Introduction to Fractions

Last week and this week, both Astroboy (4) and Thumper (7) got their introduction to fractions.

In training, I was told that fractions come at the end of the series and that some kids don’t even get to it.  But reading my album I see that fractions can be introduced as young as 3 since it’s just a Sensorial experience.  For Thumper, we verbally introduced the idea pretty young with half, and half of half, etc.  I’m pretty sure she learned them in school too.

The Fractions curriculum is basically 6 parts: naming, equivalence, and the 4 operations. It appears that fractions are taught like other Montessori math, first manipulating concrete materials and then moving toward abstraction. The main materials are the fraction metal insets, and fraction insets in other shapes, plus lots of cut out fraction pieces, and reference charts. Fraction is something that is introduced in first grade.

I love seeing the difference in development and how that affects the way the children learn. For Thumper, I did the classic first presentation of all 10 fraction metal insets, naming them, and showing her how to name them in both Chinese and English.  In Chinese, you read the denominator first then numerator, 三分之一, for example for 1/3.  The nice thing about it is that you don’t have different names for the numbers like in English: halves, thirds, fourths, etc.  In Chinese the denominator is called 分母 and the numerator 分母.  分 means to divide, 母 is mother and 子 is child.  So super easy to remember.

As an older child, Thumper got the concept of fractions easily. We even started on equivalence. So I didn’t need to spend much time on the IDEA of fractions. But I could tell that she has trouble with the difference between the way we name fractions in English and Chinese. She keeps wanting to flip them when she says it in Chinese. I remember I did the same thing after years of naming fractions in English.  It’s making me wonder if I need to teach fractions in Chinese at all.

Astroboy really wanted the same presentation, so I did it for him.  But after the presentation, he couldn’t really name the fractions. So the next day I pulled out my fraction skittles instead.  These look like little people, color coded inside; compared with the insets which are just all red. It’s meant to be handled and “played” with.


Homeschooling Summary Oct ’14: confusion on curriculum

Looks like I don’t have time to do detailed blogs yet so it’ll have to be one big summary for now. I aim to get some details out later as I personally find it fascinating how they’re learning.


Apple Tree Print
Apple Tree Print

Language: We’ve kind of stopped on the zhuyin intro for now as we end up watching TV during swim practice. Though what he is watching is Chiao Hu which is introducing zhuyin anyway. Instead we started on Sage Books level 1 book 1.  It’s kind of cool and amazing watching his interest reading the book.

I don’t know if it’s the Chiao Hu or hitting a growth spurt (I suspect the former) but his Chinese is way more fluent now. He speaks Chinese 90% of the time to his sister.

Math: He was shown the Intro to Golden Beads, Crisis of Nine, Hundred Board, Numeral layout, Addition Snake Game, Addition Stamp Game.  We’re really squarely at the end of counting and the beginning of working with 4 digit numbers.

He continues his obsession with counting everyday, whenever he can; speed limit signs, freeway signs , and most recently reading 4 digit numbers sequentially. He is now very comfortable saying two digit numbers, yet continues to be confused by 6 and 9. His obsession lies in counting up as far as he can. And like Thumper, has trouble figuring out what comes after 9, 19, 29, etc. but is making progress. We’re slowly working on the concept of 4 digit numbers. As you can see, he is being shown things that are out of his level (stamp game) but he really wanted me to show him the exchanges in addition because his sister was shown.

Practical Life: cutting, washing windows, can button himself now, likes to floss himself, getting better about folding laundry.

Art: an Apple print activity, learned about colors through oil painting (first time using it).

Sensorial: Geometric solids. 5 minute happiness with new material and then they don’t want to use it anymore. BUT, the other day, he starts cutting himself some geometric shapes and quizzing me on what they’re called. So he’s learning names of shapes himself anyway.

Culture: saw chickens, Needs of Humans presentations.  Totally cute.  The other day he wanted to draw the Bart station and himself.  Then he got quite upset with me because he wanted to draw the “……” I was drawing when presenting the Needs of Humans, to signal the little man walking, but I hadn’t understood what he wanted.  He started learning the days of the month and days of the week in Chinese. (more…)

The digitization and current state of Chinese classrooms

I went to a talk today hosted by the SFCCC (Culture Center of Taipei Economic office) today about the state of teaching Chinese today, the usage of digital devices in the classroom, and how parents can help their children learn Chinese.

The speaker is a teacher teaching high school Chinese.  It seems that her viewpoint is from one of watching children who are learning Chinese in Saturday Chinese school or high school level.  Basically children who are not necessarily in immersion programs, bilingual programs, or somehow going to school daily to learn Chinese.

Though this is not where I am coming from, I still found the talk to be interesting and had some take away points.

She started by talking about the rise of Chinese language education in the US, in terms of government focus and investment, which arose after September 11.  There was a realization that learning a foreign language is a good thing.  This lead to the establishment of StarTalk program, which trained teachers and also conducted language summer camps.  Then they went down a level and established the AP Chinese test to entice students to learn Chinese.  Supposedly after that they realized learning a language from 9th grade on was still not enough; since Chinese is a hard language to learn.  Thus the establishment of immersion schools and children learning Chinese from an early age.

She talked a bit about common core and AP Chinese tests.  This was a revelation #1 for me.  The emphasize on these tests is the ability to communicate (hence listening and speaking skills very important), and the breadth of knowledge in Chinese (thus not so important to learn all about culture, which we heritage learners like to emphasize) such as global issues, science and technology, etc.  She noted that Chinese schools have been so concerned with the culture part but really they’re not too important or relevant to the children here.  It’s not that we shouldn’t learn them, but there are other things the children should know how to talk about other than the lady on the moon or the origin of the Autumn Festival.  And she also talked about how students who are learning Chinese as a second language (e.g., no native speaker parents) sometimes do better than the students who have native speaking families because of what they’re taught in the classroom.  That parents who send their children to Chinese school have too low of a threshold, often for them attending Saturday Chinese school is enough.  She gave an example of a father writing homework for his son.  But we really, as parents, should ask for more than that from our Chinese school.

Her take away point here was that the Chinese classroom needs to emphasize speaking skills.   She described the AP test and gave an example of a sample question, where the tester is given a scenario and needs to listen to some multiple choices on what a proper response would be.  She noted that in textbooks there are often yes and no answers but native speakers don’t speak that way.  In the slide she showed, a “corn” person says to a “popped corn” person, “Are you hot?”  And given the illustration of the “popped corn” doesn’t look too happy with the question and his answer wouldn’t just be yes or no, but rather maybe something sarcastic like “You think?”

The speaker spent a better part of the talk also talking about how classrooms are taught now a days.  In the traditional Chinese classroom, you’ve got a lecturer.   In the last 20 years, we have moved on to a more group method of teaching.  And she says that in the last few years, we’re starting to move to a “self-learning” method of learning.  Where coursework is individualized with the help of technology.  This was not-quite revelation #2.  I say not quite because really, this is the Montessori way of teaching: auto-education.  This also allows the students to practice their speaking skills because they’re now not waiting for 1/28, 1/30th of a teacher’s time to speak to the teacher.  They can practice with each other instead.

She showed us pictures of her high school classroom.  There is a picture of students all sitting in front of laptops.  But they’re not necessarily all doing the same thing.  For example, maybe she has given the assignment of practicing writing.  You could have some students using the laptop to type, some using it to practice hand writing digitally, and others not wanting to use the laptop at all.  The student chooses how they want to utilize the tools, and the teacher is the guide.  She joked that she spends most of her time taking pictures while the students work.   There were lots and lots of photos of students engaged in fun learning activities (games), that really helped them do group work to practice their listening and speaking skills.

Another thing she mentioned was how technology is changing what we need to learn.  Revelation #3 was the non-importance of learning to write, proper stroke order, etc.  Of course these are all good things to learn if you have time.  But remembering where she’s coming from (AP students learning Chinese), does it really matter in the long run when the computer can finish your typing for you.  For all we know in 5 years, we can just dictate and the computer will type for us.

Though I work in technology and I know this to be true, this was really hard for me to accept when I imagine what the classroom curriculum should look like.  I obviously am still most comfortable with the way I was taught Chinese, which involved lots of repetitive writing, memorization, etc.  This relates to revelation #4, which is that what we teach should be relevant to the students.  Again, all familiar ideas to the Montessori teacher.  It is important to teach things relevant to students because they can learn better.  She gave an example of textbooks always having sample conversations about “What sport do you like to do?”  And she questions why we need to do that.  A good teacher will know the goal isn’t to learn all 20 vocab words related to sports at the end of the class.  But rather, the goal is for the student to be answer the question (again the emphasis on language used as a communication tool).  So every student could have a different answer and learn different vocab, but it’s all good.

Combine the idea of auto education, individualized learning, emphasize on speaking and listening, she talked about how the teacher is the guide who doesn’t necessarily have all the answers but rather enables students to know how to find answers (very Montessori idea), with the help of technology.  Students can be given assignments and know how to google or use an electronic dictionary for words they do not know.  They can use it to practice listening, etc.  She talked about how she doesn’t need to worry when she leaves the classroom to go on trips because the students all know what they need to do, and all of those learning are done without her to begin with.

I’m going on and on but I’m not sure I’ve got the gist of everything she said.  The slides are on the web anyway.  Her ideas were not all new too me, except the part about really emphasize speaking and not worrying about stroke order, writing etc.

Her students are different from my kids so I’m not sure how much I should let it apply to our curriculum.  I did really enjoy looking at learning chinese through the lens of Saturday Chinese school, after school programs, or just starting in high school.  It is not normally the crowd of parents I talk to, who have much higher standards of Chinese for their kids and do require that they speak at home or send their kids to immersion school.

Oh, one thing she said was that AP Chinese level is comparable to 2nd to 3rd grade Chinese level in Taiwan, other than concept.  Because obviously this is high school/college level, and the test will have vocabs and concepts that are older and a real 3rd grader wouldn’t understand it.

Field trip Friday: Ardenwood

Cotton Plant
Cotton Plant at Ardenwood

The East Bay Regional Park system has a free entry day every third Friday of the month. We decided to take the opportunity to visit Ardenwood this Friday as it’s one of the few parks in the system that requires a fee.

Ardenwood is an actual working farm located in Fremont. It’s very close to the Dumbarten Bridge. They plant things for sale to the public and has farm related programs geared toward toddlers during the week. Several times during the year, they have special events, such as 4th of July celebration, Harvest Festival, railroad/train day, and Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. We’ve only been to Harvest Festival, 4th of July, and the railroad exhibition.

We loved all of them but these were special events during the weekend, costing lots of moola, even if you had a membership passes to the regional park system. Because of this, I’ve never gotten the membership pass and so have never been to the farm during a weekday. Didn’t seem worth it especially given the hour drive from our house. We’ve got the Little Farm closer to us which also allows you to pet and feed the animals.

Because this was just a play date, we started late and first made a stop at 85 Degrees Bakery to get some bubble tea. It’s 5 minutes away from the farm. We got to the farm itself around 11:45am and met up with our friends while waiting for the train. There is a “train” on the farm, which is like a huge long truck bed dragged by a train on a track. It doesn’t even go all the way around the farm but is still fun for little ones.

After we got off the train, which drops us off close to a working field, we meandered to the Patternson House, which is where the original landowners lived 100 years ago. There are tours available but I think too advanced for the toddler kids.

We finished our lunch on the huge grassy field in front of Patterson house, then meandered over to see the animals and milk a fake cow. Thumper filled a pail with water from a water pump. We then meandered back out again to play in the pumpkins patch, which has a huge hay bale pyramid to climb on, two hay bale mazes, those cutout figures to take pics in, and of course lots of pumpkins to pick if you so desire.

We spent a lot of time here and then rushed off to go to swim practice. All in all an easy going day if you have no expectations. There really isn’t a lot to see on a weekday. Sometimes they have farm activities like feeding the sheep, working on the farm itself, talking about bees etc. But these are also events we’ve seen during our special day visit. In fact we’d just gone to the Harvest Festival last Saturday and it was super great fun. You can make ice cream, corn husk dolls, pick corn, buy bees and learn about bees, look at the birds in the aviary, sometimes there’s a blacksmith, make your own apple cidar, etc.

So I would give it a 3 star out of 5. This is a great place for young toddlers. It’s great to come back again and again I think during the year to see how a farm changes. But we’ve got the Blake garden and the Tilden Little Farm closer to home to do the same thing.

Is there such a thing as joyfully learning Chinese?

I went to a talk given by a bilingual Montessori school last Saturday. It was supposed to be about how to joyfully teach Chinese. I spoke with my friend afterward and she said that she didn’t think it helped. I mostly agreed with her. We were really looking for specifics; teach characters this way, introduce zhuyin that way! But they didn’t really go into that kind of detail. It was more of an explanation of how they teach Chinese at the school, which we felt were like “d’oh, of course!”

However, parents from a FB group I’m in are coincidentally discussing how they teach characters over the weekend and I realized that it IS different from how most people teach Chinese. So I’m going to write it down here for my reference before I forget.

I have to say, not having had kids who are grown means that I don’t know if one way is better than the other.

First they talked about how they don’t teach: No writing characters 5000 times like we learned it when we were in elementary school. They use a variety of tools for the children to practice. For example:

Creating a booklet of calligraphy zhuyin
A cabinet of chinese characters for the children to lookup when they want to write, sorted by zhuyin
Matching of English and chinese words. I did not like this activity but I can see why you may want to use it for non native speakers.
iPad game app that lets you practice chinese stroke order
Another iPad app to practice zhuyin
Initial sound boxes

They also talked about the way we learn, that we need to recall (test) with various time lengths in between. Hence they have the variety of activities.

The presenter of course talked about why you want to learn zhuyin and traditional characters. The zhuyin reasons are the same as mine. Except they added the fact that it allows you to introduce both zhuyin and the alphabet between 3-6.

They also talked about introducing 80 component characters by the time you finish kindergarten, which is different from how the local Chinese charter school teaches. The idea is that with these 80 characters you can use them to combine into more complex characters. Along with learning zhuyin it will allow you to begin writing once you start elementary.

Oh and lastly their ambitious plan is to introduce 750 characters by 3rd grade. That’s almost at grade level in Taiwan. To which I say not likely unless the child has been in preschool and knows 150 to 200 by the time they start elementary. It’s just too hard on top of learning English. But that’s just me speculating.

I’ve been mulling over the talk the last few days. What I got most out of the talk is the recall and testing. It jives with what I just realized last week. The Montessori materials provide a variety of ways to practice a concept, sometimes in a spiral learning pattern that spans years. There is no time or restriction which says we will cover this over one month and be done though most schools do have a curriculum/theme they follow. This means the child is free to revisit a concept again and again, which aids retention of what they’re learning.

Really GETTING this now means I’m not stressing so much thinking how is Thumper supposed to cover all the different math topics if she’s only doing 3-5 units of work a week? I know now to provide a variety of presentations and activities for her to work on over weeks and months and this is a better way for her to retain info rather than working on one skill/concept at a time only. Supposedly the “How We Learn” book that just came out covered this too.

I have my own ideas of how I will teach but they are similar in concept if not in implementation. Another post, another day.

Playing hookie

Everyone woke up on the wrong side of bed yesterday. I drank too much caffeine and woke up 2 hours earlier. Astroyboy woke up an hour earlier and Thumper was just sleepy. Add to that a friend who visited to chat in the morning and our whole routine was thrown off. I’m not blaming the visit itself as we were fine the other times when she visited.

When kids and Mama wake up too early, everyone is cranky. my requests went in one ear and out the other, and I in turn had a much shorter fuse. I couldn’t seem to help myself, even knowing that my behavior was not going to get the kids to finish their breakfast instead of playing; in fact it would do the exact opposite.  I could not take that needed step back and talk calmly to the children. There were lots of threats and lecturing.

The good news is that I did decide we were not doing “schooling” today. Instead we checked out the local homeschoolers library and I borrowed a thick stack of books related to the First Great Lesson I’m finally going to give. Thumper also borrowed a big book on making Halloween costumes and the kids had a lot of fun looking through the books in the car throughout the day. Since I haven’t transferred my Chinese songs to my iPhone for the kids to listen to in the car, I think I’m going to start stocking some books instead.IMG_1030.JPG

So this local library, it’s super neat. Run out of a basement and backyard cottage, there must be thousands of books in there on various subjects. The best part is there are no due dates! The children played with the toys strewn around the library while I browsed. I really love it. I had put off going there because they’re only open during our swim practice and on the mornings we have school. But maybe it’s time to change up the schedule a bit.

After the library visit, we went to Gioia pizza close to Gilman and the children enjoyed watching the pizza makers toss pizza dough in the air. Then we rushed to Blake Garden and the children ran around with friends. Off we then went to swim practice, then home for me to go to Daiso for my MNO.

The day ended in a happy note for everyone I think. We went out during snack time the other two days. It was lovely to get out and enjoy the sun. I didn’t realize how I’ve been getting tired of the monotony of our routines. We’re stuck in school in the morning, I take nap, then I’m stuck again in indoor swim practice. We have an occasional play in the park for Astroyboy if I get out early enough. But I’m busy on my phone usually getting some downtime and catching up on email. So I haven’t gone out myself to enjoy the outdoors. And I haven’t had those easy conversations with the children while we just hang out. AND I feel I’ve been turning into a terrible teacher nagging Thumper to work work work. It really isn’t how I want the days to go.

I’m making some curriculum changes by getting my ass in gear to prep for the First Great Lesson. And I think maybe talking to Thumper next week to get her input on what she wants to do. We’ve been working on the subjects as standalone subjects but I want to integrate them through projects so it doesn’t feel so mundane. She also likes making things with her hands and I’m hoping that following her interest will make schooling for fun for everyone.

Nothing like playing hookie to get your perspectives in order.


First Month of School

Number RodsNomalization is not a nice word.  I think for most people, when they first hear the word used they cringe and have a bodily “yucky” feeling. But all it really means is children behaving as they would be if their needs are met. Or as Montessori puts it, becoming a contributing member of society.

For me, a normalized children is one that is mostly concentrated on their work, doesn’t get distracted, and really doesn’t need constant reminder from the teacher.

We’re not quite there yet.

Today marks the end of 6 weeks of homeschooling.  We spent about 2 weeks doing prep and easing into it, then 2 weeks of assessment and more routine, and then 2 weeks of actual work.  We’ve had good days and bad days. After 2 days of okay to bad days this week, a thought occurred to me, “Could it be taking the children 2 days to normalize?” Both last week and this week, Thumper puts off work until the last day and them and on Thursday she is willing to settle down and work. Astroyboy too today was not moving from activity to activity asking that I play with him, but rather willing to work on a piece of work longer term when I’m not there. I am going to rethink my schedule a bit.

Summary of progress so far

Outside of “school” time, the children have made a lot of progress doing Practical Life activities.  It’s one of the reasons I wanted to homeschool, to teach the kids practical skills they need to live.  Though sometimes I wonder, if I was able to do it while going through traditional school, why can’t the kids?  Except I’m not my mom and don’t have that kind of energy level.

Anyways, they have settled into a routine of making their lunch twice a week.  I’ve also asked that they wash their own lunch dishes daily as well during school days.  They help make our Wednesday night fajitas and Friday pizzas when they feel like it.  They clean the car, fold the laundry once a week.  I have moved ever more food prep items onto reachable shelf space.  In general the kids are tidier and put away the dishes, set the table more often without nagging.  All of these things make me super happy.


In Chinese, she is learning 3 characters a week. I’m loving the way we are learning characters. The only changes I’m planning to make is to add more characters, and introduce creative writing.

In zhuyin, we spent a couple weeks practicing the combo sounds.  But even I got confused practicing them .  I realized the way I know my zhuyin is actually just through looking at the combos.  Otherwise the sounds are super similar sometimes and as I’d written, change sounds depending on the combo.  So by the end, we started doing zhuyin practice reading.  I’m planning to introduce writing in zhuyin next.  I think that is the way to help internalize some of the rules.

In math she’s been working a lot on memorizing her addition facts up to 20.  I asked her today and she says more answers are coming to her now without looking it up. This may not be a kosher thing to ask your child but so easy to gauge when you’re just teaching 2 kids. Next week I will be starting on memorization of multiplication and maybe doing a timed addition sheet just to gauge where she is in the memorization front. Again not Mobtessori but I have to gauge her somehow.

For teacher reading she’s super enjoying her book about a word drinking vampire. She always asks me to read more than her allotment on 3 chapters.  I will continue reading to her as I know the book has lots of concepts and words that are above her level.

For reading herself she’s moved on to Sage Books series 2, book 2.  It’s actually too easy for her but I’m easing her into it otherwise she’ll refuse to read. We still find 1-2 words we don’t know and use it in our chinese practice work.



Because you just follow a 3-6 year olds interests, I’ve been letting Astroboy do whatever he likes.  If somedays he wants to play train upstairs I let him.  But he doesn’t want to do that often because he likes to stick to me.

In our month of homeschooling one thing is clear, he LOVES counting. He’s been introduced to sandpaper letters, number rods, addition strip board, teens board, and spindle box, colored bead stairs. Basically most of the counting presentations. It’s been easy for him to pick up the numbers because he had learned it through daily conversations or other daily occurrences.  (I just realized through playing Uno yesterday!)  Today, Thursday, he counted to 35 using the spindle boxes by himself! I was surprised. As I remember counting that high maybe once with him, showing him the pattern in counting. I remember doing this with Thumper and she didn’t get it because she wasn’t in her sensitive period then.

For zhuyin he’s been exposed to ㄅㄆㄇㄈㄍㄏㄚㄧㄨㄢㄐ.  Quite a lot when you write it out.  It makes me feel much better seeing this because I was starting to thing we weren’t making progress.  He’s also watching about an 30 minutes to an hour or so of Ciao Hu daily.  Though it’s not the phonics way, nothing beats mundane repetition that a teacher can’t do.  I know in the classroom the child can repeat work.  But it’s hard to do repetitive speaking, which needs to come from the teacher.

For Chinese, we just started doing Sage books today.  He learned 山 高 的.  But he doesn’t remember them about 5 minutes later.  So we need to do more second period work by doing a variety of activities.

He’s also been doing some clock work because he loves counting.  Also somecutting, puzzle, and play dough. Everything else is 5 minutes of interest.

Of course we do other practical life stuff outside of class as well.

For him next month I really want to do more practical life, sensorial, and gardening. I’m trying not to push the chinese since he seems to really like math right now.

What I did and learned

It’s clear that I’ve only been concentrating on math and language so far.  I feel kind of bad and sometimes very anxious because I did have a whole curriculum planned but I’m behind because I need to make the materials, AND 3 hours isn’t enough to squeeze it all in when your child likes to spend half of it doing practical life.  However, I’m getting into a groove for making materials and I will be madly catching up next month.

For next month, I will be adding much more Chinese character work based on the Sage series.  If I get my ass in gear, I want to also start doing science activities.  Since the weather has been really hot and perfect to grow seeds.  I’ve sped up my plans for our hoop house garden.  Once that’s done, then the children can work on it.  Of course, all the related science activities that come with gardening.

As I’ve said, I get anxious over the amount the children are learning.  Writing it all down helps.  And also just the passage of time.  With the amount of TV they’ve been watching nightly and also just all day with me, I’m definitely starting to notice how much Chinese the children are now using compared with before.  Basically Astroboy’s English conversations with Baba gets worse and worse.

Maybe I’ll rant about my anxiety in another post.  I’m having a hard time right now deciding on how many hours of instruction is enough, if i should start doing more English, and when we may want to go back to regular school.

They say you learn by doing and I had an aha moment the last week.  I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out what math presentations to do with Thumper.  There are so many!  And they all seem to do the same thing except in different degrees of abstraction.  Then it hit me as I watch the children flit from activity to activity.  You’re supposed to just present them all (the relevant ones), and the child will tell you which ones they like and need to work on!  This is why I just gave Astroboy all the counting presentations.  He will tell me through the activity he chooses what he is attracted to and subconsciously wants to work on.

No d’oh I say to myself after my realization.  I was taught that in class!  But again, nothing like having to solve a dilemma to really get it.


How we’re teaching Zhuyin, Part I

IMG_3916.JPGWhether or not to teach zhuyin vs pinyin is something I’ve struggled with for several years.  I can clearly see that pinyin is something we need to learn in the long term because China is so much bigger.  Yet at the same time, there is a “But zhuyin is better!” refrain I often hear from people who have learned zhuyin as a child.  And sometimes it feels like there is an underlying UNSPOKEN statement of “But China is better!” vs. “But Taiwan is better!” depending on which system you use.

I will stop here and just state my preference.   In a bilingual environment, I think zhuyin should be taught alongside or after characters between 3-6.  Then pinyin eventually added in, maybe after 3rd grade.  I personally use pinyin to type now, after trying to use the Taiwanese tongyong pinyin for a few years.  Pinyin in any form is not intuitive to me.  But I find it much easier to type than zhuyin.  One reason is because I learned how to type in English first.  The zhuyin combo is just too slow for me.  It’s clear that if English will be eventually your stronger language, then you will probably use pinyin.  Another thing is that sometimes I can’t distinguish between the different sounds in two words that sound similar because /ng/ and /n/ aren’t pronounced very distinctly in Taiwanese Chinese.  So having the English pinyin actually helps.

So what is zhuyin?

Zhuyin is the phonetic system that was developed in China in the early 1900s.  It has 37 characters.  It’s divided into 3 main groups, consonants, rhymes, and medials.  I like to think of rhymes and medials as vowels.  During my research I found out several interesting things that was not in the English Wikipedia.  The symbols are “Underlying representation” rather than “Surface Representation“.  This means that the symbols can change pronunciation when you combine them with other symbols.  It isn’t always exactly one sound per symbol.  You know someone has internalized the phonological rules if they don’t actually notice the difference when combing the symbols together to pronounce a word.  What a revelation!   It explains why sometimes I cannot find the right zhuyin to spell as an adult but if I were to see it combined, I know intuitively how it should sound.

Another interesting thing about zhuyin is that when medials are at the beginning of a sound, they change pronunciation.  So typically a few combo medials+rhymes are taught as a set.  For example, ㄧ, is pronounced as /i/, as in ㄅㄧ /bi/.  But at the beginning of a combo, it changes to /y/ sound, like ㄧㄝ /ye/.

My decision to go with Zhuyin

Zhuyin, pinyin, or none?  I went back and forth for a few years until Thumper learned about 150-200 Chinese characters by age 6 and only watched Chiao Hu zhuyin lessons but was never formally taught.  I was much against her not learning zhuyin at the beginning but I found this way the best because we’re in the US.  If she had to learn her characters starting at age 6, then it’s too late for her.  Her English level is strong enough at this point and once you learn English phonics you’re already mostly there to reading.  She would then prefer reading in English than Chinese.

About 60% of the reason I’m going with Zhuyin is because I learned it as a child.  There just is something to be said about teaching what you learned.  It’s easier.  I feel like it’s somewhat blasphemous for saying it out loud (see intro reasons above).  But I’ve decided to boldly admit it to myself.  Other reasons (the ones I tell other people) are:

  1. It helps with pronunciation.  I see this again and again with children who are learning Mandarin as a second language.  Really they should have almost perfect pronunciation but they don’t because no phonics are taught.  Whenever I’ve broken down the phonics of a word and ask them to repeat, I find that they pronounce the words perfectly.  This is why I advocate phonics strongly.  You don’t even have to learn it formally, just at least introduce the phonics.
  2. Related to #1, with zhuyin you are not biased with English phonics.  It may not make too much of a difference to young children.  I’ve heard of examples where child isn’t confused when taught pinyin and English phonics concurrently and also of ones where it confuses them.  I figured if you want to teach it to them before age 6, which is when they are also learning English phonics, then might as well learn zhuyin instead.  I’ve always also wondered why there is such a debate over learning zhuyin.  When you learn Japanese or Korean you have to learn hiragana/katagana or the Korean alphabet.  If you know English phonics it can interfere with pronouncing the words well.
  3. My books all have zhuyin in them.
  4. The characters are based in Chinese characters.  So learning to write zhuyin is having really writing simplified Chinese.  It helps with writing in general later on.
  5. I like the fact that it takes at most 3 sounds to pronounce a word.  English words has various syllable lengths.  But Chinese only has one, made up of 3 “sounds” at most, plus tones.  And you can clearly see it with zhuyin. But if you were to use pinyin, you would first need to decode multiple sounds in English combined to make one Chinese sound.  For example, /ai/ for ㄞ.
  6. A phonetic system needs to be introduced so the children are familiar with how to put words together phonetically. This will help when they need to learn English phonics.

How is Zhuyin taught typically?

The way they taught zhuyin when I was a child was to sound it out from beginning to end, just like English.  For 3 letter sounds, you sound out last 2 letters (medial+rhyme), then add first letter (consonant).  The way they do it now, for a consonant+rhyme combo, is to add the tone first to the rhyme, then add the consonant.  For three consonant+medial+rhyme combo, you do medial+rhyme combo, then add tone, then add consonant.  So for example, ㄅㄚˋ you say, ㄚˋ,  ㄅㄚˋ.  This is a better way because again, medials change sound when it’s in front of a rhyme.   So if the child just learns the medial+rhyme combo as ONE sound, they don’t have as much trouble when combing them together.  I definitely see this with Thumper, who ran into this problem.

We went to Mandarin Kids camp for 12 weeks (we missed 2) while in Taiwan to learn zhuyin.  This is meant as a remedial course for children who have learned to read zhuyin but can’t put them together.  I had an enlightening conversation with the teacher.  In hindsight, now that I know that zhuyin is a underlying representation symbol, what she said makes sense.  The way they teach zhuyin in the class is to just read, read, and read.  They go through one short paragraph a week, work on individual word combos or sounds for that lesson, then just read.  The teacher says they don’t teach HOW to combine the sounds together like the way we were taught as children.  Maybe it’s because the children already learned it in school.  But after 12 weeks, the children, who have read enough words, create and internalize the rules and most know how to read.  In a way, it’s the whole word system of reading instead of the phonics system.

Before introducing zhuyin

Because Thumper is such a strong auditory learner, she actually learned how to spell before she learned her zhuyin.  Though Astroboy is much more visual, I’ve trying to do the same with him.  This is a learning philosophy I’ve gradually come to realize should be the way to go.  Language is first and foremost listening and speaking.  Then human invented writing and reading.  Sometimes there is such an emphasis on the latter two, we forget that without the listening and speaking as a strong foundation, learning the mechanics of reading and writing doesn’t mean you know the content.

Similarly with zhuyin.  I started around ages 2 and 3 talking about what sound a word starts with.  ㄅㄚ,    ㄅ,  ㄅ, ㄅ, ㄅㄚ/ba, b, b, b, ba/.  Around age 4, we started spelling.  ㄅㄚ, ㄅ, ㄚ, ㄅㄚ /ba, b, a, ba/.  I would randomly verbally show her  how a word could be spelled.  Again, since it takes at most 3 sounds to make up a character, it was actually SUPER easy for Thumper to pick up spelling.   She got it after a few tries.  What’s amazing is that she did not learn zhuyin the phonics way but she still got it.   We only really need to teach her how to READ zhuyin when the time came, and how to combine it together visually.

Contrast this with Astroboy, who I’m teaching zhuyin as a 4 year old.  As a second child (i.e. not as much time to devote to him), and one who has been much later than his sister in gaining verbal skills, I have not prepped him for learning zhuyin.  So now, we actually need to really spend the time to teach the sound of each symbol, teach the concept of beginning sounds, and have him practice putting the symbols together; basically teaching him how to read.  This will definitely take more time than the way Thumper learned.  He is also a more visual learner so I think this way suits him fine, but I can see through our lessons that if he had the oral preparation, he will get the concept much faster.

How to teach Zhuyin

Typically, children learn zhuyin by its name.  For example, ㄅ (B) is pronounced /beh/.  However, a better way, similar to how we teach English phonics, is to teach the phonetic sounds.  So you would pronounce ㄅ (B) as a soft b sound.  In Montessori primary language, you introduce the symbols by their sounds.  And if children ask, as they will because they are usually taught the other way, you say those are the NAME of the symbol.  For example, when showing ㄅ, you point to it and say, /b/.

Every material you encounter will introduce zhuyin by name, so we have to make our own material.  I still let Astroboy watch Chiao Hu, which teaches zhuyin.  But I don’t teach it that way.   It saddens me I bought a lot of video and audio materials for teaching zhuyin and now I can’t use them.

You also introduce the symbols non sequentially.  There is no need to teach it as  ㄅ /b/, ㄆ /p/, ㄇ /m/, ㄈ /f/.   This has no bearing on how it’s actually used.  Teachers have confirmed this to me.  A child can learn the names of all the zhuyin, but they can’t put it together.  Instead, introduce them as a word.  In English you do the consonant-vowel-consonant (cvc) combo.  In zhuyin, you can do the cv combo.

Here is the order that Astroboy has learned them.

Day 1 – ㄅ /b/, ㄚ /a/

Day 2 – ㄇ /m/, ㄚ /a/

Day 3 – ㄏ /h/, ㄚ /a

ㄚ is a great first rhyme to introduce because so many words end in ㄚ.  Especially words children are familiar with (ㄅㄚ /ba/, ㄇㄚ/ma/).  I will most likely introduce the medials, ㄧ, ㄨ, ㄩ after ㄚ.  They are a special group of characters that can go either way, as a beginning or ending sound.  There are lots of word combos that you can introduce once you introduce the medials and ㄚ.

For consonants, we’re basically doing father, mother, sister, brother, and their own names first.  Astroboy LOVES pointing to ㄏ /h/ and saying, “This is my name!”   I also ask him which words he wants to learn how to spell, introduce them if they are 2 symbol combos.  I usually then review the 2 symbols by showing them with other symbols he’s already learned.

We are not quite doing it the Montessori way yet because we’re only learning this on the iPad through the kdraw program, during swim practice.  He gets bored after about 15 minutes and I’m not pushing it.  I don’t want to make the same mistake I did with Thumper, which was to push a bit too hard and now she resists reading.

I also have not introduced the tones yet.  I think I really should.  But since I have not done so verbally, I don’t want to confuse him by showing it visually yet.  It’s adding a new layer of difficulty that is a bit beyond him right now.

Astroboy actually has been exposed to zhuyin for 3 years before I formally started the introduction.  I shall write another post about Montessori way of introducing phonics, some sample activities, in another post. (coming soon!)


Diving into Chinese

Week 5 Day 1

Thumper: lang: Zhuyin, 住 , doubles addition, read set 2 book 1 sage books, read to, crochet

Astroboy: Addition strip board, drawing, reading, read to, cutting cheese (practical life), cooked lunch

Schedule: snack after 1 hour.  Astroboy not focusing

Week 5 already and I’m starting to get a bit anxious as I’m way behind in the Chinese making of materials.  I also havn’t presented the Great Lessons yet because I havn’t ordered those materials as well.  I do like having to list what happens daily as it always looks way more than how it feels while I’m doing it.

Today we did about 3.5 hours of work, counting the half hour snack time.

Last week, I showed Thumper the 4 areas she needs to work on daily.  They are,

  1. Being read to
  2. Read
  3. Math
  4. Zhuyin

She didn’t do them everyday so on Thursday she couldn’t do anything fun till she was done with them.

This week, I added one more to the list, Mandarin.  I also changed the way I did it.  Last week I let her check things off, but this week I’m going to start by having her check in with me with each work and then I will check it off.  Right now, the list is just something written on the whiteboard, but eventually I will probably make a checkoff sheet if we run out of room.

Let’s talk about Astroboy first before discussing the Chinese.  Astroboy has had the Addition Strip Board laid out since last week and he’s been methodically going through each number and adding them.  He won’t let me put them away.  But he also loses interest after 5-10 minutes.  In either case, he requires that I work with him.  He won’t complete it himself.  I know it’s partly because I’m his mom, and also there aren’t other kids in the classroom to distract him or for me to say, “Sorry I gotta go.”  It’s a dilemma because I need him to work by himself, otherwise he will not learn concentration.  That is one problem to think about.

Last week, we did just Zhuyin.  This week, we will be working on 3 Mandarin work: Zhuyin, writing characters, and reading through Sagebooks.

For Zhuyin, we’re working through all the basic zhuyin special combos, what I will call Level 2 of my iFlash cards, which I still have to make.  I’ve talked about How to Introduce Zhuyin in another post already.  I made the flashcards last week and it’s been a good reference as well for Thumper for when she forgets a symbol.  Thumper’s work daily is to just go through these basic combos with me for practice.  It’s not quite Montessori, but it’ll have to do for now.  It definitely shows me what sounds she’s having trouble with.

Today, I had Thumper start reading from Set 2, Book #1 of the Sagebooks Series, this series forms the foundation of how we’re going to learn to read in Mandarin.  She breezed through most of the pages as she already was introduced to many of these characters while in preschool.  I had her write down the words she doesn’t know on post its and put it on the white board.  She’s supposed to write down any words she doesn’t know on the post-it notes.  Her writing work for the week is to choose 3 words out of all the post-its and 1) put them in the dictionary, and 2) write it 6 times.

The dictionary and the writing booklet I spent hours making.  There is always a little sense of accomplishment each time I get a material made.  I love this idea of making a dictionary.  The dictionary has 3 sections: character + zhuyin, stroke order, words.  The finished page goes into a 1 inch binder ordered by zhuyin.

The character booklet you can buy easily in any Chinese bookstore.  BUT, i am super picky about what I want so just ended up making it.  I wanted a book that has bigger squares than normal, with no zhuyin in them.  I also wanted the squares to have 9 mini squares in them so she can learn how to write properly.  I read this post about how to introduce Chinese characters once, I’ll put that in another post later.

IMG_3850.JPGSo today, Thumper picked out a character, 住.  I drew a 9 square box on the whiteboard and showed her the stroke order.  She numbered the stroke order herself.  It was wrong and a perfect opportunity for a mini lesson on how strokes typically go.  We repeated this several times as I pointed out how the character needs to fill the whole large box and she kept trying it out.  Honestly I don’t think this is too Montessori.  I will have to design another work that makes her aware of the placement of her strokes.  As it is, talking about it made her only minimally aware.  She is still not writing it quite correctly.

I then told her for each character she’s learning she needs to write it 6 times.  This is of course very different from how people usually learn to write in Chinese.  I remember repeated writing in grade school.  But unless you’re writing characters as part of words or sentences, honestly children can learn how to write but don’t know how to use it.  So that is why I only ask for 6.  She will get more practice as she has other types of writing to do later.  The point here is more writing with the proper stroke order.


Did I already mention how happy I am I got to try out my new binding machine?   😀

Thumper probably spent just an hour max doing all her “work”.  She spent the rest busily crocheting her birthday present for her aunt.  As much as I don’t like her crocheting so much during school time, I am noticing that she is holding her pencils much better than before.  And I credit crocheting for this change.  So I’m not saying commenting at all.  SO HARD to hold my tongue.

Oh, lastly, Astroboy made gnocchi today.  He got the Trade Joe’s package out of the freezer, cut it open, dumped it all in, and cooked it.  All while dragging around a little step chair.  I only turned on the stove for him and his sister scooped it out.  All part of the 3-step work.  It makes me so happy because I find that it’s the prepping and cleaning up that’s hard for the kids.  They did also put their dishes away but I could not convince them to actually wash the dishes.  Maybe next week!

Fieldtrip Fridays: Muirwoods

Looking for 4-leaf clovers

After skipping a week, we decided to go to Muir Woods for our Field Trip Friday.

We left at 9:30 but had to double back because I left my sweater at home, then there was a side trip to the bakery and stuck in traffic between 580 and 101. By the time we made it it was 11.

There was NO parking whatsoever by then. We parked about a mile away and walked back to the entrance. By now there was a constant trickle of tourists. The kids enjoyed feeling the metal relief map of Muirwoods. We also spent some time at the gift shop while we waited for the long ticket line to shrink. We found out they will have a guided tour in Chinese this weekend during free national park day.

This is our second time at Muir Woods. the first time the children got tired after 15 minutes and said “I’m bored!” and wanted to go home. Made me so mad. That was not a fun trip.

This time around I set my expectations lower. I PLANNED to be there at most 2 hours because we made a play date in the afternoon. And I didn’t try to force feed info to the children as we walked in the woods. When they wanted to go look at the tree with lots of rings while I was trying to get them to admire the tall trees, I said “OK!” instead of getting annoyed. I pointed things out as I noticed them but didn’t go on and in about them if the kids don’t seem interested. We happened upon the last 5 minute of a tour that talked about how Muir Woods came to be. Thumper was really interested into hearing the story when I translated for her. Asyrobot was only really interested in learning what the signs on the walkway said. (Stay on the walkway). And feeling the relief map.

What I learned after the last trip and our travels in Taiwan was how out of touch with nature the children are. Outting a are not fun for them unless it involves a play structure. Very different Fromm happy memories of childhood hiking with cousins every weekend. I realized that I needed to not make nature outings always a learning experience, rather it should be fun and stress free; so that they learn to enjoy nature and like being there. My eventual goal is to base my curriculum in a California nature science one.

All in all a good trip. The children had interesting questions that I had wanted to make materials for this week but I didn’t. I do know for follow up I want to do Parts of the Plant and Parts of the Seed nomenclature cards. Maybe next week!