Never Suffer Learning to Read in Chinese Again

Many Students Resist Reading

Today’s topic is all about learning how to read in Chinese. When I first talk about learning how to read with adult students, most students respond with some variation of @#$! that. I’m serious. You would think I am try to teach people how to chew tinfoil or something. No one even wants to try. With young kids, they don’t realize it is “supposed to be” hard, so they don’t resist reading in Chinese as much. The struggle with learning to read in Chinese really is not the characters. It is something else. But we will get to that later.

Basics for the Littles

So, how do we teach people to read in Chinese? Let’s start at the beginning, with young children. Most preschool-aged children are pre-readers. What we do to teach them how to read in Chinese at this stage is similar to what we do for all pre-readers. We teach features of print. Features of print are things like: what is the beginning of a sentence? What is the end of a sentence? We read from left to right and top to bottom. Now, if you are learning to read in English, you will also learn that that there are spaces between words. Also, you will learn about capital letters.

So there is a lot of overlap in the early stages of learning how to read in English and in Chinese. I should also note that while modern Chinese texts go from left to right, older texts go the opposite way. Sentences are also on vertical, not horizontal, lines. I think that this is not really worth going over until later.

Readers Need to Read

Preschoolers will learn features of print in the early stages of reading instruction. There is considerable, but not complete, overlap between features of print in English and modern Chinese. At this stage, teachers need to read to students. A LOT. Eventually, students are going to need to read on their own. This usually goes much more smoothly if they like reading and think of it as a pleasurable activity.

What comes next? In English, most students start their reading journeys know many “sight words.” Often non-expert adults think that sight words are just simple words in English, like I, me, the, or she. Any word can be a sight word. Sight words are high frequency words that learners recognize “on sight.” They do not have to sound them out. For most kids learning to read in English, sight words end up being words like he, said, can, etc.

The highest frequency words in Chinese are nearly the same. Children who see 我、他、说 (I, he, say) over and over again will likely recognize them on sight, without any specific instruction.

An Important Tangent on Phonics (that you can totally skip if you don’t care)

Most children learning to read in English will need instruction in phonics. Now, people often refer to learning how to “decode.” I personally hate calling it “decoding.” I have a couple rational reasons for this and one that is more of the “old lady shouting at clouds” variety.

My first rational reason for disliking the word “decode” is that it is a case of rebranding. Many people believe that phonics lost the reading wars. Calling the same old thing by a new term in hopes of making it appealing again strikes me as a bit pathetic. Use phonics and let the results speak for themselves. Why else do I not like the word “decode” for sounding out words? Well, I think it makes it sound harder than it is. That puts people off, and then they don’t even try.

And what makes me an old lady shouting at clouds? Well, that gets back to the rebranding issue. The word “decode” sounds more… scientific? Technology-ish? I think it is a sad attempt to make learning how to read sound as sexy and important. Just like all the STEM stuff that is so fashionable right now. It is not. Reading is the most important academic skill a child will ever acquire. Making Lego robots isn’t. There, I said it. If you would like to skip to the comments section and tear me apart, go right ahead!

Phonics or decoding is all about about the connection between words are their sounds. This can be pretty simple. “M” sounds like mmmmmm.  “R” sounds like rrrrrrrrr. (Often the liquid sounds are easier). But English does not make things easy. Sometimes we produce a “g” like in signal. And sometimes we don’t, like in “sign.” Learning to read through phonics is not a walk in the park. This is why it must be complemented with other reading experiences, like listening to someone read a story. Little kids will need the reminder that reading is not a totally laborious process.

English, like any other language, has a limited number of sounds. Phonics is all about learning how those sounds map to the written word.

Back to Chinese

If it seems like I have forgotten that I write a blog about learning Chinese, I haven’t. Just like English, Chinese has a set of sounds. Chinese reading is all about learning how those sounds map to the written word too!

How Kids Learn to Read in China

Let’s look at how children in China learn how to read. Chinese children learn how to read in first grade. It is actually illegal to teach reading in Chinese preschools/kindergartens.* When a Chinese child learns how to read, they already know all of the words that they are reading AURALLY. That is, they know what all the words mean by sound. When they are learn to read, they begin to recognize that q+ing+falling then rising tone (meaning of please) maps to 请 in text. That is a lot of information to connect in less than one second, but the human brain is a wondrous thing.

Chinese children learn to read about 400 characters by the end of second grade. Chinese students also learn pinyin. This is the phonemic awareness part that is so important. A college-educated Chinese person knows about 4,000 characters. I’ve heard a minimum numbers for basic fluency in Chinese reading of anything between 500-2,000 characters. The HSK 6 tests about 2600 Chinese characters.

What is Different for our Learners

This is the key point: Chinese children already know the words that they are reading. For students learning both the spoken language and reading at the same time, the situation is different. These learners don’t have a fairly compete sound system for Chinese the way that Chinese first graders do. They’re learning the sounds and the visuals concurrently, and not sequentially.

So my students don’t know very many words in Chinese. That means that they can only learn a small number of words in Chinese. What they will be capable of reading is really just a subset of the words that they know aurally. This may seem simple and logical to you, but the number of people who don’t get this is…. er… high. Very high.

Keep is Simple at the Beginning

Readers for students learning to read in English use simple, short sentences. Readers should also mostly include words that the students can sound out. Readers in Chinese should also use simple, short sentences. I do mean simple. Painfully simple.  If students are expected to read independently, their readers should have a glossary with 100% of words in the text listed.

Yes, students need to be able to understand 100% of the words in a text (or very close to that) in order to read it on their own. Of course they can read texts with more unknown words, but that needs to include teacher support.

The Real Challenge of Learning to Read in Chinese

This brings us to the big challenge of teaching reading in Chinese to non-natives: the dearth of appropriate materials. There are just not enough readers out there for students learning to read in Chinese! Diane Neubauer has a blog post here that highlights a few options that are out there for beginning readers.

Diane mentions Terry Waltz and Haiyun Lu, both authors whose books I use in my classes. I also use books from Imagin8 Press, which are both appropriate for intermediate readers AND they also teach about Chinese culture. I could go one about books and other materials that are appropriate for students learning to read in Chinese, but this post is already 1400 words! This must be a record for me! Any suggestions for reading materials in Chinese? Share in the comments.

* If you would like a source on this, email me and I will send you my master’s thesis. Be careful though, I might die of shock if anyone actually wants to read my thesis.

The Secret to Language Learning: Comprehensible Input

Let’s Get Right to it, What is the Secret?

It is really not that much of a secret for language learning, since there is decades of research of proof for it. But since there are so many language education programs out there who don’t seem to “get it,” we will go ahead and still call it a secret. The secret to being able to acquire a language is something called comprehensible input. What is comprehensible input, you say? There are already so many posts on this blog about it. Here, here and here, for example. I realize, however, that I have never written a standalone piece that is all about comprehensible input. We also call it CI.

Why Have I Not Heard of Comprehensible Input Before?

In short, comprehensible input is language that we hear or read that we can understand. Many students (or their parents) start from the assumption that we learn language by breaking it down into lists of vocabulary and grammar “rules.” This actually is not a very good way to learn. It is how many high school programs still teach language. They’re not very effective, are they? Ask most people what language they studied in high school and they will probably tell you that they don’t remember a word of it. To understand more about why the old grammar + vocabulary recipe usually only yields disappointing results, check here.

Finally, a Definition

Back to comprehensible input. We know it is not teaching students a grammar “rule”, handing out a sheet of words and telling students to “make a sentence.” What is it exactly then? Comprehensible input is language that the students can understand. For beginner students, this means that the language is slower, uses simple words, and also uses shorter sentences. Where does this language come from? It comes from the teacher. In a beginner language class, the teacher has to do a lot of talking.

**GASP**

But wait, you say, everything you have ever read about quality education for the past ten years tells you that if a teacher in the classroom does all the talking, the class is bad, bad, bad! Ah yes, student-centered learning. Of course, all teaching should be focused on outcomes for the students. If you are not there for the students, find another career. Teaching is not for you. Having said that, in a good beginner language class, the teacher needs to do most of the talking.

Where Can Students Get Comprehensible Input?

Why? The short answer is that the students don’t know any Chinese yet! The students need to hear language that they can understand in order to learn it. They can’t learn it from each other since the other students don’t speak Chinese. They have to learn it from the teacher since she is the only person in the room who knows the language. There are of course videos, songs, etc., that can also provide input to the students. The main source of input is still going to be the teacher, however. She has to do a lot of talking so that students can get the input that they need.

girl listening to headphones
Get that comprehensible input

Don’t Look to the Other Students for CI

I know that talking about a teacher doing most of the talking, while students just listen gives a lot of education people a case of the vapors. But it true. Students can’t learn from each other in the language classroom because they DON’T KNOW ANYTHING. That is why they’re there. You simply can’t learn from someone who does not know how to do it themselves.

The teacher not only has to do most of the talking, but she also can’t just talk the way she normally would to another person who is fluent in Chinese. Nope. She has to make sure that the students can understand what she is saying. Remember the Charlie Brown teacher voice? Wah wah wah wah, wah. Yep, that is what we are trying to avoid.

So, teachers need to talk slowly to their students, using words that the students know (or can quickly get the meaning of), and using short sentences. What exactly does that look like? It can look like this. This is a Chinese teacher doing a basic picture talk example on Twitter (video). Notice all the repetition, easy to understand words, and short sentences. This is comprehensible input. It is language that the students hear and understand.

Reading is an Important Source of Comprehensible Input Too

We do not just hear language, we read it too. Reading is a major source of comprehensible input. For beginners, comprehensible input is usually not a storybook meant for native speakers. Nor is it a photo of a menu from a restaurant in China. Just like with aural/oral langue, it has simple words, short sentences, and most importantly: the students can understand it!

person reading at the beach
Read your way to comprehensible input

More Sources of Input

There are many teachers who have worked on developing great books that provide comprehensible input for beginner readers. Haiyun Lu has a whole series about kittens that I have used with beginner students. Terry Waltz has also written many chapter books that beginner students can read. Her books are available on her website.

As for aural/oral langauge, there are several ways for teachers to make sure that there students get comprehensible input. I like movie talk, which you can read more about here. Picture talk is also a great tool for getting students the input that they need. I talk more about picture talk here. Movie talk and picture talk are great ideas that several teachers who have come before me developed.

There is another way to give students the comprehensible input that they need. It is the ancient art of having a conversation. It is not easy to create a conversation between 2-15 people in a second language that most of the participants don’t speak yet. It can be done, however. It won’t look like a conversation between native speakers. That is okay. Often, in my adult classes we will talk about the siblings we have, and look for commonalities.

Why isn’t Everyone Using CI?

So if comprehensible input is the secret sauce for language learning, why are so many schools still handing out textbooks and teaching grammar “rules”? Well, it is much easier to follow a textbook than is it do create comprehensible input. In district schools, there are also lots of pesky rules that teachers need to follow. Sadly, many teachers don’t have the confidence to ditch the textbook. What’s worse, is that they might not have the level of fluency needed to come up with lessons on their own. So there we are. Comprehensible input is what the students need. Very often, however, it is not what they get in the classroom.

Diverse Books for Chinese Classes

Diverse Books in the Classroom

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.

infographic for diversity in children's books
This infographic shows the need for more diverse books for kids!

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.

IMG_0774
Some of my books from the Lotus Chinese Learning Library that Feature Diversity

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.

On Gender

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:

Pragmatic Mom

We Need Diverse Books

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.

#Authres vs Graded Readers: What to Read in Chinese

What are Graded Readers

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).

Mid-Autumn Festival Song Lyrics Chinese
Dragon Boat Festival Song

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.

photo of Chinese cartoon
This is authres because it is a cartoon by Chinese people for Chinese people. The illustrations aid student comprehension

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.

Graded Readers in Chinese:

Ignite Chinese

Mandarin Companion