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The Latest Research on Mandarin immersion

June 28, 2010

A 4th grade Mandarin immersion student reading in Chinese while listening to the book on an iPad.

Marie Ciepela, a mom with two sons in Mandarin immersion at Starr King Elementary school in San Francisco, sends these notes from a talk last week. Probably the most important take-home message for families with kids in Mandarin immersion is that our English book-filled homes are deserts when it comes to Chinese language materials. Without a lot of work on our part, our children experience the same ‘poverty gap’ that children in a socioeconomically deprived homes would in English. It’s a problem we need to overcome and one that the MIPC is working on. Thanks for Marie for writing up her notes from this six-hour lecture.


I attended a STARTALK lecture June 24 at San Francisco State University given by Stephen Krashen, an expert on second-language acquisition.  It was part of a federally-funded week-long STARTALK Teacher Chinese Institute program. I wanted to provide some of the information and talk about a few things that made an impression on me.  As a Mandarin immersion parent and an aspiring teacher entering the credential program for a Bilingual Crosscultural Language and Academic Development (BCLAD) in Spanish, I will most likely be obsessed with this topic.  I will try to keep it brief and let you read from the resources provided below.  I also want to clarify that this is a not a report of what Krashen said as much as my interpretation of significant issues and how they intersect with my own observations in the MI program.

Reading for pleasure is key to second language acquisition – and we need access to Mandarin books

Access to Mandarin language books that our children want to and can read for pleasure is a big problem that we need to resolve if we want this thing to work. This is particularly true for non-language-heritage families.  Krashen talked briefly about the overwhelming impact of poverty on student performance in the U.S.  Without going into detail, lack of reading and lack of access to books continues to plague poor communities and is a hugely significant factor in continued poor test performance, English acqusition, and overall literacy.  Startling data was presented about the average number of children’s books per household in Watts (half a book) and Beverly Hills (200), and correspondingly, in neighborhood and school libraries. Yet, reading is THE essential component in first and any subsequent language acquisition.

This concept is relevant to us and for answering the narrower question of “Is this Mandarin immersion thing going to work?”, because we have our own “poverty effect” to resolve. We lack access to Mandarin reading materials with gripping stories that will produce habitual pleasure readers in Mandarin. If we get language teaching through the classroom without this, I think our results will be limited (see below for the theory).  We know reading for pleasure (Free Voluntary Reading or FVR) is essential in English. It should be no surprise that we need the exact same thing in Mandarin.

But I feel heartened.  First, I think our kids get silent reading (SSR) time in Mandarin class in school and they definitely get stories read to them.  We should verify this with the teachers.

Second, as I have proclaimed ad nauseam, I think that (a Mandarin reading-and-story site from Taiwan) is a great short-term solution for our kids, particularly those in the lower grades who can’t actually read yet and for parents who cannot read aloud to their children in Mandarin. In my experience the children began to truly read independently mid-way through 3rd grade.  This of course, can come quicker in native speaking households, particularly where children have been read to consistently.

Third, some parents have begun to unearth at-home reading options that our kids really can read. The trick here is to find books they have the competency to read with great stories that grab them (not content written for pre-schoolers and babies).  We have seen an explosion of Mandarin resources on web sites and I am hoping that this is going to be followed by an explosion of the Mandarin book supply locally. Or we are going to have to go hunting. And by books I mean anything that can be read on paper, including comic books (aka manga) and magazines.  I am recommending a committee be formed by Mandarin Immersion Parents Council for the development of a reading list of things we can actually get our hands on.

And finally, we should congratulate ourselves that this year both the Starr King and Jose Ortega PTA’s invested money in Mandarin reading materials for our classrooms and libraries at a time when the school district is unable to. (Quality of school library is also tied to test scores – for those test-wonkers out there.)

Language acquisition versus language learning

Here is where I try to point out parts of Krashen’s talk while trying not to write out his entire theory.  You can find a summary here, or look at Krashen’s books listed on his web site.  But here are some of the main points.

  • We learn more through acquisition (“picking up the language”) rather than through conscious learning (“grammar,” i.e. sitting down and memorizing rules and characters).
  • The acquisition system predominates in fluency while the conscious learning system provides “the editing” when language competency grows stronger.  But the conscious learning system is still weaker overall in children.
  • Conscious learning and error correction have limited effects for new learners. They need to learn through exposure, just as babies learn. Not through excessive studying and drilling. (However, daily character practice in homework at the level we are getting is perfectly appropriate. Sorry folks. This isn’t magic either!)
  • Language is acquired best when students receive comprehensible, interesting input (this is called ‘Comprehensible Input’ in education-speak.)
  • Among the teaching methods for providing Comprehensible Input are Total Physical Response (TPR); the Natural Approach, and; Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS).  In layman’s terms I think that means what we see out teachers do – jump around a lot and use their bodies to teach characters that involve the kids physically and cognitively. Just recall the spying you have done in the classrooms, seeing our teachers pulling on their ears or crying on the floor to demonstrate the meaning of characters. Or Ms. Chau’s daily dramatization of the Berenstain Bears. Teaching through subject matter is also a significant strategy, and of course, what we get in immersion.
  • Acquisition and language accuracy is input driven, not output driven, and input should be provided in great quantities. That’s why the more hours of Mandarin our children get a day, the better.
  • The corollary here is that the ability to speak is the RESULT of language acquisition.  Talking will come, but silent periods are perfectly normal. Remember that for close to a year toddlers can understand and act on much of what’s said to them but can’t actually speak more than a few words. Forcing output is less helpful. (So lay off the ‘performing monkey syndrome’ that all too many of us immersion parents fall prey to!)
  • Significant Comprehensive Input comes from reading. When a child gets to a competent reading level, character memorization will come more from the act of reading than character practice. We see this in English where we know that young readers see well-written sentences and expansive vocabulary over and over so when a grammar/vocabulary lesson is given to them at a later age, it is accessible and sensible to them. As they keep saying about English, Reading is Fundamental.
  • Other personality factors such as motivation, anxiety and self-esteem effect acquisition, blocking or opening up acquisition. Reading is a great way to help a kid with a high shyness for talking.
  • THERFORE, the best way to learn to read, write and speak a language occurs in low-anxiety environments with lots of comprehensible inputs.

At this point, I need to point out that while this makes perfectly natural sense to me, Stephen Krashen is the source of some controversy for his work and his opposition to No Child Left Behind and the current move by the Obama Administration and Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan toward more skill-building protocols (“rules” and grammar”) and more testing.

We should all really know more about what may be coming down the pike in terms of national education policy. Krashen’s research leads him to believe that constant testing when it comes to kids learning languages actually gets in the way of their learning, because it’s too easy for that testing-to-know-what’s-going-on to turn into teaching-for-the-test. And his work shows that’s not a good way to learn.

Hot-off-the-press – Surveys results from our own kids and teachers!

It just so happened that Krashen released the results of a STARTALK survey that our kids and teachers may have participated in as part of an analysis of Chinese immersion in San Francisco Unified School District.

The survey asked both teachers and students how they judged various teaching techniques in terms of:

  1. effectiveness and;
  2. pleasurable experience.

Interestingly, there was virtually no difference in the opinions between the teachers and students.  They ranked techniques for effectiveness and pleasure as follows:

  • Listening to Chinese stories be read or told by teachers
  • Watching Chinese cartoons/movies/videos
  • Reading Chinese books of my own choice
  • Reading required Chinese books
  • Studying text books
  • Memorizing textbook lessons
  • Practicing writing characters

When researchers asked the teachers how much the kids read, they said the kids read very little.  When he asked why, they said that they just do not have access to the kinds of books that are appropriate for their level and that interest them.  Back to point number one above – finding books for our kids to read in Mandarin is crucial to their ability to succeed in Chinese.

What to Do: It seems that good language acquisition takes three things:

  1. Great teaching (Yeah! We have that!);
  2. Time allotted for silent reading in school and at home;
  3. Access to good reading materials.

Clearly the first is taken care of the by teachers using all these strategies, including “grammar” instruction and character teaching.  Time allotted for reading at home is every family’s personal decision.  But access to materials is a collective issue that we can all work to resolve.

As I need to brush up on my Spanish, I am headed to the Spanish-language section of the bookstore, not to buy another verb conjugation book, but some nice trashy novel.

Resources, links and studies

The hand-out also listed numerous studies and data on the effectiveness of Comprehensible Input and Sustained Silent Reading, which I can provide if anyone is interested.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Kari permalink
    June 28, 2010 7:42 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this summary. It is incredibly useful! I don’t know what texts they use in San Francisco, but if you haven’t used the Better Chinese books yet, I recommend them for beginning readers. They have a set of little books that are approximately one sentence per page. It starts with pinyin and then takes out the pinyin once the characters are introduced. I’d love to find more books that are similar to these.

    I recommend that parents learn pinyin if they don’t read Chinese. It can still be difficult to find books with pinyin, but at least I can read them. The kids don’t really like being read to in Chinese (compared to English), though, just because they don’t understand that much of the stories. It is also hard to me to read in an interesting way since I don’t really know what I am saying most of the time! 🙂 But at least it is something.

    I signed up for the 5qchannel, but I still have to get the kids on there. I don’t think they will object to extra computer time. 🙂

    Thanks again!

  2. wrongwayjack permalink
    June 28, 2010 11:33 pm

    We’ve been thinking much the same things. Our sons frequently sit and read books in English, but we have no compelling books to give them in simplified Chinese. The few books we have found (that aren’t in traditional Chinese which are more common in the SF libraries) will be about fables or legends. These don’t tap-into our children’s interest in the way that “Aliens for Breakfast” or “Captain Underpants” do.

    We have found that our boys do like the “Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf” books, although these have so much content in the pictures, that I am not sure how much reading they encourage. We’re still looking!

  3. July 5, 2010 8:09 am

    Dear Beth,

    I want to share with you a speech from a speech of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. The people in Singapore are doing the same thing you are doing. Please watch the video from YouTube :

    He said at the end : “What we must do is catch the interest of our child, never mind the standard you use……..and you will have it for life.”

    This is what 5QChannel trying to do.

  4. Andria permalink
    July 26, 2011 2:47 pm

    Not sure about their effectiveness, but there are also books that pair with a wand which will read aloud to you. An acquaintance got these from Shanghai. They are fairy tales, You point the pen at a page and it will read it aloud in Mandarin or in English. As an ESL teacher, I know all about the benefits of comprehensible input, but it is also important not to teach bad pronunciation. I would be wary of non-Mandarin speaking parents reading too much Mandarin to their kids. The sounds may be corrected (even Mandarin speakers have variations), but It is critical to get the tones right. I suspect it is better to have a CD, wand, or computer do the reading and the parent sit with them to discuss the meaning and point to the words as they are being read.


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