A few weeks ago, we visited my parents and siblings. Watching the children interact with my parents and their friends completely in Chinese, I was reminded why I wanted the children to learn Chinese; foremost is the ability to converse comfortably with native speakers, second is ability to read, and lastly writing.
It also really hit me during our visit that Thumper is really ten. That was the age that I immigrated to the U.S. Though day to day, it feels like we’re doing the same thing on the CLE front, that I still obsess about how to teach Chinese and whether or not the kids are learning enough, I realized during this trip that in the back of my head I had always had age 10 as a crossover point.
At age 10, I had full on English immersion in school, though I continued reading Chinese books at home, writing letters in Chinese for 2 years (then subsequently forgot how to write Chinese completely), had a very Chinese environment at home, and served as translators for my parents. My English was good enough because I read so much. But in hindsight, it was not quite enough for the level of writing that my sister always seemed to have just by virtue of immigrating here at 7 instead of 10. Only after college did I feel like I had a good command of the language.
Someone told me once that it takes about 10-15 years to master a language to a native level. Apparently from some research somewhere. (Don’t quote me on it.) And looking at my experience, I have to agree. It really did take me 15 years to finally understand the pattern of English speech and writing.
As Thumper gets to the teenage years, I find myself using English to explain concepts that, while I might be able to say in Chinese if I really really tried, they feel inherently an English (American culture) idea, and English seems a better fit to express them.
All this to say, during this trip I made peace with the fact that we’re switching over to English this year for Thumper. In fact, because I’m also working on Astroboy‘s spoken English, I feel like I’m saying a sad little goodbye to Chinese while all these new parents sprout up on FB, sharing ideas on implementing CLE, wishing I were at the same place they are.
So what to do about Chinese after 3rd grade?
If I’m now not fully on the Chinese CLE wagon, what’s next?
The first step is to define my goals for Thumper by 12th grade. (Yes only Thumper because I think my goals will be different for Astroboy when he hits 10.) Watching the kids conversing with their grandparents reminded me my goals are foremost listening and speaking,that is the most useful skill in the long run. Then I thought about how we’ve ended up learning Chinese so far:
- Emphasizing listening comprehension and vocabulary for speaking prior to elementary school.
- Have a 3rd grade Chinese reading level by 3rd grade.
- Starting (writing) composition in 4th grade. Keep up reading at grade level. Expect to be behind in vocabulary and writing by 1-2 years by 6th grade, then 3-4 years by 12th.
- Hold both children back one grade level so we buy ourselves a bit more time on acquiring Chinese. We lucked out on this front because both children were born around beginning of school year.
To be clear, it’s not that we weren’t doing writing in lower elementary or working on reading in preschool, but they weren’t the main goals. This is a bit different from how most parents do it, they usually add writing earlier. But I find that as a homeschooling teacher, I can only concentrate on one main skill at a time, I simply can’t juggle prepping multiple skills.
Thankfully, I’ve found that this approach of sequentially acquiring listening, speaking, reading, writing really works for Thumper. In fact, this approach continues to work even now, as we’re trying to add more advanced Chinese to our studies. I’ll explain more later on. Astroboy is another story because he’s the sad neglected second child. But I guess that’s another post 3 years later when I need to transition him to majority English study.
The Great Oliver has an even clearer plan of what level equivalence after 3rd grade that is a bit different from mine.
A Side Meander
What helped me solidify my thoughts on approach is my talk with my wise uncle when I was back in Taiwan a year ago. I asked him during my last visit if it was worth it learning Chinese when it takes so much time and really we cannot quite compete with the children in Asia who take learning English very seriously.
He told me that I have to think of it as just a plus one. That everything the child is learning can be considered a “plus one”, be it piano or sports or art. A plus one means that Chinese language is one more item you can put on your resume. But it doesn’t necessarily have much more weight than any of the other “plus ones” you have on your resume. It all depends on what your employer needs.
For some reason this put me at ease. It allowed me to let Chinese language study go when I think of it as one of the myriad skills children can pick up. Day to day, its the fact that they can converse with their grandparents, love Chinese food, understand the culture and historical significance of places when we visit Taiwan, and not find the whole Chinese side something foreign and incomprehensible (like the whole Chinese concept of hot vs cold food), to be able to reconcile their bicultural identity rather than rejecting one, I think those are more important to me.
The competitive edge Chinese gives them? The bilingual advantage? It’s just plus one, not way more important than swimming or violin.
My uncle also said that he’s met many CSL (Chinese as Second Language) learners, children from other countries, and most cannot surpass third grade level. He said his granddaughter started, in first grade, to learn 成語 (idioms), 唐詩 (Tang poems), etc. Basically those harder and more classical Chinese. According to uncle, all this background knowledge starts getting used in third grade and up. It’s used in writing and in reading. So if you havn’t had exposure in the lower elementary level, your level gets behind eventually.
So putting it altogether, what do I do about Chinese after 3rd grade?
The short answer is, “I’m figuring out as we go along”, taking into account of what my uncle said, my general unscientific ideas of how we need to approach language learning, and my personality of being able to teach one main thing at a time.
We know that language learning should be acquired in the order of listening, speaking, reading, then writing. I see now that though I wasn’t deliberately doing it, I ended up focusing on acquiring one skill while preparing for the next.
Whenever I get stuck teaching the kids or the kids seemingly just get a concept, I see exactly why we need to learn in this order. Take Astroboy and him learning to read. I had been saying for 2 years we need to up his comprehension because he was not progressing to reading bridging books even though his zhuyin was good “enough”. Then he went to Taiwan for 3 months (and hit 7), and voila, he comes back and started reading the bridging books, jumping over the beginning levels fairly quickly. It was a similar experience with Thumper, who jumped through the 4 bridging levels in about a year once she started to read fairly late. Comprehension comes before reading.
Or, take reading out loud for fluency. Sure, I read all these stories of public school teachers doing it for English, I read the Great Oliver’s post on it, but it didn’t quite convince me. It appeared to me that my kids were able to read books several years below their grade level just fine. So it’s a matter of waiting, no?
Only this year did I see that it helps with writing; that oral reading is kind of like narration. Since writing is about putting your thoughts on paper (i.e. hearing your thought in your head and putting in down), reading out loud helps in putting lovely written phrases in your head so you can pull it out when you need to express your thought and don’t know how to express it. So, kids need to continue to read out loud for years after they’ve learned to read. Especially for a second language. Reading out loud and narration comes before composition writing.
Enough on all the background info I needed to help me decide what to do. So, Chinese after 3rd grade. How does one maintain a CLE when one moves onto English? For me, the general idea is, for every thread I want to study, approach it in order of listening/speaking/reading/writing. Thumper can read colloquial Chinese books just fine. How do I move her up into more adult vocabulary and more academic Chinese and also start on her writing?
Right now, she’s having trouble moving into upper elementary Chinese books (5th & 6th grade). Not sure if it’s maturity or lack of language skills. If it’s lack of language skills, then clearly our lack of focus on the more traditional Chinese language aspects like 成語, 唐詩, traditional Chinese stories is coming back to bite us.
A question I had struggle with is, is there a point to teaching science vocabulary or learning some of the subject areas in Chinese, like history and science. Are the children even going to remember any of it and if not, what’s the point? My conclusion is
- They need to learn it because it enables me to have a conversation with me now, in Chinese. Otherwise they will just switch to speaking in English because they can’t express their day to day lives.
- There is no such thing as useless Chinese. If I think of Chinese as a jar that I can fill with marbles, any Chinese the kids learn go into the jar. It’s the same with English. I just need to fill it in the order of listening/speaking/reading/writing as the first two fills up the jar faster.
- Don’t think of learning science/math/history vocabulary as learning subject vocabulary. Think of it as another way to learn the meaning to Chinese characters, of seeing them used in action. You don’t have to only encounter strange Chinese characters in your text book. You can see how it’s used.
- Non-fiction vocabulary make up a huge part of our daily lives, if the goal is good adult conversational skills, a focus on non-fiction vocabulary is actually more useful.
My goals for upper elementary is vocabulary for daily adult conversation and vocabulary for higher academic (both literary and non-fiction) Chinese. Listening is also preparation for reading and speaking.
- Together, watch and listen to more non-fiction TV and audioboooks such as 小主播看天下 Kids Newsroom, Child-Can-Listen World History, Children-Can-Listen Chinese History, 生活裡的科學 Science Around Us, travel shows like 愛玩客. Rather than asking her to jump straight into reading non-fiction books, watching TV and listening to audio, for my super auditory learner, has been a more efficient way to get vocabulary into her than studying textbooks or vocabulary lists. One of my fears is, as we introduce more English, and how easy it is to find English learning materials, the kids will kind of reject learning its Chinese equivalent. TV so far has been a non-stressful and fun way to get those vocabulary in.
- Together, watch historical dramas or 甜心格格 Sweet Heart Princess. They can give you a wider range of Chinese vocabulary. Just like we start learning Shakespeare and all those
incomprehensibleEnglish, start the exposure through listening. We will eventually start on the historical Chinese dramas. But I’m waiting for Astroboy to be a bit older as he’ll be a tag along when we watch and he’s still too young.
- Being read to, or listen to classical Chinese poems and stories like 成語故事 idioms stories, 唐詩, 西遊記, 三國演義, ideally with some explanation. It’ll really stretch my ability to explain terms, that’s for sure. Though I should read to her, this semester, I’ve been asking her to read out loud these very classical adventure stories, about 1 chapter a week, and we discuss some vocab as we go along. (Killing two birds with one stone! Both listening and speaking! So lazy of me.) I’ve been lax in the poems department.
Through listening practice, the children now have the vocabulary for speech. Speaking is also a preparation for writing. D’uh. I feel like I’m writing a horrible essay and pointing out the obvious.
As the kids get older, they’re more capable of expressing their thoughts. We’ve watched a ton of TV and listened to a ton of audio to get vocabulary in for listening practice, now they need to practice so they are not speaking Chinglish, or unable to easily express their idea in Chinese. That’s one of my problems as an adult. I read a lot and watched enough TV to have the vocabulary, but when it comes to conversing with a native speaker and holding an intelligent adult conversation, I get stuck.
- Narration, narration, narration. I like to, at dinner time, ask the children to tell their father what they learned today. It allows us to review the Chinese vocabulary they learned that day, and also learn the English equivalent. In Montessori 3-period lesson speak, the ability to recall and narrate information is the last step in the learning process. I think we’ve all experienced this personally. That we learn the most when we have to explain a concept to someone else. We’re also doing Writing with Ease in Chinese. The focus on Writing with Ease is on dictation and narration in the early years. I read aloud to Thumper a passage and we work up to summarizing 3-4 sentences in Chinese. Basically it’s writing through speech as we are editing in real time the correct sentence we want to say, not colloquial sentences that have lots of and then, and then, in it.
- Read aloud Chinese literature. As I mentioned above, reading out loud really helps with writing. Right now Thumper is reading 水滸傳 twice a week. It’s been slow-like-molasses going. But I try to remind myself it’s better than nothing. We work through meaning and she practices saying these harder words she has never encountered before, including idioms.
- Reciting poems, putting on plays, Chinese playdates, games like Chinese monopoly, etc. Anything to practice speaking. I probably need to start a co-op for this or else I’ll never get it done.
- Go back to Taiwan. Funnily, I didn’t feel the need to go back to Taiwan when the kids were younger, and we didn’t. We had a CLE environment majority of the day since we homeschool and my parents are already in the states, living in a predominately Chinese neighborhood (as in the signs are usually bilingual) for them to get their Chinese practice in the community. However, now that I’m letting English encroach, I see the need for the children to go back to Taiwan for extended periods so they can practice non-kitchen Chinese. Maybe every 1.5 years and staying for 2-3 months if we can swing it.
I would like Thumper to be able to read upper elementary books easily, without zhuyin. At her current level, I don’t think she will be capable of reading 金庸 books by 6th grade. She lacks the more classical, poetic Chinese background. She feels kind of stuck at her current reading level, similar to how I felt Astroboy was stuck, unable to advance to bridging books. Sometimes a book will strike her fancy, like 狼王夢, an upper elementary book, and she will read plow through it. But most of the time, the structure of these books, more introductory texts that set up the story, more description of characters and background, bore her.
Just like Astroboy, I know the answer lies in upping her comprehension. Just like Astroboy, the problem is in me getting off my ass and reading to her or finding audiobooks for her.
Assuming all that comprehension preparation is done, here’s the 3 prong approach I’ll likely take.
- Assigned reading of more classical books. Read out loud bits of n or n+1 level books, hoping it’ll entice her to just continue reading that book. But if not, then at least we’re working through it slowly by assigned reading. This year, we’re going to try and go through several books in the Chinese Children’s Literature 華一兒童通俗文學 set. I’m hoping with this set she will get a sense of the more old school literature, which is different often from the more colloquial writing or translated writing in children’s literature.
- Quiet Reading. We try to have quiet reading time in the car or before bed. She often asks me for suggestions. I tend to hand her n or n-1 level books. We’re going to try and work through Little House on the Prairie, translated works like Mary Poppins, the Rats of Nym, Wrinkle in Time, modern Children’s literature by Chinese authors, and I may also assign books from the Cross Century set. Basically trying to make sure she continues to read at her level.
- Pleasure reading. We don’t have a lot of these. Ha! Or maybe she doesn’t consider any books in our collection pleasure reading because right now all the books are too hard/boring for her. I will probably rely on comic books for pleasure reading. For me, these are n-1 level books. If she wants to read Astroboy’s books, she can. It doesn’t matter. We tend to mix books for quiet reading and pleasure reading. But I try to make sure she reads a variety of books at her level or below her level in her free time, but not only books below her level. Sometimes the kids will just choose easier books and they require some enticement, like me reading the first chapter, or alternate reading, or listening to audiobooks first, to hook them into reading.
I havn’t mentioned too many specific books in here. I plan to review the books that I really like eventually. The upper level elementary books are so diverse, there isn’t a big huge set you can just order and work through, other than Eastern Publishing’s World Literature set or the Cross Century set. The World Literature set I’m not going to buy because my children will refuse to read the original books if they’ve read the easier version already.
There’s a lady whose FB page I follow that really believes in using reading to teach Chinese. She has her child reading lots of good translated literature, and he also reads various versions of these classic Chinese literatures as he’s growing up, in addition to supplementing with workbooks that teach 成語 and what not. By various versions I mean, he will read a super abridged version 西遊記 in 2nd grade, then maybe the Eastern Publishing version in 4th grade, then the more adult version in 6th grade. This is a very good route to take, and I’m amazed at how she’s cultivated a child who likes to read, and can appreciate and critique literature.
However, I don’t have that kind of prep skills and know I cannot duplicate what she does. The most I can do is try and make sure the children have access and are exposed to Chinese literature as much as we can. When you want to study Chinese as a language and really want to reach the high level Chinese, you kind of have to insist on the harder literature stuff, and not just books the kids want to read.
The earlier they have exposure to these types of good literature in lower elementary through read alouds, the more they are up for reading it themselves in upper elementary. Says the person who’s not doing it for Astroboy. For me that is the hard part, figuring out ways to entice the children without making them hate reading in Chinese. I know it’s doable and possible, it just takes some prep work, which as you know, is what I struggle with.
I often stress out about writing, especially when I see other children’s work. Thankfully, stress is stress, and laziness is laziness. I don’t do too much about it. Then my kid goes and writes some stuff while I’m sleeping as assignment from 來玩寫字的遊戲 book and it sounds half decent without editing and I start wondering why one teaches writing. I know you do, but where/how, especially when we know a lot of good writing comes from reading tons?
As Fleur says, no need to think so much. After all that pondering about how to teach writing, how to teach grammar, I decided that I will approach writing 2 ways: write lots and edit, and practicing narration. Those seem conflicting, but narration will come first and though we will write and edit, I will not ask for much, just as long as she gets practice it’s fine. The writing at this point is probably to practice all the characters she’s learning, otherwise as she starts writing in English, she starts hating in Chinese.
So I will try not to stress out about the fact that we’re not writing much as a fourth grader. We will continue working on Writing with Ease in Chinese. From the little we’ve practiced, I can see how Thumper has a much harder time constructing comprehensible complete sentences in Chinese than English, even though we started English way later.
At the same time, we will work on creative writing with 來玩寫作的遊戲, which I talked about in my Greenfield Post. Next year, I will likely sign Thumper up for a writing class, either through a co-op or hiring a teacher. Her writing is at a point where I cannot help her with the little things.
Not Enough Time!
One of the biggest problems as Thumper grows older is the lack of time. So many interesting things to study! Extracurriculars like violin an swimming take up a big chunk of time daily. She constantly laments she has no time to do her rainbow loom, even though she’s got way more time than most kids her age. I would also like her to focus more on reading. Everyone I’ve ever talked to or read about, who is good at writing, always talk about how they had a huge chunk of time daily after school to read; maybe because they love to read, or because the library was their baby sitter.
Then if I look through my action plan, I think, how can I squeeze this all in?! Especially in light of our focus on English.
I then remind myself that my focus is listening and speaking foremost, that they put the most marbles in the jar. So if I can’t get to anything else, at least let the kids watch a lot of Chinese TV, and take them back to Taiwan. If I have the energy, read to them and ask them to narrate.
In terms of individual items in each category, what I may do, if I can actually get to prepping and planning, is to run 6-8 week cycles. This way there is an end to any one activity and I can rotate through activities and eventually, hopefully, get to all of them. So for example, 6 weeks of watching travel shows, 6 weeks of listening to Chinese history audiobooks, 6 weeks of me reading out loud poems to the children, etc.
Every Chinese Action plan needs to be tailored to the family’s specific needs. For me, switching over to speaking English is a given. My plan is to transition this year, then next year, start designating English speaking hours during the homeschool day. I’m going to try and mimic a “sending kid to English public school during the day” environment for Thumper; so up to 50/50 English/Chinese instruction ratio by 6th grade.
Since I’m the sole Chinese speaker, switching over to English also means that the children will switch over to English when speaking to each other eventually. In fact, just after a short 4 months of more English at home, Astroboy is starting to. So while we did not go to Taiwan much when the children were little; we had enough of a language support here, I think we will now start taking more trips.
Right now, I’m not too worried about the children speaking to each other in English as I feel like Thumper has a fairly solid Chinese foundation by 3rd grade. Let’s see how I feel in another year or two.
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