The epiphany came to me when my eldest daughter was halfway through P1 ….. I had found some of her Chinese writing from her kindergarten and asked her to read it (after which, I was genuinely planning to toss it out). She couldn’t read it. We were both dumbfounded. It was then that I realised why Chinese at primary school was such a struggle, and I resolved to change this.
For more background on how as non-Chinese literate parents that we have now managed to have all three children reading and speaking fluently in Chinese, please refer to my related post here.
Why P1 Chinese became such a struggle
My daughter had been in a typical Singaporean daycare centre for her nursery and primary school years – the full day kind, where there are plenty of laoshis, and the majority of the day is bilingual immersion. Sure, it’s a lot of routine tasks like showering, eating, playing, but a large part of this was in Chinese.
Primary School came along, and she entered the local school system. Chinese is taught as a mother-tonguage subject, alongside all the other subjects like Maths, English, PE, Music, etc. It’s taught in short blocks, with large classes, by Singaporean teachers who also speak English. The focus suddenly moves to stroke order, grammar, and sentence creation. All the inane daily chatter from the mainland Chinese laoshis of the daycare environment is gone. For many children, this wouldn’t be a problem as they come from homes where mandarin is routinely spoken (or at least heard from the older generations). For our banana household, this was a big issue.
The issue only crept up on us slowly – the first term or more of P1 was simple. But by mid-year, the toll had obviously come and the language regression was stark. I realised that my daughter hadn’t heard any Mandarin stories for months; the weekly tingxie had become a struggle; and now she couldn’t even remember her kindergarten work! To compound this, up until that point I had taken a limited interest in her Chinese schoolbooks beyond a cursory glance at the red pen marks added by the teachers (largely due to my inability to comprehend any of it).
Turning from surviving to thriving in Chinese
The key change was my mindset. I needed to go from being a backseat passenger to being highly embedded and engaged in the language journey. I realised I needed to be more than just my daughter’s support crew and cheerleader, but to be actively mapping the lay of the land, and reinforcing her understanding of what we were seeing, and where we were going, and sense checking if we were reading the map the right way.
Everyone is at a different place, with different needs. Here are a few things which helped us, as a non-Chinese speaking family, and hopefully some may prove useful to you too.
1. Be ready to invest time and energy
Taking Chinese at primary school level as a mother tongue is not the same as learning it in pre-school or as a second language. It quickly goes from being a fun and immersive approach, into an academic structure with weekly spelling tests, and focus on character writing; and with 30 – 40 in the class, the individual time for learning in school is limited. This really means you need to be their quarterback, and support your child’s learning outside of school. The more your invest now, hopefully the payback will come in the future.
2. Really understand the MOE P1 textbook structure
Have a really good read of the first three pages at the front of the textbook, which are designed for parents. I bet many of you have never stopped to read them before? These could possibly be the most important few pages that you should read (preferably at the start of the school year, but it’s never too late!). The pages break down the topics being taught in each chapter and the key learning points. This way, you’ll know broadly what should be going on in class each week.
Then, ensure that you understand the vocabulary lists. I naively thought that the weekly spelling words were at the back of the book. WRONG. The “lists” at the back of the MOE textbooks are only characters, as opposed to words or real vocabulary! The characters are divided into “must recognise” and “must be able to write”. But, they’re still not words. This realisation came to me very late. Additionally, if you’re looking for the pinyin versions of these words in the back of the textbook, they’re contained within the chapters themselves. This is a much easier place to look and learn! In the book text itself, you’ll see: “我会认” which is what students are only required to recognise, readout, and write in hanyu pinyin. 我会写 requires everything in 我会认 but in addition, the child must know how to write the character.
But, back to my point on characters versus vocabulary. Actual Chinese words are made up of combinations of characters, and that is what we should have been focussing on. I’ve written this previously, but a classic example is ma (horse) and shang (up). A child could read each character, but not understand that “ma shang” means “immediately”. There’s a nice historical reason to this, but kids won’t get it unless they’re exposed to reading more than just the characters. Hence my initial focus of simply understanding the prescribed characters each week, meant that she didn’t know a tonne of actual words of vocabulary, and found it difficult to read passages, which was getting her behind.
So, the real vocabulary lists which you should be studying together are not the characters in the back of the textbook BUT the word lists contained within the textbook chapter themselves. These too also have pinyin, which makes it less of a mind game. In the in-chapter vocabulary lists, it highlights words to use for standard Chinese (they grey colour in the example below), and then the additional vocabulary for higher-performing students (pink below colour). Sometimes I wonder why my daughter didn’t tell me all of this, but then I realise she probably also had no idea.
Making more sense now? Thankfully, the Chinese textbooks in P2 and beyond follow this same structure. So, once you’ve learnt it, you’ll be all set until the next curriculum change!
3. Consider regular Chinese reading and activities for your child which follow the MOE syllabus
There are a few options here:
- MOE Xue Le website – this accompanies the textbook, and has added videos and games on it. It’s a free tool, and very well put together. So make the most of it! It’s now only available through the SLS Student Portal unfortunately (perhaps to may people outside of Singapore were using it!).
- Revision books – there are obviously plenty available, but choose one which covers the same topics / themes each week as the school, and isn’t too demanding. Two we particularly like are photographed below, which are from Educational Publishing House called “Chinese Weekly Revision” and “Chinese Mega Compositions”. They have each book for grades P1 to P6.
The “Chinese Weekly Revision” has nice bite-sized pieces to review the some topics as the MOE curriculum, with similar structure to their expected school word, as you’ll see from the photograph . The “Chinese Mega Compositions” has sample composition pieces which can be read as 3 minute short stories each day. Combined, these two books take us about an hour per week to complete, and we’re a little slow!
- Wider reading – Honestly I would suggest you look at bridging books to make the reading most pleasureable. However, if following MOE is your coal, there are two fun subscription magazines which can come fortnightly called “Zhi Shi Hua Bao” 知识画报, and “Hao Peng You” 好朋友 , which follow the MOE syllabus. Some schools actually supply these themselves to the students themselves. These can be fun for a child to read and do the word puzzles in, and reinforce what should have been learnt in the classroom. For children less familiar with the language, and unable to get help at home, there is a reading pen called eTutor Star which can be used with these publications to give a Chinese audio version (See my review of the eTutor pen here). We also read every night at least one fun bedtime story using our Luka Reading Companion, which is our key to enjoying more difficult Chinese literature.
- Tingxie practice – realise that getting the characters right is a cornerstone to keeping up in class! Make sure the child has the tools to revise their weekly spelling lists. Perhaps this means using an app if no one in the family can assist (see my review on how we’re using Skritter to fill this gap), or perhaps this means asking the Chinese teacher to record the words in a voice file each week, so the child can play it and practice on their own.
- Supporting online classes – If you realy need more support, you could consider a one-to-one online Chinese langage class. They’re considersbly cheaper than enrichment centres, and some of them like LingoAce follow closely to the MOE syllabus,
4. Put more Mandarin Chinese into your lifestyles
- Increase opportunities hearing Chinese spoken around the house – set Starhub TV channels to Mandarin as default language (most of the kids’ cartoons allow for this option); put the radio on in background on a random Chinese channel. Even Amazon Prime videos have some good Chinese language options (including many of the Julia Donaldson classics). Even if no one is actively paying attention to the sound, they will pick up correct pronunciation over time. Listening skills are actually said to be the most important skill in acquiring a new language.
- Encourage your child to keep actively reading for leisure in Chinese and make it a daily habit – This could be borrowing from the school library or NLB, or buying a set of age-appropriate graded readers (see my review of Le Le Chinese series here, which we use). The National Library Board organises book readings in Chinese for kids at some of their libraries, and the values of extensive reading in Chinese are imeasurable.
- Consider doing som non-academic classes in Chinese – make the learning fun, not a chore. Could you swimming coach speak in Chinese? or the piano teacher? Do your kids play online games together like Minecraft, and could you make a rule these when doing this they only can use Chinese? We have found so mnay great CCAs taught in Chinese, both online and in person.
- Finally, if you’re reading this and your child is not yet in P1, then you still have a bit of time to really nail the basics of your child’s mandarin skills. I would highly recommend trying the Sage Basic 500 series which I reviewed here . Sagebooks is a set of 25 workbooks which step-by-step teaches your child to read 500 common Chinese characters. It’s great for a younger child, who hasn’t had a lot of exposure to wider reading yet. Flash cards and literacy apps at home could also be a fun way to build scaffolding so you are a fully P1-ready family.
After a few very small behavioural changes in our house, the attitude towards Chinese became much more positive, and the results thankfully set a firm foundation for continued success in future primary years.
Within 6 months my daughter could read and write over 1300 characters are the intervention – see continuation of the story here.
What tips do you have?
What else is there to know?
Actually, I’d love to know what your family’s tips are for acing school! Join the conversation at the Ni Hao SG Primary School Chinese facebook group which I host with a few other Singaporean bloggers.
If you got to the end and found this helpful, maybe there are some other posts on my blog you might also enjoy. As a parent who doesn’t speak any Chinese, we’ve relied heavily on online tools, clever robots, and recommendations of others in our Chinese learning journey. Some of my earlier posts are:
- Comparison of characters lists in Chinese graded readers (Sage, LeLe, Odonata)
- Books to read when a child knows >1000 characters
- Helpful books for homeschooling in Chinese and English
- Comparison of math classes for children taught in Chinese
- Comparison of Chinese dictionary pens for children
- Best Chinese children’s bookstores in Singapore
- Chinese eBook apps for preschoolers
- Best Youtube series for children learning Chinese – non animated & educational
- Secret to finding great books in the NLB borrowing collection