Letting go

TPRS teachers shelter vocabulary, for the best of reasons, but we do think of the mental “list” of what a particular class has had or has not had. And most “traditional” teachers like to “know” what the kids “have had” in the past. All of us seem to be, in a way, holding on to the serving plate and making sure the kids get what they’re “supposed to”. There are good reasons for that — curriculum has to be honored, common assessments have to be handled, and of course a real reason, that comprehensible input has to be comprehensible above all else — but it’s not what language is.

I’m starting heavy use of literacy stations with my Chinese students. By “heavy”, I mean probably twice a week. It feels weird to turn them loose on a pile of Chinese materials and not hold their hands in reading, or not know that every single word is one that they personally know. And I plan to add more and more challenging readings as I can get them written (there’s nothing available as far as I know) including some things that are non-fiction or read-to-learn. I want them to “pick up” the words I didn’t get to learn when I was their age: flippers, whiskers, cross-eyed, all that stuff. But that requires letting go of my sure knowledge of what they knew and where they’d gotten it from (me).

It’s kind of a wrench with my seniors, the dream class, because we actually have the freedom to just sit there and talk 40 minutes a day every day if we want to, at least from the perspective of having no second-year teacher to annoy or any specific college course to replace. And they get so much out of the straight TPRS as far as language acquisition goes, it’s hard to make the move to literacy stations.

But on the other hand, it’s almost impossible, even with 22 students in a class, to really reach everyone in reading. Their levels are already spreading out, and there are so many extraneous factors that can affect that in Chinese, from interest, aptitude, visual vs. auditory inclinations, free time available, and so on, that it’s only going to get worse. Differentiating in reading as a class, apart from asking the hard questions to the abler students and pitching softballs to the more challenged, doesn’t really do the trick in getting all the kids to read fluently. So after six months devouring everything I can get my hands on about how primary school teachers get kids to read, we’re going ahead with it in Chinese.

The sixth-graders are into it. They remember reading group. They remember doing stations in English. I just sold it to them by saying, “You know learning to read and write Chinese is a real challenge. We’re going to do it just like you learned to read and write English, only we won’t sit on the floor and we won’t take our shoes off.” (And, BTW, we won’t have nearly as much time to do it, which is too bad.) The seniors are willing to go along with whatever I propose. I think Chinese learning has a childlike quality to it — after all, when you’re a beginner in French or Spanish, it still looks like stuff you can read perfectly well, but pretty much no one has that illusion in Chinese.

We are doing a system of required and optional stations. Each literacy day, our normal opening is suspended (we normally have Word of the Day, Time, Date, Weather and Lunch reports to start off with) and they get their folders. They are required to do a Journal entry (writing back and forth to me) and a piece of Independent Reading each literacy day. After that, it’s up to them. They can read more, play a game in Chinese, or pick a story or book for a listening station activity.

There are still some kinks to be ironed out, especially since we have only 35 minutes of effective usable time most days, and most literacy station programs for the primary grades are designed thinking of 60 or 90 minute slots or even more.

Some of the kids’ comments when they were choosing independent reading passages today were interesting. One kid picked up a sheet and looked it over, then commented, “You know, this was really hard back when we did it [like in late October], but now it looks way too easy!” We wouldn’t have had the chance to have the kids feel that (even if they don’t articulate it) if we kept soldiering along, always reading precisely at their level or one notch above, always carefully going ahead and not looping back except in terms of recycling vocabulary. I think there’s a lot of value to letting the kids get into the habit of reading Chinese for pleasure (even if some of my stories probably aren’t pleasure-producing) or at least setting them up to believe that they are. Like I’ve said before, it will be amazing to see what these kids will be able to do and read if they stick the sequence out through their senior year.

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