Overwhelmed by Chinese vocabulary

Pages and pages of vocabulary are a stable feature in many Chinese textbooks. 

For every student, these tons of new words listed in each lesson are so intimidating and overwhelming. 

The problem in the layout of Chinese textbooks

Many Chinese textbooks follow a similar layout, including the following blocks:

  • 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

Some Chinese textbooks also include some boxes or tian zi ge for students to practice writing the new characters or words. 

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. 

An intimidatingly long list of new words is a problem not only for students, but also for Chinese teachers. 

Teachers have to find ways to make learning these new words easier than it looks, and to make sure that students are actually learning, not just going through motions. 

Fortunately, there are some good ways to learn such a long list of Chinese vocabulary.

Different ways of teaching new words

The best ways of teaching new Chinese vocabulary are the ones which evolve students the most. Ask them to do something, to interact with someone, or to teach someone.  

Instead of giving students some rough translations, I have some other ideas: 

  • Ask students to be the teacher

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.

  • Self-study new words as a group

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. 

  • Self-study new words in pairs

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, use a second grid. 

All these ways of teaching new words actually involve self-study and will have a longer lasting effect on the learning results. 

Chinese teachers have to stop feeding information and have to invite students to contribute to their study. 

It may take a longer time, but discussing, teaching and gaming all help students memorise these words better.

Different ways of memorising new words

For students who are doing self-study, it will be a challenge, because they have to teach themselves but there are no others they can interact with. 

For them, varieties matter. Such as:

  • Use SRS or go through a deck of flash cards.
  • Write down these words down on paper.
  • Post something on WeChat moment using some new words.
  • Write a short story and share it to a learning forum for feedback. 

Total solitude does not work well for Chinese language learners. Become part of a larger community helps. 

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 broader tune.

The amount of new words presented in each lesson should be correlated to the level of students. The higher level students are on, the more words they can handle.

If this principle is sound, it’ll be the least effective to have a long list of new words in the middle of each lesson in every textbook regardless which level students this textbook aims at. 

The reason is that, although using the same textbook, there are always some students who are more advanced than others.

For those who who are a bit slow, they will find the long list of new words extremely daunting and they are psychotically at a disadvantage. It is also tough for them to have a thorough practice of all the new words presented to them. Listening exercises are particularly lacking.

For those who are quick at learning, the long list of new words are really not necessary. 

I think the best practice is to remove the new vocabulary section and move it to somewhere else in the book. 

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. However, when a quick review is called for, they can go to the vocabulary section at the end of the book easily.


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Chinese Teacher
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