lessons about culture will always do more than just ask students to identify what foods we eat at Chinese New Year.

photo of person making dumplings
Making Dumplings for Chinese New Year

Including Chinese New Year in a Meaningful Way

We know that a good use of class time is to give students comprehensible input in the target language. That means that playing board games with Chinese characters on the spaces or coloring pictures of dragons is not really a good use of time. The students are not hearing or reading anything in Chinese that they can understand.  One idea for a class that is looking to do something meaningful for Spring Festival is to have the students first learn about the holiday through videos/slide shows/pictures/etc and then plan a party. They will get the input they need through the introduction of the holiday in Chinese. Then they actually get to make something (a party) that is meaningful to them.

photo of me with red envelopes for Chinese New Year
Getting the red envelopes ready for the kids!

Have a suggestion for how to include Chinese New Year in a language class? Leave it in the comments!

Chinese paper cutting, or how to incorporate culture into language classes

Making Culture Level and Age Appropriate

Most language educators agree that it is important to include at least some component of culture in a language class. Chinese culture is of course, very rich. Chinese civilization has a long history from which to draw. It is also true however, that we have to do what works with our students. Adult students can sit through (and enjoy!) a 45-minute presentation on gift-giving in China, but that would be a disaster for lower elementary students. Culture lessons need to be appropriate for their audience.

Chinese Paper Cutting with a Halloween Theme

When holidays come around, it can be a nice time to work in more culture to the material. However, the calendar does not always cooperate. Chinese Valentine’s Day (七夕) can be a good story for kids, but it occurs in summer when we are out of class. Likewise, there is a big yawning gap for major Chinese holidays between Mid-Autumn Festival (typically in September) and Chinese New Year (late January-February). To channel the holiday enthusiasm and include more Chinese culture in the curriculum, this year I combined Halloween with Chinese paper cutting.

photo of CHinese paper cutting activity
Example of Pumpkin Chinese Paper Cutting

Chinese paper cutting is a traditional handicraft. Generally, paper cuttings are just used for decoration in China. Halloween is not “a thing” in China really, but I do have a book of paper cutting designs that are meant for kids. In it are plenty of paper cuttings that fit a Halloween theme.

As long as the kids understand that Halloween is not really a Chinese holiday, then I think that doing Chinese paper cutting for a special class on or near Halloween works. We can cover at least one aspect of culture (a traditional handicraft) while also recognizing that kids are usually bouncing off the walls around Halloween. We probably won’t be able to cover as much material as we do normally, so it is good to channel that energy to something else.

photo of Chinese paper cut bat
It’s a bat!

Chinese Paper Cutting with Other Holidays and Festivals

This year, with some of my kiddos, we made Chinese paper cuttings of bats, pumpkins and spiders. This same idea, of combining Chinese paper cutting with the non-Chinese holiday of Halloween could work with other holidays. My book of paper cutting ideas for kids has Christmas trees and presents designs (if your school observes Christmas). It also has ears of corn, pumpkins and apples that could tie into Thanksgiving… and many more possibilities.

It is a challenge to incorporate culture into a language class in a way that is age and language level appropriate. Do you have any additional ideas for how to do it? Share in the comments!

photo of Chinese paper cutting book
Paper Cutting Book for Kids


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Story Listening with Mid-Autumn Festival

What is Mid-Autumn Festival?

This year (2018), Mid-Autumn festival falls on September 24. For Mid-Autumn Festival, we gather with our families, looks at the moon, and eat mooncakes. Mooncakes are the fruitcakes of Chine: a holiday-oriented dessert that some people love and some people love to hate. In China, companies give boxes of mooncakes as gifts to their employees. Even when I was a student, one year the university gave all the foreign students boxes of mooncakes (probably because we paid so much more in tuition than our Chinese counterparts:)). Like many traditional festivals in China, Mid-Autumn Festival has an associated legend. The legend of Chang’e, like many other traditional stories, can be a good basis for story listening.

photo of mooncakes from Mid-Autumn Festival
Mooncakes! Pictured are the popular Guangdong-style mooncakes. There are many other varieties available in China.

What is story listening?

In story listening, a teacher tells the class a story (often a legend or folktale), using pictures, gestures, and sometimes translation to help the students understand the story. The goal is for the students to fully understand the story. It is not necessary for them to be able to retell it in the target language, although that may be part of some lesson plans. Critics of story listening say that it is too teacher-centered. While the teacher usually does stand at the front of class and talk to the students, everything she does is oriented to their level. It is actually completely student-oriented.

The Legend of Chang’e and Houyi

A teacher can modify the telling of the legend of Chang’e and Houyi for students of various levels. One challenge for story listening is helping students keep track of the characters. Chang’e and Houyi are the main characters of the legend of Mid-Autumn Festival. I pre-print out illustrations of them to help with the story telling. Houyi is supposed to be a man of exceptional strength, so a photo of a muscly guy helps get the point across. There are several other characters that may be included in the telling of the legend, but to keep things simple for beginner students, I leave them out. There is something remembering names in a second language that is difficult. Having the character illustrations with the name illustrations really helps students keep track of who is who.

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

Formative Assessment with Story Listening

After I tell the story, I want to make sure that the students understand pretty much everything that I said. There is a very easy way to do this. I just ask the students to repeat the story back to me in English. Lots of people believe that in a good language classrooms, students should use English as little as possible. I believe that classroom time is precious and students should get as much input as possible. Efforts to completely stamp out the use of English are misguided, however. Simply put, it is easier to ban English (or any other L1) than it is to ensure quality teaching. Furthermore, the goal for beginners is not to have them speaking Mandarin Chinese all the time. They can’t do it anyway. Rather, the goal is for them to understand everything that they hear. An easy, fast, an straightforward way to check for this is to have them summarize the story in English. If there are mistakes in the summary, then I know that I have not told the story in the best way for their level.

Teaching Culture with Story Listening

Story listening is great for teaching language, but it is also great for teaching culture. Folktales are great source material for story listening. Chinese culture certainly has many to choose from. Sometimes when traditional holidays roll around, the students are just not ready (either in terms of their language ability or their maturity) to listen to a folktale in Chinese. This is especially true for younger students. If one of the goals of a program is teaching about culture, it can be perfectly time to take a break from the language component and just focus on the culture. There are many books available in English that teach students about Mid-Autumn Festival. Teachers can use them to do a quick segment in English on that aspect of the culture.

More on Story Listening

Making illustrations to go with stories

Story listening and culture


Social Media as Authentic Resources

What Are Authentic Resources?

Authentic resources, as used in language education, are anything from the target language/culture, that is produced for native speakers of that language. TV shows, newspaper articles, novels, billboards, recipes, movies, social media… these are all authentic resources.

Caveats for Authentic Resources

Many teachers are huge fans of authentic resources. Authentic resources prepare students to study or travel abroad in places where the locals speak the target language. They also provide a window into the target culture. There are downsides to authentic resources, however. They are often too advanced for beginner and intermediate students. With the internet, it is not difficult to find authentic resources. It is however, difficult to find appropriate authentic resources that won’t frustrate the students.

If teachers hand out texts or assign listening activities that are too difficult for their students, the result is both a waste of class time and can it potentially de-motivate the students. There are good reasons for seeking out high-quality authentic resources for beginner and intermediate students. To start with, authentic resources let the target culture speak for itself. Students do not need to rely on secondhand information from their teachers. Additionally, using the right authentic resources can help motivate the students. Just as authentic resources can de-motivate students if they are too difficult, they can also get students excited about the target culture if they are at the right level. It is very thrilling for students the first (and second and third) time that they read or hear something meant for native speakers that they can understand.

Choosing the Best Authentic Resources

Authentic resources for beginner and intermediate students need to have short sentences, few words, and preferably a strong visual component. Social media posts can be great authentic materials. The text is generally short, there are usually photos and even emojis can add context clues about the meaning.

Both of the posts below are authentic resources that I would use with beginner and intermediate classes. The text is very short and the words are few. Students will not spend time struggling. They will understand the meaning fairly quickly and then we can move on to having a more involved discussion.

photo of Chinese language social media post
This social media post is an example of authentic resource that is appropriate for beginner students.
photo of Chinese language social media post
This is a social media post that I would use with an intermediate class.

**These posts are from the massively popular Chinese social media platform WeChat

More on why not all authentic resources are right for every language class.

More reading on how to best use authentic resources.

Do you have any authentic resources to recommend to other Mandarin Chinese language learners? Share in the comments!


Story Listening Part 2: Language and Culture


A Listening Activity That Teaches Culture Too

Language learning starts with good input. Students need to hear the target language, and understand its meaning, if they are going to be able to retain it for later use. Story listening is a great way to combine Mandarin listening with information about Chinese culture. Conveniently, Chinese culture is rich with stories that explain the origin of holidays and festivals, teach traditional values, and also explain the numerous Chinese sayings known as chengyu. There are hundreds of options to chose from for a story listening activity in Mandarin Chinese.

What is Story Listening?

Beniko Mason, a professor in Tokyo, developed story listening as a way to help her students learn English. Story listening involves using simple vocabulary, short sentences, pictures and occasional translation to tell a story. Mason originally told her students folktales using this method. Critics of story listening might say that it is too teacher-centered. True, the teacher is often at the front of the class talking to her students. This does not mean that this listening activity is teacher-centered, however. Rather, everything that she says is specifically tailored for her students’ comprehension.

The goal of story listening is not to have students learn every single word in the story by heart. It is important to note that language learning is a slow, piecemeal process. Story listening is just one way to give students the comprehensible input that they need as part of this process. If chosen carefully, students will get both the language input that they need in order to learn and some cultural knowledge.

Story Listening in Mandarin Chinese

With 5,000 years of history, Chinese civilization is a rich source of myths, folktales, origin stories and more. By using these stories as a basis for a story listening activity, a lesson becomes a two-for-one. Students get both the input in Mandarin that they need to learn the language, and they also learn about the culture. The story of the cowherd and the weaving girl explains the origin of Qixi (Chinese Valentine’s Day). The story of the Empty Flower Pot (link to English version of the story) is a good jumping off point for discussing cultural values.

The Empty Flower Pot

The key to making story listening a beneficial and enjoyable for the students it to make sure the language is pitched right to their level. For example, in telling the story of The Empty Flower Pot to beginners, the teacher should repeat key structures frequently. Beginner students should hear the verb “to have” used in context many, many times so they can acquire this structure and use it themselves. Working with the story of the Empty Flower Pot, a teacher can say: “The king did not have a child. He did not have a child. Did the king have a child? No, he did not have a child.”

Looking at this in English, the story seems a bit boring and repetitive, but this is exactly the type of language that students need to hear in order to learn. It does not seem boring to them. On the contrary, this type of storytelling holds their attention because they can easily follow along.


photo of white board from story listening activity
In story listening, a teacher explains new words with photos, drawings, and sometimes translations.

Chinese Valentine’s Day

Using a story such as the origin story of Qixi (Chinese Valentine’s Day) can be challenging. The story uses many words that are not very common. How often do we talk about cowhers, the Milky Way, spirits and weavers in our everyday lives? Probably not very often. To make this story appropriate for story listening, especially at the beginner levels, teachers need to tell it with frequently used words. “He likes her” and “she likes him” are good phrases to repeat with this story. “To like” is one of the super seven words and the phrase is appropriate for the story. As long as the focus is on more common structures like this one, the story will be a good use of class time.

Recently, I’ve begun to tell a story only, to have the students tell me that they already know it. This really is not a problem. If students already know the story in English, they will have an easier time understanding it in Mandarin Chinese. Furthermore, this can be a jumping off point for further discussion. After the students hear the story in Mandarin Chinese, the teacher can ask how each version is different. As with everything that we do in class, comprehension is the goal. Knowing the story already actually just makes it easier.

An article from Language Magazine on how story listening works to help students acquire a second language is here.

Check out a previous post on story listening.