By Kay McLeod, Mandarin Excellence Programme Coordinator, UCL IOE Confucius Institute

29 April 2022 - 15:00

School artwork, cut out bird, decorated with Chinese style peonies and butterflies

British Council

Teacher Kay McLeod explains how the Mandarin Excellence Programme is helping teachers and pupils tackle the challenges of learning Mandarin, an approach she says could be adopted for other languages.

Building key skills in Chinese (Mandarin) poses extra challenges for anglophone learners. Listening requires the learner to distinguish unfamiliar tonal combinations; reading means recognizing characters with only occasional phonetic reminders; speaking requires producing new sounds and tonal patterns; and writing Chinese characters by hand requires knowing the correct stroke order, understanding Chinese orthographic components, and practising patiently.

In schools, one key ingredient for Mandarin success is therefore curriculum time.  Schools in England participating in the Department for Education’s Mandarin Excellence Programme (MEP) are now in their sixth year of an intensive model for language teaching, providing eight hours of Mandarin learning per week: four hours with a teacher, and four hours of independent study. Delivered by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) in partnership with the British Council, the programme is intended to provide the time and support needed to remove barriers to introducing Mandarin successfully as a subject.

“[My] Year 10 MEP group … have proven themselves not only to be a group of talented and exceptional Mandarin speakers but also team players and global citizens…”

Yadi Luo, teacher at St Mary Magdalene Academy

Our team at UCL IOE provides regular targeted teacher training, assessment, expert guidance for individual school contexts, teacher-made teaching materials, support with building university partnerships, and other practical support. Normally, UCL IOE and the British Council also provide face-to-face intensive study experiences to maximize students’ motivation and engagement - in 2021 we turned to virtual and blended learning approaches to keep students’ skills sharp.

Our approach to the MEP during the pandemic has been to find and exploit the advantages of remote learning wherever possible. As a result, MEP students have had unique opportunities to hone their skills through:

•  investigating target language and culture through self-guided projects

•  interacting with native speakers in new and engaging contexts

•  applying their Chinese knowledge to real-world online creative projects, and

•  trying out their Mandarin in a professional setting online.

The MEP does not dictate a particular scheme of work or fixed homework format – but to help deliver four hours of weekly self-study, we provide supplementary ready-made Student Projects. The projects cover a wealth of topics, from a self-guided lesson in how to type in Chinese (another key skill!) through to advanced GCSE-level Mandarin explorations of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The Student Projects are designed to boost students’ Mandarin skills while encouraging curiosity, independence, and a sense of participatory global citizenship.

Student projects like these can still be used during school closures. But what about the face-to-face learning experiences offered on the MEP? When Year 9s could not visit China in summer 2021, the British Council and IOE, in partnership with 14 universities across China and the Centre for Language Education and Cooperation, delivered a large-scale virtual China experience for 1,400 Year 9 students to hone their intercultural and interpersonal language skills online instead. The two-week event was hosted virtually by Chinese partner universities with learning design support from our curriculum team at UCL IOE. My aim in helping to plan the taught content was to capitalize on opportunities for virtual interaction in the absence of a ‘real’ China visit. Morning lessons rehearsed prior knowledge and refreshed key skills, which students then used in games and discussions with their Chinese peers. Feedback after the event showed that most students found this peer interaction style motivating.

“After each lesson my Mandarin felt stronger and it really felt like I was starting to improve.” 

Student at Anglo-European School speaking about the 2021 Year 9 Virtual China Trip

The Year 9 event covered four different topics, chosen to help build relevant GCSE vocabulary. Students had to listen, speak, read, and write in Chinese throughout the course. To boost students’ cultural awareness, Chinese host universities also conducted virtual visits to places of interest, and held interactive lectures – for instance, as part of a learning cycle about giant pandas, students interacted with panda experts using Microsoft Teams and the quiz platform Kahoot. 

Year 10s were due to have their own intensive study event in 2021, with a focus on professional skills and Mandarin career futures. The MEP Tourism Marketing Project requires students to work in groups to produce a professional marketing campaign in Mandarin, encouraging Chinese tourists to visit their local area in future.  Previously a face-to-face residential event in Nottingham, the original four-day learning sequence was redesigned with a blended learning approach. My colleagues and I at the IOE designed and built an online version of the course, which challenged students’ teamwork, planning, and digital creative skills online, as well as consolidating their GCSE-level Mandarin speaking and writing. Students had live Q&A sessions with tourism and marketing industry experts, who also judged the top peer-voted campaigns in a live final event.

“There were many beneficial tasks and activities that helped me make my project and I’m really grateful for everything that I’ve learnt from it.” 

Kizzie, student at Bay House School speaking about the Year 10 Tourism Project

Strong student outcomes continue to demonstrate the success of the MEP approach. The first cohort of MEP students achieved outstanding GCSE results in summer 2021, and all cohorts show dependable progress year-on-year as measured by our annual hurdle tests. The students’ creative project work speaks for itself, from our 2020 Summer Showcase to this year’s Year 10 Tourism Project.

Given the extra learning challenges I’ve described and the obvious advantages for the future workforce, Mandarin would seem the ideal language to test the limits of an intensive model like the MEP. We can only imagine what could be achieved in other modern languages with a similar initiative.

Images of London on a poster, St Paul's Cathedral, Victoria Embankment and the London Eye..
“Come to London, love London” – Year 10 MEP students at Saint Mary Magdalene Academy designed this poster with a catchy slogan that rhymes in Mandarin.  ©

Saint Mary Magdalene Academy

The Mandarin Excellence Programme is funded by the DfE and delivered by UCL IOE Confucius Institute for Schools in partnership with the British Council.

View, download and use all the MEP Student Projects

For searchable teacher-made resources please see the Mandarin Resources for Schools website (MARS) 

Read about the Year 9 Virtual Intensive Study in China and Watch students and teachers talking about the event.

Read about the Year 10 Virtual Mandarin Tourism Project and hear Year 10 students reporting on their experience.

Take a look at the Summer Showcase of student work during the 2020 lockdowns. 

Kay McLeod

Mandarin Excellence Programme Coordinator, UCL IOE Confucius Institute

Kay McLeod is the Mandarin Excellence Programme Coordinator and a tutor on the PGCE Languages pathway at UCL Institute of Education. She has previously worked as a Mandarin teacher and subject leader and as a classical Chinese opera translator.

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