Advice for Choosing Instructional Materials

Chinese language textbook. (Drift Words/
A Chinese language textbook with simplified characters. Image: Drift Words/

By Amy Fletcher
October 2008

Choosing Chinese language textbooks and other materials is a big decision, especially considering their influence over curriculum and their staying power in classrooms amid school districts’ budget constraints.

The good news is that materials are now far more abundant. Gone are the days making posters out of construction paper and using index cards for hand-made flash cards. But it’s important to have good criteria before making your selection.

“Material selection is a big, big decision, and the tighter our budgets become in schools, the bigger the decision seems to loom,” said Carol Ann Dahlberg, professor emerita in education at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Outlined below are some things to keep in mind.

Materials developed in other contexts are not always suitable

In some European countries, for example, an image including frontal nudity would not raise eyebrows. But according to a report by WFAA-TV in Dallas, the state of Texas considered pulling thousands of German textbooks last year after students discovered some revealing images on the covers of magazines that can be seen in a photo that's part of the book.

While China and the United States have more similar norms around nudity, Dahlberg said, teachers should be aware of other cultural differences.

Chinese language learning has special considerations

Before selecting materials, there are several special issues that must be considered, including:

Language selection. Modern Standard Chinese--often called Mandarin--is the official language of China, but Cantonese has historically been more commonly spoken among Chinese in the United States. Today, there are approximately 850 million Modern Standard Chinese speakers worldwide, and about 70 million Cantonese speakers.

Traditional vs. simplified characters. China created the simplified system, which uses fewer strokes, to help promote literacy, but many people still use the traditional system.

Pinyin as a literacy aid? Pinyin is a system for writing Chinese in the Roman alphabet. It can help with pronunciation, especially in older learners, but may conflict with English phonics for younger ones, Dahlberg said.

Materials should reflect philosophical and cultural values

“Materials can look beautiful,” Dahlberg said, “but we have some important philosophical and cultural values that we want to see played out in materials that we give out to our students.”

Look for diversity: ethnic, racial, ability/disability and socio-economic. Also keep an eye out for stereotyping, including racism, sexism and ageism. For example, are boys always playing sports and being active while girls sing and play with dolls? The textbook should also represent the population you will be teaching.

Dahlberg said while she was working with an artist on a Chinese book she co-authored, the co-authors told the artist to include children of color, children with different backgrounds and at least one child with a disability. But they had stressed diversity so much, the first draft clearly under-represented Caucasian children.

“We were so concerned about having diversity, we almost lost it,” Dahlberg said. “It’s very important by American standards that children can recognize themselves in the materials.”

Providing support for teachers: How Chicago does it

In Chicago, the Chinese World Language Program provides workshops on teaching resources and “swap shops” so teachers can share effective learning activities, teaching strategies and give each other tips on how to choose materials. Examples of workshops and swap shops include: How to Use Movie Clips or How to Make Your Own Materials.

“Our job is to recommend/introduce new teaching materials to them,” said Jane Lu, coordinator of the Chinese World Language Program in Chicago Public Schools, which does not mandate the use of certain materials.

Lu shared the following tips for selecting materials:

Make full use of what you already have. “We don’t have much money to purchase new materials,” Lu said. “I think we use [existing materials] perfectly well. We add a lot of things in. … Sometimes we use two books together.”

Check for age appropriateness

Incorporate visual aides. “Most of our kids are visual learners,” Lu said.

In addition, the content of materials should include comparisons of both western and Chinese cultures, opportunities to integrate Chinese with other subject areas and opportunities for peer learning in groups, which can be particularly helpful for teachers in large classrooms.

But most importantly, teachers should keep in mind that students are different.

“So what is good teaching material?” Lu said. “Teaching material suitable to your students.”

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