In a Mandarin immersion school, students learn content such as math or science in a second language as well as in English. The better one can read in that language, the more content he/she learns, and the more content he/she learns the easier reading becomes. Having a strong language foundation by kindergarten is one of the reasons we use a full immersion preschool program at HudsonWay Immersion School (HWIS).
Mandarin literacy is uniquely challenging especially in a non-Chinese speaking environment. At HWIS we understand the challenges and have a 15-year track record of commitment to continually improving our methods and student success.
Building from a solid foundation in our preschool, our kindergarten students learn the basic strokes and get a familiarity with the structure of Chinese characters. We expose them to the concept of pictographs which are images that relate to the meaning of a character such as “kou”, mouth or “shui”, water. From these types of simple characters, we build on the concept of a radical, or families of characters that have a commonality in meaning, similar to a Latin root. There may be a series of characters all using the “kou” character having something to do with “mouth”. Students learn some basic sentence patterns such as a comparative structure “My mother is taller than me”. In young children, language learning is happening in the same part of the brain as the learning of the first language so students not continually comparing it to English structure. By the end of kindergarten children are able to write short sentences and can read between 50-100 characters.
In Grade 1, students are learning more basic characters and learning more challenging content. For example, they might be learning about various cloud formations in science, or reading subtraction word problems in Mandarin. Sentence structures and grammar will be introduced. They will be able to write longer sentences and put together short essays.
In Grades 2-3, students are able to do more independent reading. Pinyin, the romanization of the sounds of the Chinese characters are introduced in Grade 2 which helps to further scaffold the language learning process. We select books that have pinyin only on new characters to help students learn but avoid using them for those characters the child is expected to read independently. Pinyin is also used for students to learn how to type out characters on a computer which is required of students starting in Grade 3 in order to take an online Avant test, a standardized language assessment used in many immersion programs to measure language proficiency. In these grades students are able to write essays containing several paragraphs and read several hundred characters.
In Grades 4-6, students are able to read most elementary books with the support of a dictionary. Students can go online and conduct research involving the reading and writing of long articles. Although frequently used characters are provided in textbooks used such as Better Immersion, the content and topics being taught will incorporate characters as needed. For example, In a study contrasting the cities and culture of Sparta and Athens, vocabulary specific to oligarchy or democracy would be studied and discussed.
Having materials at the appropriate level and allocating enough time to reading are ways in which we can support reading proficiency of our students. In each classroom there is a library of appropriate books at a range of reading levels. There is DEAR time (Drop Everything and Read) in which students are encouraged to select books they enjoy reading. Assigned homework requires students read a certain amount of time every day based on their grade.
We use programs such as Better Chinese and Level Chinese to help us collect students' data and identify each student's reading or writing level. Level Chinese provides visualization of real-time data in alignment with the Common Core Standards and the ACTFL Performance Descriptors. Students have access to the reading materials that match their level and practice their reading comprehension skills. Through the reading comprehension questions teachers are able to identify the areas in which students have difficulty and tailor instruction to improve each child individually.
Mandarin immersion programs are evolving so the goals of what a middle school student can achieve vary depending on aspects of the program. Elizabeth Weise, in “A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion” states that students in most Mandarin immersion programs learn between 1000 to 1500 characters which enables them to know about 95% of the characters used. At this rate students are well on their way to doing well on any measure - AP Chinese, Avant or achieving a Global Seal of Biliteracy.