Recently, I’ve been having random conversations with Dots about possible books to buy and offering unsolicited opinions on how she ought to teach her kids Chinese.  Then I realized I often start my sentences with, “xx does this with her kids”, “yy does that with her kids”, hoping to give her some inspiration.

What I realized is I need to write all of this down as I often use one friend as an example when talking to another friend.

Because to me, many of my friends are way more successful in teaching Chinese than me.   But that’s why I homeschool. I wouldn’t be able to do it if my kids went to school.

So I want to write down the stories of friends whose kids have finished Reading 123 閱讀123 by the end of second grade.  I think that’s a good marker for Chinese reading success.   Why?  Because by third grade, English gets harder. If you can develop that habit of reading a longish book by second grade, you have a fighting chance of continually increase your Chinese level through reading without a lot of parental effort.  By 2nd grade, that’s 7-8 years of pushing making an effort for Chinese.  It starts getting tiring.

Of course, there are other things one would still need to work on, like idioms, writing, non-fiction Chinese, literary Chinese, etc.   But the creation of a reading habit is of the utmost importance for those kids who are learning Chinese almost as a second language.

So the first person I want to profile is Lavender.  Her story is truly inspiring and I hope others who read it realize it is never too late to teach your kids Chinese.

1. What’s the family make up and background?

Lavender is a native Cantonese speaker, educated in Hong Kong till 9th grade.  She learned Mandarin Chinese as a subject in school, though other subjects like Geography and History were in English.   Her husband speaks English.

Her daughter just finished 2nd grade this year.

2. What is the language environment and how did they teach Chinese?

From birth to 4.5, both parents spoke English to their daughter, Mochi.  Lavender always knew she wanted to teach Chinese, but didn’t decide that it would be Mandarin Chinese until she started researching preschool when Mochi was 2.  The only Mandarin Mochi was exposed to was through the bilingual preschool she went to from ages 3 to 4.5 and whatever Cantonese TV her mother watched at home.

In fact, Mochi actually learned Spanish first with day care at 4 months then continued on with a weekly Spanish class.  So Mochi is actually trilingual!

In her Montessori bilingual preschool, mornings were bilingual and there was an afternoon 1.5 hour Chinese lesson once a child turned 4.  In school, the children learned to recognize some characters and write.  During this time, Mochi wasn’t really speaking Chinese to her mom, at most she did one word answers.

For kindergarten,, Mochi had 3x/week of 1.5 hour tutoring sessions with 3 other children, where she learned some zhuyin and the instructor continued teaching some characters and in general kept Chinese learning fun.  Lavender spoke some Chinese to her daughter, but not consistently.

Why didn’t she speak Chinese to her daughter?  She was worried that she would teach Mochi the wrong thing when she makes up the pronunciation and guesses all the time on the Mandarin equivalent of Cantonese words.

Toward the end of kindergarten, Lavender realized that just learning Chinese through a tutor was not enough.  Her daughter wasn’t speaking much Chinese, and whatever she did know was getting forgotten.  She instituted a new rule, one day a week her daughter had to speak Chinese exclusively to her.

When she saw how successful that was in keeping her daughter’s Chinese and the difference between the daughter’s Chinese and her classmates’, she switched to speaking every other day, then eventually everyday.

I want to interject here and say that we had a playdate with Mochi that school year around November and I was surprised at just how fast a child can lose whatever Chinese they have in a few months.  I had always spoken with her in Chinese and she could kind of answer and understood me.  But by November she was speaking mostly English and could not hold a conversation with me.  I secretly thought she was going to be like most other kids who attend English public school.  But I didn’t say anything because learning Chinese takes a lot of effort and until someone really has that intention, they often have a “Yes, but” come back to why they can’t do it when you make suggestions.  

For first grade, Lavender made some changes.  The summer before 1st grade, they had 2 hour weekly tutoring to completely learn zhuyin.  She noticed her daughter’s Chinese taking off when she switched to speaking Chinese daily.   Once school started, they had a weekly tutoring session and studied Sagebooks and Kang Xuan at home.

So they didn’t start Sagebooks till her child was close to 6.  They did have exposure already to characters through preschool. 

Essentially, their curriculum was: Learn Sagebooks and zhuyin concurrently, then follow with Kang Xuan at grade level.  Writing for Lavender is very important and from the start they have incorporated writing into their Chinese curriculum.  The tutor works with her daughter on Kang Xuan (among other things) and they also work on it at home.

They spent 6 weeks in Taiwan last year and enrolled Mochi in an NTNU class for 4 weeks.  She tested at book 8 of 美洲華語.  Not bad for someone who only did Chinese after schooling in elementary school.

3.  What are the Chinese books/resources used?

During K year, Mochi listened to CDs from 小書包 set every night to sleep.   On weekends, she listened to them while following along with the books.

During 1st grade, Mochi’s schedule was:

  • 2 days a week – 30min Reading 123 book.    She added book report writing about half way through the year.
  • 2 days a week – 30 min Kang Xuan self study.  Learn one chapter a week.  Chapter test using 評量 book on Sundays
  • 4 days a week – Read and write 3 Sagebooks characters 5 times for a total of 10-12 characters a week.
  • 1 day a week – 30 min Chinese math workbook to practice zhuyin
  • 1 day a week – 1.5 hour Chinese tutoring
  • 1 day a week – 1 hour Chinese meditation class

For 2nd grade, Mochi’s schedule was

  • 5 days a week – Read and write 3 Sagebooks/Kanxuan characters 5 times for a total of 10-12 characters a week.  Using Skritter to help retain characters she learned in the past.  They did random 30 characters dictation for awhile, then switched to doing random 30 characters that they’ve learned to write a story every week.  She can probably write about 800 Chinese characters by now.
  • 3 days a week – 60 minutes Reading 123 or listening/reading DK Encyclopedia books.  Her daughter wants to try reading without zhuyin now.
  • 2 days a week – 60 minutes Kang Xuan. Learn one chapter a week.  Chapter test using 評量 book.
  • 1 day a week – 60 minutes of 3 pages of Chinese math workbook to practice zhuyin
  • 1 day a week – 1.5 hour long Chinese tutoring

This school year, she started doing more creative writing in Chinese.

I know the schedule looks daunting but I didn’t want to post their daily schedule because everyone does it a bit different.  Really, they only had 1.75-2.25 contact hours daily for Chinese in kindergarten year and 1.25 contact hours in 1st grade.  The actual time they worked on Chinese reading/writing at home was probably only 0.75-1 hour daily.

Her big collections are: 小書包, 露露和菈菈, 閱讀123, DK Encyclopedia.  Other than that, she has maybe a few other little books.  For second grade, 國語日報 will be purchased as reading material for help with both fiction and non-fiction vocabulary.   That’s it.

Audiobooks are  小書包 and DK Encyclopedia.

Videos are Charlie and Lola DVDs and a lot of travel shows in Mandarin.

They subscribed to one year of Qiao Hu when Mochi was 4.

4.  What is the one advice you would give to others?

“I think perseverance is the key in attitude, but mamas have to love or have the passion for Chinese; then the kids will also love Chinese.  Otherwise I think they should just make peace that learning Chinese is for recreation unless the kids themselves show tremendous interest in learning it.”


What I learned from Lavender. 

Or, why I like telling her story.

1.  She doesn’t do what I do to teach Chinese and she still got to the goal of getting her kid to read and write Chinese well.

Lavender knows what she wants for her daughter and is very comfortable with who she is and how she likes to do things.

We would talk about about a specific issue she’s having currently and I make some suggestions. For example, I told her about Sagebooks and how we used it.   Or I told her about Skritter when we discussed how her daughter was forgetting how to write. I shared my book report with her and I make suggestions on books to buy.  She then takes my suggestions and implements it in a way that suits her personality, ways I can’t imitate because I’m not so organized like her.

For example, I told her that she doesn’t need to focus on writing, but rather get her daughter to read ASAP.  However, she insisted that her daughter learn to write and took to learning Sagebooks very slowly (IMHO).  Even though they could have zoomed through the beginning books quickly since they already learned some characters in preschool, they still did 3 characters a day.  But it totally worked for her because she was very consistent.

I don’t make my kids do a book report weekly.  But she knows she wants writing in her curriculum and found a way to accomplish it that works for her and her daughter.

2.  She was consistent and persistent.

When she decided that they would converse in Chinese one day a week, they conversed one day a week.  When they learned Sagebooks, they did it, week after week, without stopping.

A corollary to #1 and #2 is, you don’t have to do everything all at once.  Starting small and being consistent is better than doing multiple things at once but inconsistently.

3.  Speaking Chinese at home has a HUGE impact!   You don’t have to be a native speaker to be successful.

Even if you don’t speak it well!  Yes.  Lavender had a solid Chinese education.  She writes very well in Chinese.  However, her mother tongue is Cantonese.  She speaks Mandarin with an accent and often doesn’t know how to say something in Mandarin.  She persists in her speaking and hires a tutor or enrolled her daughter in classes to provide the exposure to the language.

As long as you’re consistent it really makes a difference and does 75% of your work when the kids are young.  Lavender learned that even if she says some things wrong, speaking it at home is better than not speaking it consistently.

4.  You don’t need to have a huge Chinese library.

She has always bought books that her daughter needs for her current level and nothing more.  With their schedule, they don’t have a lot of time to read Chinese.  I usually recommend things to her that gives her the biggest bang for her buck.

Each one was purchased to meet a specific need in their Chinese curriculum at that time.  It’s the consistency and daily practice that has the biggest impact.

5.  It’s not too late!

So many people consider giving up when their kids start dropping the Chinese when they go to kindergarten.  However, Lavender wasn’t even seriously on the Chinese bandwagon till then.  Before then she had thought that going to bilingual school was enough.

What Lavender has going for her is her amazing consistency.  She spends maybe an hour working with her child on Chinese daily only.  It really isn’t a lot.  But they plod along and in two years they’ve made way more progress in writing than our family.  At this point, I know her method doesn’t work for my personality.  But from her, I’ve learned if I have a specific goal I want to reach, I need to be very consistent about doing it daily.

6.  A year of reading makes a big difference

When Mochi first started, she was reading Reading 123 books very slowly, only a few pages each setting.  This year, when I met her during spring semester, I definitely noticed how one year of reading very consistently greatly improved her Chinese.  She can now read each book in about 30 minutes to an hour or so.  Her use of vocabulary is advanced and pronunciation a lot better than the previous year.  She speaks Chinese to me and the kids when many kids with two years of public school under their belt are starting to drop it.

I noticed the same thing with Thumper.  About a year after you start to read, your Chinese vocabulary improves and the child speaks better.

Here’s a writing sample at the end of second grade.  Isn’t her writing so pretty and amazing for someone who doesn’t have two native speakers at home and goes to a public school?

Next I’m going to profile Fleur, if she’ll let me.  Fleur is the complete opposite of Lavender in teaching style.  Though apparently I really like flower nicknames.  Everyone does it a bit differently and if there’s one thing I learned this year, it’s the importance of  understanding what works for you, what you’re willing to push and what you won’t.

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