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The Mandarin Excellence Programme is part of the UK Government’s drive to extend opportunity and access to Mandarin for young people, whatever their background.

As leading educators in Mandarin, schools on the programme will see their secondary school pupils studying Mandarin for eight hours a week over the course of the next four years – a significant increase on the time pupils currently spend on the subject. This blog has been set up to share ideas, pedagogy, activities and resources with you, and to act as a platform for you to openly share any materials, ideas, reflections you would like to share with the Mandarin teaching community on the internet.

Teachers who are not participating on the MEP are also welcome to use this site.

Vocabulary Activities

According to recent research in EFL, students need to encounter a new word 10-16 times in order to “learn” it- Is this the same for CFL do you think? whatever the answer is, it’s safe to say that exposure to, and recycling of, vocabulary is vital to building up vocabulary from character, to structure, to sentence level.

Claudia Pesce on Busyteacher.org states that, to effectively acquire new vocabulary, students must go through four essential stages:

  • first, they notice a new word with help;
  • secondly, they recognize the word at first with help,
  • then later on their own;
  • and lastly, they are able to both recognize and produce the word.

We as teachers need to ensure that our activities don’t just introduce new vocabulary, but that we give students multiple opportunities to put these new words to use in controlled and freer practice. Here are some ways to do so.

Pronunciation and tones- is it important to spend dedicated time on them?

Pronunciation is often overlooked in a busy, time-pressed classroom. This is as true for Chinese as it is for many other languages, and understandably so when there are many areas that need to be covered, and precious little time to do it. However, in my teaching experience spending a little bit of dedicated time focusing on tone and sound skills is really important, especially in the earlier stages of learning. This time can really help in multiple ways:

  1. Building learner’s confidence to produce unfamiliar sounds right from the start of learning, which helps when building up to word and sentence-level language production.
  2. Chinese has a different rhythm to English, so exposing students early on to differences will help them as they build language.
  3. Pronunciation games are really fun! They are a great way to start/end a lesson, or to give to students as a challenge to practice together or at home.
  4. It helps with listening skills if students really learn to hear and produce the difference between different sounds, especially those commonly confused ones in Mandarin. This means building up to longer listening activities is less frightening and overwhelming for students.

The technique of teaching pronunciation is often overlooked, changed into a vocabulary focused activity, or not explained well. Too commonly teachers will say sounds and ask students to repeat, without helping them understand what they are supposed to be doing with their lips, mouth or jaw. You need to clearly show and tell students what to do (where to place their tongue, are their teeth together or not, is the sound in the nose, are the lips tight or loose) – all of this helps students be able to better produce the sound later.

An excellent resource is McGraw-Hill’s Chinese Pronunciation book. For teachers looking for fun games and activities, there are many suggested ideas on pages here, many of which were inspired by  Adrian Underhill (who is an expert in English pronunciation).  We are always happy to hear thoughts and suggestions, and to add to the site. For more ideas, click on the tab above!

Task-Based/ Project-based learning

Task-Based Learning (TBL) or Project-Based Learning is a way of developing language through the “performance of meaningful tasks central to the learning process” (J Harmer; p71, The Practice of English Language Teaching). The belief is, that is students are occupied with the process of completing a task, they are just as likely to learn language- which they acquire as needed throughout the task-completion process- as they would do if they were focussing on language forms. it is something I’ve used a lot as a language teacher as it has always resulted in high-student motivation to learn, as well as giving some interesting tangents in the language classroom.

As a simple example, if you want students to focus on time structures, you could present them with a train timetable and ask questions about what day/ time the Beijing-Shanghai train leaves; when does it arrive, how long does the Xian-Chengdu train take etc. Through completion of the task, students will have to seek out the language structures needed to complete the activity.

Some pros and cons:

This style of approach is, by its nature, both less predictable than a traditional approach, as not all emergent language can be predicted. On the positive side, this does mean that students themselves are identifiying the language that they are interested in knowing however, thus developing their own language skills and intrinstic desire to learn. Also, particularly at earlier stages of learning, a balance has to be struck between complexity of task and complexity of language- however, it is a useful way in which to empower learners early on.

Secondly, this approach is considerably more time-consuming than straightforward delivery of content, and is not always best suited to a time-pressed classroom environment. Where it is incredibly useful however could be as an over-arching project across a term or half term, or as an on-going homework project or, in the case of MEP teachers, as a project focus on a weekly basis, since the 8 hours of learning time allows for language exploration.

An example of TBL:

Topic-based- eg the Environment

Under this topic you could carry out any of the following projects:

  1. create an emagazine
  2. create an ad campaign
  3. carry out interviews online
  4. carry out class voting
  5. create a survey, then carry it out (and write up results)
  6. photo shoot in local area, interview people, write up
  7. local projects research- what is going on in your local area? Can you translate posters/ information for Chinese residents?
  8. chinese research- what are some initiatives in China (compare and contrast- even better if you have a twin school)

You then use the topic tasks to build up language needed, working with emergent language. Bring in grammar that’s relevant (questioning, statement, comparisions, etc), and design tasks so that relevant structures are indentified and explained as the task is carried out.

learning styles and methods

A short post this morning as I’ve found some interesting resources that talk about this topic in relation to Mandarin Chinese teaching. As we all know, there are as many ways to learn as there are people in the world; that is to say, everyone has their own methods to learn, the trick as a teacher is to wqork out how to unlock that potential in our students. Seeing ourselves not as teachers but as “learner coaches” is a good step towards this, and is explained further on this blogsite: Learner Coach

Developing an holistic approach to learning within our students is also something to consider, and is explored in more detail here: Holistic Learning

Developing a learning toolkit is valuable too, here’s how to do it for learning Mandarin Chinese: http://www.hackingchinese.com/tag/toolkit/

Spaced repetition software is also available and is wide used in the Chinese classroom, especially with tols such as Memrise and Skritter. Finding interesting ways to utilise such sites is a great way to engage learners both in and out of the classroom.