Tips for New Chinese Language Teachers in Summer Immersion Classrooms

By Lisa Li Urbonya

Many Chinese language instructors face the daunting task of teaching in an immersion program this summer with little or no training on how to stay in the target language. Particularly challenging will be those assigned to teach beginners for upwards of five hours a day over the course of several weeks. What can you do to keep it lively and engaging while reaching language objectives? I would like to share some tips for creating dynamic summer immersion classrooms with all Chinese language teachers in the United States.

Set Clear Expectations
Some programs call themselves immersion programs but in fact, they are really not immersion in the true sense of the word. Conversely, some are immersion programs but fail to communicate this properly. It is important to understand the expectations of administrators, parents and students. It is up to you to ensure that the environment is conducive to the language pledge (promise to speak target language only) being upheld by all students. Communicate with parents and students as far ahead as possible to make sure they understand the language pledge, the meaning of an immersion program, and the learning objectives of the program. In some programs, students were not informed that they could not speak in their native language until they arrived on site. They were not prepared for the challenges ahead.

Be Prepared
Advanced planning is critical to creating a successful short-term immersion environment. Have as many materials as possible prepared before the program commences. Set your objectives and assessment for each day before the program starts. You can count on adjustments needing to be made on the fly, but you will feel a lot more confident in making those adjustments if you have done your best to prepare for all eventualities. Particularly difficult to predict are the language levels of those you will be teaching. Even if the students are supposedly all “beginners,” this is a subjective term and you might find yourself in a classroom that includes students who have in fact studied the language. The more prepared you are in a broad sense, the more likely you are to be able to accommodate these unexpected differences.

Prepare Useful Communicative Activities
With only a short amount of time and high expectations, students should be taught content focused on communication. What if the student was dropped in a Chinese city right after your program? Could they survive? Or what if a native speaker asked the student questions about him/herself? Could the student answer? One teacher I evaluated taught mostly Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty poetry in a summer program leaving the students incapable of answering even some of the most basic questions. While a few poems are okay, they won’t help you when you need to order food in a restaurant or negotiate a taxi fare.

Vary Activities

Use a combination of traditional Eastern and Western activities. This takes some knowledge of what Eastern activities really work in a western classroom. For example, daily dictation, reading dialogues, learning the names of the strokes, daily quizzes and repeating after CDs are traditional methods that can add value to a classroom. US learners like games and multi-sensory activities requiring movement and music. Both are complementary and create a successful program. Exploring interests, hobbies and other subjects that include learning the Chinese arts such as Martial Art, Brush Painting, Chinese Dance or Tai Chi can be a form of active learning. Sometimes learning the language through lessons such as mathematics or social studies (similar to those offered in immersion schools) can facilitate language development.

Quality Not Quantity
Do not think that you need to teach enormous amounts of subject matter? Sometimes less is more and that is especially so in a short-term immersion program. The trick is introducing just enough new content to keep students interested without overwhelming them. Students need to retain what they learn and this takes repetition. Teach concepts in many ways to give continued practice. For example, numbers can be taught through mathematic equations, through buying and selling role plays with money and by calculating age through asking a person's Chinese animal sign. Telling time and Chinese calendar concepts also involve numbers.

Teach Cultural Concepts through Simple Language
Many concepts can be taught with a few words. For example the song “请进” introduces traditional Chinese cultural concepts of politeness with a modicum of vocabulary. In traditional Chinese culture, you should ask guests to come in, sit down, eat and drink at least three times if you really mean it. The song reinforces this concept with the use of only four phrases – 请进, 请坐, 请喝,请吃. Other words convey deep cultural concepts. For example, the Chinese 称呼system of understanding people's titles (叔叔,老师,奶奶,校长) demonstrate the cultural requirement of showing respect to elders. Giving and receiving compliments is another way to grasp the concept of modesty in Asian culture. Phrases such as "不好意思Sorry" and "我有事情I have things to do" also convey interesting cultural ideas with few words.

Stress Communication Success
It is not necessary for students to comprehend deeply everything they are being asked to learn. In fact, it would be impossible to do this in a beginner’s class without breaking the language pledge. So don’t. Sometimes it is enough simply to elicit the desired response. If they teacher says, 打开窗户, and the student opens the window, that may be all they need to know at that point. That is a communication success. If you try to help the student understand the deeper meaning of the characters “窗户”, you will likely either confuse the students if you speak about it in Chinese or you will end up breaking the language pledge. Use physical cues to create meaning, whenever possible.

Keep Your Teaching Brief before Eliciting a Response
Many teachers speak for long periods of time before eliciting a response from students. In beginning-novice second language classrooms, teachers should ideally not go more than a few sentences without eliciting a response from students "对不对?" 同学们,你听懂了吗?". In general, teachers should not exceed one or two minutes without student participation. Part of this is checking for understanding, giving feedback and also keeping the students in the language learning track.

Q and A Approach
Ask questions about the self such as: “你多大了 How old are you?” “你属什么 What animal year were you born in?”“你叫什么名字 What’s your name?” “你贵姓 What’s your family name?” Each unit brings about vocabulary for a new Q&A response set for the student's repertoire. Warm-ups at the beginning of class often consist of going through some of this Q&A as review. This approach creates expectations for students to start talking in their first few classes.

Avoid Squashing Communication with Pronunciation Corrections
Many well intentioned Chinese teachers have pounded the confidence out of a student by correcting the student’s pronunciation at an inopportune moment. Even if the pronunciation is barely intelligible, sometimes it is better to let students have a sense of confidence than to correct them on the spot. One way to implicitly correct pronunciation is to react to the meaning of what the student just said while repeating correctly and expanding on some of what he/she just said in your answer. Below is an example:

老师: 你家有几口人?
学生: 我家有二口人
老师: 哦,你家有两口人。他们是谁?
学生: 妈妈和我

Certainly there is a time to work on pronunciation – but not during a dialogue like that above. In a short-term beginning class, you want the students to come away thinking Chinese is an attainable language and inspire them to go on. To achieve this, it is important to think carefully about when you do and don’t correct pronunciation.

Pinyin Prompts
Students over 8 years old may benefit from putting pinyin on the board as a prompt. This is not a philosophical endorsement of pinyin but rather an expedient tool for a short-term environment. We know receptive language usually comes before expressive. Even if they don’t know all the rules for pinyin, the Romanization of Chinese sounds helps provide Western students with visual cues that allow them to learn the words orally.

Visual Learning to Abstract
Beginning language learners need more concrete, hands-on learning and less or no abstract concepts. You can use props and pictures to teach these concepts. As students develop a repertoire of vocabulary, they will have the confidence to delve into more abstract concepts. For example, when teaching questions you may teach visual concepts first:

你要不要苹果? (你要苹果吗?)
你有没铅笔? (你有铅笔吗?)

Then delve into more difficult questions as the student acquires language skills.Such as 你为什么喜欢?你有什么想法?

Lisa Li Urbonya, President of Action Language Learning conducts seminars and training for Chinese and world language teachers and administrators in the area of world language pedagogy and programming. She has started new Chinese language immersion programs in previous positions which include Chinese language director at Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy for middle and high school students; Chinese language teacher at the International School of Beijing for elementary school students; and founding principal of Madison Lakeside Chinese Language School for pre-K through 12. Lisa works with administrators to develop Chinese language programs for schools, coaches Chinese language teachers and develops original Chinese language curriculum. She is one of the developers of two CDs: Musical Mandarin; Action Language Songs and Tang Dynasty Poetry Set to Music. For more information click here.