Chinese Lesson Example: 365 Penguins

Storybooks for Language Learning

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.

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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.

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What Are You Afraid of? : A Language-learning Task

Activities Vs Tasks

In language learning, tasks are activities that have a purpose other than just trying to learn the language itself. In an activity, students are just using the language without a real purpose. For example, asking everyone in the class what their favorite food is. This is just an activity, not a task, because no one really cares what the answers are at the end. Additionally, if students feel pressured to come up with a food in the target language, they might not even give an honest answer. Instead, a task might include taking a survey of all the students in the class to ask what their favorite food is, and then compare the answers to an article that shows the most popular food in every state. The students can find out if they are representative or not of the people in their state.

Which Tasks Work With Kids?

The key to doing tasks with kids is to make sure that the topic is something interesting to them and something relevant to their lives. For example, a task about pets is usually a hit because kids like animals. On the other hand, I wouldn’t design a task around which movies won Oscars in 1999 because my group of 8 year olds just won’t care. One task that I have done with my kids is about fears and what they are afraid of.

photo of spider in web
Are you afraid of spiders?

A Task about Fears

Language learning is all about getting that comprehensible input. We need to talk to students using the language in a way they can understand. I start this task by establishing the meaning of the phrases “I am afraid of XX” and “I am not afraid of XX.” Then, I read the story I Used to Be Afraid in Chinese (pictured below). Then, we make a chart of the things that the character in the book says that she is afraid of and compare if the kids in the class are afraid of the same things. To extend this task, we can compare what we think are the most common fears in the class to the most common fears of Americans in general.

photo of book cover "I Used to Be Afraid" (Chinese version)
Cover of “I Used to Be Afraid” in Chinese

The distinguishing feature of tasks is that we are trying to do something other than just use the language in class. We can make sentences about what our fears are all day long, but there is nothing really meaningful there. Tasks work for language learning because they are about something other than the language itself. Language learning happens on the subconscious level while kids busy doing something else.

 

How to Use a Wordless Picture Book in Class

Hooray for Wordless Picture Books

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.

photo of cover of Pancakes for Breakfast
An example of a wordless picture book
photo of pancakes illustration
There are lots of pancakes to count here!

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.

photo of illustration from Pancakes for Breakfast, a wordless picture book
There are so many questions that you can ask students about this illustration!

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.

photo of illustration of Pancakes for Breakfast, a wordless picture books
It is easy for students to participate in telling the story by giving characters names. The names don’t even have to be Chinese names!

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.

The ACTFL Can-do Statements are all about student output for example.

Short Activities for Chinese Classes (Kids)

Why Short Activities?

With short attention spans in young children, often doing short “bursts” of activity works best. Lots of activities that children already do in their regular classes can work for a Mandarin Chinese class. By short activities, I mean an activity that takes around 5-7 minutes. There just need to be a few adjustments so that kids understand what they hear/see and get enough repetition so that everything sinks in enough to stick. Below are a few short activities that work well in Chinese classes with young kids.

Where’s Waldo

Since they are so popular, the Where’s Waldo (Wally in the UK original) books are available in Chinese as they are in many other languages. Their Chinese name is 寻找威利 (lit. looking for Wally). The beauty of using books like Where’s Waldo in class, however, is that you don’t really need a Chinese-language edition. The point is to look at the only the pictures. By looking for Waldo, the children hear lots of repetition of commonly-used phrases. These include: Waldo在哪里?(where is Waldo), Waldo在这里 (Waldo is here), 他是Waldo吗?(Is he Waldo?) 她不是Waldo (She is not Waldo.) It is such a simple, short activity, but it gives students a lot of good input in Chinese.

photo of Where's Waldo
Where’s Waldo can be a basis for a good short activity

Jenga

When kids see the Jenga tower, they think that they are going to be playing a game. It is true that they will play a game in class. They will also get good lots of input of a key phrase: 小心!小心 means “be careful.” This will be useful later on when we do activities that use scissors, paint, and other potentially messy materials. Other short activities based on familiar games can teach kids the phrase “be careful.” These include Operation, Monkeying Around, the Balancing Pizza Game, and more.

photo of kids playing Jenga
Kids playing Jenga in Chinese class

Games and Keeping Score

I hate the name “corn hole” but that is what the game pictured below is called in English. It doesn’t have to be corn hole, any game in which players quickly rack up points can work. Students can count their points in Chinese as we keep score.  To extend the activity, the teacher can demonstrate writing the numbers in Chinese (一、二、三。。。) as the class moves along. Advanced students can practice writing the numbers in Chinese themselves. The game of corn hole technically only goes up to 21 points, which could be perfect for a class. Or it could be too high a number. If students can only count up to 10 or less, Connect 4 could be a good alternative. In that game, students really only have to count up to four.

photo of corn hole game in Chinese class
corn hole game in Chinese class

Short activities often really work well for young kids because longer activities are too much for them. An hour-long class can include several of these “bursts” and then maybe a longer story. Students like playing games that they already know. Because they already know the basics of how to play the game, it is easier for them to put together the Chinese words with the meaning.

Have your own ideas for short activities that can work for young kids? Share in the comments!

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Favorite Books for Kids’ Classes

It is Read a Book Day!

Social media is overrun with lots of unofficial official “days,”  such as #nationalunleadedgasolineday, #nationallichenday, or #nationalrefilltheicecubetrayday. Okay, I made those up. But you get the idea, there are lots of mundane, made-up “days” out there. Today, however, is Read a Book Day (September 6). This is a made-up holiday I can get behind since books are so important to the language learning process. Below are a few of my favorite books for teaching Mandarin Chinese, especially for kids.

No, David!, by David Shannon (大卫,不可以)

pages from No David!
Photo from inside pages of Chinese-language version of No David!

This book is great for a few reasons. First, is it hugely popular so most kids already know the story. This really helps kids pick up the language if they already know the content. The book is also very repetitive. Repetition really helps language “sink in.” The reader (teacher) says the phrase “不可以” (not okay) on almost every page. By the end of the book, kids in my classes kids are saying 不可以, wagging their fingers, and laughing their heads off at the antics of little David in the story. I also like to use the book for classroom management. It starts a conversation about what is okay (可以) and not okay (不可以) to do in class.

Journey, By Aaron Becker

This is a wordless picture book. I have a few wordless picture books that I use in class, but this one has the most beautiful illustrations. Wordless picture books are great for language classes because the teacher can tailor the content (story) to suit a variety of different levels. It can also be difficult to find books in your target language. Wordless books are a great option because they can be in any language! This book is also great because the main character is a girl. It is mind boggling how few children’s books feature girls as the main character, or at all. Half of my students are girls (no surprise) and I want them to see themselves in our books.

photo of illustration from Journey
Illustration from Journey, a wordless picture book

Go Away, Big Green Monster, By Ed Emberley (走开,绿色大怪物!)

photo of cover of Chinese language version of Go Away Big Green Monster
Cover of 走开,绿色大怪物

This book is great because it covers content that many parents and school administrators expect to see in beginner class: colors and body parts. I like it because it has a monster! Young kids often like books, movies that are just a tiny bit scary to them. They enjoy the feeling of pushing boundaries with things that scare them just a little bit. Kids love going through this book and seeing how the illustrations build up to show the monster’s face. They don’t even notice that they are learning words for colors and body parts!

More on learning Mandarin and books:

Learn Mandarin with Chinese Books

Books for Older Kids

Great (long) article on finding the right reading material in Chinese