Chinese Learning for Kids

How kids learn Chinese should be 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 from adults. However, I find it curious that many learning materials and teaching methods designed for kids to learn Chinese 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

Sometimes a few parents will ask me to tutor their children Chinese, which I am glad to do. Working with children occasionally can be fun. They all have Chinese classes at school. My job is primarily to tutor them Chinese, lending a bit of help with their school work and reading story books with them. That’s how I learned that their textbooks can be extremely boring to them. 

Among the various Chinese textbooks I have seen, saving the environment is a popular topic, which can bring up heated debates among adults but only produces ready made stock answers from children. When children are working on their school homework, they hardly show any excitement about this topic, but they are all quick to produce acceptable answers, such as save water, save electricity, don’t waste food, and so on. All they wanted is to finish the assignment as quickly as possible, so that they can do something else they really enjoy. That Greta Thunberg is such a rare gem. I’ve never met any kids like her.

Another popular topic in their Chinese textbooks is to educate school children that it’s better for them not to play video games for too long. Children 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 heart contents. 

Pinyin + Chinese + English

I also have looked at some flash cards which are supposedly suitable for young children to learn Chinese. These cards teach sets of vocabularies, such as vehicles, fruits, clothes, and etc, having pinyin, Chinese characters, and English printed on them. For example, a card with an apple as the illustration, it has “píng guǒ”, “苹果”, and “apple” printed on it. Sometimes the English word is printed at the back of the flash card. 

This kind of flash cards is very appealing to parents because they understand what these cards are supposed to do, teaching students how to say “apple” in Chinese, and learn how to write “apple” in Chinese. Adults can do it, so they think their young kids can do it as well. But for young children, they’ll look at these cards from a different perspective. If parents insist that their children should learn these cards, they’ll have to hire a teacher and force their children into boring Chinese lessons. 

Role plays

Role plays are fun and useful learning games. Students 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 which fits all. This particular “patient and doctor” role play works well for adult students, but not so well for young kids because their knowledge and experience are very limited. 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 would enjoy learning all the medical stuff through role plays, their children would too.

For children, imitating “mum and dad” would be a better subject for role plays, where they have lots of experiences which enable them to improvise and to be creative. They don’t have a lot to work on when being asked to be a doctor.

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 seem to be a wasted opportunity to have some positive impact on children’s lives. 

If creating some long lasting positive impact on children is the goal of Chinese language programs, there are definitely lots of areas to be carefully considered and to be improved.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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