Teaching Chinese in the sunshine – finding the keys to unlocking students’ potential

This blog post is about the learning journey of teachers. In particular it is about my learning journey at Chinese for Families , now in its twelfth year of operation. Many thanks to all who have supported me in this journey.

There is a famous Chinese idiom about a frog who lives in a well. This frog thinks the sky is only the size of the mouth of the well because that is all he has ever seen. When a passing bird tries to tell him about the vast world outside, he angrily rejects her words as rubbish. To me, this metaphor is very relevant to the field of Chinese as an additional language education.

As a practicing teacher, I see that a significant number of key players have already given up before the students even walk into the classroom. Chinese is ‘too hard’, students are ‘unmotivated’, it is ‘not possible’ or even more sadly, it is ‘not important’ or children ‘shouldn’t have to learn it’. Without belief, purpose or a sense of the importance of our work we cannot teach effectively, while without effective teaching most children will not learn.

An adapted version of this idiom “Viewing the sky from the bottom of a well” appears in AI Story Time

In fact, we do not yet fully know what is possible. The question of how best to present this very different language with a highly memory based written system to children growing up in the Western educational environment is still not fully explored or understood, although there is a small but growing body of research on the topic. To learn more, we need to be willing to try different approaches and leave the safety of the well of past practice. To have the courage to explore, we need to believe in the children’s learning potential and in the importance of our work.
I started a one lesson a week program, Chinese for Families Adelaide, in 2008 with a belief that it was possible for children to learn more than was common in once a week primary language programs and a desire to find out how to do it. I wanted them to develop a sense of the language and give them a foundation that would set them up for success in secondary school. Read more

Better Chinese and immersion schools in the US

This April I visited Better Chinese at their Palo Alto office in Silicon Valley, California. It was great to meet everyone in person and find out more about some exciting product developments. Better Chinese currently supports over 55% of Chinese language immersion programs in the United States so they organised some school visits for me. While I was there, we also discussed developments and programs in the Australia/New Zealand region.

Some exciting developments with Better Chinese include

  • Modern Chinese has been adopted by a number of US universities including Northwestern University (world university ranking: 26).
  • Better Chinese has been further developing their iPad app and e-book options. I will be able to share more details soon.
  • Chinese language teaching continues to boom in the US and Better Chinese is well established as a leading publisher with over 1200 schools utilizing Better Chinese materials

Immersion Programs

There are currently around 126 Chinese immersion schools in the US. While I was in Palo Alto Better Chinese arranged for me to visit two elementary schools with outstanding Chinese immersion programs. I went with Li-Hsiang Yu Shen, the founder of Better Chinese who visited Sydney in 2011.

The first school we visited was the International School of the Peninsula (www.istp.org ), a private kindergarten to Grade 8 school offering both Chinese and French language immersion programs. We first met with Head of School Philippe Dietz and Assistant Head of School Kate Lussen who gave me a general overview of the program. In kindergarten 80% of the classroom time is in Mandarin. By Grade 4/5 50% of instruction time is in Mandarin, with Maths and Science taught in English at the higher year levels. In the early years, immersion students on average slightly underperform on standardised testing on English and Maths but by Grade 8 they are consistently outperforming their monolingual peers. Communicating and working with parents is essential so that non-Chinese speaking parents in particular know what is happening with their child’s education and can support at home in English. ISTP students are also expected to do between 2-4 hours of homework a night depending on the year level.

We visited a kindergarten and Grade 1 classroom and I also got the chance to speak with the Grade 3 teacher. Li-Hsiang Yu Shen had played a central role in setting up the program and training the teachers and was warmly welcomed in all the classrooms and offices we visited. In the kindergarten classroom it was mat time. It was amazing to see the teachers fully explaining the upcoming activities in Chinese with the children fully comprehending and responding in Chinese or mixed Chinese/English. In the Grade 1 class the children were doing addition and subtraction using an abacus in the full Chinese immersion environment. The teacher went around the room checking and asking students about their work in Chinese with language no impediment to the children’s mathematical learning. The Grade 1 students use adjacent Chinese and English classrooms. When they are with their Chinese teacher in the Chinese classroom they learn pinyin pronunciation and when they are with their English teacher in the English classroom they learn the English alphabet. Li-Hsiang Yu Shen and the teachers assured me that the children manage this easily with no problems.

I was particularly impressed with how effectively the students learn to read and write characters in the immersion environment. In the kindergarten the teachers use My First Chinese Words to develop students literacy. In the Grade 1 classroom all the information displayed such as the classroom rules, poster on tooth health and so on were all in characters. At ISTP students learn traditional characters until Grade 4/5 when they switch to simplified. The Grade 3 teacher showed me how she taught character analysis and also an example of student composition on an iPad. On the wall were also posters on the science topics of geometrical formations and bacteria.

The second school we visited was Ohlone Elementary School www.ohlone.pausd.org, a public Kindergarten to Grade 5 elementary school offering non-traditional community and student centred education with a strong emphasis on parental involvement. Ohlone also offers a Mandarin immersion program with Mandarin instruction time of 80% in Kindergarten/Grade 1, 60% in Grades 2/3 and 50% in Grades 4/5. As both the school itself and the immersion program are very popular, enrolment by students not living in the school zone is by lottery (with one lottery for the school and one for the immersion program in particular). The school deliberately chooses 35-50% of the students in the program to be native Chinese speakers to act as role models with the rest being non-native speakers.

Ohlone has a farm with not only gardens but many animals. On one morning that I was there, the kindergarten/Grade 1 class had Farm lesson where the Farm teacher taught the children (in English) about chickens. The students then returned to the main classroom where all instruction is in Chinese. There were beautiful farm displays fully labelled in Chinese characters and farm models the students had been making. On the whiteboard there was a chart with questions and answers about farm animals and the teacher told me 80% of the children could read all of the characters used. I also got the chance to observe mat time, where the teacher taught and gave instructions fully in Chinese with the students showing full comprehension and mostly responding in Chinese.

I also got the chance to observe a Grade 4/5 class. The teacher was talking to the students about Earth Day discussing topics such as the Earth Day founder and environmental problems at native speaker speed and vocabulary level with no language modification. From what I witnessed, the listening comprehension of the students was significantly higher than a typical Year 12 second language learner.

I was deeply impressed by the commitment to Mandarin language education at the two schools I visited and the skill of the teachers. I was amazed by the fluency and literacy level of the students, many of whom clearly had no Chinese heritage. I would like to thank the International School of the Peninsula and Ohlone Elementary School for allowing me to visit their schools and also Better Chinese for arranging these visits for me.

Link to article.







Better Chinese founder visits Sydney’ July 2011

Yu-Laoshi-of-Better-ChineseLi-Hsiang Yu Shen, founder and chief editor of publishing company Better Chinese, visited Sydney from 7 to 11 July this year. She gave half day and full day workshops to interested Chinese teachers on the 7th and 8th and also presented at the national conference on the 10th. It was my first time to meet Yu Laoshi or in fact anyone from Better Chinese and during the time we spent together in Sydney I gained a much deeper understanding of both the company and the pedagogy behind the teaching materials.

Better Chinese was founded by Yu Laoshi and her husband CK Shen after they retired from their careers as diplomats. During their years living abroad they found repeatedly that their daughters had no interest in learning Chinese and could not help but notice how dull the Chinese teaching materials looked in comparison to those from European and English speaking countries. The aim of Better Chinese is to change this – to develop a wide range of materials which make learning Chinese fun and meaningful for students. Better Chinese started with a story book club and language centre in Hong Kong. Yu Laoshi and CK Shen retired from comfortable jobs in the diplomatic service and, along with their son-in-law James who is the CEO, threw all their energies into developing the company. While all this was already known to me, what struck me from talking to Yu Laoshi were both the strong sense of mission and also the challenges involved in their second careers in publishing – it certainly has been a meaningful but not an easy option.

Yu Laoshi covered many areas in her presentations in Sydney. I was impressed the strong emphasis not only on pedagogy but also on educational philosophy and child development. Usually in our Chinese teaching professional development in Australia we restrict ourselves to very specific discussions of Chinese language classroom teaching and tend not to take a wider perspective or engage with the broader philosophies behind children’s mainstream classroom education. Many teachers who have started to use ‘My First Chinese Words’ in the classroom have noticed how well children respond and I think this is because these simple story books connect so well with what is meaningful and engaging to children. Yu Laoshi spent a lot of time discussing both the importance of play and storytelling in children’s lives and pointed to the ideas of educational thinkers such as Howard Gardner (multiple intelligences) and Reggio Emilia (emphasizing the child’s capability and potential).

Yu Laoshi also gave some interesting insights into Chinese language teaching in the US. Interest in learning Chinese has increased exponentially over the last few years so much so that there is a well-known slogan ‘Chinese is the new French’ and Chinese teachers now dominate the national modern language teachers association. As an example of the level of interest, a local San Francisco elementary (primary) school‘Starr King Elementary’, which had low student numbers and was on the verge of closure, introduced a Mandarin immersion program in an effort to boost enrolments. The parent community saw this as a sign that Starr King was a high quality academic school and student numbers increased dramatically. Yu Laoshi also showed slide shows of some best practice examples of Chinese language teaching in the US which included an elementary school where 80% of the mainstream classroom instruction was in Chinese. Immersion is a very popular form of language learning in the US and Yu Laoshi told me that there are many schools setting up Chinese language immersion programs now, particularly in Utah.

Better Chinese is based in Palo Alto which is in the San Francisco Bay Area in California and home to many famous Silicon Valley internet and technology companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google. It’s not surprising then that Better Chinese is a leader in the field of Chinese language instruction and online learning. The Better Chinese online curriculum gives students interactive listening, speaking, reading and writing practice and is fully integrated with the core curriculum. A successful trial project has already been run using Better Chinese apps for Ipads and this will be generally available soon.

In Australia we do face some different circumstances which make some lofty goals seem out of reach. For example you can’t achieve in one lesson a week what can be achieved in a full immersion program. Nonetheless we can still aim high and try to achieve as much as is possible in the time which is available to us. Teaching skills development and high quality resources are critical to achieving this. I believe that being a teacher involves life-long learning and one of the best ways to learn is from others which is why having a vibrant and dedicated professional association is so important. For me it was a wonderfully refreshing and eye opening experience to listen to Yu Laoshi’s presentations, not only for the depth of thought and creativity behind her pedagogy, but also just for the surprisingly different perspective of Chinese language learning in the US.

Belinda Dello-Iacovo

For more information about Better Chinese please email me at [email protected]