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.
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.
When people talk about language classes, they often reference building up four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. In the early days of Lotus Chinese Learning I used to talk about the language skills that my students would learn. I did this because I thought that was what people expected. While we often put our languages in the skills section of a resume or CV, language is not a skill. Language is a complex and abstract system. It is not a skill that you learn like knitting.
But wait! Many students say, language is a skill that you can learn. It is exactly like knitting. You learn the rules, then fill in sentences with the vocabulary words. Rules are great for textbook publishers, but they don’t adequately describe language. I promise you that you know more about English than what you could put in a textbook about English grammar.
Language is a Complex and Abstract System
Say that you want to paint your house. You paint it and decide you hate the color. Can you repaint your house? Yes, of course! Then, you go inside and you decide you hate how your living room looks, can you redecorate it? Yes, of course! Then, if you go into the kitchen and bake a cake that doesn’t taste good, can you rebake the cake? Nope! Reading that last sentence, I’m sure your brain protested the use of the word. I’ll bet $5* that no one ever taught you that you can’t use the word “rebake.” But you knew this anyway. That is what we mean when we say that language is more complex and abstract than rules in a textbook.**
Can We Work on Skills in Isolation?
Furthermore, it is not really that useful to separate language into the four skills or speaking, listening, reading and writing. This implies that in a language class, we spend some time working on our speaking, some time working on listening, some time reading and some time writing. This is not how a good language class works. Teachers should know that it takes a long time before students are really ready to speak the target language beyond a few words or phrases. This does not mean that they won’t be communicating from day 1. Rather, they will start with a few yes/no type responses, nodding, etc., before they are ready to speak in full sentences. Especially at the beginning, students need to spend far more of their time listening than anything else.
Language is too complex and abstract to be described as a skill. Speaking, reading, listening and writing are also not really discrete skills that students can work on in isolation. We learn to write from reading and listening and we learn to speak from listening and reading. A language is not a pie that you can slice into four equal pieces called speaking, listening, reading and writing.
One more thing
World language classes often also focus much of their “speaking practice” on presentational speech. Presentational speech is basically when students stand up in front of the class to talk about something. Students can often do fairly well at this, even when they are beginner or intermediate students. They can memorize chunks of speech and just get through whatever they have to do. We already know that memorization is not really language learning. But there is a different reason to do less presentational speech in a language class. The reason is that we don’t just do that much presentational speech in our lives. Teacher do lots of presentational speech… but everyone else, not so much.
*If you can honestly remember someone telling you that “rebake” is not a word, I will Paypal you $5. Email me.
** Hat tip to Bill VanPatten for inspiring this example
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）
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.
Go Away, Big Green Monster, By Ed Emberley (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!
There are two types of Chinese characters because the Chinese government started a project in the 1950s to simplify the written form of Chinese characters. The aim of this project was to increase literacy rates. As a result, people in mainland China use simplified Characters, while folks in Taiwan and Hong Kong still use the traditional characters. Mandarin Chinese is also an official language of Singapore, where they use simplified characters as well. Wikipedia actually has a good explanation of how simplified characters came to be, for those interested in reading it.
Which type of characters should my child (or I) learn?
If you have a strong preference for either traditional or simplified characters, you should stick with that. Learn traditional characters if you think that is the best choice for you. If you think that simplified characters are the wave of the future and that your child should learn simplified instead of traditional characters, then do that!
You can also decide by not deciding. If you send your child to a local Mandarin immersion program, odds are he or she will learn simplified characters. According to this list (from the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council), the vast majority of Mandarin immersion programs in the US teach simplified characters. There are however, many schools that use traditional characters.
Okay, so I don’t have strong opinions, but what are the pros and cons of each system?
There are lots of pros for both traditional characters and simplified characters. In the spirit of a lively debate I will present both. Traditional characters are more connected with Chinese culture and history. If you are interested in reading the inscriptions on ancients steles, or practicing Chinese calligraphy, then traditional characters might be the best fit. Learning traditional characters is also a bit like learning to drive a stick shift first. If you can drive a car with a manual transmission, you can drive an automatic easily. But the reverse is not true. People who learn traditional characters first have an easier time with both systems than folks who learn simplified characters first.
Simplified characters on the other hand, win the numbers game. There are 1.3 billion people in China (maybe you’ve heard that before 🙂 ). They use simplified characters. While Taiwan, with the traditional characters, only has a population of about 23 million. Simplified characters might also be easier to learn. After all, the Chinese government created this system with the goal of improving literacy rates.
No matter which you choose, it will be fine
In some sense it does not matter which system students learn to read and write in Chinese. One of the tasks of learning a language like Mandarin Chinese, is learning to deal with the issues that come with the regional variations. That includes a wide variety of accents, and it also includes the writing system.
This is an imperfect analogy, but say you were on vacation in some exotic locale. A person comes up to you on the street and asks you for directions. You start telling her where to go, but she suddenly turns on her heel. She explains over the back of her shoulder as she walks away, “Sorry, I only speak British English.” If this happened to you, you’d probably think that this person is a pretentious clown. Also, most people don’t like to give rude strangers helpful directions.
So often, language learners do try to limit their scope to only one part of a language. Some students don’t want to learn how to read and write Chinese at all. Some students want to only learn Mexican Spanish or Spanish from Spain. Teachers can be weirdly selective, too. In the one Spanish class I have ever taken, our teacher didn’t use tu, just usted. We completely skipped the informal you! It was a strange thing to leave out!
Once a person knows one system or the other, it actually is not that difficult to move between one system and the other. I once worked with a Taiwanese lady who wrote all her stuff in traditional characters and then ran it through Google translate to get the simplified character version. Sure, it was a couple minutes extra work, but no big deal! I’ve spent more than a decade using and learning simplified characters. Yet, when I am in Japan (where the kanji are almost identical to traditional characters), I can read* their characters just fine. My friends from mainland China all insist they can read traditional characters with relative ease.
Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. My advice to parents and students is to not get so worked up about choosing traditional or simplified that you stumble at the starting line. As long as you stick with it, it will be fine.
*I can read in the sense of knowing the meaning, but I don’t know the Japanese pronunciation. I don’t speak Japanese.
Further reading and information
For a lengthier discussion on traditional vs simplified, and a handy flow chart , check out the Mandarin Mama blog.