Chinese curriculum a set of incremental progressions

In 1979, a dictionary editorial committee in Beijing, over fifty people, both Chinese and non-Chinese, after spending eight years, finally finished compiling a Chinese-English dictionary, which contains over 6,000 single-character entries, over 50,000 compound-character entries, and over 70,000 compound words, set phrases and examples. The reason that these numbers are quoted here is that they give us a concrete idea of what it takes to become totally proficient in Chinese language. 

Dictionaries have lent great help to Chinese learners, either in a paper form or an online digital form. They are great tools to learn Chinese. But nobody can learn Chinese by using just dictionaries. The reason is that dictionaries only present a collection of disconnected items of knowledge. These pages and pages of characters, compound words, and set phrases must be screened, organised, and presented in a certain sequence to be able to effectively teach non-Chinese students Chinese.

What Chinese textbooks can do and that dictionaries can not

There are similarities between textbooks and dictionaries. When we take a close look at Chinese textbooks, especially those having a vocabulary list and a number of grammar points placed in the middle of every lesson, in addition to some Chinese texts, we also see pages and pages of characters, compounds words, set phrases, and examples, which are, of course, only a small portion of what a dictionary contains. 

Different from dictionaries, all Chinese textbooks try to lace these disconnected items up in a coherent way, for the purpose of, with sufficient exercises, enabling students to socialise, to exchange ideas, to inform others, to request informations, to create, and so on. And all are done in Chinese. 

Well, some textbooks do better jobs than others. 

The definition of high quality Chinese curriculum

All Chinese textbooks serve a purpose, either trying to teach something other books have not covered, or to teach the same thing in a different style. Some present knowledge only using conversations. Some use comic book style. And some teach people pick up lines or swearing phrases in Chinese. There is something to be learned in every textbook. However, most textbooks are disconnected, isolated, and one-off books. Although they are great resources for high level students who can pick and choose any book they feel like, it is not the case for beginner students. 

For non-Chinese speakers who just start learning Chinese, they need a set of small and incremental progressions over a long period of time, which can only be achieved by a series of textbooks, that carefully map out a learning continuum, a learning path, taking students from beginner to Chinese proficiency. This is the definition of high quality Chinese curriculum, which contains not only one or two books, but a series of books, which are characterised by increasingly complex concepts. 

All roads lead to Rome. Chinese proficiency can be reached using different methods and ideas. The four-stage learning path offered at MSL Master is one of the viable solutions. This learning path consists of two series of Chinese textbooks, Mandarin Express series and Chinese Reading and Writing series, which gradually improve students’ language fluency and develop their cultural literacy. 

Clear instructions, targeted exercises and sufficient repetitions

Successful textbooks must give students clear instructions. What they can do or can not do, in terms of Chinese language capabilities, can be explicitly defined. Students must go through targeted exercises to train their abilities in different areas. There must be sufficient repetitions to sustain long term knowledge retention. All these are needed to bring out outstanding learning results. 

Moreover, not only do students need to know what they are going to learn, how they are going to learn it, but also how they know they have learned it. 

Qualitative assessment

Chinese language skills can be described, taught, learned and assessed. More often than not, how students are assessed determines their study mode and the learning outcome. If the assessment is a written test, translating an English paragraph into Chinese, or vice versa, they will focus on memorising words, phrases, and grammar points. If the assessment is to give a presentation followed by a Q&A, they will focus on speaking, making conversations, and coming up with a good argument. Assessment has a pivotal role to play in Chinese language learning. 

How we assess student’s progress has a lot to do with where we want to place Chinese language skills. If reduced to its minimum, Chinese language is only one of the many language skills. Be good at classical Chinese does not necessarily mean well prepared for collaboration or for finding solutions to problems. 

As we want students to be effective communicators, collaborators and problem solvers, we are in favour of qualitative, portfolio-based assessment. Mandarin Express series, especially the higher levels, treats assessments as opportunities for team work, encouraging fresh ideas and focusing on development of broader life skills. Chinese Reading and Writing series builds basic reading and writing abilities. The assessment is more on reading comprehension and writing in clear and comprehensible Chinese.

Life long learning

Mandarin Express series stops at Intermediate Level B. Even though the content of this book is super hard, dealing with classical Chinese and modern poetry, we did not put a label of “advance level” on it. The reason is that we would like students, who complete Mandarin Express series, to continue their Chinese study.

Chinese language is both an enduring and a dynamic discipline. It is constantly changing and evolving. Learning Chinese should not stop with the last book in the series.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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