6 Laid-back, Low-key Chinese Teaching Strategies

Language teaching can be pretty intense.

Sometimes you just need a break! 

When we Chinese teachers are in need of a low-key class period, or need to prepare lessons for a substitute teacher, it can be challenging to come up with great class ideas.

What can students do independently?

Can we plan to do something more than show a video, or give them a study hall period to work on homework? Oh, yes we can.

When You Can Use Independent Learning Strategies

These teaching strategies work well…

  • When you need something for “fast finishers” to do independently. Students who tend to complete tasks more quickly than others in the time you’ve allotted can continue with one of these independent activities.
  • As plans that even a substitute teacher without any Chinese ability could carry out, with little prep needed before your absence. You could keep materials at the ready and reduce the stress associated with missing a day of work as a teacher.
  • When you are tired, sick or really need a break (but don’t have one yet!). These are low-key activities, but still valuable for language acquisition. Not every language classroom activity needs to be high-energy. Sometimes teachers need to take extra care of themselves.
  • As great ways to review. Many of these activities use material read in previous classes (or even a previous year of study) and do something new with that reading,
  • To allow the teacher to visit briefly connect with each student, one on one, and to enjoy their progress. Honoring the relationships we build with our students is important in its own right. Building a sense of trust and communication with students also helps other class times flow more smoothly.
  • To allow teachers to assist one-on-one as needed with comprehension. For Chinese, reading words aloud is a good first attempt at resolving students’ confusion.

6 Low-key Teaching Strategies for Your Chinese Classroom

1. SSR: Silent, Sustained Reading

In SSR, students independently read material that is easier than the class instructional level.

The goal of this type of reading is mainly pleasure, with side benefits that include increased reading speed, comfort with reading Chinese characters and perhaps picking up a few new words along the way.

This isn’t the time for reading that contains more than a little bit of unfamiliar language. Students shouldn’t need a dictionary to feel confident about understanding what they read. Extensive Reading is a term that describes this kind of Silent, Sustained Reading.

Published materials may be appropriate for this kind of reading. You might also have students re-read class stories or other reading material, such as older chapters in a textbook if you use one. If your students have access to computers and the Internet, free online reading material would also work nicely.

While students are reading, the teacher may model reading by also reading Chinese material themselves. I have often read “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon books which I bought in China as my students read along. The teacher may also conference briefly with individual students as others read, seeing if students enjoy what they chose (or helping them to find better suited material) and finding out more about the students’ experience while reading.

You do not want to give students more time than they can appreciate. With middle school and younger students, perhaps begin with five or ten minutes; with high school students, ten to fifteen. If you make SSR a regular part of your classes, you may be able to increase the time.

How to grade SSR? I do not, but I do ask students to complete a very simple reading log after our reading time ends. They write down what book (or collection of class reading material) they chose, a sentence or two in English about its content, and page number where they left off, if applicable. Before or after SSR, I also may ask students to give a brief book teaser, an idea I learned about from Donalyn Miller. I may give book teasers as well. For example:

有一个男孩子,他叫Brandon. 他想要狗,可是他妈妈不要。哎呀!他怎么办?
yŏu yī gè nán hái zi, tā jiào Brandon. tā xiăng yào gŏu, kĕ shì tā mā mā bù yào. āi yā! tā zĕn me bàn?
There is a boy whose name is Brandon. He wants a dog, but his mom doesn’t. Oh no! What will he do?

2. Fluency Writing

Fluency writing is timed, unedited writing that students compose based on the Chinese that is already “in their heads.” They do not look up words or spend much time on figuring out how to say something; if they hit a gap in their Chinese, they need to change what they were writing and stay within their current Chinese level.

Since this is unpolished, unedited writing, it is better not graded for accuracy. Some teachers keep a record of students’ progress in words they can write in the same amount of time. Keeping a journal of these writings across the school year helps students see their progress, too.

One of my former students said this about fluency writing: “Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we’re learning that much, but then we write like this and I realize how much we have to talk about. She’s writing about being sick, I’m writing about football…”

For teachers, fluency writing helps us find out more about students’ interests (they write about them) and gain a sense for their language progress. I use fluency writing about once per month.

After collecting their writing, I sometimes edit them and have the class read them later on. They always seem more interested in what a classmate wrote than almost anything else!

3. Comic Strips from Reading

Now we can start using some of that saved reading material you have in your desk. Since students are going to be drawing a comic strip version of the storyline, a more narrative, visually obvious reading works best.

Have students read a text and then choose four, six or eight key sentences for a four-, six- or eight-panel comic strip. They might even summarize something they wrote on their own in Chinese, again choosing the number of sentences that corresponds to the number of panels you’ll provide.

First, students need a comic strip panel sheet. An 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper, folded into quarters, works. Students then select or write the captions into each panel.

Next, students may draw illustrations for their chosen lines or exchange their captioned sheets with a classmate. It is nice to exchange sheets so that students are getting more reading practice. When drawing the illustrations artistic skill is not required, since the goal is simply to show visually what they read in each caption.

Online versions of comic strips are another way to create illustrations if students have computer access. Collecting these comics adds to the supply of SSR material for future independent reading times.

4. Alternate Versions

After reading a chapter, a story or a conversation, students create an alternate version. This is a great way to personalize content to students’ ideas and to re-invigorate textbook dialogues. Students may make the reading more interesting and enjoyable than the original, at least for themselves!

There are a few simple ways to make alternate versions:

1. Change five details about what they read: who the people are, where they are living, where they are going, the choices they make or the emotions they experience. Allowing students to add various emotions to standard textbook dialogues, and later reading them aloud with the class, can be quite entertaining.

2. For every three sentences, add one more sentence with additional details or a twist on the storyline.

3. Have students replace the original ending to the scene with a paragraph of their own.

Students can exchange their finished alternate versions with each other, allowing more reading time. They could even take the reading another step and create a comic strip version of it.

5. Shrinking Summaries

Another option for an activity following reading is to create progressively more summarized versions of that reading.

Students will need first to read a few-paragraph long text of some kind, perhaps of 15 to 25 sentences in length. Then, students reduce the number of sentences and combine sentence details to create a 10-sentence version.

Taking that reduced version, they create a 5-sentence version and then a 3-sentence version. Lastly, they will end up with a 1-sentence version that still retains the key points of the whole reading.

Shrinking summaries are challenging for students! I make it a special occasion activity for that reason. However, I think the task helps teachers see how well students get the big ideas from reading. Collecting each student’s final 1-sentence versions, editing as necessary, and then sharing those with the class in a subsequent class period can be a nice way to review and enjoy their hard work.

6. Blackout Poetry

After reading something that was printed on paper, another task students may do is “blackout poetry.”

Students use a black marker to strike out unwanted words and make a “poem” out of the words they leave showing. Often, blackout poetry feels a lot like the magnetic poems you can create from magnets with words on them.

After turning a page of reading into a poem, students can trade and read their classmates’ poems as well. The final poems would make a nice bulletin board display because of the visual appeal of the shapes emerging from the blackened out sections of text.


These independent activities are great as independent student work, but they accomplish much more.

They help deepen students’ acquired language, and they are aimed at allowing students to enjoy Chinese!

Best of all, they provide a change of pace when the Chinese teacher needs a bit of a break.

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