Chinese Language Learning in the Early Grades

A Handbook of Resources and Best Practices for Mandarin Immersion

Educators meet with publishers at the National Chinese Language Conference

by Yu-Lan Lin

In an immersion program’s grades K–6, three things happen simultaneously. Understanding these three areas will help educators develop curricula and identify the materials and resources they’ll need to support the program. First, content knowledge develops, including core concepts in math, science, social studies, and so on. Second, students learn content areas in Chinese; their academic language and social language are introduced at the same time. Third, students undertake pre-reading and pre-writing, then reading and writing.

When educators identify materials, they should keep another rule of three in mind: materials should be appropriate for age, grade, and language level. For instance, some materials developed for native Chinese children could be age-appropriate but too difficult for American students to read. Of course, in a school setting there should be a variety of books, graded reading materials, longer books, and independent reading materials.

Articulation, Alignment, Authenticity, Adoption, and Adaption

Before finding suitable materials an immersion school must have well-articulated curricula in place. Regardless of the entry point or ending point, an uninterrupted, sequential curriculum that connects from the lowest to the highest level of the program needs to be secured. This articulation of the school curriculum needs to be based on a solid alignment with the standards set for each subject area, as well as for language development in both Chinese and English.

Today, many states are aligning with the newly developed Common Core State Standards in English language and mathematics. Some states are also aligning their social studies, science, and world languages standards. In the next few years, all curriculum areas will need to align with not only the national standards, but also the Common Core State Standards.

Once an aligned and articulated curriculum is in place, an immersion school can begin to identify teaching materials and resources. Authentically Chinese language materials make a big impact—by authentic, we mean material that is created by native speakers for native speakers. If teachers find something that’s too difficult for students’ current use, they should examine it to see if the content, topic, or text merit adapting. When adopting and subsequently adapting such materials, conscientious teachers should select content based on their students’ readiness, interest, and learning styles.

Selection Criteria

Whether purchased or prepared by program teachers, the materials for immersion students should meet the following criteria.

  • Rich content, including subject specific content such as math, science, biology, people and places near and far, and so on
  • Engaging and interesting content
  • Stories with an English equivalent
  • Stories that connect with students’ lives
  • Material that reflects Chinese culture and other cultures
  • Reading that has specific language learning objectives
  • Reading for study and for pleasure

There are several strong advantages to teachers making their own materials. Since teachers understand the curriculum best, they will carefully match the materials to the students’ needs. Teachers will have a satisfying sense of ownership, and they can continue to refine the materials for the next round of teaching. Since most materials can be saved and shared digitally, teachers can pool their resources and even organize a group to share their materials.

It’s also possible to buy materials from publishers based in Singapore, Hong Kong, and China, which often have editions for Chinese language learners. While this sounds like an easy solution, it does involve some potentially expensive trial and error. There is no way to guarantee finding materials of the right content, age-appropriateness, and level of difficulty for your students. Sometimes, a school purchases a lot of materials in order to find something useful. Textbooks are a safe though limited bet; support materials can be the most time-consuming to trace.


When selecting textbooks, there are many considerations. Some districts require the same textbook be used by both Chinese and English classrooms. In this case, the materials need to be translated by the Chinese teacher. Some programs teach the same content twice, in Chinese with one textbook, in English with another. Immersion teachers who have done translations might be willing to share their work.

If existing materials are designed for a long sequence over many grades, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to choose the appropriate content at the right time, and not be bound by the order and sequence laid out in the textbook itself.


As in so many fields, effective use of technology can make a major impact on a Chinese immersion program. As teachers take the lead in adopting new programs or digital offerings, they should think of how these new tools will capture students’ interest, improve their listening comprehension, improve their stroke order while writing, and expose them to authentic voices. The sheer variety is helpful, as different students respond to different activities. Below are some possibilities to consider.

  • Individual whiteboards, combined with transparent sleeves can be an inexpensive way to efficiently engage students, as with Sudoku, pair work, and group work.
  • iPads have a lot of potential to supplement or even replace technologies like SmartBoard.
  • Multimedia or cartoon websites and apps aid literacy and comprehension.
  • Free technology like Skype can connect students.

This paper was originally published in Chinese Language Learning in the Early Grades. To see the full publications, and all footnotes, please download the report.

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