To Grow Good Writers, Feed Them Great Literature


By Heather Clydesdale

How can learning Chinese help American students become adept writers? The question is simple, but startling.

Discussions in the field of teaching Chinese as a foreign language tend to focus on challenges presented by the language itself: thousands of characters, syntax that has no counterpart in English, and tones. These are fundamental, and new research and applications for addressing them are both needed and appreciated, but it is invigorating to hear from professionals who mark an ambitious target beyond language acquisition. At the 2013 National Chinese Language Conference in Boston, three experts from Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts essentially reached for the stratosphere, presenting strategies to help students use Chinese to practice and develop the craft of writing.

“Children are such natural storytellers,” explains Vivian Tam, previously the FLAP Chinese immersion project coordinator at Cambridge Public Schools, and now principal of Jing Mei Elementary School in Bellevue, Washington. “They want to tell you in their drawing and their writing.” Tam and her colleagues, Szu-Ming Li and Kai Tan, who both teach in the Chinese Immersion Program at the Martin Luther King, Jr. School, have successfully applied mentor texts and the study of authors to guide kindergarten and first-grade students in becoming writers.

Tam was prompted to apply the study of mentor texts in Chinese immersion classes after she and Tan attended a literacy collaborative conference in Rhode Island, where they heard a presentation by the teacher mentor and researcher, Katie Wood Ray. “It was very inspiring, and we tried to use that in the Chinese classroom as well,” recalls Tam. “We saw that children really love to write. Even if they don’t have the vocabulary, they seek (it out). We give them sheets to find the words.”

Mentor texts, says Tam, are ones that are authentic, featuring a consistent theme and exemplary sense of technique. They must be original works in the native language, not translations. Effective mentor texts should be readable, meaning they are age-appropriate, engaging, and suitable to the background knowledge of students. Finally, they must be teachable, with relevant content that supports learning objectives across the curriculum.

To apply mentor texts in the classroom, Tam recommends helping students explore the authors’ lives and make connections with his or her writing. Students can compare texts, ask questions about the author’s intentions, and also compare the subject matter to other content areas. Even young students can take note of how the author uses style, connections, and patterns, and then help plan and participate in a culminating activity, such as a performance, sending letters to the author, or creating a class book modeling features of the writings they have studied.

“The goal is that they feel passionate enough about Chinese authors that they will know their names,” Tam explains. Students can also posit why a particular author selects and develops certain genres to heighten the effect of the content. Students compare illustration styles, describe the relationship between pictures and the text, and then incorporate these into their own writing and illustration.

Tam admires authors such as Cao Junyan, whose simple prose is accompanied by beautiful illustrations and rich cultural content. Other favorite authors include Lin Liang, Li Zirong, Bao Dongni, and Chen Zhiyuan, but Tam admits that, short of visiting bookstores in China, obtaining appropriate Chinese literary works is not easy. She has compiled a list of websites where teachers can go to find appropriate sources, and some from Hong Kong and Taiwan (which use complex characters, though sometimes versions using simplified characters are available) are listed below. Tam would like to find additional rich online resources from Mainland China, but so far has not been successful.

Writing is a craft, and strong writers are forged, not born. Devoting time to teaching writing, asserts Tam, is worthwhile because it is an essential 21st-century skill, and because it is an effective means to acquiring other skills. Writing enhances students’ ability to read and analyze a text. Practicing writing also teaches children to organize their thoughts and to think more deeply. In these ways, exploring writing through mentor authors can help students develop across several areas, and in English as well as Chinese.

Additional Resources

Szu-Ming Li, Vivian Tam, and Kai Tan’s Wiki:

Literacy Collaborative:

Katie Wood Ray:

Resources with Online Texts in Chinese

信宜基全會 (Taiwan)

和英文化 Heying Wenhua (Taiwan). Has an e-reader with more than 200 books and poems.

親親文化 (Taiwan). Has nature and science books, videos, and demo units.

新雅文化 (Hong Kong) Focuses on moral learning and emotional development.

儿童文化 (Taiwan) Online story-telling, animated with lesson plans and discussions tiered to different levels.

教育部生命教育学习网 (Taiwan) Biology and other subject areas.