So many times it is difficult to “fly under the radar” as  a  TPRS teacher in a TPRS-unfriendly department. There is a whole lot of pressure to use games, pairwork activities and things like that, most of which involve a) a lot of output that is b) in English in most cases anyway, and which don’t really do anything for the kids in terms of acquisition.

I recently signed up for a paid subscription to FlashMyBrain.com (I’m a sucker for beautiful graphics and the Chinese flashcards were really pretty). At first I hesitated about spending the money ($29.95 I think) but now I’m really pleased I did. Not only can I produce sheets of flash cards for the kids in almost no time at all, I can also quickly output flash cards for classroom use without reformatting at all (one button will switch between a variety of pre-set formats, or you can easily specify how many cards across and up on a page).

We’ve been reading a lot in preparation for really tackling the first chapter of Anna mei Banfa.  I found that I was feeling rushed and sure enough, the kids didn’t know the words well enough to feel comfortable reading the book. They were finding it intimidating and frustrating. So I pulled everything back and am concentrating on pulling out the unknown words, putting them in groups of 3, circling them, doing stories on them, reading readings that involve them — in short, classic TPRS. And while it has nothing really to do with TPRS, I use a lot of flash cards in class to help them get used to the characters. It’s paying off in reading skills, but I think that has more to do with the incessant circling of the terms than just the flash cards (or else everyone would be a fluent reader of a foreign language!)

Then, of course, I have to ‘make them accountable’ for the reading. So I came up with a list of questions — a rather exhaustive list, considering that the whole reading was only one page, double-spaced. To do this, I simply circled in my mind and wrote out all the questions I might use, omitting the choice-type questions (although you could leave them in just as well). Then I started to think about how I was going to use these questions.

Long story short, the FlashMyBrain site made it super easy to make a traditional “mix and mingle” game more input-oriented than usual. I just added the answers to the questions (separating them from the question with a comma, so I could import it directly without re-typing) and imported the set into a new set of flash cards. I made sure that each answer was unique and would not fit any other question than its true mate, and then printed out the cards one-sided. Using different colors for the questions and answers makes it easy to keep them straight. Each kid got one of each color and had to find the matching answer. Having two cards to deal with kept them searching and reading longer, and I felt somewhat better about doing the activity this way (when I knew the questions would provide accurate input) than giving them some sheet of items in English and hoping they would manage to output  correct questions (which would be a stretch at this point in the year, despite having heard so many of them).

I “made” the kids read the question and answer sets out loud to me when they checked in to make sure their pairs fit each other, and so had a good chance to get a quick snapshot of their reading skills (although of course they’d practiced that particular set of questions a bit during the exercise).

I’ll be interested to see how this sort of thing plays out in terms of reading. The trick seems to be avoiding the frustration factor. Chinese is just darn hard to read, especially when you just don’t know that many words. I try to provide interesting or at least quirky stories for readings, but they need to be reading a whole lot more to really feel comfortable doing it.