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The techniques we use to gauge levels of difficulties

At MSL Master, we use a comprehensive set of techniques to make sure that the level of difficulties in Mandarin Express series and Chinese Reading and Writing series are both challenging and manageable. 

The result is that multiple metrics are used throughout the textbooks.

The gradual disappearance of the English text

We recognise that English text in Chinese textbooks creates a dependence for students, a crutch that eventually cripples students’ abilities. 

Therefore, we keep the English text in its minimum and gradually fade it out entirely.

From pinyin to Chinese characters

For beginner students, pinyin is easier to learn than Chinese characters. However, as pinyin is not a viable alternative to Chinese characters, we map down the transition from pinyin to Chinese characters. 

In Mandarin Express Intro and Basic Levels, both pinyin and Chinese characters are included. Pinyin is the main learning medium and students focus on developing listening and speaking abilities quickly.

In Chinese Reading and Writing series, only Chinese characters are used. Students focus on developing sound Chinese reading and writing abilities. 

Starting from Mandarin Express Pre-Intermediate Level A, pinyin is excluded from texts. Students begin to use Chinese characters only to practice communications in both written and oral form.

A mixture of different learning modes

It is prominent in Mandarin Express series that teaching texts and the class activities are mixed in the layout of each lesson. While teaching texts aim to introduce new words and phrases, the class activities provide opportunities for temporary pause and reflection, and get students involved in various interactions, so that students can effectively use what they have learned. 

Such mixed texts alternate the learning atmospheres between a learning mode and an exercise mode, alleviating the learning pressure on students and bringing out long-term knowledge retention. 

In Chinese Reading and Writing series, the teaching texts occupy a small portion of each lesson, containing single characters and their combinations. The rest of the lesson is to put these characters and combinations into different kinds of exercises, sentences, conversations and stories. 

Such layout is also an alternation of different learning modes, to alleviate pressure and to build students’ confidence.

The variations of sentences, conversations and narratives

Both Mandarin Express series and Chinese Reading and Writing series use a variety of Chinese texts, sentences, conversations and narratives, to present a fusion of different kinds of literary languages. Direct speech, language ranging from daily life to social theories, and different genres are all incorporated into the two series.

These different types of languages all have their own level of difficulties. When being mixed together, they provide a nice change from time to time and some fresh perspectives for students to look at the Chinese language.

These alterations of texts keep students interested, engaged and challenged, and also create a relativising linguistic consciousness, which helps students recognise Chinese language as a unity.

Long and easy texts vs. short and hard

Many Chinese textbooks take the approach that the longer the text is, the hard it is. We consider this is only one of the many ways to gauge difficulty levels. 

When carefully written, a long passage can be really easy to read, or a short paragraph really hard to comprehend. It depends on how many unknown characters/words there are in the writing, whether or not complex structures are in place, or complex concepts are being introduced.

We use the following four different kinds of variations:

  • Short and easy texts
  • Long and easy texts
  • Short and hard texts
  • Long and hard texts

For example, in Chinese Reading and Writing 5, we use long and easy Chinese stories as exercises without any new characters. At the first glance, long texts seem to be intimidating. However, students quickly realise that these long texts are interesting stories and quite an easy read. This becomes an exercise that they really enjoy doing.  

In Mandarin Express Pre-Intermediate Level A, we use short and hard texts. Pinyin is not included in the texts, and students begin to quickly build up a sizeable new Chinese characters and words. Texts are all rather short, but contain many new characters and words. These small bites of texts are challenging, but very much manageable.

Moving from daily life to complex social and political issues

The difficulty level increases as students gradually move from talking about daily life to discussing more complex social and political issues. 

For many students, learning Chinese for work and small talks is only the first goal. The second one is to have the opportunities to reflect on social values and political issues. Mandarin Express series captures this trend. The higher level it is, the more debatable the topics are. 

The lower Mandarin Express levels deal more with daily life, such as ordering a meal in a restaurant. The higher levels deal more with social issues, such as the debate about capitalism and socialism.

The inclusion of Chinese classical texts

Of all the ancient languages, only Chinese has survived and continues to be referenced to frequently. Chinese language’s long and stable history is something many other languages are rightly envious of. 

Also, in the long Chinese literary history, Classical Chinese occupies a significant part. It is the most difficult Chinese text to study. For anyone who is learning Chinese, not learning some classical Chinese is a tremendous loss. 

Therefore, we have included some must read Classical Chinese into the last book of Mandarin Express series, the most appropriate place for students to have their final challenge.