Concentration: The Evergreen Game

Games for Chinese Class

One of the great joys of working with children is seeing that so many games stick around through the generations. Kids are still playing freeze tag, because it is awesome. Unfortunately, we cannot play freeze tag all day for Chinese class. There are other evergreen games that we can play so the children can learn Mandarin Chinese while having fun. One of those games is concentration (also called memory). 

The Game of Concentration

You remember playing concentration, right? There is a set of cards based on a theme, with matching pairs. They are placed face down on a table or the floor. Players take turns turning two cards over at a time to try and find the matching pairs. I like playing games that the kids already know how to play because then we can spend more time with actual game play and less with explaining directions.

kids playing concentration
Kids in one of my classes playing a homemade version of concentration.

Sure, you could play this game in utter silence, but I have actually found that it works well as a game for Chinese class. I play a few variations with the kids, but this post is about a version that I do with Chinese animals.

How to Play it

First, I introduce the map of China. We Chinese teachers are lucky since we can cover most of the Chinese-speaking world (or least places where Mandarin is an official language) with just a map of China and Taiwan. I honestly don’t know how Spanish teachers manage to cover the geography of the Spanish-speaking world. There are so many countries! Then, I introduce animals that live in China.

In general, kids love animals. They like looking at pictures of pandas, snow leopards, and camels. They don’t even notice that they are learning Chinese while we look at the fun pictures (it’s all part of my evil plan, mwah haha!) Sure, camel is not a high-frequency word. A person could certainly argue that spending precious class time talking going over the word for camel is a waste. In talking about camels, however, I am using lots of high frequency expressions. I ask, “what animal is this?” “Where does it live?” “Is is from China?”

photo of baby panda
If all else fails, a cute picture of a panda will get them to pay attention.

Why this Game is Useful

Some of the animals we talk about are only found in specific regions of China. Some you can find all over. Once we finish with this part of the lesson, we move on to actual game play. Again, a person could argue that talking about exotic animals (well, exotic to Americans) is not a good use of class time. But really, the kids hear lots of high-frequency words during game play. They hear “what is it?” “is it a xx?” “no, it is not xx” “Shelby has two xx” The children hear the words for “to be” and “to have” over and over again.

As we know with language learning, repetition is the name of the game. We can also play the game more than once in class so that the kids can get even more of that sweet, sweet repetition.

By playing concentration with Chinese animals, children learn loads of different things. They learn Chinese geography, the names of different animals, and also the high frequency expressions mentioned above. The best part is, they don’t even realize that we are learning! They think that we are just playing a game!

Do you have suggestions for a game to play in Chinese class? Please share in the comments!

More posts on SPECIFIC activities that we can do in Chinese class:

How well do you know African animals?

Movie talk: Bao (short film)

Learning Chinese with Tasks

What are tasks?

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.

photo of students putting together a puzzle
Is this task communicative? Yes, the purpose is for us to find out how many states the students have been to. The purpose is NOT to “practice” a verb form.

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.

More on tasks and language learning

*I’ve also done a version of this task with adults

Pet Task with Novice Students

Why Use Tasks?

Class time is a zero-sum game. Elementary students who are in 90-10 immersion classes spend the majority of their day in the L2, but students in FLES (foreign language in elementary school) programs have less exposure to language. This means that their teachers have to take advantage of every moment in class. A good use of class time is to focus on the most commonly-used structures in the target language. We spend a great deal of time talking about what we like, what we want, what we have, what we think… Especially for novice students, it is important to give students input in these structures. It is also important to use a topic that interests the students. For kids, my go-to topic is pets.

What a Task Looks Like

To that end, in one of my elementary classes we made a chart to show which pets the students have. Figuring out which students have which pets requires asking “who has a dog?” “does Mary have a dog?” over and over. By the time we have asked a small group of students these questions about several different pets, they have heard 有 (have) used in a sentence 20 times at least. I have read that language learners need to hear a word in context 73 times before it really sinks in. That number seems…. awfully specific, however the point remains that language students need a lot of repetition, in context.* This means embedding the repetition in a task that is engaging, rather than standing at the front of the class and saying a sentence with “have” 73 times. With a simple task, the students heard about 20 repetitions in less than 15 minutes. Not bad!

Our chart that we made is below, we talked about which students have which pets and also started listing what those pets like. Names are blurred for student privacy.

Photo of chart that shows which pets the students have (dog, cat, frog)
Chart we made showing pets the students have

*If you’re interested, here is a link to a study about the connection between learning new words and building new neural pathways.