Chinese Learning for Kids

How kids learn Chinese is very different from how adult students learn Chinese. Their ways of learning is different. Their cognitive abilities are different. Their knowledge of the world is different. What is expected from them and how they respond are all different. 

This is the reason that I find it curious that many Chinese learning materials and methods designed for kids look so similar to the ones used for adult students. The only major difference is that children’s learning materials tend to use children or cartoons as illustrations.

Chinese textbooks

I have seen many children’s Chinese textbooks, which in essence are so similar to adults’ textbooks, in a word, boring. 

For example, saving the environment is always a popular topic. I have never seen any children sincerely engage in the topic. Instead, they are always quick to produce ready made and acceptable answers. Save water, save electricity, drive electric cars, and so on.

All children want is to finish the assignment as quickly as possible, so that they can do something else they really enjoy. I’ve never met any kids like Greta Thunberg. 

Another popular topic in children’s Chinese textbooks is to tell them that it’s bad for them to play video games for too long. 

This topic is so boring and cliche, and they all know what they are expected to say and they’ll say it to please teachers. 

After that, they continue to play video games until their hearts content.

Pinyin + Chinese + English

I also have looked at some flash cards which are supposedly suitable for children to learn Chinese. 

The layout of these cards is so similar to adults’ flash cards. They all have pinyin, Chinese characters and English translations.

For example, a card with an apple as the illustration, it has “píng guǒ”, “苹果”, and “apple”. Sometimes the English word is printed at the back of the card. 

This kind of flash cards is very appealing to parents, but it does not make sense for teaching children.

Adults have enough world knowledge to know what they are supposed to do, reading pinyin to know how to say “apple” in Chinese, looking at the characters to learn how to write “苹果”, and learning English spellings. 

For young children, they look at these cards as toys that they can not play with. They are forced into learning three different scripts and they have no fun learning them.

Role plays

Role plays are fun and useful learning games for adult students. They have opportunities to improvise, and to be creative. For example, when learning illness, students can take turns to play patient and doctor, doing all the examinations and coming up with tons of funny stuff. 

However, role plays are not one size fits all. This particular “patient and doctor” role play works well for adult students, but not so well for young kids.

Young children do not have enough experiences and knowledge about hospitals and doctors. Without sufficient real world knowledge, it’s hard for them to play doctors and patients.

Unfortunately, at one event I went to, when a kindergarten teacher was introducing the Chinese program at her school, she said their teaching and learning method was chiefly through role plays, and she used “patient and doctor” as her example. 

Many parents nodded their heads. They believed that, since they enjoy learning through role plays, their children would too.

Actually, imitating “mum and dad” would be a better subject for children to do role plays.

They have lots of experiences, and they can be really creative.

Chinese learning programs for kids

In many schools, Chinese is only considered as a language subject. As long as students are learning how to read and write and passing exams, teachers consider the education a success. 

Such Chinese language programs produce minimum impact on children’s lives. They are opportunities wasted. 

Many children’s Chinese programs can be improved.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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