Moving Beyond Novice Level Chinese
Plenary Two of the 2021 Virtual National Chinese Language Conference
The second plenary of the 2021 Virtual National Chinese Language Conference comprised a group of rising and experienced language educators representing K–16, Startalk, the AP Chinese Development Committee, CLASS, and Courageous Dialogues with Chinese Educators. A resounding theme among these educators is that teachers must get out of their comfort zone to help make their lessons relevant to the interests and concerns of their student body.
Moderator Ying Jin, an award-winning Chinese language teacher from California as well as a member of the ACTFL Board of Directors, first asked: How do we build a program and ensure its growth, and what does “beyond” novice level mean for a Chinese language classroom?
Matt Coss, a second-language acquisition specialist at the National Foreign Language Center (University of Maryland) and lecturer in Chinese at George Washington University, answers plainly: Going beyond novice level is messy! When students are pushing themselves to creatively express meaning in ways they haven’t practiced in the classroom, sometimes they rely on their English as “backup grammar.” Instead of worrying about their mistakes, teachers can recognize that these are growing pains, and make sure the questions and prompts they’re giving students allow for the space and time students need to demonstrate their language beyond the novice level. For instance, instead of asking, “Did you go to the movies over the weekend?” the question should be more open-ended: “What did you do over the weekend?”
Lise Olsen-Dufour is a 15-year veteran Chinese teacher currently at Grandview High School in Aurora, Colorado; she is also the co-chair of the AP Chinese Development Committee. Her perspective is focused on helping students develop all the way to AP-level language ability. She says it’s important to help students see and recognize the progress they have made — it motivates them to keep going! One of her strategies is to set up habits and patterns in the classroom, establishing things she does each day with her students. Very quickly she can give directions in Chinese and students know exactly what she’s talking about even in the target language. In Chinese 1, by the second or third unit, her students can already ask one another about their families and nationalities.
Vicky Wang is Vice President of CLASS and co-cofounder of Courageous Dialogues with Chinese Educators, and also a high school Chinese language teacher at The St. Paul's Schools, an independent K–12 school in Baltimore, Maryland. To help her students advance to language proficiency beyond novice level, she aims to first boost their curiosity and motivation. She says educators have to get out of their comfort zone, and into their students’ world in order to make their lessons relevant to student concerns and interests. She notes, there is so much important, current vocabulary which is in not found in textbooks. For instance, how do young people greet each other these days? It’s no longer, “Ni hao!” We have to find out: What is their school day like? What do they do on a date?
Hongming Zhang, Professor of Chinese at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and President of the International Association of Chinese Linguistics says it’s important to strike a balance between time spent learning and speaking. Teachers should never expect students’ writing to be the same as a Chinese speaker's. He recommends that students above the intermediate level should be required to use Chinese-only dictionaries as they are more idiomatic. Students can also make use of online tools, such as Chinese search engines, and they should be encouraged to read more books in Chinese. In these ways, the training of listening and speaking will be supported by reading and writing.
It’s clear that teachers must lead the way, supporting students to the “light bulb” moment before weeding out any student who is struggling in the foundational level. As well, by demonstrating their own intellectual humility, educators can help to eliminate fear from students so they can take necessary risks in advancing their language skills.
Click above to watch the NCLC 2021 Plenary Two panel discussion in full