Teachers and administrators are often very optimistic about what a group of students in an elementary dual-language program can accomplish. Depending on the grade level, students may spend 80-90% of their day immersed in the target language. But what about students who are in a FLES (foreign language in elementary school) program? They might be getting only one hour per week of class time in the target language. How can that time be used effectively? One option is to use tasks.
Research shows that students who do task work as part of a language program tend to learn more. So what is a task? Tasks have a purpose. We use tasks to learn something about ourselves. Tasks also always have an outcome that is not language. With my adult classes, a common task that I like to use is to take a class survey and then to compare our answers to national averages. During one of the first classes, with the help of the Social Security Administration, we can see if any of us have one of the most common names in America. With this task, students get to use the small amount of language that they have to learn actively, rather than passively listening to a lecture.
For children, a task might take a bit more preparation. For a group of young beginners, a task I did recently was to have the group graph their family members. The resulting graph is shown below with the names blurred out for privacy. Since our topic was family, we used the words for mom, dad, and siblings over and over as we filled in the graph. We also used numbers as we counted the number of moms, dads, elder brothers, elder sisters, etc in the class. The students who did this task are novice beginners, with only a knowledge of maybe 30 words, but they used more than half of those words in completing this task.
Teachers are thinking this week about how to cover Mid-Autumn Festival (October 4 this year). How should Chinese classes include cultural elements like holidays while using research-based practices that we know are effective in helping students build proficiency in the language?
Teaching Culture and Language
A major caveat for language teaching is that cultural knowledge, e.g. knowing that we eat mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival, does not lead to proficiency. To put it simply (and bluntly), having this kind of explicit knowledge does not help language acquisition. We know from the research that comprehensible input in the target language is what works to build proficiency. There is probably no Chinese program, however, that does not have culture as part of its curriculum. For example, these Chinese immersion standards from the Center for Applied Linguistics have culture as its own category, right next to speaking, listening, reading and writing.
Keep it Simple
Effectively including Chinese culture in class means sticking to the principles of comprehensible input. Listening to the story of Chang’e and Hou Yi is probably too much for a beginner Chinese class. It’s probably too hard for a group in first grade Chinese immersion as well. Instead, pull out something simple from the holiday and use that as a basis for the lesson, like eating mooncakes. Talking about family could work, too. The goal of the lesson is not for students to know everything about Mid-Autumn Festival. The goal is for them to have 100% comprehension of the content so that they can acquire the language.
Children learn to read by reading. This is true for Chinese, English and any other language. It is great news for bookworms. It also makes it even more crucial for students to get their hands on appropriate reading materials. This is hard for intermediate learners as most materials are meant for beginners. Beginners make up the largest segment of the market. Additionally, materials for native speakers are too difficult and will cause frustration.
Books for Chinese Language Learners
I discovered the Mandarin Companion Graded Readers (not an affiliate link) through the blog Mandarin Immersion Parents Council. Graded readers are specially written for Mandarin language learners. There are several books in the series, including adapted Sherlock Holmes stories. There are also versions of Dickens novels and at least one version of a Jane Austen novel. These stories use only a few hundred Chinese characters and less than 1,000 words. This combined with the fact that students are likely to already be familiar with the stories (background knowledge helps with comprehension) means that these books allow students to engage in fairly fluent Chinese reading. The readability of these books reduces frustration level and promotes more reading!
What about Authentic Resources (aka #authres)
Often in second language learning, it is tempting for students and teachers to use reading materials aimed at young native speakers of the target language. There is a place for this kind of reading, but for the most part, the words and characters used in those books do not match what an intermediate student needs. Take a look at the passage below. It is a story that explains the chengyu “老妈识途” (an old hand knows the ropes). To get through even the first few words, a student would have to recognize the characters and understand the Spring and Autumn period, the non-extant state of Qi, and the government minister Guan Zhong. This might be reasonable for a university student who is also studying ancient Chinese history in English. It is not reasonable for a working adult or an elementary student in an immersion program.
Some language programs emphasize using authentic materials in class. They are reading materials written for an audience of native speakers. Authentic materials have been a trend at language teaching conferences in recent years. They can be pictures of billboards from countries where the target language is spoken, a poem by a well-known author, or even a restaurant menu. Many teachers support using these kinds of materials in class. After all, isn’t the point of learning a new language ultimately to navigate the countries and cultures where it is spoken?
What are the important considerations for using authentic materials?
While navigating the language environment is important, using authentic materials is not necessarily the most effective way to help learners acquire a language. Learning a language requires input that learners can understand, called comprehensible input. Too often, especially for beginner or intermediate students authentic materials are too difficult. An excerpt out of a book in Chinese, or a picture of an advertisement in the subway contain too many words they don’t know. Language acquisition depends on the repetition of input that learners can understand.
So where does that leave authentic materials? Is there a use for, say Chinese-language story books in class? Yes! Remember, it is important that the input that children receive be something comprehensible. Take a look at this children’s song below. It is about China’s Dragon Boat Festival. Between the illustration and the words, there is a lot of content that children would have to grasp in order to understand the song. Students would need to know the name of the holiday in Chinese. They would have to know that zongzi is a leaf-wrapped rice dumpling. They would also need to that Qu Yuan is the poet in whose honor the holiday exists. With all these culturally specific words, this song is likely not comprehensible to young beginner students of Chinese in America.
This is not to say that class content should not include culture. Culture is part of language learning and eventual communication with native speakers of the target language. So what can we use instead?
What are some good authentic materials for beginners?
No, David by David Shannon is an incredibly popular children’s book. It is available in Chinese(as 大卫，不可以). The story is not originally from China of course, but the translation is by a native speaker and the book is widely available in China. The text is highly repetitive, the illustrations show scenes that would be familiar to American children, and it is very likely that they have already read/listened to the story in English. This combination of repetition, context clues and prior knowledge means that this story book is very likely comprehensible to young learners of Chinese and therefore a good resource for teaching them.
The phrase “不可以” (not okay) appears on nearly every page, helping children map the meaning of the phrase to the sounds and the written characters. The above pages illustrate and show the phrase “玩食物” (play with food). If students have snack or lunch during their Chinese class, this phrase should be familiar and they will be able to map it to the written characters and read those words.
大卫，不可以 (No, David) is one of many authentic texts that can be used in the classroom. Simply using Chinese-language teaching materials from China is not enough. Using authentic materials may be in vogue now, but teachers must take care to use materials which actually provide the comprehensible input that children need to learn a language.