Chinese for kids is quite a different process than for adults. Many Adults intuitively want to know grammar rules first then speak, while children intuitively want to ignore the rules and just speak!
So, how do I get primary school students to learn grammatical structures for Chinese when they lack all patience and interest to listen to grammar rules?
Well, what I discovered not only radically changed the way I teach but also made my classroom a lot more efficient. Let me explain…
Typically, Chinese for kids focuses mainly on listening and repeating words with some Chinese character flashcards. This sort of learning environment is foundational; however, it doesn’t take advantage of greater sensory input opportunities that young learners crave.
A better teacher takes advantage of realia when appropriate with kids. If students are learning adjectives, objects can be used to teach the meaning of vocabulary through touch. This is obviously a better teaching method because of the way it involves the senses.
Pictures typically work well for nouns; realia works well for adjectives. But what about verbs? And what about getting vocabulary out of isolated usage and stringing it together in a coherent memorable ways for kids to learn?
In the 1960s Dr. James Asher observed children learning language from their parents. Asher noticed hand gestures accelerated language acquisition which later inspired him to develop a method of language learning called ‘TPR’ (Total Physical Response) learning. In this methodology, teachers encouraged increased physical action and touch to activate the senses more in the learning process.
But TPR did not initially catch on; Asher just never pursued empirical studies.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, a researcher named Peter E. Carels began to advocate that teachers use gestures in language learning and have students mimic their gestures.
Further in 1995, Linda Quinn Allen did a groundbreaking study into the usage of gestures in language learning. She took 10 French expressions — some students were taught using gestures while others were not. Allen discovered the students who were taught using gestures could better recall vocabulary in both the short-term as well as long-term.
In 2003, Manuela Macedonia did another study into the usage of gestures in language learning. She created 36 fake vocabulary words and taught 1/2 the “words” using gestures and 1/2 without. The results showed that words that were gestured were more easily recalled by the study’s participants.
In 2008, Marion Tellier did a similar study to compare the effectiveness of pictures vs. gestures. She taught four words using pictures and four words using gestures. The results also showed that vocabulary learned through gestures were again more easily recalled.
In 2011, Macedonia and Knösche used gestures to teach abstract phrases to students. They taught 32 phrases to participants in total. Each phrase had a noun, verb, adverb and object. Some phrases had hand gestures while others did not. They discovered again that even abstract words and phrases were more easily learned using gestures. Moreover, when participants created new phrases from words they just learned, participants were statistically more drawn to use words that had gestures.
This was all a bit shocking to me when I first discovered it. So, I began to teach children not only with flashcards and realia but also began to employ hand gestures to string phrases together. And the results in my classroom were staggering!
Hand gestures allowed my primary students to become more physically involved and engaged in the learning process. I also noticed an increased ability to remember vocabulary and properly using sentence patterns. Children were visualising grammar patterns in their hands as well as feeling them. Through the fun of gesturing along, students were empirically seeing, saying and feeling the Mandarin. I was amazed. Mandarin is suppose to be hard and gestures began to turn that idea on its head!
I also noticed my teaching also began to resemble more of a music conductor rather than a traditional language teacher. Often I didn’t have to say anything to elicit vocabulary or recite stories, just gesture and watch students chorally chant words and phrases.
From such a drastic change to my teaching, I naturally integrated gestures into the Chinese Buddy Chinese for kids programme. If you use Chinese Buddy, teachers can just go on the Chinese Buddy platform to view the gestures for each lesson. Gestures are not the end goal obviously but simply a helpful tool to assist kids in their journey of learning Mandarin. You can still use Chinese Buddy without the gestures. But I sincerely hope no matter if you use Chinese Buddy or not, you give them a try.
I truly think Chinese for kids will never be the same once you start using gestures in the classroom!