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.


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.


Top Resources for 2018

Top Resources for 2018

Today’s blog post is something that is a little bit different. It is a list of the resources (e.g. books, toys, games, etc.) that were the most useful in class this year. I will probably realize in early 2019 that I left something important off of this list! For now, here are my top five resources from 2018.

Wordless picture books

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

Story books and stories in general are great resources for learning a second language, including Mandarin Chinese. Unfortunately, Chinese teachers have slim pickings for Chinese-language books available in the United States. The alternative is to bring home books from annual trips to China or Taiwan. Most teachers do this too, but as everyone know, books are heavy! It is certainly possible to use English-language books in class and just tell the story in Mandarin Chinese. The drawback to doing this is that it can be a little distracting when kids are already starting to read in English. Enter wordless story books. Teachers can use them to tell a story in Chinese, and they have the added benefit of not having distracting English text. There are many, many wordless picture books out there and they can quickly increase the size of your library.

Story Listening Stories

photo of white board from story listening lesson on Mid-Autumn Festival
Pictures of the characters help students keep track of who is in the story

Story listening is a great use of class time. The beauty of story listening is that it is very easy to modify stories for different proficiency levels and different age groups. For teachers who have a decent drawing ability (illustrations help students get the meaning), prep for story listening is also very little. If teachers tell stories from the culture of the target language they also can kill two birds with one stone, or two eagles with one arrow as we say in Chinese*. This way, students get both cultural knowledge and input in the target language.

Susan You Mafan

Cover of Susan You Mafan
Cover of Susan You Mafan

Books that are written for language learners are worth their weight in gold. The novel, Susan You Mafan, is great for first year language classes. The story and characters appeal to middle and high schoolers. This year, I tried it out on adults. To my delight, they really enjoyed reading this novel, even though it is about a 14 year old. We learn to read by reading. The struggle for students is to have appropriate material for them to read. It is great that Susan You Mafan works for students of all ages.

The David Series

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

These books are a bullet-proof resource for my classes with young children. I think that there really is something about the character of David that really resonates with the little ones. Chinese-language versions of the David books are in the Lotus Chinese Learning library. They are great for learning Chinese because children often already know the story. This way they can focus on matching the new words into the story that they already understand.**

Map of China

photo of map of China in classroom
Map of China in beginner Mandarin class for adults

While my main task with students is to teach them Mandarin Chinese, it is also important that they learn a bit about the culture and geography. This map of China does not have any Chinese characters, but it does have nice illustrations that pique the students’ interest. It is also super useful for adult classes when we talk about where the students have been in China and where they would like to go!

The Importance of Stories

Is there a theme here? Yes, with the exception of my pretty map, all of my favorite resources for 2018 have to do with stories. Stories are perfect for language instruction for two reasons. Firstly, they give students the input (i.e. hearing the language) that they need in order to learn. They are also interesting to students. Students have an easier time paying attention and staying engaged when the class content is something interesting to them. Stories are inherently interesting, pretending to buy tickets in a train station is not.


** Many of these books are also available in Spanish and French

Story Listening for Mandarin Chinese

What is story listening?

Students in Mandarin class need lots of comprehensible input, either through hearing the language or through reading it, in order to acquire the language. One method for a high quality listening activity is called story listening. A Japanese English professor called Beniko Mason developed this method at her university in Tokyo. In addition to giving the students lots of aural Mandarin, story listening can also help students learn about Chinese culture.

How Does Story Listening Work?

In story listening, teachers tell a story to the class using simple, short sentences. They also use lots of gestures, drawings and photos to give meaning. With this method, students should be getting lots of comprehensible input. They should understand 100% (or close to 100%) of what their teacher is saying. For beginner classes or intermediate classes, the storytelling session will be different than it would be for an audience of native speakers. The teacher will speak more slowly, use more repetitions and will only use words that the students know.

When I do story listening in class, I like to use some techniques to make sure that the students are “getting it.” It is also important to make sure that the teacher is truly providing comprehensible input. I check in often with students while telling the story. I ask, “what did I just say, say it back to me in English.” Or we do a “finger check,” they hold up one finger to show they barely understood anything. They hold up five fingers to show that they understand everything. The goal is to see each student hold up five fingers. I know I am on the right track when I see all the students hold up four or five fingers.

Teaching Culture

Story listening works for language acquisition because students focus on the meaning of the story. If the teacher tells the story effectively, the students understand the story so they are getting lots of comprehensible input. It is also great way to expose students to Chinese culture. The stories of Mulan, the nian monster, the monkey king, etc could all work for a story listening activity. The teacher just needs to make sure that she only uses words that the students know already, or comes prepared with lots of pictures/drawings.


Some critics of story listening think that it is too teacher-centered. To borrow a phrase from language-learning expert Bill VanPatten, this method is teacher-led, but it is student-centered. The teacher is usually standing at the front of the class, but the teacher modifies the story heavily for the students. The teachers gears everything towards their understanding. Story listening is only teacher-centered in appearance. Teachers also periodically check in with students. Students are not just passive listeners.

More Information on Story Listening and Examples

There are many examples of story listening on the internet. Interested folks can watch Beniko Mason herself do a story listening session here.  Many, many other teachers post videos of story listening they do with students on YouTube.

Story listening is just one way to give students the comprehensible input they need in order to acquire Mandarin. It should be, relaxing, enjoyable and fun. It is a great way for students to learn about Chinese culture while they are also learning the Mandarin language. Below is a photo of my whiteboard for part of a story listening session on Mulan. You can see that I use lots of pictures and drawings. The students see pinyin for newish words and Chinese characters for words that they know very well. This session was for kids. A story told to adults might be a bit different.

story listening white board photo Mulan
Example of what the white board looks like for part of one story listening session. This is for the story of Hua Mulan