Mandarin teacher Frank Fan tells us how he uses learning activities and games in his classroom – as well as a sense of humour.
Mandarin Chinese is not difficult, just different
I believe that anyone with positive learning attitude can make good progress in Mandarin Chinese language learning.
Chinese is a tonal language. When we join words and tones together, the rhythm and tone is a bit like rap music.
Many of my students like the visual aspect of written Chinese. Chinese characters originate from drawings. These origins can be seen in many characters, for example:
When introduced to these characters, many of my students tell me: ‘Sir, it’s like a picture and I can see the meaning!’
The Chinese language is also logical. Some students can use their imagination to figure out the meaning of words, for example:
Rocket 火箭 (literally ‘fire’ and ‘arrow’)
Train 火车 (meaning ‘fire’ and 'vehicle’ – in reference to coal-fuelled trains)
Computer 电脑 (literally ‘electric’ and ‘brain’)
Telephone 电话 (the words for ‘electric’ and ‘talking’)
I introduce and reinforce vocabulary in the classroom through learning games. Some favourites include:
This game introduces vocabulary and guides students to build up sentences.
For example, we could build up this sentence in English: ‘Hobby’ > ‘my hobby’ > ‘my hobby is to go online’ > ‘my brother’s hobby is to go online’
As sentences are formed in Chinese, we build up a pyramid:
I challenge my students to build the biggest pyramid they can!
Flash card game
I show Chinese characters on a card and ask my students to write down the meaning in English. This game helps to slowly build up students’ confidence, especially beginners.
Students learn new vocabulary as their homework. The following week we play the bingo game. I call out the new vocabulary and if a student hears a word featured on their bingo card, they mark it off. The first student to mark off all the words must call out: ‘zhòng le!’ (‘I won!’)
The winner must tell me the English meaning of the words. Higher ability students must also tell me the character in Mandarin. This is a great game for differentiation for all year groups.
I bring a unique set of rules to my Chinese language classroom
I refer to my classroom as ‘The Great Wall of China.’ Outside the classroom is the UK; inside my classroom is China. Every week, to enter ‘China’, students wait at my door and give me the password in Chinese.
There are lots of rules in Chinese language learning.
When writing Chinese characters, pen strokes must be done in a certain order. To give a simple example, the number one is written with a single horizontal stroke made from left to right:
The number two is formed by making two horizontal strokes: the first stroke is positioned on top and the second stroke is made underneath:
In class I use a PowerPoint deck with animated Chinese characters to demonstrate how they should be written.
I tell my students: ‘If you don’t mind, I will stand behind you like a little dinosaur and watch you copying the characters – and I’ll make a little noise if you get it wrong.’
It becomes like a game, a challenge to them. Students can opt out of the game if they prefer, but I haven’t had a student do that. Parents are supportive too.
I tell my class: ‘Today you will follow my rules in writing; tomorrow you can create your own Chinese signature’.
I bring my sense of humour to lessons
I think this has helped students and parents to like and respect me. No one has rejected the teaching and learning of Chinese language and culture.
Throughout lockdown, I’ve been sending weekly videos of me giving a Mandarin Chinese lesson. I incorporate my hobbies into the lessons, including cookery, singing, dancing and DIY (do-it-yourself).
I built my own skateboard for one of these video lessons, which sadly broke during my demonstration – but at least it made everyone laugh!
I am proud of what the school community and I are achieving together. My students remain committed to learning and continue to make progress.
Frank Fan is Head of Languages at Melbourn Village College, Cambridgeshire. He was the first Mandarin Chinese teacher at a state school in the county of Cambridgeshire, England.
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