Did you know that I’ve been studying Russian for some time now?
And guess what. My Russian is pretty terrible.
That may come as a surprise to you, considering I’m a language teacher. After all, I should already know how to study a language effectively, right?
In theory, yes. But I’ve just accepted that I’m not good at Russian.
The only exception to this rule is when I participate in group activities—especially games.
During one of my classes, the teacher had us playing a game that required us to use what we knew to communicate in Russian. I was at a level where expressing my ideas was still difficult, so I would constantly ask my teacher for English translation help.
But no English was allowed. For me, that meant game over, right?
Not necessarily. The collaborative nature of group activities gave my confidence a huge boost. I quickly discovered that I knew more Russian than I thought I did. Then I got to thinking about how effective these activities are in language courses, and started incorporating them into my Mandarin lessons.
4 Hands-on Chinese Classroom Activities to Engage Your Students
So why are group activities so effective?
For starters, they are one of the best ways to turn traditional classroom lessons into fun and exciting learning experiences. Students become more active and, even though they are not speaking perfect sentences, they end up using more spoken Mandarin in the activities—which is always good to see.
Also, when students work together, they’re often occupied with winning or having fun, and don’t have time to worry whether they pronounce something incorrectly or use the wrong word. As a result, even the most intimidating tasks in the classroom become doable for shy students. A good activity takes students out of their comfort zone and challenges them in a positive manner.
This is particularly important in a Chinese classroom since students lose attention fast when facing foreign concepts such as tones and strokes.
Read on to see which fun activities work especially well when teaching Mandarin.
1. Guess the Word
This activity focuses on vocabulary and verbal expressions.
In other words, it tests your students’ ability to describe a word to others using the skills they have.
Here’s how the activity works:
- Before the game, create a stack of cards with Mandarin words written on each one. I usually go for about 30 cards if I want to play 15-30 minutes. And remember, the words should relate to your course material and should be especially challenging.
- Put your deck of cards into a container that students will draw from.
- At the beginning of each round, one student draws a card and has 30 seconds to describe the word without actually saying it. The goal for the rest of the team is to guess the word correctly using clues given by the student. Teachers are allowed to give the English translation if the student doesn’t know a specific word.
- The activity goes on until every student has had their turn drawing a card.
What’s great about this activity is that it enables students to maximize their Mandarin speaking ability in a fun and secure environment. You’ll also notice that students suddenly become more creative as they draw upon their existing vocabulary to explain the word on the card.
Let’s say the word is 帮助 (bāng zhù), which means “help.” The best clue students can provide is a scenario where help is involved. Students could use words like “in need,” “danger” and “friends” to explain their card. As you can see, it requires students to piece up a lot of information together, which gives them important skills for everyday conversation and survival in a foreign country.
Once Upon a Time is an interactive card game where players create a fairy tale together, using cards that show typical story-telling elements, like objects, people, events and “aspects” often involved in fairy tales.
Here’s how you play:
- First, buy the bilingual (English and Chinese) edition cards for Once Upon a Time at Wish.com or AliExpress.
- Have one player be the storyteller, where they create a story using the ingredients on their cards. It is the storyteller’s job to try and guide the plot towards their own ending, the “Happy Ever After” card.
- The other players try to use cards to interrupt the storyteller’s progress so they can become the new storyteller. During this time, however, all players are expected to cooperate in order to avoid contradictions in the story as it develops, for the story to make sense and has a “satisfying” ending.
- The winner is the first player to play out all their cards and end with their “Happy Ever After” card.
Sounds fun, right?
But how do you turn this into a Chinese lesson?
Similar to the “guess the word” activity, Once Upon a Time assesses your students’ storytelling skills. The game places great emphasis on constructing stories based on the vocabulary students already know. As a result, everyone participates in adding to the story, helping it become more complex as the game progresses. Moreover, the Once Upon a Time doesn’t just assess your learners’ storytelling skills, it also serves as a listening activity. After all, students have to follow the story in order to add do it. As such, Once Upon a Time is one of my favorite activities, providing the perfect blend of fun and education.
Want to help build your students’ knowledge of Chinese language and culture so they excel in activities like the ones mentioned in this post? Bring FluentU into your curriculum.
FluentU differs from other language-learning curricula by drawing on real-world material, like video clips from popular movies and television shows, advertisements, popular songs, news articles and more. Instead of scripted dialogues filled with irrelevant words and expressions, FluentU lets students learn Mandarin the same way a native speaker does—by experiencing the culture.
The advantage of this is that students gain a deeper appreciation for Chinese history and culture, while also learning Mandarin in context. This helps learners instinctively understand how to use the language correctly, enabling them to speak more naturally and pick up on subtle nuances that language learners often overlook.
3. Sentence Relay
This team-based activity teaches students how to work together while assessing their ability in a challenging, yet fun manner.
- Divide your students into two teams and have each team stand in a single-file line.
- Have the first student in the line from each team come to the front. Then, choose a level-appropriate sentence and whisper it to both teammates at the same time. Alternatively, you could write the sentence on an index card and show it to them, if you’d rather test their reading skills.
- The two students return to their place in line, turn around and then whisper the phrase to the person behind them. Each student passes the message down the line, making sure nobody but the person behind them hears the sentence.
- The last student goes to the front of the class and writes the sentence on the board. The team who writes the sentence “closest” to your original phrase wins.
The activity is fun for students of all ages, and it never fails to entertain because you have no idea how one sentence can be “mutated” into different versions just after a few lags. The sentence usually gets funnier as more students play the game.
Furthermore, this activity provides a wide range of benefits, such as:
- Showing students the importance of thinking before speaking. After funny mistakes are made, students then realize the unwanted consequences and how to avoid them.
- The immediate feedback helps students learn and encourages them to compare their answers with their peers in order to learn where their mistakes come from.
- It forces students to pay close attention to the subtle nature of Chinese speaking.
For example, let’s say the sentence is 他家里有急事，所以他今天来晚了(tā jiā lǐ yǒu jí shì, suǒ yǐ tā jīn tiān lái wǎn le)—Mandarin for “He is late because of an emergency at home.” A student might not be able to pick up 急事 (jí shì), thinking they heard 即使 (jí shǐ), a common conjunction meaning “even though,” instead.
In this case, the student gets to learn a new word, 急事 (jí shì), as well as how not to use a word they already know.
Mafia is a fun and engaging activity that involves role-playing, listening and comprehension. Think of it as an in-person version of the game clue, where students participate to solve a mystery. What’s more, everyone has to actively participate, otherwise, they might run the risk of being eliminated.
The rules to Mafia are quite comprehensive. Learn them by visiting our in-depth Mafia guide, which shows you how to adapt the activity specifically for Chinese learners.
Once you’ve learned how to do the activity, have the class play Mafia at the end of a session, when students tend to have trouble staying focused. This will help revitalize them, enabling the class to practice Chinese without being preoccupied with going home.
Know what distinguishes a good class from a great one? Your activities.
When paired with the right resources, classroom activities are able to boost students’ confidence by having them use the language in a natural, nonrestrictive environment. Plus, they’re really fun!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach Chinese with real-world videos.