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!
The Lotus Chinese Learning library of books in Chinese and wordless picture books has dozens of volumes. Books are an incredibly important teaching tool. They are what I would bring with me to a desert island where I have to teach :). It is a known problem in the world of children’s literature that there are not enough diverse books out there. For the purposes of this blog post, diverse books means books that feature African American, Asian American, Hispanic and or Native American main characters. There are lots of books, such as my beloved David series by David Shannon that show diverse children, but they are not the main characters. They are still great, but they don’t count as diverse books.
Why are Diverse Books Important?
Just as in the city of San Antonio as a whole, the majority of my students are Hispanic. I also have many Asian American students and African American students. If you’re a white person in America, you probably grew up seeing characters in picture books that look like you. If you’re an adult now, it might be easy to assume that things have changed since you were a kid. This infographic (from 2015!) shows that that this is not the case. Kids deserve to see themselves represented in their books, and there aren’t enough books out there so we have to work a little harder.
Getting Diverse Books
Getting books in Chinese in the US is not super easy to begin with. As I have written elsewhere, wordless picture books can be a good substitute for books in Chinese. All the teacher has to do is point to the pictures as she tells the story in Chinese! Pool by JiHeyeon Lee is a wordless picture book that features Asian characters that I use often. There are lots of things to count in the illustrations, so it is especially fun for the little kids to count along with me. The website China Sprout also has many diverse children’s books. Their shipping costs are a little pricey (cough cough) but when I need to add a couple more books to my collection, I know that China Sprout will have at least a few options.
Using The Books
Yes, February is Black History Month, however we can read books that feature black characters the other eleven months of the year too! This past week (April), I read Alfie the Turtle That Disappeared with some of my kids. The story features birthdays and pets, both hot topics for the lower-elementary crowd. It works all year-round. It is a missed opportunity to only focus on diverse books when the calendar calls for it. The lesson’s topic does not have to be about diversity in and of itself to use diverse books.
There are plenty of books about boys and male animals for kids. Most of the classics that I have on my shelf feature boys and male animals as the main character. I’m looking at you Hats for Sale and the Hungry Caterpillar! The conventional wisdom is that all children will read books about boys, and only girls will read books about girls. This wisdom sucks. Children will read a book about any kind of child. As veteran children’s book author Shanna Hale explains, it is the story that counts. I wouldn’t hesitate to use books that feature girls as the main characters for the whole class and neither should you :).
What are your favorite books with diverse main characters? Share in the comments!
More Sources About Diversity in Children’s Literature:
Tasks in language learning are activities with a purpose. Many early language classes focus on doing activities with kids, making lady bugs out of paper plates when learning about insects for example. The kids do the activity while the teacher speaks in the target language. How are tasks different? Tasks are activities with a purpose.
Is it Communicative or not?
We know from research that people learn language from communicatively embedded input. In order for us to learn a language, we need to first get the input and it needs to be meaningful. We can’t just listen to someone reading a list of words and their English equivalents and pick up a language. The human mind knows that there is nothing meaningful going on there and will absorb very little.
Some teachers or parents may insist that activities do have a purpose. They are partially correct. If your goal is to make a lady bug out of a paper plate, then your purpose is to make a paper plate lady bug. Activities lack a communicative purpose, however. Students need to be engaged in the expression and interpretation of meaning in order to learn a language through what they are doing. Making an insect out of disposable dinnerware is fun, but there is no expression and negotiation of meaning involved.
Example of a Task with Kids*
Building a lesson around tasks for young children is not easy. It is worth it, however, because children need this kind of communicatively embedded input in order to learn a second language. One task that I have done with students recently is to figure out how many states we have been to as a class. The first step is to put together a floor puzzle of the United States. While we are working on this step, I begin to give the kids the input that they need, by asking “这是什么？” （What is this?) “这是什么? （holding up a puzzle piece) 这是Minnesota。你去过Minnesota没有？” (What is this? This is Minnesota. Have you been to Minnesota?)
Once the puzzle is complete, I begin to ask the students if they have been to different states and keep tally of their answers. The kids do not need a high level of Chinese at all to respond to these questions. They can nod/shake their heads, Since there are so many states (50 of them!), it is easy to get in a great deal of repetition during class. The kids hear and respond to “谁去过XX” over and over again. At the end, we can see how many states we have been to as a class. The purpose of this task is not to practice the verb form 去过 （have gone to). If it were, it wouldn’t be as fun. Our purpose is to find out how many states we have been to as a class. The children learn language through this task, not from it.
Caveats About This Task
One important caveat about this task is that it works because I know that my students have traveled to many different states. My students are fortunate enough that their parents recognize the value of world language classes and pay tuition for them. They are usually from comfortable socioeconomic backgrounds. I realize that this activity would not be as interesting (and would probably lead to some negative feelings) if no one in the class had ever left the state of Texas. Not every task is going to be appropriate for every group of students. That is okay and is something that teachers need to consider when lesson planning.
What are good tasks to do with novice students? We should start by defining a task. A task for a language class always has a purpose that is not language. So if we are going around the room naming the colors that students are wearing, that is not a task. We are just naming colors for the sake of using the words for red, blue, green, etc. A task would be to make a tally of all the colors we are wearing. Then to compare that tally to the school colors. The task has purpose because we are trying to find out something: whether there is a relationship between the school’s colors and the colors that students like to wear. (This might be a very boring task at a school where students wear uniforms.)
Tasks are great for learning languages, but creating tasks for novice students can be a challenge because they just do not have a great deal of language at their disposal. When the novice language learners are young children there is an additional challenge because they do not have the self-control that adults have. Classroom management is a challenge for any teacher, but when we are in language teaching, there is an extra layer of pressure to use the target language while also maintaining order.
A Task for Beginner Students in Chinese
One task that I have done with different groups of children is to read the book 大卫，不可以 (No, David!) with the kids. Then we make a list of things that are okay (可以）and not okay （不可以）to do in class. The book provides a great deal of comprehensible input, it is repetitive and probably already a familiar story to the kids. Once we have gone over 可以 and 不可以 over and over in the story, then it is time for our task. Together, we make a list of things that are okay and not okay to do in class. Children can act out their suggestions and use English if needed. These suggestions all get compiled into a shared document that functions as a list of classroom rules-a classroom management bonus. With a task like this, there probably is not enough repetition for the students to acquire a phrase like 打人 （to hit somebody). They definitely can acquire 可以 and 不可以 and use those phrases with gusto.
If they students can use 可以 and 不可以, that means they understand when the teacher uses these words too! This brings us closer to our goal of using the target language for classroom management.
Before discovering comprehensible input for second language learning, I used to be very concerned about packing as many words as possible into each lesson. I did not think that there was a maximum number of words for each lesson’s focus. It is understandable that language teachers want to get as much out of each lesson as possible. Many of my students only have class for an hour or two each week, so they (or their parents) also want to get the most out of their time. Contrary to my previous beliefs, when it comes to target vocabulary words per class, less is more.
Seasoned language teachers who use comprehensible input to teach a target language, however, tend to focus on just a few structures per class. The problem with trying to squeeze as many words as possible into an hour of Chinese class is that there is not enough time to repeat the words the number of times needed for them to really sink in to the students’ brains.
Students Need Repetition
For younger students, a classic story with lots of repetition is a great tool for helping students acquire new words. As I have written previously, I like Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do you See?because of the repetition of the structure “to see something.” After reading this story, the structure “你看什么／我看见XX” can be used to do a task for listing all the things the students see in their classroom.
Just A Handful of New Words Per Class
A unit on family is a must-do for novice classes. Often my adult students would get caught up in nailing down the vocabulary word for every single family member they have. We spent too much time going over the words for “father’s elder brother, ex-wife, older female cousin on my father’s side, and etc.” Undoubtedly, my students wanted to learn the proper terms for important people in their lives, but it just was not possible to include all the different possible family members with sufficient repetition. The solution was to talk about a family (often, I present my family) using just the basic members of a nuclear family, mom, dad, elder brother, elder sister, younger sister, and younger brother. These are just six new words, which is about right for an hour-long novice class. The cool thing about family, is that members can be described in more than one way. For example, Uncle Bob can also be described as “dad’s elder brother,” so students can keep using the simple terms until they are ready to use the actual Chinese word for father’s elder brother (伯伯). Just as with vocabulary acquisition for children, the goal is to work in as many repetitions of the new words as possible.
To recap, a class that starts with a long list of vocabulary words is probably not setting out on the right foot. When it comes to vocabulary learning, less is more. Students need to hear vocabulary words spoken over and over again in order to retain them. There simply are not enough minutes per class to focus on the long lists of “new words” that accompany most legacy method textbooks. Instead, a tight focus on a small group of vocabulary words or structures is a better use of class time.