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A cool press that does book for older kids

December 9, 2017

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I’d somehow missed this press, which specializes in easier-to-read books for middle-school and high school students who are learning Chinese.

They’ve got four books out now from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West (which many Mandarin immersion parents will simply know as “The Monkey King book.”)

It’s written with just 600 characters, which most MI students should be able to read by late middle and early high school. A description from their website is below. Check out their website here.


From their site:

Our little book, The Rise of the Monkey King, covers the events in the first two chapters of this epic story.  We learn how the little stone monkey is born, becomes king of his troop of monkeys, leaves his home to pursue enlightenment, receives the name Sun Wukong (literally, “ape seeking the void”) from his teacher, and returns home to defend his subjects from a ravenous monster.  Future books in this series will tell more stories from the life of this famous monkey and his companions.

Because of this story’s importance in Chinese culture, we’ve made every effort to remain faithful to the original while retelling it in simple language suitable for beginning Chinese learners at the HSK 3 level.  We have tried to not add or change anything, though of course we’ve had to leave out a lot of detail.  Wherever we had to use a word or phrase not contained in the 600-word HSK 3 vocabulary (which for example does not include the word “monkey”!) or that has not entered common usage since the HSK lists were created, those new words are defined in footnotes on the page where they first appear.  New compound (multi-character) words and expressions are, whenever possible, chosen so that they use characters already in HSK 3.  An English version of the story is included for reference at the end, as well as a complete glossary.

In the main body of the book, each page of Chinese characters is matched with a facing page of pinyin.  This is unusual for Chinese novels but we feel it’s important.  By including the pinyin, the English version and the glossary, we hope that every reader, no matter what level of mastery they have of the Chinese language, will be able to understand and enjoy the story we tell here.

This website contains many helpful study aids, including an audio recording of the book, downloadable word lists, study questions and exercises for classroom use, and links to other books you might enjoy, including other books in this series as they become available.


The lowdown on sending your kid to school in Singapore

December 7, 2017

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Thanks to Judy Shei for this helpful overview. A former San Francisco public school Mandarin immersion parent who’s now living in Singapore, her  perspective is great because she knows both what a U.S. school looks like but is now also an expert on the Singapore school system.

By Judy Shei

As an immigrant child, I was always annoyed by my parents’ constant questioning of how schools work in America. Now that we have been living and an attending school in Singapore for the past four years, the roles have been reversed and now I understand that the questioning doesn’t come from trying to be intrusive, but true bewilderment. Growing up in the US, one takes for granted certain rules of school – it starts in August or September and ends around June, anyone resident can enroll regardless of citizenship status, middle school starts in sixth or seventh grade, but school doesn’t really get hard and grades don’t really matter until high school.

Moving here, I had to upend all these mental rules. I moved here for work but also so kids could experience a different way of life. For me it was important our kids attended public school – called here “local school” – instead of intending private international school. I wanted them to continue studying Mandarin and to have Singaporean classmates and learn Singapore history and social studies. In addition, Singapore students has topped or near the top on PISA tests for the last several years. The local school system must be doing something right!

Enrolling in School

Before everyone rushes to Singapore to enroll into local schools note that only citizens and permanent resident (PR) children are guaranteed a place.

As there are limited vacancies after citizens and PRs are allocated spots, the Ministry of Education (MOE) will only grant admission to only enough international students for which there are places left. In other words, at best, you will not be able to choose the school your child will attend and at worst, you may not be granted a place at a school at all.

To receive a spot in Primary 1, you must register in August the year before and if you miss the date, you are out of luck. Even if you manage to register, one survey shows the chance of getting a spot to be only about 30-40%. The Singapore government doesn’t release any official figures.

Since 2014, to receive a spot after Primary 1, you must take an entrance exam that tests math, science and English. These exams take place twice a year in Singapore. Your child, as young as seven or eight, will sit in a great hall with hundreds of students from all over the world to compete for a few open spots.

Just the Facts

Singapore follows a Southern Hemisphere schedule like Australia and S. Africa. The school year starts in January and ends mid-November. My eldest child finished 2nd grade in San Francisco and then did another half year of Primary 2 in Singapore.

School also starts much earlier and ends much earlier than schools in the US. With few exceptions, most student must be at school around 7:15 AM and it ends around 1:30 PM. As many international students get assigned far from their home address, that means a commute that can start as early as 6 AM.

Unlike some school systems in North America and Europe, school is not free. Even citizens need to pay school fees and there is a tiered fee structure dependent on residency status. As of 2017, primary school costs $600 Singapore dollars/month for International students. Secondary school is $950 Singapore dollars/month for international students. In addition, families must pay for textbooks, uniforms and occasional learning journeys (field trips). International students do not have access to scholarships or any form of tuition assistance. That said, schools are well funded so there is no need for PTA drives to buy basic supplies or fund an extra teacher.

Primary 1 (P1) (the Singapore equivalent of first grade) starts the year a child turns 7, so all kids start at age 6 and turn 7. In P1 and P2, classes are typically 25-30 kids. And most schools have six to eight P1 Classes. Starting in P3, classes grow to 40 students per class. There are more kids in each grade of my sons’ school than their entire elementary school in California.

Many schools also start tracking children in P3 into higher ability and regular classes, although there are some exceptions. In P5, children are further tracked into regular and foundation classes so that children who struggle with a particular subject can opt to take the foundation stream (track) for that subject only.

In P6, all children take the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE). Although children study a comprehensive curriculum at school, including arts, music, physical education, health, history, social studies, they are only tested on English, Math, Science and Mother Tongue (Chinese, Malay, Tamil or non-Tamil Indian language).

PSLE is a big deal in Singapore as it determines which Secondary School stream is available to your child and which Secondary School your child will be able to attend. It is not uncommon for parents to take leave from work to help their child prepare for this exam.

Secondary Schools are streamed into IP or Express, Normal Academic, and Normal Technical. IP is the most rigorous and attempts to mimic some IB educational methods. Normal Technical is reserved for students who score near the bottom of PSLE curve.

Secondary school ends after 4, 5 or 6 years depending on your stream with either General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCE) O (Ordinary) levels, N (Normal) levels or A (Academic) levels (IP Only). After which a student can opt for Junior College and then take A levels (if not in IP program), or proceed directly in Polytechnic or an Institute of Technical Education (ITE). Of course, all this depends on how well the student does on the exams. It is very confusing!

The great thing about Singapore schools is there is no one-size-fits-all as in the U.S., where it is K-12 for everyone. The government invests a lot in their Institute of Technical Education and Polytechnics which provide a high-quality education for those who are not academically inclined. The not so great thing about Singapore is if you end up on one track, it’s hard to move to another. For some families, there is tremendous stigma if your child does poorly in PSLE and ends up in Normal Academic or Normal Technical.

That’s interesting, but what is school like?

Singapore schools have a reputation for being academically challenging but also reliant on rote learning. The truth is a more nuanced than that.

Due to large class sizes and the importance of exams in streaming at a very young age all the way to university, parents in Singapore tend to care about grades… a lot. Children as young 6 regularly attend tuition (the Singapore term for private tutoring , either one-on-one or in a class) after school and/or weekends. Also, exams are written to be difficult enough to ensure a curve, even in primary school, so it’s not uncommon for half the class to get less than 50% and only one child to get an A. For parents bent on getting their child in the most elite IP program in the most elite secondary school and then on to National University of Singapore (Singapore’s Harvard), tuition is a must to beat the curve.

The classwork is not just rote learning, though. In Maths, kids start tackling word problems in P1 and by P3 the word problems are difficult! Here is an actual P3 (i.e. third grade) math problem:

“Devi had 56 curry puffs. She had 8 times as many curry puffs as sardine puffs. She sold all her sardine puffs and 12 more curry puffs than sardine puffs. How many curry puffs did she sell?”

In science, they start doing laboratory experiments in P3 and have a practical exam based on what they do in the lab. Schools may also take children out on learning journeys to the zoo or local parks to enforce what they learn in class.

In English, they learn both situational writing (e.g. writing emails, thank you notes) and continuous writing (basically a story from picture prompts). Depending on the school, they also write and perform plays and have opportunities to write short research papers.

Almost all students also study what’s known as their Mother Tongue. This is actually based on the native language of their father, at least theoretically, though many families actually speak English at home but are historically or culturally a part of a given ethnic group and so choose that language. The Mother Tongue’s offered are Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Students are marked on listening skills, conversation skills as well as reading and writing in both English and their Mother Tongue classes.

In Secondary school, students are introduced to more project work and group work.

Children come out of the Singapore system with solid academic and analytical skills. However, this is what you will not find in Singapore primary schools: school wide science fairs, semester-long student led research projects, book reports or student centered learning.

What you will also not find in neighborhood schools is an instant community. Many neighborhood schools have limited Parent Support Groups (although there are exceptions) and few activities outside of school to meet other families. It’s not impossible, but it is not as easy or expected as in America.

If you want to go to Singapore so your kids can learn Mandarin – think again

There is a reason why Singapore is called “Asia Lite” or “Asian 101.” Everyone speaks English! That’s great for parents who don’t speak Chinese, but to be honest, it’s terrible if you want your kids to learn Mandarin. The only time my children interact in Mandarin outside of Mother Tongue class at school, sessions with the tutor or their mom’s request to speak one sentence… only ONE sentence a day… is when they order watermelon juice at the hawker stand. And deep down they know the hawker auntie or uncle speaks enough English that they can probably still just order in English. Sigh!

At school, all subjects are taught in English other than Mother Tongue and “Citizenship and Moral Education” class, so only an hour to 1.5 hours a day. There is no overlap in subject matter between Mother Tongue and what they are studying in other subjects. In other words, if they are learning the digestive system in science, they are NOT learning the parts of the digestive system in Mandarin in Mother Tongue class.

The Mother Tongue curriculum assumes it is a mother tongue, it’s spoken at home and children are already familiar with the language. Therefore, the focus is reading and writing and passing exams, not developing daily conversation. The 听写 (Chinese spelling, or dictation) would make most immersion kids cry because it’s so hard.

So, if you don’t speak/read Mandarin at home, chances are your child will fail without the help of an excellent, dedicated (and expensive!) tutor outside of school, especially if your child is not naturally talented with languages. Even if your child passes, he/she will be able to read very well but not necessarily be able to hold a conversation at any great length. My youngest son has a classmate who does very well on the written exam but does not understand the teacher at all.

That said, the Ministry of Education understands more and more children are being raised in households where English is the primary language and has revamped the curriculum to focus on more daily conversation and uses more video and technology. However, it’s only been rolled out through P2 at this stage, with an additional level every new year. It remains to be seen whether there will be the same expectation for reading and writing in higher grades like there is now.


Every school system has it merits and shortcoming and Singapore Local Schools are no different. Local schools have an expertly developed curriculum that is not afraid to challenge children from a very young age. In general, teachers and administrators are approachable, and the school facilities are excellent. In addition to academics, children get exposed to art, music, PE. Every year schools celebrate Racial Harmony Day, International Friendship Day, Civil Defense Day, and Sports Day. Children can develop close friendships as fewer students come and go than in international school. For children who are struggling, the large school sizes ensure that every school has additional counselors and student support staff to help…. And despite what you may hear, many, many teachers do out of their way to make classes interesting and fun.

However, the academic pressure can be intense starting in upper primary and secondary school. The last year of primary and the last year of secondary is devoted to preparing for exams. Exams matters as they either open or close certain educational pathways. This makes the system mediocratic – all students across Singapore take the same exam and the exams undergo a rigorous double-blind scoring process. However, there is a fear that students become risk adverse, wanting to get to the right answer for the sake of a test and eliminates any joy of learning, inhibiting creativity and critical thinking.

Overall, some students thrive in this environment and some do not. After reading all this, if you are interested in learning more about the local school system or if you have specific questions that aren’t answered below are a few resources:

Ministry of Education page for International Students:

Financial Times Article with a good overview of Singapore Local Schools:


Singapore Expats in Local Schools Facebook Group:

A real memo from a real school about what it’s like on the ground

December 2, 2017
This great memo went out from the principal at public elementary school Mandarin immersion program just before school began this year Anyone who’s spent time in an MI program as a parent or staff will recognize the issues the school has faced.
It’s hard to keep good teachers, especially highly sought-after Mandarin teachers. That’s even more true in the crucial 4th and 5th grades. That’s because many states mandate smaller class sizes in the early years, which means class sizes suddenly get big in 4th and 5th grade.
In MI programs, which by definition have a constrained group of students, that often means creating either one big class in one of those grades or a 4/5 split grade, both of which are very hard to teach. It’s a structural problem that districts somehow figure each school will work out, but one created by a system the school itself has no control over.
Rather than letting all this make its way through the parent grapevine, leaving old parents fearful and new parents wondering if they should have signed up elsewhere, the principal at this school dealt with the struggles head-on and honestly.
I’m publishing it here with permission (and with names changed) just to remind folks that the grass is not always greener on the other side. It may seem like other districts have all the kinks worked out. But even this established program deals with ups and downs every year.
A note to administrators: Honesty and forthrightness go a long way in making families stick it out.
Hi Everyone.
It’s hard to believe but summer is beginning to wind down for some of us. As I go about preparing for the next school year I am aware that there is some anxiety about the stability of teachers as we move forward so I’d like to let you know what is happening.
To date we’ve lost four teachers from the Mandarin program: Ms. Ai, Ms. Bei, Ms. Cui and Ms. Duo.  While I am not able to comment on teacher personnel issues, some of the teachers have made their own announcements to parents about pursuing other interests or cutting their commute time. We wish all of them well.
Since these announcements Ms. Fei, Mr. Gui, Mr. Carley and I have been regularly interviewing teacher candidates. In addition, we have had extensive discussion about placement of our candidates so that we create the most stable and supportive environment for new teachers. This includes movement of our current teachers so that each grade level has an experienced teacher partner. However, we currently expect that Ms. Murphy, Ms. Hui, Ms. Liu, Ms. Mei and Mr. Ng will all remain in place.
Our recent teacher hires are excitedly preparing for the new year. They have a variety of skills and interests and include a teacher from [a private MI school],  a former biotech scientist, and a writer and science major from Big Name University. Ms. Oh who has worked with the 4th/5th since February is also returning.
We are continuing to interview this week for our last open position and I expect we’ll be finalizing our roster soon. Hold on because there is other great news happening at school including a science room and funding that the district is returning to us. It won’t be long before you’ll have an official letter from me starting the school year and providing all the details.
Thanks for your support. I look forward to seeing you all soon,
Principal X

New Mandarin immersion near San Francisco enrolls 3 Kindergarten classes

November 30, 2017

The West County Mandarin School in Richmond, Calif. is an interesting case. The West Contra Costa Unified School District (north of Berkeley) started the program in part to forestall a charter school being created. Parents in the district, and nearby, had asked for a Mandarin immersion program but the districts hadn’t wanted to do one. Then a group started working on creating a charter (I’m not clear on how far that effort actually got but it was certainly being discussed) and that was enough to push the District to create a new, whole-school program.

The other issue is that Richmond is a city that’s historically been relatively low income due to many historic factors and no small degree of racism. With the enormous rise in tech jobs in the San Francisco Bay area, and the resulting lack of housing, we’re seeing middle and upper-middle class families moving into areas that were previously more working class. And of course working class families are being pushed even further out in part because the Bay area is basically opposed to building more housing, but that’s a different blog.

This means the make up of families in Richmond is changing. One shift has been an increase in the number of Asian-American and Chinese-American families, as well as more middle and upper-middle class families moving in. I believe the district realized that it needed to create programs that appealed to these families to make them stay in the district and not leave for charters or private schools. I haven’t had anyone in the District itself tell me that, but a few families have made that suggestion.

What is always true is that the more students a school district has, the more funding they get. No district wants to lose students and no district wants to have an ever-diminishing percentage of the children in its attendance area going to its schools. (Well, except for San Francisco Unified, but that’s really a different blog.)

So the city of Richmond, Calif. has gotten a school with three kindergarten classes, which is pretty impressive for a new program. Families are staying in the district and in the public schools. And kids are learning Mandarin. Not only that, but as part of the District’s commitment to ensuring equitable access to this school, 50% of the seats are reserved for students who are either low income, English learners or foster youth.

I’d love to hear from any families in the program about how it’s going, feel free to email me. I’ve met the principal twice and he seemed quite impressive, so hopefully it’s going well. Here’s an interview with him from the District’s website about the program.


Contra Costa’s new Mandarin dual-immersion school equals uncertainty for adult-ed programs in district

The Mandarin classroom, like other dual-immersion schools, is built around instruction that is 90 percent Mandarin. Eventually, instruction will be evenly split between the two languages. (Photo credit: Nuria Marquez Martinez)

Every morning at 9 a.m., teacher Xu Gong’s kindergarten class kids sits cross-legged on a bright blue and red rug while going through their morning routine: greetings, then the calendar, and finally counting to ten. A typical Richmond classroom — except for the fact that everyone is speaking in Mandarin.

The Chinese Mandarin dual-immersion program, approved by the school board this past February, welcomed its first three 24-student kindergarten classes in August at the Serra School in Richmond. Like the already established Spanish immersion program, students will begin learning the language from day one, with 90 percent of class instruction in Mandarin.

Please read more here.

Cambridge, Mass. school lottery tweak angers some parents in Mandarin immersion program

November 28, 2017

I include this because so many of us in Mandarin immersion programs deal with an ongoing series of tweaks and changes from our school districts, administrators and teachers. Sometimes there are unintended consequences that no one expected. Cambridge, Mass. is dealing with some of those now.

From Cambridge Day


Lottery fix

An attempt to fix an unintended consequence of encouraging enrollment in language immersion programs was pushed to a Nov. 21 meeting. Although member Patty Nolan presented what she hoped was her community relation subcommittee’s solution, she asked that a vote be postponed until the affected schools could have time to discuss the proposed changes – not realizing the committee would change its schedule so the next regular meeting would be weeks later. She ultimately agreed that a November date wouldn’t jeopardize changes to the January lottery.

The issue was change in recent controlled choice rules to allow “internal transfers” into the Chinese Immersion and Olá Portuguese program at the Martin Luther King and King Open Schools, respectively – letting non-immersion students in the schools’ other programs transfer to the immersion programs before assigning siblings or running the January junior and kindergarten lottery. The goal was to encourage enrollment in the programs, especially for the non-immersion Chinese Ni Hao program students.

It turned out, though, that some younger siblings of students already in the immersion program were shut out of the January 2017 lottery as a result – unheard of in Cambridge where siblings have priority in registration. It was particularly unfair, families contended, to siblings born after the March 31 cut-off, making them ineligible for junior kindergarten – meaning they now were in line behind other children in their grade who could do an internal transfer because they were born before March 31 and therefore were junior kindergarteners in the school.

The proposed solution is to prioritize sibling registration, only then followed by internal transfers. Internal transfers must be completed before the January lottery. The change got support from Chinese Immersion parents Nancy Wei and Danielle Buie. Wei said this will “spare future families the heartbreak” that she and others experienced when their youngest children were shut out. Her son had been 14th on the wait list last year, she said, even with a sibling already in the program.

When this issue arose in May, some committee members were initially reluctant to take it up, fearing “changing the rules” might open up even more unintended consequences. Kathleen Kelly’s initial impulse was to postpone examining the issue until after the upcoming November election. The committee discussed reviewing the entire controlled choice program, but Nolan, Bowman and Fred Fantini, along with Chief Operating Officer Jim Maloney, convinced all the members to move this specific issue to the community relations subcommittee to “begin fact-finding.” Instead, they came back with a potential fix.

Full article here.

£17,000-a-year for Mandarin immersion in London

November 26, 2017

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OCTOBER 7, 2017

From the Financial Times

By Joshua Chaffin in London

As a girl growing up in an English-speaking household in Singapore, Prema Gurunathan grudgingly studied Mandarin. Now a mother in west London, she is taking no chances with her own son. When he turned one Ms Gurunathan insisted their household in Hammersmith speak Mandarin for half of each week. She recruited an au pair from east Asia (she prefers not to say exactly where, for fear of tipping off the competition).

And last month, she and her husband enrolled the three-and-a-half year-old at Kensington Wade in London, Britain’s first primary school to offer full Mandarin immersion for its pupils. “It’s intellectual, it’s cultural and it’s ‘future-proofing’, if you will,” said Ms Gurunathan, a self-confessed “tiger mom” and policy wonk, explaining her school choice. “And it’s fun.”

“Chinese and [computer] code — those are the two languages as far as I’m concerned!” Sir Martin declared, offering assurance to the gaggle of parents that the £17,000-a-year tuition they had shelled out for at the newly opened school was money well spent.

Please read more here.

If you build it, they will come. And then you shut it down.

November 22, 2017

What is it with school districts and Mandarin immersion? They are thrilled to get these programs when they first launch because they pull in families from all over. 

But then the programs get hugely popular- so what’s the first reaction?

To shut them down, of course!

(Sorry, I just get so frustrated with this. I feel like I’ve seen this happen again and again.)

Now it’s Chapel Hill in North Carolina. They created a Mandarin immersion program and it’s so wildly popular that the school’s got 50 more students than it was built for.

So what’s one of the suggestions? Of course — end the immersion program and shift it to a regular Chinese class. 

Which isn’t to say that’s what the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will end up decided to do, but the idea that it’s even been suggested is just crazy to me. You have a program that’s popular, that’s thriving and that’s bringing students to your district. So you want to eviscerate it so you don’t have that particular problem (of having such a popular program) any more.

LAUSD tried it with the program at Broadway Elementary in Los Angeles. SFUSD tried it with the program at Aptos middle school in San Francisco. 

It remains a mystery to me.

I hope the Chapel Hill program survives… 


Changes in Mandarin program possible as Chapel Hill-Carrboro confronts school crowding