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The Trials and Tribulations of Textbooks: A Stroll Down Memory Lane and Where We Are Now

September 28, 2013
A lesson from Book 1 of the series "Elementary Chinese Readers," a textbook from the PRC common in the 1980s in U.S. colleges.

A lesson from Book 1 of the series “Elementary Chinese Readers,” a textbook from the PRC common in the 1980s in U.S. colleges.

By Lelan Miller 孟乐岚

Founder of Mandarin Matters in Our Schools in Texas (MMOST) and master’s candidate in Chinese Language Pedagogy


When I began learning Chinese right after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese textbooks for non-native learners were almost non-existent, except for the then well-known John DeFrancis series published by Yale University Press. Though the dialogues and text were flat and staid, the John DeFrancis series was the glorious gold standard for its time. Actually, there was almost nothing available for comparison because textbooks and curricula were mostly mimeographed sheets of vocabulary and readings laboriously copied by professors and graduate teaching assistants.  Those were laborious days for Chinese learning indeed, where everything was on paper and nothing was digitized. I remember using a Magic Slate to practice writing characters so as not to waste notebook paper. Chinese for non-Chinese speaking children in the US was unheard of at the time, let alone textbooks solely for that purpose.

Now there seems to be a plethora of textbooks for all ages, from preschoolers on up to adult learners.

My boys and I have gone through numerous textbook series and curricula to adjust to their changing ages and needs.  In the 1990s we labored through the mainland published Yu Wen 语文 [Language] books brought back to the U.S. by Chinese parents only to realize the patriotic texts proclaiming love for the mainland motherland were not appropriate for learners born and raised in the States. Those were quickly replaced by 中文, [Zhongwen, Chinese] a series written in the mainland which was somewhat better in that it was specifically designed for heritage learners living in the U.S. Although the stories helped with understanding of Chinese culture, very little was applicable to language for daily life such as self-introductions, shopping, and communicating with friends and family.

At that time I decided to teach my children Chinese at home after school and on weekends because the prospect of a Chinese immersion school was dim in the city where we lived at the time and I did not want to wait for one to get started. So we tried the Singapore published小学华文, [Xiǎoxué huáwén, Elementary Chinese] but the texts featuring eternally happy and well behaved children and extremely cheerful teachers were quickly dubbed “Prozac Land” by all the boys.

I was about to give up when I remembered an encounter with a Taiwanese parent 15 years ago whose children had all gone through 華語 [Huáyǔ, Chinese], a free textbook set from Taiwan published in the 1990s. She was moving back home to Taiwan with her family so she gave me the whole set of 12 books that her own children had already completed by that time. So I pulled this set out of a storage box in the back of a closet.

Amazingly these books meshed seamlessly with what we needed and wanted, although I have had to make up my own worksheets, resources and lesson plans for each chapter as we go along, but the results have been well worth it. Stories are taken from daily life activities such as washing the car, cooking a barbeque, and filling up the car at a gas station, and many stories are based on topics of common Chinese cultural knowledge such as the poems of Li Bai, the story of the frog in the well, and the Three Kingdoms story of Zhu Geliang using straw boats to get arrows.  The text is written in traditional characters but I require my boys to learn to read both traditional and simplified characters anyway. After I type up the text in both traditional and simplified characters, I have them read both versions aloud to me.

So the take home lesson of this story is if you are teaching Chinese, always be resourceful and always be open to making up your own lessons, worksheets, and materials to accompany a curriculum that best meets the needs of your learners. Sometimes the most “popular” or most promoted curriculum may not be the best fit for all learners. In fact many teachers and parents must constantly think outside the box when it comes to selecting the right Chinese learning materials and resources. And I have to admit this concept took me decades to learn!


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