How I Teach Mandarin .. Not Speaking it Myself - Eva Varga

October 9, 20136

We’ve recently returned home from a family holiday in China and thus our study of the culture and language of this diverse country has been on the forefront of my mind.  Much of what we do in homeschool revolves around our Mandarin studies so I thought I would take a few minutes to share with you all a little of what we do.

How I Teach MandarinAs I sat down to write this post, however, I came to realize that my vision for how I teach Mandarin does not necessarily match with what we actually do.  We could do more.  We need to do more.  Our experiences in China proved that while the vocabulary is there – we still need more experience with practical application.

What We Did Then

When we first began our journey to learn Mandarin, I wanted a curriculum that had teacher materials in English as I myself do not speak or read Chinese.  When I found Better Chinese, I knew immediately that I had found what we needed.  The spiral-up approach allows students to review past lessons as they advance through the volumes in the series and the cute graphics and animations were captivating to my daughter, five years old at the time.  Most importantly, there was a large variety of supplemental materials available that corresponded to the textbook, thereby a strong potential for enrichment activities.


my first chinese wordsI thereby ordered My First Chinese Words, a series  for kindergarten and 1st grade learners with no prior exposure to Chinese. The set of 36 size-appropriate storybooks was a great introduction to the language and thereafter, we moved into My First Chinese Reader, a student-centric 4-volume, 48 lesson, curriculum that builds Chinese language and culture skills in a spiral-up approach.  When we first began our journey I honestly knew very little about teaching a foreign language.  Previously, my only experience was as a student myself.  Since then, I have learned a lot. The biggest impact, however, was changing tutors, a change that was brought about by our move.

What We Do Now

My kiddos meet with their language tutor (a native speaker) twice a week for an hour each.  Presently, they work with him one-on-one for an hour each session.  Thus, they each receive two hours of direct instruction each week.  Occasionally (generally once a month), when we do cultural activities, we join together in a small group. I love these days because I get to be a part of the lesson as well!

my first chinese reader老师 Shawn introduces each new lesson using the illustrated story in the textbook.  Sometimes he makes special activities related to the illustration that engage the kids in the vocabulary and get them moving physically – role play, games, drawing activities, etc.  For homework, he asks the kids to use the illustration vocabulary to create a conversation of their own.  The next session, they review the homework and move on to the activities in the text or additional activities that he has developed.  The workbook and textbook challenge activities are assigned over the weekend. Often they are also expected to practice reading aloud the conversation they composed earlier in the week.

If the written work is complete and time allows, the kids are expected to review their vocabulary words (they are encouraged to make and use flashcards in a variety of games).  Ideally, they are supposed to do Mandarin daily for at least 30 minutes each day.  Admittedly, this doesn’t always happen and as you can suspect, many times they wait until the last moment to complete their assignments – failing to review past vocabulary.

What We Will Do Next

When we were in China, we came to realize that while the kids have a strong grasp of vocabulary and can recognize perhaps hundreds of characters, they lack the ability to put these skills to work in real life.  This is in part due to their age and personality.  My son is more outgoing and though it took him a few days to feel comfortable, he engaged in numerous conversations in Chinese with local people we met during our travels.  My daughter, on the other hand, was more reserved.  I should have expected this because she is quiet and shy at home.  As a result, she spoke very little but was very helpful in providing me with the correct pronunciation for phrases that I needed – addressing the taxi driver, asking for directions, etc.

Upon our return home, 老师 Shawn was not surprised to learn of this and we discussed it in great detail as we planned the next academic year.  Our desire is to increase the practical application of their language skills and to encourage them to communicate more regularly with one another.  In addition, we will be incorporating reading assignments and oral presentations.

discovering chinese proWhile Better Chinese has materials for all grade levels, they recently released a new app for their upper level materials, Discovering Chinese.  Lessons in Discovering Chinese parallel the lesson progress in My First Chinese Reader, so students who began their Chinese learning with the My First Chinese Reader series can easily switch to Discovering Chinese once they enter middle school.  I love the flexibility of the new app – it provides a wealth of activities to practice their budding skills in reading, listening, speaking, and writing.  To learn more about the program, I have reviewed the app in more detail here, We Are Loving Discovering Chinese Pro.

I am excited about the possibilities that these new tools and our new approach will bring to our language curriculum.  I am confidant that so long as I stay persistent, their confidence and thereby their fluency will improve dramatically.


The bloggers of iHN are sharing how they teach their children at home. Browse other topics in the link up, How I Teach, and find the posts that best suit your situation.


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