When do you do Step 1?


I think the issue many people are having of late about “establishing meaning” and whether it can or cannot be done via gesture comes from numbering the “steps” of TPRS. Most people aren’t actually establishing meaning solely using gestures (it’s inefficient, imprecise and unneeded in most cases), but gesturing really should be just an adjunct, a mnemonic aid, not a means of communication in whole sentences, any more than Pinyin is intended as a tool to read long Chinese texts. It isn’t, and they aren’t. Similarly, comprehension checks need to be done sufficiently close to the use of the word or phrase so that it is still in auditory memory — otherwise the “linkage” between word/phrase and meaning cannot be made. TPRS does both these things  consistently, and if a teacher is not doing those two things consistently, then I would submit that what that teacher is doing is not TPRS. Find another acronym.

The “3 steps” of TPRS are not necessarily performed in that order — at least with regard to having the entirety of step 1 complete before step 2 is started. So “establishing meaning”, in COIN, doesn’t always lead off. In fact, I advise teachers not to lead off with it as a “let’s learn these words” activity. Using a “let’s review these words by having you do the gestures as I say them” is a reasonable, input-focused thing to do, because there’s already meaning attached at that point. We’re just freshening up those connections.

So, step 1, “establish meaning” can really happen at any moment up to and simultaneous to the introduction of a new word/phrase. I personally do not introduce “all the words” before class because a) I’m not smart enough to guarantee I can get more than 1 or maybe 2 items into a story while still taking into account the progress and reaction of my students; and b) I lose the element of surprise.

In my COIN practice (Comprehended Optimized Input through Narrative — which includes slightly modified-for-Chinese classic targeted TPRS, CCR and text-referenced writing) the flow is like this:

1. Use new words, establishing their meaning using English as each comes up [Establishing Meaning = write up on the board with English and Pinyin; attach a directional gesture (contains both semantic and tonal information); if applicable, pop-up a mnemonic story].

2. Read new words/phrases in characters as a long, whole-class CCR session.

3. Read new words/phrases in characters using more “typical” modalities of reading, using shorter texts, embedding, etc.

4. Write new words/phrases in characters in a composition of some sort by referring back to reading texts for mechanical issues.

“2” and “4” are probably Chinese- (or Japanese-) specific, and would also be useful for alphabetic languages without a Roman alphabet at the very beginning stages.

The case against 是 (shi4)

So you’re starting a new class using TPRS for Chinese.  The first thing to figure out, in Chinese, is what language you will be using with them, followed closely by “what will they read that contains that language?”

Many new TPRS teachers want to go basically the same route as traditional teaching, or maybe their subconscious does. Even though people really don’t introduce themselves using 是 very often in Chinese, for some reason people want to start out with kids identifying each other using 是. “He is Bob. She is Mary.” I strongly advise against this, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s just not very natural language. Yes, I know TPRS isn’t known for its Shakespearean (Lu Xun-ean?) beauty of language, particularly at the beginning levels. And one might argue, “But the identity pattern is so important. They will need to identify many things. And everyone can do this with a large number of names available for substitution, using the actual kids in the class!)

I believe strongly in violating what people believe is a fixed order of acquisition. I believe strongly that it’s possible to train microfluency on whichever pattern or word you like. And having said that, I believe strongly in getting early reps in on things that are both very meaningful (identifying classmates certainly applies here) and very typically Chinese. That latter element sometimes means providing “extra” reps above and beyond what you might expect, since things that are typically Chinese (in a language sense) are often not typically English-like.

So, think about it. How does a Chinese person introduce himself? In a formal situation, by using 姓 for “to be surnamed”. In a less formal situation, using 叫 for “to be named”. I can’t remember anyone ever providing information about what a person’s name was (whether his own name or that of someone beside him) using 是。 So I don’t think we want to reinforce that usage, especially when it’s important culturally to teach the more correct usages of 姓 and 叫.

But there’s another side to this as well. One might argue that we do compromise just a little bit on language naturalness in TPRS for the ultra-beginner because we just don’t have many choices (in Chinese at least). So what’s the harm of teaching the grammatically-correct (if not pragmatically lovely) 他 是 Bob?  My big objection to doing that right off the bat is that we are reinforcing the translation of “is”. And in Chinese, the only time the English “is” is really sort of out there and translated overtly is when it is what is called an equational sentence: THIS is THAT. Or, in this case, HE is NAME.

Much more frequently, the English “is” is not translated. He’s happy. He’s hungry. She’s smart. They are going. I am…whatever. Stative verbs. The ones that textbook-taught kids are forever adding 是 in front of, because they are translating from English the best they can. If TPRS-taught kids get enough input, it should be possible to avoid this — but why even prime the pump for the possibility of this problem, when we are going to be using stative verbs like, really really soon (really REALLY soon) and 是isn’t even really the most authentic word to use in this situation anyway?

The sequence I’ve been using with beginners for many years now starts from the Super 7, but 是 is not used in the very beginning. It’s just not needed. And I find it more useful to get them solid on saying 他 高兴 and not having anything that looks, smells like or walks like an “is” even on the table at that point. Then, when 是 is introduced, it’s more obvious that it is working to fill a specific niche — the identification function.

There’s another issue with using 他 是 Bob, 他 是 谁? stuff the first day. And that’s drilling. Because that’s what this is. I’ve observed teachers doing this with a new class, and after the first few students answer (and ask!) these questions, there is absolutely no need for anyone to listen anymore. There’s no comprehension going on, because the questions never change. It’s difficult to circle 是  effectively, especially on day 1 when you have no other language to use. In fact, 是 is one of those things that I try to exclude from circling practice sentences for teachers  who are just starting out circling, because it just doesn’t work very well for that kind of thing. So what you end up with is student after student looking at who the teacher is pointing to and repeating 他 是 plus name. It quickly loses the element of really having to listen carefully to get the meaning, and sinks down into replacement drill — particularly if you are teaching students of the age where everyone must have a turn or else. Or if you’re just making sure to give everyone a turn. This is the kind of drill we want to avoid, since by doing it, the students are learning that they don’t really have to listen and the content will not be very engaging or surprising. On the first day of class, that’s the last thing we want to have happen. There will be “those kinds of days” throughout the year, but let’s not bring them on ourselves by doing drills.

And think about the reading. Lines of pictures, with a single line under each. 他 不是 Obama. 他 不是 Nixon. 他 是 Abraham Lincoln.  This is the sort of thing that the legacy-method teachers give out as reading, because their kids don’t have more sophisticated language. This is not a compelling story. It’s not even a story. If you use 是 simply to identify the name of the character in the reading, you are not getting the kind of repetition on that character that is required for the students to easily “get it”. So we’re stuck, all because of that 是.

I have to date found no more solid way to begin the year than the sequence laid out in Zhongwen Bu Mafan!: 酷,哭, 想吃,在, 有, 没有。  The 在 can be delayed, of course. But with just these super-few words, you have a potential for a narrative, a conflict, a resolution. For any sort of interesting discourse, there has to be some sort of problem or issue or unhappiness or dissatisfaction that is (or is not) remedied. 是 doesn’t contribute much toward that, so I strongly advise delaying it until (only slightly) later  as you progress through the Super 7.

It’s a demo, it’s brand new, it’s me, it’s amazing

Maybe it is.

But generally speaking — it’s very, very easy these days for anyone to post a video or a demo or a tutorial or a whatever, and get very extensive coverage and lots of views and lots of “likes”.

That doesn’t mean that we should not think carefully about a few things.

–Do I believe firmly that my TPRS technique is strong enough to be held up as a demonstration for others to imitate? I strongly urge teachers to watch their own videos critically and not label them “demo” without at a minimum pointing out the things one would not want others to imitate. New teachers can’t tell the difference when they watch that video. Many enthusiastic new-ish teachers can’t tell that what they are doing isn’t demo-worthy yet, either.

–Is what I’m doing really so different and new that it’s something, well, different and new? Is my contribution confusing the issue about what TPRS is or isn’t? Am I really clear on that, before I label what I’m posting “TPRS”? Should I label my video or tutorial as a “CI-based activity” rather than “TPRS”?

–What is my aim in putting up this video or post? Am I trying to share something I’m doing that I believe will benefit others through observation or imitation, or am I trying to build my “brand”, or am I posting just because other teachers are posting and I should, too?

Helping to make sure that things on the Internet that are labeled “TPRS” really represent the best of the method helps the method in the long run. I think it’s well worth thinking about.

Can, or should?

On a teachers’ list, a hypothesis was recently posted:

The more compelling the input, the more listeners and readers can tolerate noise.

Maybe they can. But should they?

I believe that the goal of teaching a language class does not lie in engaging students. I believe it is to get them to acquire the language. Engagement should serve acquisition, not serve the presentation of things that do not serve acquisition. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how engaging a particular piece of language is if it contains a lot of noise, because the noise can’t be comprehended, and therefore it can’t be acquired. Acquisition would be better served by presenting language without noise. It’s difficult to think of a reason compelling enough to force the presentation of noise-ridden language in a class that aims for acquisition if all that noise cannot be acquired. If the content requires so much noise that the word “tolerate” is being used, it is better to simply do it in the native language, or delay it until the pool of acquired language is great enough to handle it.

I believe that the amount of noise you allow in is the amount of class time that is wasted at the TPRS level (prior to acquisition of the major structures of the language). It is the stones in your mashed potatoes. It is language that cannot be comprehended, and as TPRS teachers, we are not at all about non-comprehensible input. Making sure the language is comprehended is Job 1. It  cannot be compromised because the teacher wants to present some story or other.

I think that optimal techniques change after the TPRS level. There is room for much more noise, and room for rapid expansion of large amounts of vocabulary. This is because there is a solid base to build on. Without that base of acquired structure and high-frequency vocabulary, noise is more difficult to deal with (aside from not driving the rapid acquisition that is desirable at that level).

I am not aware of any research showing that people need special training or “experience” to deal with noise in situations where they have to. The best training to allow them to deal with noise, IMO, is input without noise, which is the most efficient driver of acquisition. Between practicing dealing with noise, and giving more acquired language, I would far prefer to use class time for the latter, because it is far more useful in actually dealing with noise in the real world.

C is for Comprehended


I’ve thought about how I teach. And I’ve realized I do not teach with comprehensible input. I teach with comprehended input.


Comprehensible is not enough. Something that “can” be comprehended is not always comprehended. Especially with all the kinda-sorta definitions of “comprehensible” floating around these days.

There must be a match between meaning and the incoming language in order for the brain to acquire that language. If there is less than total comprehension (not total transparency, which means understanding of the analytical aspects of the language) then there will be less than a total match.

Allowing anything less than a total match means wasted time. It’s like mixing rocks into your mashed potatoes. You might manage to swallow them, but they’re not going to be digested. And nobody wants pebbles in that buttery goodness, do they?

It may also mean increased anxiety. Those rocks in the mashed potatoes interrupt the pleasure of eating the delicious, warm, soft mass of potatoes with the buttery flavor (it is nearly dinnertime, can you tell?), injecting the abject fear of cracking a tooth. Have you ever done that? I don’t think I’ll ever be able to enjoy Rocky Road ice cream again. Uncomprehended chunks of language work the same way, prompting fear of not “getting it”. Of not succeeding. Of being not quite enough.

TPRS is all about success. We reject the “no pain, no gain” idea. There was no pain in acquiring the first language, and there doesn’t need to be pain in acquiring the second and subsequent ones. We do need to let go of the idea that we can serve two masters at once. Either we are facilitating acquisition, which means providing easy-to-digest language, or we are doing other things, mostly things that other people who are not language acquisition facilitators are telling us to do, like “building grit” or “helping kids to deal with ambiguity” or “helping them learn to handle unknowns”.  If we do those things, we will exponentially reduce the effectiveness of the acquisition going on in our classrooms.

The gift of success in a language classroom is something that we can give to an incredibly high proportion of students through TPRS (or, for Chinese, with COIN, which uses TPRS for oral language plus CCR and TRW as specific extended literacy techniques). As always, I am talking about beginners. I care about beginners because — especially in Chinese — this is when they are lost to us if we do not give them what they truly need. More advanced students can handle a bit of gravel in the potatoes if they have to, but the beginners can’t. They shouldn’t have to. We have only one chance to convince students that they can succeed. The chance to convince students who may never have felt they were as good as everyone else that they can be just as good as everyone else in a language is too valuable to sacrifice for some trendy edubabble goal that can perfectly well be promoted during other classes.

Because, remember, what we “teach” is different. There are no native speakers of math, chemistry or baseball. Only language. If we give in and teach the same way, letting our eyes slip from the ultimate goal of acquisition, we’re reduced to arguing about which kind of rock goes best with Idaho russets.

No rock. No uncomprehended language. And that means checking that students do comprehend. Checking at the time the language is used. Checking over and over to make sure, because beginners are delicate and it’s easy to break them without even meaning to, just by confusing them.  A confused kid would rather look like a bad kid most of the time, and then the classroom management issues start. Or else the confused kids just check out and sit inert, putting up with the class period the same way they do anything else they can’t do anything about, and then they drop out of language the first minute they can.



“Untargeted input”: a nonstarter for Chinese

So, here’s the thing with targeting. You know, planning what you’re going to teach before the teaching happens. And having teaching happen, as opposed to just “saying that” and hoping it will stick by the end of the year.

Why do I always sound so negative about those “nontargeted” techniques? Surely many teachers are doing that successfully, if we are to believe what is posted (repeatedly)? Maybe they are. But they are not teaching Chinese. They are not teaching Japanese. They are teaching a language that has a phonetic alphabet and no literacy issues. I’m not even going to go into the issues of having sufficient professional freedom as a teacher to teach without lesson plans or a curriculum or mapping. Those are facts and are self-evident to those who are working under such restrictions.

But let’s think about Chinese for a minute. (Hey, you know what blog you’re on. What did you expect?)

Let’s say we introduce a Chinese word on the fly. Let’s assume the student can understand that word when it comes up in a story that is told to the student (as story-listening does) or just in casual conversation without specific direction (as these proponents of non-targeting are often doing). That’s great. Should be fine, right?

Okay, now let’s read.

For reading in Chinese (also in Japanese, to a great extent) you have two choices. You can push the necessary pattern recognition of characters/kanji using acquired language (the students must be able to come up with the phonetic forms of those words on their own, with no prompting, which is very, very much like what happens when a word is fully acquired, though not entirely so; but it is certainly not like what happens when the student has just heard the word a few times to understand it). Or you can force memorization, which makes a link between the character/kanji and the pronunciation and meaning.

Memorization is the method that has been used for many, many years to teach these languages. It isn’t very effective. We lose an enormous proportion of students to memorization of characters in Chinese. But unfortunately, without enough repetition of individual words before reading, there’s no way the student can come up with that sound form on his own while reading. He’s fine if he can — he can understand what the word means then — but he cannot simply by seeing that squiggle on the page. (It’s possible to read Chinese without being able to pronounce it, but that’s certainly not what we want to support overall acquisition for beginners.)

So failing to target — to use optimized input which is highly comprehensible, dense and repetitious — means that students MUST memorize as a path to reading.

I’ve taught reading both ways. I’ve experienced it both ways, too. I can tell you that I would never, never go back to a memorization-based literacy method either as a student or as a teacher. Most of the Mandarin teachers I know who use cold character reading (in which semi-acquired language pushes reading comprehension in the non-phonetic script) also say they prefer it to the old methods. But to do it, you MUST have that language semi-acquired — the students must have the “Chinese voice” that puts the sound of the unknown (visual) word into their head, quickly and often correctly. That’s what makes it work.

Cold Character Reading methods are incompatible with untargeted (non-optimized) input.

So if you teach Spanish, knock yourself out. Experiment. Let me know how it goes. But for Chinese — it’s a nonstarter.

Who does that, indeed?


On a TPRS teachers’ listserv, the comment was recently made:

I find it unfair to suggest that we should just make the story “like a movie in their minds” but oh, we get to stop the movie whenever we want and ask them what happens during the movie…Who does that?

Oh, I dunno…maybe someone who wants to be sure the students comprehend the language at the time it’s being spoken, the time when it can be acquired, instead of just waiting and hoping for the best?

…requiring cute answers in return for a grade. Who does that?

I don’t know who does that, but I know who would say that: someone who is so out of touch with what TPRS is and how it works that there is almost no place to begin setting him or her straight.

So just when did TPRS begin to “require cute answers for a grade”? [Spoiler: it never has.]

TPRS asks students questions to personalize or customize the input they receive in real time. There is no requirement that any answers received be cute. Never has been, never will be. Because it doesn’t matter.

And someone please expunge the image of Hello Kitty in a severe business suit with a huge pointer in her hand, threatening kids until they provide cute answers.



TPRS SKILL: Establishing Meaning

This is perhaps the most basic skill of the entire TPRS repertoire. Because if you do not establish meaning, the students cannot comprehend. If you don’t establish meaning, all the gestures in the world won’t make up for it. If you don’t establish meaning, it doesn’t matter how slowly you speak. They will not understand you. And if they do not understand things when they are said, they cannot acquire those things.

In TPRS, we establish meaning using a shared fluent language whenever one is available. There are situations where this is not possible: in an ESL class, for example, if the students come from 17 different countries and the teacher only speaks Spanish. Immersion is a similar situation. Both of these situations require using alternative means of establishing meaning, and the level of surety the teacher has that the students DO understand will be significantly lower than in the case where the shared fluent language is used.

We establish the meaning of new language by simply telling the students what it means. It’s just that easy. There is no guessing. In the higher levels, it might be okay to encourage some level of guessing for words that should be “guessable” based on students’ prior acquired language or the fact that it is a cognate. In Chinese, this is usually little more than a lovely dream. In Spanish, it might be more do-able.

We write the new language AND its meaning in the shared fluent language. We write it and leave it in view of the students while we are using that language (step 1 of TPRS being “establish meaning”, and step 2 of TPRS  “use the language”). Students are free to look at the meaning any time they want.

I train teachers to point to the meaning (that has already been established and written), not the target language phrase, when they are pausing and pointing during input. Why? Because if students are looking and need to see something, what they need to see is the meaning. If they just feel like looking at how the target language is spelled, for example, they can do that fine, but the student who is struggling to understand needs to have that meaning made obvious to him immediately, without having to slide across a long line of text to get to the meaning.

Meaning must be established at or before the time when the language is first used. Waiting until a sentence or, worse, a paragraph, is finished and then asking “So, what do you think XYZ meant?” is not a way to help students acquire language. That’s traditional thinking. Yes, it is what happens in natural acquisition, because no one is following a child around telling them precisely what every sentence they hear means. But neither is anyone limiting a child’s input time to 100 hours a school year, or demanding that the child do dozens of other complicated tasks at the same time they are acquiring their first language. School is a decidedly unoptimized environment from which to get a new language, so we have to optimize the input they do get.

The reason TPRS is successful is that meaning is clearly established up front, and then students can use the language as a tool to express meaning without having to worry about what that language means. Establishing meaning up front does not mean that the focus of the lesson is on the language itself. The focus of a TPRS lesson is always on meaning. Always. Establishing that meaning is the heart of being able to use the language to talk about things that are important to students and teacher.

So, in summary: meaning is established up front. Clearly. In the shared fluent language (usually English, in the US). Orally and in writing as well when students are literate. Orally only when students are pre-literate. For pre-literates, a symbol, gesture, etc. may be used to remind them of the meaning should they forget — but it should always refer back to that moment at which meaning was clearly stated, not be a standalone attempt to let kids figure out what a new piece of language means.

If you don’t establish meaning, you are not teaching with Comprehensible Input, you are teaching with potentially comprehensible input.

Slow Down — it’s not just about how fast you talk

Dear New-ish TPRS Teacher:

So, you’ve done the workshop. You’re excited about the possibilities of using TPRS and Comprehensible Input in your classroom. And you’re right to be. You’re starting on the next phase of your teaching career, and you’re looking forward to seeing the results that have been demonstrated in the videos and the lectures and the books.

Maybe I was your presenter. Maybe I wasn’t. Either way, I want you to succeed with TPRS. I present to a lot of new TPRS teachers, and I hear or read about hundreds more. I want all of you to succeed with TPRS. And I want you to avoid the things that make people give up.

Which is why I’m telling you this: the number one skill you need to work on, right now, is going slow.

Not talking slowly. Not going through your curriculum more slowly. Those are both important changes to make, don’t get me wrong. But even more important is for YOU to go slowly.

You’ve just learned about a bunch of new skills. They’re not hard skills. But they are new things for you. This is the time to slow down and concentrate on those new skills, and to enjoy seeing how using those new skills produces positive changes in your classroom.

We all want to do the best for our students. As teachers, many times that means we are perpetually searching. We want to find a better activity, a better way of doing things. We want to provide more variety, more interest, more engagement. But sometimes striving for those things while the new paradigm-changing method you just trained in — TPRS — still has that “new car smell” to it, isn’t the best thing to do.

MovieTalk. PictureTalk. What sort of input should I be using? What about FVR? What kinds of readings do I need? Should we start a group to share readings we write? What about brain breaks? I should share what I learned with a group at my school so they can start doing this, too.

All of those things are good — eventually. But the majority of failures in TPRS happen because people don’t just slow down and focus on getting their feet under them with TPRS. Plain old “boring” vanilla TPRS Classic. They want to branch out and grab this shiny thing and that sparkly toy. And all those things are wonderful. They’re beautiful. But if you hang them on a Christmas tree that has a shaky stand, the whole thing will topple.

TPRS is that tree. It encompassses all the skills you need to do every truly CI-oriented way of teaching I have yet seen. This is because those “variations”, if we can call them that, came out of TPRS. There are very few people promoting truly CI-based ways of teaching who did not come out of the TPRS tradition, whether or not they say so publicly.

If you will just stick with the basics for half a year, make sure you are very, very solid on the skills you will need to do all kinds of cool CI stuff later, your students will thank you for it. Your mental health will thank you for it. Your family or spouse will probably thank you for it, too. TPRS is not hard, but it deserves a bit of time just to itself before you drop it and reach for the next thing, especially since that next thing is probably based on TPRS skills to begin with.

TPRS works. Just by itself. Plain, old, unexciting talking to your kids in a way they can understand makes them acquire language. No bells and whistles. No videos, props, classroom libraries that don’t align to your input, certain numbers of minutes doing this or that. Just talk to your kids and watch how they react. Give it six months before you try to expand your repertoire. No serious musician sight-reads a piano piece for a concert and then stops practicing it because they got new music that’s cooler. First make sure that concert is going to go smoothly, then order all the new music you want.

Slow. Down.

Naturalistic comprehensible input: does it work for Chinese?

On a language teachers’ list, the statement was recently made by a teacher interested in the debate about naturalistic CI versus optimized CI:

I have some plans to work with some Mandarin teachers to test this [naturalistic input] out.  They have not been trained in CI at all but they are eager learners.  I am going to test some ideas out on them.

Do you want those students to read, or do you want them to memorize glyphs and decode?

That is what is at stake here.

I truly don’t mean to sound condescending…but most people don’t know Chinese. And by that, I mean how it works. What is is like, as a non-native speaker, to acquire it and to become literate in it. People do these eight-hour mini-courses, and like ramen noodles with boiling water poured over them, feel they “get” the whole Chinese thing. Good luck with that, from the perspective of understanding how to teach it effectively — especially since most of these just-add-water courses conveniently dodge the reading-in-characters piece. “There’s just not time,” is the excuse. Just not time, or just not any method being used that allows it?

With Cold Character Reading, we have zero-Chinese beginners reading — fluently, in a relaxed manner, and understanding everything they read, and we have video and test results under proctored conditions to show this is the case — 130  characters after 21 hours of CI instruction. I don’t recommend this pace for most situations, but it shows what is possible. Six years of hard data prove this works, and that the reading skills transfer from the purpose-written texts used to teach reading through CCR to previously unseen, dissimilar texts.

People of my age did Chinese literacy the “hard way” — memorizing the characters and then combining them painfully. They still do, by and large, today, because that is the “conventional wisdom”. Chinese is a “hard language” that requires lots of “work” to learn to read and write.

Ask anyone who did it this way about how they feel about Chinese reading, about whether they read Chinese fluently for pleasure, about whether they feel good about reading something to another person, and you will get the eye-roll. And ask them how many of their Chinese 1 classmates made it out the other side to proficiency. If it is commonly said that only 4% of language learners make it to the upper levels, generally speaking it is far lower with Chinese, and tends to skew toward heritage learners as well.

Now. When you are talking about a language like Chinese (in this case languages with opaque scripts — ones where there is little or no phonetic component available) there is a divide between language and literacy. Given sufficient time, obviously a person could acquire Chinese through either optimized or naturalistic input. That is oral language. But the kicker is — how will that person become literate? Without optimization, there is no fluent reading in Chinese. There is no getting into “the zone” of reading until far, far, FAR later, if ever. Because most people drop the effort before they come close to that reading level, if they are not reading in a way that is driven by the Chinese Voice. And you don’t get the Chinese Voice quickly enough to be able to allow kids to read before the character repertoire is far, far separated from the speaking repertoire, unless you optimize the input.

So for people teaching a casual class or something where literacy is not an issue, if you have enough time and can keep people in class without feeling lost, if there’s no accountability and everyone’s happy with “whatever they get”, you could do naturalistic input with them. But the reading piece will fall down. People who have not seen reading in Chinese taught using anything other than memorization-and-decoding can’t believe there is another way to do it, but people who have seen it almost never go back — unless there are no materials available for their students to read — which is a consequence of naturalistic input (putting the load on the teacher to produce written materials). Again, that seems negligible in Spanish, but I can assure you that it is not, in Chinese. Especially since most Chinese teachers tend to have multiple preps (like, four or five in a mature program).

My hunch is that doing something like a one word image would be successful, only establishing the details of quantity, size, and color, and then writing it up with the class.  Like SUPER simple, very few new sounds, and loads of extralinguistic support.

Again, what is the goal? Do you want to take the students through the reading, and say “We got through that!” (given the need for “loads of extralinguistic support” when reading)? Or do you want them to be independent readers of acquired language? The exercise this teacher is describing will produce a text that is very, very difficult to use to teach Mandarin reading effectively. It’s essentially using the approach of a language where you only need to see a word once to be able to read it perfectly every time. Like Spanish. This is not the case in written Chinese.

A student who is able to read does not need “loads of extralinguistic support” to read a text. A student who gets enough optimized input, and reads texts that contain that language, does not have this problem.

If you read this way in Chinese for this lesson, and then you do another lesson in which the students presumably get more language, now you have twice as many characters that have been seen only a handful of times each. This is what the typical Chinese textbook does.

So you are once more leading students (almost dragging them — this is not a putdown, this is an actual description I have heard from reading teachers when the students did not have the foundation of oral language, the Chinese Voice, to drive the reading) through. They are not reading. They are playing the school game, just like we did back in the day, trying to count ahead and figure out when we would get called on so we could try to have the answer ready by looking it up and writing it in the margin of the text. They are surviving. Barely. Now add another lesson, and another. Soon you have kids throwing up their hands in despair because they are looking at 30, 50, 100 of these “squiggles” that they do not recognize immediately, because there has not been enough repetition, and there is not strong enough support from the Chinese Voice to make the link between the written form (which for beginners is frozen speech) to the meaning.

And there you have traditional Chinese teaching. They might speak a bit better, if they got CI input for oral Chinese. But they will not be literate in any meaningful way. And before this, Chinese teachers – even those who did use oral CI for acquisition — just shrugged and said, “Well, that’s how it is. Chinese reading and writing is hard.”

People don’t expect meaningful literacy out of beginning Chinese students. They never have. It’s about time they did. But to get that, you have to work with the nature of Chinese, not against it.


Powered by WordPress