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Surviving P1 Chinese for the clueless parent

How should you prepare for P1 Chinese as a parent? Do I need to enrol my child in Berries or Wang Laoshi? To be honest, Primary 1 Chinese is not that hard, HOWEVER it can be quite a shock for children who have never learnt Chinese before, and for those who come form non-native speaking families. I’ve now gone through P1 Chinese twice with different kids, and realized that there are right and wrong ways to go about the learning.

The epiphany came to me when my eldest daughter was halfway through P1 …..  it camr about asI had found some of her past Chinese writing homework from her kindergarten and asked her to read it (after which, I was genuinely planning to toss it out as I hate clutter).  But 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 kindergarten 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 is conducted 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 from showering and play time, into 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 primayr school 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.  

Two pages at the front of the book which explain structure and topics

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.

The character list at the back of the book….. not the best place to be revising from.
Character list in the chapter (example for Chapter 1), which includes the pinyin: 我会认” which is to recognise and write in hanyu pinyin.   我会写 requires everything in 我会认 but also character writing.

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.

Example of P1 Vocabulary List for Chapter 1, with #1 – 10 as basic words and #11 – 15 as the advanced words

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:

Example revision books for P2 ….. the same exists for P1
The “Chinese Mega Compositions” has 200 short example composition pieces, based on the pictures. It’s good for a weekly read – book is available with and without pinyin translation (example from P2 book)

4.  Put more Mandarin Chinese into your lifestyles

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. This post is to tell you not to fret about preparing for P1 Chinese, nor to spend thousands on tuition. Go into it mindfully, and know that the primary school Chinese journey cannot just be a passive one – you’ll need to think thoughtfully and be there to support your child, especially if you’re a non-native speaking parent.

The upside is that within 6 months my daughter could read and write over 1300 characters after the intervention, and she’s gone on to do Higher Chinese for upper primary. If you wan to find oure more on 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:

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