How to Respond?

Diane in Chicago shares a troubling situation. We need to have a “form letter” response for situations like this:

Hi Ben,

Looking mostly for sympathy from the group. I need to reply to this email about one of my graduating 8th graders. She’s a great student and a quiet girl in general; she is right on track to developing fluency in Mandarin. She’s got excellent listening & reading comprehension & writes paragraphs that communicate clearly, with use of transitional words and a wide range of vocabulary – and it’s often creative in content.

Anyway, this is most of an email from her future Chinese teacher:

With regard to our current program and placement for [name of student], it would help to know what book(s) she has been using.

We use Beijing University’s Boya Hanyu series. In our class a heavy emphasis is placed on the ability to read and write Chinese characters.

If [name of student] is able to comfortably read and write 600+ characters I would say that she might be a good candidate for Mandarin 2. In both Mandarin 1 & 2 students are required to write characters from memory.

On the flip side, the good news is that [name of student] sounds like a very capable student and Mandarin is incredibly difficult and so wherever she is ultimately placed she will have loads to learn!

The reality is that when you factor in pinyin, the tones, proper stroke order, character evolution, and writing few students – if any! – are absorbing 100% of the information and so review might be beneficial as well.

I’d be happy to look over any work she has done to better assess her level.

This teacher admits his students aren’t retaining material. He openly and directly tells me that Chinese is “incredibly difficult”!! Yet somehow, over 1 billion Chinese of all intellectual abilities use it daily to communicate, yes even to read. He teaches to the left brain memorizing, emphasizes production, and in Chinese the production of the latest kind acquired – unprompted hand-writing of characters. Even most Chinese will forget how to hand-write characters they rarely write. (Since the advent of computer tools, I cannot at all understand why he thinks hand-writing characters without prompts is important, except that it’s old school practice in China.) This teacher is in his first year of teaching Mandarin and that is a small glimmer of hope to me… that he’ll come to his senses over time (as I did) and seek better ways to teach.

So shall I show him her recent free writes, which are incredible, or send him the story-length reading and responses that she did so well? Apparently if it’s not hand-written, he doesn’t like it. Good grief.

Anyway, my goal is to explain in brief, without rancor, how I teach and my expectations for beginning levels. I’m going to refer to the Krashen summary website as the theory on which I base my teaching, and the ACTFL 90% target language use and communication goals as the basis for my emphasis on Interpersonal (not Presentational handwriting!). And then send him the Beginning Chinese High-Frequency list created by a few Chinese teachers as the basis of my language content. The thing about my student going to this school next year is that she’ll probably be able to do well at the memorizing; her character hand-writing is very good already. But will she continue growing in fluency? He’s force-feeding 600 characters a year. That is unreasonable in a high school classroom. Even most traditional programs think that about 300 characters is year 1 college material. Beginning readers are aimed at that level.

I know lots of others get to deal with these situations. I only occasionally have them (only once before was it this bad).




25 thoughts on “How to Respond?”

  1. What a bummer. Furthermore, to think that this student might be turned off from learning any Chinese throughout her high school career at this school is a real shame.

    The Chinese teacher at my Chicago Public School last year, a veteran teacher, said that it is nationally recognized for Chinese teachers to shoot for teaching 80 characters in the first year. I think she referenced ACTFL when saying so.

    Anyways, this student surely will benefit from having you advocate for her. Hopefully she won’t feel inadequate as she continues her interest in learning Chinese.

  2. Thanks for the sympathy, Sean, that was what I knew this group would have! I was bummed, not merely about this one student, but about someone who is a teacher saying things like that and teaching like that. May I say too – this is another non-native teacher. He should “know better” about characters. (I don’t know of ACTFL saying anything about characters taught per year, but 80 is about how many I have plugged into Skritter for kids to be able to hand-write each year starting in grade 6. They can read more.)

    Anyway, here’s what I wrote to him & received back. He responded to very little of my email, really. Probably gave him too much info, but it’s not simple to answer “what book did she study”! I don’t think he gets it.

    Thanks for your speedy reply. Are you familiar with Comprehensible Input teaching, or TPRS? I use these approaches in my classes. Victoria has had 4 years of Chinese. As you probably know, at their age that usually results in about the equivalent of one year + of high school class time because of developmental differences in most students. This has played out at other high schools: most of my students enter Chinese 2 or Chinese 2 Honors. In the case of Victoria’s class, I was transitioning from using a high school-level textbook called ??? with them in Grade 6 and using CI techniques at times. After that experience, having concluded that the CI instruction I was doing was much more effectively developing listening, speaking, reading, and writing fluency in my students, I made CI theory the basis of all my teaching since last school year. I have pulled out high-frequency content from Zhen Bang, but also used a movie (???? – really a great movie for classes), preparation for a Mandarin immersion trip to San Francisco, and this spring, more of the High-Frequency list attached to this email. It would be the best representation of the content they’ve been acquiring over the years. Let me know if you have questions.

    I rely on Stephen Krashen’s work in Second Language Acquisition for instructional methods (cf and emphasize communication (per ACTFL emphasis on using the target language 90% or more of class time and communication as the goal of second language courses). To get the most out of their beginning-level language ability, I emphasize high-frequency vocabulary and sentence structures, and developing listening and reading comprehension in highly interactive discussion and readings. I have not required students to hand-write every character that they can read. I am confident she reads at least 600 characters, but have not kept count.

    I’ll attach a couple of recent quizzes. Since I’m at home, I don’t many samples of Victoria’s work with me, but I found the attached writing assignment. She scored A+ on the quizzes attached; actually, she has been scoring A+’s for years. She’s at the top of her class. She’s got a quiet voice, but speaks very well, too. Victoria is an excellent reader and hand-writes quite well, beyond expectations for the class. I mainly use for them to practice typing and handwriting individual characters.

    I would suggest that you consider Victoria for Mandarin 2 because to start completely over would likely discourage her, and that you allow her to add Boya Hanyu character lists to Skritter and get a start on hand-writing more characters before next fall. She is a disciplined student, and I already talked with her mom about the possibility of summer work to help her transition to your course. Having read the course description, it seemed that a heavy emphasis was placed on hand-writing at Carmel, and I mentioned to her mom that would be something to adjust to next year. Her family is supportive of preparatory work if needed.

    Thanks! I hope to see you at Suburban Chinese Teacher Association meetings some time… are you involved there yet?

    ~ Diane

    He then wrote back:


    Based on the documents you sent me I think Victoria would be an excellent candidate for Mandarin 2.

    There is a summer school course here at (school name) in the works (most likely in June) called Introduction to Chinese Characters which Victoria might benefit from.

    Aside from that I’d recommend that she order the book we’re using in class and get started!

    Please let me know if there is anything else I can do to help her transition.

    1. …please let me know if there is anything else I can do to help her transition….

      Gag me with a stick. There is no “transition”. There is only the end of Victoria’s engagement in real Chinese.

      1. Yeah, I was being diplomatic in saying it was a transition to his expectations she’d need to make. He picked up that language. It allows us to speak respectfully to each other without agreeing about hardly anything about Chinese!

        And yet, this teacher is a few steps better than another school’s Mandarin teacher I had a difficult time with about a year ago. I hold out hope that this student of mine will blow away his students to the point that he’ll want to investigate what I said.

        1. Diane,
          I am sure he will be blown away by what your student will be able to do. That will be the best testament to the method and hopefully the teacher will see the light 🙂 Don’t sweat it too much. You have done the right thing and the best that you can. You have to know that…in your heart of hearts you are doing good!


  3. We have SO much work to do! Jen and I presented at the FLAME (Foreign Language Association of Maine) conference 2 weeks ago, There were about 45 people at the presentation. I asked each one to respond on a note card to this prompt: How do people learn an L2?

    100 percent said some form of “learn, memorize, practice”

    The positive is that 2 people from that presentation attended our peer coaching session last week. I have had about 8 requests for information/to observe my classroom.

    It does seem strange how few teachers seem to be aware of TCI…. there was another TPRS workshop that day and people were just SO confused! The distinction between TPRS/TPR wasn’t even clear to some.

    Anyway, stories like Diane’s add fire to my passion to help spread understanding/training in TCI.

    I shed a tear for Victoria and ALL the students in her situation.


    1. Go, Skip, go. I think for most teachers, all they know is memorize and practice. They don’t even really get it that there’s another, better way.

      My colleagues don’t fully understand the TPR/TPRS distinction either. You know, TPR gets exposure in college teacher prep, doesn’t it? But somehow neither TPRS nor CI as a practical teaching approach is being taught at any college I know of except where Bob Patrick is teaching in Georgia.

      1. Yeah, I’ve been chatting up a couple of Northwestern University MSEd (my alma mater) students about to graduate through NU’s foreign language teaching track and they have very little exposure nor understanding of TPRS, let along CI! What’s up NU?

        1. They don’t teach TPRS/CI in universities at all, except for Bob’s classes at UGA and Mark doing what he can here at UC Boulder. Maybe Alaska/Anchorage and a few others? UNC Chapel Hill? Please correct me and say that I am wrong. Educate me about what the universities are doing – please. It makes sense, though. Anyone who has made it their livelihood to FIGURE OUT, ANALYZE, GATHER DATA ON how the conscious mind can get to fluency, when the conscious mind has NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, would most likely have nothing good to say about that which they truly do not understand. Those doing CI at the college level are pretty much all renegade individuals like us, I would imagine. Many have the door open to the Krashen treasure chest, but only just a bit. The light isn’t enough for them to see inside and they are afraid to venture in themselves. When you can count them on one hand it isn’t too good. This semester I am training someone from Metro State University here in Denver. There, he heard nothing but disses about what we do. Until he came into my classroom a few months ago. Do you hear that loud thudding noise? That’s the old guard hitting the ground.

        2. As a Northwestern Grad, though not a language major I am not surprised. I will say that the language classes are based on immersion- at least German was (so at least they are in target language). They do other things to try to keep you speaking and listening such as assigning a telenovela type video programs and requiring a certain number of chat snack time attendance (Kaffeestunde). I never actually met a single language ed major all 4 years at NU (I wasn’t one at the time). It be good for them to improve it. Do you know who heads up the language ed program?

          1. Hey Eric, good to hear from you. I went through the NU MSEd program on the English track so I really am just learning myself now what is happening in their foreign language track. I do like to try to be a good alum and keep in contact. I certainly will be following up with those 2 students I mentioned, trying to get them to joint our Chicagoland TCI group.

          2. Cool, Sean. I don’t know if you knew that last meeting Yuan brought a brand-new-to-CI Chinese teacher with her. I think that people open to learning about it would be great to include.

            And hello Eric! Nice to hear you (read you??).

        3. A COACH colleague heads up the methods course at CSU Long Beach. She has to introduce students to TPRS/TCI and then get them to visit TCI classrooms for their observations. Last year I had a few visit me, but my district makes it difficult for students to come and observe. (If they come for more than a single two-hour visit, they have to have a letter from their university program advisor, fill out paperwork, have TB test done, etc., etc.) Before the end of the semester, they have to present a portion of a TPRS lesson.

          I was extremely fortunate to get a student teacher earlier this year who had had exposure to TPRS – primarily through attending the COACH workshops where Jason Fritze and I did Master Classes on Storyasking, Readers Theater, and other aspects of TCI.

          1. Robert do you know how deeply that CSU Long Beach professor gets into TPRS/CI in class? How accurately it is presented? I am wondering these days about accuracy of representation of Krashen’s work in places where comprehension based teaching is presented to future teachers. So many undergrad and grad students seem so confused about it, which makes me think that possibly their teachers are confused as well. Wouldn’t you agree that a somewhat misguided grasp of this work is very common these days?

          2. The professor I mentioned recently retired from teaching high school Spanish. I believe her presentation fairly represents TPRS/CI, and she has a list of people who use TPRS/CI as the suggested teachers for observations. She also says that the students who come to her are utterly clueless about it. In the credential program, hers is actually one of the last classes, and she recognizes that she must start from ground zero when she addresses TPRS/CI.

          3. Robert,
            What would it take to get you and Jason to come down to my district and put on a workshop?


    2. Skip,
      I am on the same war-path! I am putting together a quck guide to setting up the CI classroom, based on my experiences and those of others I read about. I, too, had an interesting experience at a recent conference/presentation…I think a lot of teachers are intrigued but find the change daunting.
      We do indeed have a lot of teaching to do 🙂


  4. …[a lot of teachers] find the change daunting…

    What about the kids? What those teachers are asking – have asked for at least a century – kids to do in the classroom is far more daunting than anything they themselves would have to do to align with 21st century standards and current research about how people acquire languages in the real way, not too mention the rather obvious but almost completely ignored key statements by ACTFL (90% use position statement, three modes, etc.).

    Why are they having trouble changing? It’s simple and they are not to be blamed. In high school and college they were given praise for being good at conjugating verbs and manipulating two dimensional grammar (not the real kind, which is spoken as well as written). They were so good at it that many of them became teachers of the language they studied. Bless their hearts, everything then changed on them. Now they have to rip open their hearts and communicate with and love on and engage the same kids they bested, owned in their classes when they were students themselves. Hmmm.

    I don’t mean to be snarky, but the tables have turned on them, and on some level they know it, and it makes for an ugly scene, when people like Melissa and all the others here who have had to fight just to make the 21st century point of view known to the legion of hangers-on to 20th century ideas, joyless, empty ideas that glorify the mind but not the heart, where languages live.

    It’s just all so weird and backwards and millions of kids across the world will yet again tomorrow morning go back into their tomb-like classrooms, so absent of any joy, where they can’t shine and many of whom will again just feel as if they are stupid with languages and the cycle will just keep on perpetuating itself, and the boring teachers will again claim that they got the wrong kids in their class, yet again this year.

    OK, I’ll get over it, but not really. I’ve never been able to get over it and I never will. Maybe I’ll just go publish my little Sunday nite prayer that I post here from time to time. Give it to God. Again.

    1. Ben,
      I hope that you don’t “get over it”! It is because of you that I have found the courage to toot the CI horn loudly and clearly in my neck of the woods…with 41,000 students and 32 high schools/middle schools I have a lot of people to reach. I agree that we must continue to spread the word that this is the “human” way to help students acquire a second language. I try to remember to channel some Laurie C and remind myself that not only do the students need some love but so do the teachers.


    1. Yeah, thanks, James. You know he’s a high school teacher, though, and so he “outranks” me. I’m “just” teaching 4th-8th graders. (I say not believing it for a minute.) I’ve hit this before. Those of you with high school classes get it in turn from college professors who think, because they have students who are chronologically older, they know more about how to teach languages. Well, maybe also because they have more degrees than most of us in K-12.

  5. Thank you Louisa. I won’t get over it. And I’m always channeling my inner Laurie Clarcq, which keeps the heart first and the anger over all the flailing and failing kids at a minimum and the love and patience always growing.

    And Diane I have a very good feeling about this situation with this high school Chinese character. He speaks to you from a position of gross ignorance. He seems to have no awareness of standards or, worse, no awareness of Krashen. This does not make him a bad person, but an ignorant one, in the French sense of the verb that he simply “doesn’t know”.

    I therefore have a very positive stance on your situation. You are setting the bar so high that, like Annick Chen has done over many years here at Lincoln High School, people just cannot attack you – they don’t have the credentials. Those who would have liked to attack Annick over the years haven’t had a gun that can shoot that high. She is our “swan teacher”, as one observing teacher stated after one of her classes last week.

    Yes – Annick is a swan up there in front of her class speaking Chinese so slowly and with such elegance that even if you don’t understand a word you know that something very special is happening in that classroom. Light is coming in.

    Annick flies high, indeed, and so do you. And this high school person has never seen such a thing. And so he sends you a letter right out of the 1970’s, without knowing, bless his charactered heart, that the world has changed since then.

    You just keep on doing what you are doing, and when his heart catches up with his mind he will be knocking your door down for some instruction. I know that I speak for many in our PLC community that it is very apparent you are carrying the standard for comprehension based instruction just about as high as it can be carried, and Chicago is lucky to have you there as you and Sean and the others in your group charge forward with such grace and strength.

    You are doing great work, and one thing we must do when we know that is to tell each other and not assume anything. This heyday of excitement and exploration of a new way to teach will be over one day, much more light will fill classrooms, and it will be normal and there will be no more grammar people in charge of kids’ self esteem and hope.

    Since this initial work will be over one day, and comprehension based instruction will be the norm rather than the exception, we must realize how important each class we teach is right now and we must give our teaching all our heart’s strength, which is considerable, n’est-ce pas?

    This work is of course not easy, and so each time we get a chance to compliment each other in this way, as we do so often here in our group, it helps us keep going against the very strong currents and all those misinformed critical souls in so many of our buildings who seem to just keep hanging on from yesteryear. So we must be loving and supportive of each other, always, because nobody else is. Otherwise, this work is just too hard.

    That’s my Monday morning pep talk.

  6. Oh Diane – I am so sorry you are going through this!!! It does suck! But, at least you know HE is the one that is new and has to LEARN how to teach!!! So, do not doubt yourself!!! Your student can communicate!
    I have to share this with you all: I have three classes of Level 2 this semester. One of them is actually “2B”….so they are technically semester 4 of Spanish; whereas my other Level 2’s are the new one-semester 2’s….so technically they are semester 3 of Spanish. I am teaching all the same since they are all going into the same Level 3 next year. Level 2B is actually BEHIND my two classes of Level 2!!!! Now, to let you know….most of the 2B’s had me for 1B with CI instruction. Then they went to the traditional teacher for 2A, and now they are back with me and I am working on Movie Talk and writing and retells. I gave a test last week over Simon’s Cat Fly Guy. We did the movie talk and textivate and other things over the course of 10 days. My Level 2’s have already had me and CI in Level 1A and 1B (some JUST came to me from the middle school where they are trying to teach CI) The straight-up 3rd semester SPanish Level 2’s did SO MUCH better in their writing than the Spanish 2B’s!!!!!

    Now, we are reading Agentes Secretos and one of the girls is complaining that they are not learning anything “new” (yes, I taught this book when she was in 1B; however, I have many new students now who never had me for Level 1 and will quit after Spanish 2, so I want them to know about the Spanish Civil War).

    I told you about her best buddy last week and her behavior problem!! Well, HER guidance counselor told me today that she does not feel challenged in my class, that she learned so much more from the other (traditional) teacher. BTW – these two girls did horribly on the re-tells!

    So, now the kids are thinking they are not learning anything from me! I am struggling. but, it’s just a few, …..they roll their eyes when I go slow, they zone out, but they still do well on other tests, etc. I am getting them on jGR though – but it doesn’t add up to be a big enough “hit” to make them change their behavior!

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