Teaching the Basics

by Eleise Jones

A recent feature on this website, Anatomy of an Introductory Japanese Lesson, garnered great response from teachers who temporarily put themselves in the shoes of a beginning language learner.

Whether you are a learner or a teacher, visit the Chinese language classrooms to pick up some basics on the language—and language teaching.

Using a few basics from a first year Chinese curriculum—tones, pinyin sounds, and colors—Chris Livaccari injects energy and interactivity into the classroom, and adapts easily to the unexpected. Try any of the following exercises at the start of class, or to break up other activities throughout the class period, to encourage student engagement.

Body Tones

In this tone exercise, Chris grabs the attention of his students by using his full body—especially arms and knees—to indicate the tone he is vocalizing. When he asks students to participate, he addresses them in Chinese, dividing them into fours or fives. After students complete the verbal exercise, which he does along with them, they are invited to sit down. Chris pairs instructions in Chinese with physical cues to guide students to understanding their meaning.

Pinyin Sounds

In this exercise, Chris engages the class in chanting the range of pinyin sounds. He guides them with his voice in an uninterrupted string of sounds, requiring students to recreate and replicate the sounds with confidence. Chris typically addresses the class in the target language, but occasionally breaks into English when necessary to communicate a more sophisticated concept, for instance how to create specific regional or otherwise potentially difficult sounds using different parts of the tongue and mouth.


In this introduction to colors, Chris uses simple, portable, visual aides that combine color representation, the relevant Chinese character, and pinyin all in one. When he encounters a hiccup in this exercise (in this case the colored paper has faded or the colored paper is missing altogether), he finds a nearby solution and apologizes—using the target language, facial and vocal expression. The students adapt and together they complete the exercise.

Chris Livaccari directs the Asia Society's Chinese Language Initiatives.  Special thanks to CSI High School for their participation in this demonstration. CSI High School is a member of the Asia Society International Studies Schools Network (ISSN).


What are some techniques you use to engage students and to compel language acquisition from day one?