Overwhelmed by Chinese vocabulary

Pages and pages of vocabulary are a stable feature in many Chinese textbooks, possibly the majority of mainstream Chinese textbooks for non-Chinese speakers. For every student, these tons of new vocabulary listed in each lesson are so intimidating and overwhelming.

Text layout in many Chinese textbooks

Many Chinese textbooks follow a similar layout, which goes like this:

  • Lesson title
  • Main lesson text
  • A few questions to check the understanding of the text
  • A list of vocabulary
  • A list of grammar points
  • A list of reading and writing exercises and some speaking exercises
  • Optional section: some Chinese cultural knowledge written in English

Many Chinese textbooks also include some boxes or tian zi ge for students to practice writing the new Chinese characters or words, or include some extended vocabulary from the new characters. 

The layout as such centres around vocabulary and grammar. It does not encourage or provide enough space for genuine communication. The long and intimidating list of vocabulary is particularly a pain in the neck. Going through the words one by one is tedious. The worst of all is that students will quickly forget most of the new words in the next twenty minutes. 

Fortunately, there are some innovative ways when learning a long list of Chinese vocabulary.

Three different ways to learn a long list of Chinese vocabulary

An intimidatingly long list of vocabulary is a problem not only for students, but also for Chinese teachers. Teachers have to find a way, or many ways, to make learning these new Chinese words easier than it looks, to find ways to make sure that students are actually learning, not just going through motions, and to find ways to help those students, probably the majority of the class, to learn them again and again.

The best ways of learning new Chinese vocabulary are the ones which evolve students the most, and there are definitely more than one way of doing so. The only limitation is our imagination. 

Some of my ideas are: 

  • Assign a few different words to each student and ask them to find out the meanings of the words, and later to teach these new words to the whole class with examples.
  • Ask students to work in small groups. Teacher gives thirty minutes for each group to self study all the new words. After the time is up, teacher selects several words from the list and runs a contest among the groups. The group scores the most wins. 
  • Put sixteen new words in a grid of four by four. Students work in pairs, self studying all the words in the grid. Later, they play a game similar to the game go. The person who knows four words in a line wins. If there are more than sixteen words in the vocabulary section, do a second grid. 

All these ways of learning new Chinese vocabulary will have a longer lasting effect on students because all of them ask Chinese teacher to step aside and actively invite students to contribute to the class and to their study.

Is it really necessary to study so many new words at one time?

Learning new vocabulary is a necessary part of learning Chinese. But is it really necessary to face so many new words at one time?

Fortunately, the answers to this question is more complicated than the question itself. We need to answer this yes/no question with a more broad tune: the amount of new vocabulary presented in each lesson should be correlated to the level of students, to the extent that these new vocabulary are manageable but not overwhelming, and to the extent that, with some practice, these new vocabulary can be integrated into students’ existing knowledge of Chinese, i.e. students are able to use these new vocabulary when they communicate with people in Chinese.

If this principle is sound, I’ll say that it is the least effective way to stuck a long list of new vocabulary in the middle of a lesson in Chinese textbooks. The reason is that, the massive amount of new vocabulary does not correlate to the level of all students. Although using the same textbook, there are always some students who are more advanced than others, and therefore for the ones who are at a lower level or are a bit slow in learning Chinese, they will find the long list of vocabulary extremely daunting and they are psychotically at a disadvantage. Also, to have a thorough practice of all the new vocabulary for students to be able to use them effectively when they communicate in Chinese requires tons of listening and speaking exercises which are often lacking in Chinese textbooks which follow a fixed layout such as mentioned before. 

Therefore, the best practice is to remove the section of the new vocabulary of the lesson to somewhere else. In the Mandarin Express series, this section is at the end of the Student’s Books. When students start a new chapter, they don’t see a long list of new vocabulary at all. It’s out of sight, and out of mind. No unnecessary stresses whatsoever. However, when a quick review is called for, they can go to the vocabulary section at the end of the book easily. 

When this section is out of the way in each lesson, both Chinese teachers and students can set a better learning rhythm and temp, which fit the majority of the class not just a couple of best students, to deal with the new vocabulary.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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