In Step: Pair Language with Culture in Classrooms

A Peking Opera production of Journey to the West (eviltomthai/Creative Commons)

By Heather Clydesdale

"Chinese language will only succeed if it is connected to other parts of the school," says Shenzhan Liao, acting Director of Education at the China Institute in New York. Liao and other curriculum specialists believe that cultural exploration in particular invigorates language acquisition and makes it more meaningful.

At the China Institute, putting on a play not only gets students talking, but language becomes a medium for expression and collaboration. Lead teacher Guoqing Heaton Zhang combined language and culture to create "Journey to the West," a six-week–long summer language immersion program for New York City students with intermediate level Chinese. These eighth- to twelfth-graders come together to improve their language and stage a production of the great 16th-century classic novel by the same name.

To prepare for the performance, students work with a gongfu instructor, mastering martial arts-inspired dances and choreographing fight routines. They create costumes and masks, and even write the script for the show. Since Journey to the West is notoriously complex, Zhang breaks down the cultural lessons it embodies, and presents them as sections on geography, history, the Silk Roads, and the peoples of China and the kingdoms to which the characters travel.

Every day, students work on language lessons that Zhang adapts from Chinese Made Easy, Volume 3 and Huanying, Volume 2.1. As she rewrites text and extracts vocabulary, Zhang gives special attention to words, phrases, and patterns that students can practice in everyday interactions, as well as apply in their stage production. Along the way, students complete smaller assignments for assessment. These include oral presentations, crafting posters and describing “missing persons,” writing about people, places, and weather, as well as inventing new forums such as a “Rap Battle,” in which students perform and respond to one another’s work.

The culmination of the program is the big show, when students bring together their skills to perform their own modern version of Journey to the West.

The China Institute also helps teachers bring multiple disciplines together through “Teach China,” which offers courses, workshops, and study tours, as well as resources on geography, history, culture, artifacts and arts appreciation related to exhibitions at the China Institute’s gallery.

To create a new unit introducing novice and intermediate language learners to Chinaʼs richly diverse ethnic groups, Liao enlisted the help of David Kojo Hakam, a curriculum specialist for the Oregon Chinese Flagship Program in Portland Public Schools. Describing his approach, Hakam advocates using a backwards design. “The first thing to ask is, where do you want to take the students?” With this goal in mind, he sets realistic expectations in terms of content and language, for the latter using the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) proficiency guidelines. In this instance, he expects that by the end of the unit students “can describe a particular ethnic group using connected sentences in either speaking or writing,” and “can identify distinguishing characteristics of some ethnic minorities in China.”

In the classroom, Hakamʼs lesson starts with warm-up tasks: students look pictures of Chinese ethnic minorities, and use Chinese to speculate where they are from and explain the basis for their guess. Students think and write individually, and then gather in small groups to share ideas.

In another activity, students receive a chart and an identity card with a picture and information on an individual from China. To fill in the chart completely, students must seek out information from one another and integrate writing, reading, and speaking skills. This exercise is manageable for students with intermediate language skills, but exposes them to minority languages, regions, religions, and lifestyles. To wrap up the lesson, students demonstrate their mastery of language and content objectives by comparing minority groups using either speaking or writing.

Integrating disciplines in these ways strengthens both language skills and cultural content, but Liao stresses that “Teachers from all subjects have to communicate with each other so that Chinese language classes will be connected to other subjects. That will make a successful and sustainable program.”


Ma, Yamin, and Xinying Li. Chinese made easy. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 2006

Howard, Jiaying, and Lanting Xu. Huanying: an invitation to Chinese = Huan ying: [Zhong xue Han yu ke ben]. Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 2009.

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