Reading Makes Language Relevant

By Kurt Hamm

What teacher would not like to hear a student say “Even though Chinese was hard, my teacher made it interesting – so interesting that I studied with passion. If it wasn’t for my Chinese teacher I would never have made it this far.”?

If your students took a tour of Beijing and returned to tell the class about it, what do you think they would talk about the most? Would it be the Great Wall and the countless museums, temples and shops that the average tour guide takes everyone to, or would it be that great evening when they got lost in a 胡同 and ended up having a great conversation with a guy everyone called 老板 in a little restaurant that had a seating capacity of about 25 people?

It is time to get your students off the tour bus and into that restaurant (without ever leaving the classroom). Reading will accomplish this. People who can’t read are limited in several ways. When people meet socially the conversations are usually about hobbies, interests and current events. That sort of communication is fun but it isn’t a great way to expand a student’s vocabulary. Words that don’t occur in common conversation far outnumber the word list of “daily activities” lessons.

I propose two kinds of reading to get students excited about taking their Chinese to a new level. First, reading story books enhances fluency, increases vocabulary and helps students develop a sense of the culture. Second, create a real cultural element in your class by using internet articles and blogs. Reading will make the language relevant to students’ lives and create enthusiasm for advancing their language level.

Simple storybooks are a great place to start reading. When a person reads a storybook, they see the same words used over and over again as well as seeing words they already know in different contexts. This helps students’ to acquire new vocabulary in an interesting and easy way. It also helps to develop fluency as well as understand culture. Students will become wrapped up in the plot and want to find out what happens next. Students will get acquainted with how the characters talk to each other in idioms and metaphors, which illustrates how very differently Chinese people talk to each other than the straightforward way that Western people use. They will be talking about the stories in class. I find storybooks that engage my students’ interests. One series is about a police detective trying to solve a series of thefts.

The biggest benefit to reading is that it helps one to understanding what is going on in the culture. Knowing what is on the minds of the average person, which is what daily newspapers and internet sites are all about. Without reading, you are out of the loop. Knowing what is happening in any culture requires reading. Chinese culture is no exception. Chinese people blog about everything. Being able to read blogs provides valuable insights into Chinese culture and what is happening in society. Adding this to a class makes the Chinese language relevant to students’ lives by engaging them in an interesting way. These sorts of lessons could also be the focus of activities that aren’t conducted in class. If your school has a “Chinese Club” or regular meeting that allows students to speak Chinese, these would provide interesting conversational material.

It sounds like a lot of work to translate blogs and newspapers but it really isn’t if teachers collaborate. If every teacher posted one translated blog or internet article on, there would be wonderful authentic material for everyone to share and benefit from. To make the written material usable in class, first add pinyin to the Chinese characters that the students don’t know and then add any cultural notes that seem relevant to the topic.

In conclusion, Chinese language and culture are very difficult to teach and students generally shy away from reading. Making reading fun and interesting will create enthusiasm and add an element to classes that is missing. More students will continue to higher levels if they get excited about reading. There is a big difference between saying “Chinese people use a lot of idioms in their daily speech” and letting a student read books and articles where they see this sort of communication. The fact is this would not be a difficult project if everyone were to collaborate.

Kurt Hamm is an American who has lived in China since 1998. He and his Chinese wife have been married for 11 years, and he has a 15-year-old-step daughter. Having lived in a traditional Chinese home with three generations under one roof, he understands the lot of common Chinese people intimately. He has co-authored a Chinese language course that is available for free download on his website. In addition to his life experience, he has worked in education and media organizations and currently holds a Foreign Expert's Certificate in education in China.