What's in Your Toolbox?

Ten Implements to Improve Your Teaching

By Heather Clydesdale

Teaching requires both innovation and adaptation, meaning educators must continually curate their collection of implements, honing familiar devices and adding new ones. Swapping tools is a favorite activity among teachers and, below, longtime immersion educator Kevin Chang and his colleagues at the Chinese American International School (CAIS) in San Francisco share 10 of their favorite practical implements for teaching Chinese language.

1. Go Thematic
A thematic lesson has obligatory components, including an enduring understanding, essential questions, content (which provides a meaningful setting for the vocabulary), and skills. All CAIS teachers use the same multi-step framework when creating thematic units. Chang, Chinese program director at CAIS, says thematic units also help when incorporating the Common Core State Standards into Chinese language studies, especially in content-based immersion classrooms.

2. Rethink Assessment
Chang is emphatic. “You need to assess students to know where they are and plan for where they are going.” In addition to frequent assessments in classes, CAIS conducts whole-school narrative writing assignments and uses American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Oral Proficiency Interviews at the beginning of sixth and the end of eighth grade. 20–30 minutes long, these live conversations measure proficiency according to specific guidelines. Chang says his school is continually adjusting articulation charts based on assessment results, in effect creating a grade-by-grade roadmap.

3. Use Varied Input
Chang stresses the benefit of exposing students to a range of comprehensible of input, including visuals and movement, paragraphs, or stories—in short, “whatever you have for students to make sense for their learning.”

4. Learn by Doing
To develop language and content-related skills, Chang cautions that “You need to model, to practice, and provide opportunities to do it.” As a case in point, CAIS fifth-grade teacher Michael Hsu’s students alternate “teaching” new characters to the class. Each student prepares and gives a presentation, explaining the new character’s meaning, pinyin, stroke order, radical, and examples of compounds and usage in sentences. This exercise compels students to use the presentational mode of communication, the interpretive mode as they analyze the character, and the interpersonal mode as they field questions from classmates.

5. Provide Structure
Students need help to construct and sequence ideas, to organize their speech and writing, and to embellish content with meaningful details. CAIS classrooms feature posters for procedural as well as persuasive speaking and writing. Grade-level appropriate, these outline common structures, and list useful words and phrases, such as connectors to use in transitions.

6. Create Opportunities for Language Production
Chang’s prescription for fluency is language output. “Your classroom is the major venue for [students] to practice.” At CAIS, teachers regularly invite native Chinese speakers to come in and participate in interviews and interactions. Schools can also invent forums for spontaneous interactions. CAIS’ weekly bun sale is popular with students, who must conduct all transactions in Chinese.

7. Drill Down through Basic Errors
Immersion students’ proficiency is commonly hobbled by a tendency to paste Chinese words onto English syntax. Assessment data will identify areas in need of attention, and school-wide efforts—like featuring a grammatical pattern each month—motivate the entire school community.

8. Differentiate
RAFT—where the teacher assigns the Role, Audience, Format, and Task—is a fun way to differentiate teaching. CAIS eighth-grade teacher Chusheng Tang Liao asks students to explain how they would react in an unexpected situation, or write a letter using the voice and perspective of a character in a book. Similarly, to prepare his fifth-grade students for their class trip to Taipei, Hsu has them create multimedia projects introducing local food, transportation, and culture.

9. Rethink Your Approach to Literature
Liao moves away from traditional book reports and instead asks students to write letters from characters’ perspectives or reflections on what the author might do in a given situation. Students create video commercials for books and write short compositions in small groups using Google Docs. Liao likes that Google Docs fosters interpersonal communication, and allows for self-editing as well as immediate and asynchronous feedback from her.

10. Use Technology
Teachers at CAIS convert picture books to a digital format using Educreations, and upload these to their library. Students flex their creativity with GoAnimate, making public service announcements that are at once urgent and humorous about lost textbooks or homework. Hsu appreciates that allowing students to develop their style empowers them to express their interests and raises the caliber of their content and language.

Whatever your approach, Chang asserts: “In 21st-century education, you cannot leave out technology.”

Additional Resources

Upend Convention to Construct Thematic Units

ACTFL Performance Descriptors

Common Core State Standards


Go Animate for Schools