How to Teach Mandarin to Beginners with Simple Stories
When teaching Mandarin to total beginners, it’s important that you choose effective and engaging teaching strategies, especially for younger learners.
Of course, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution here, but I’ve found that stories are a great way to get the whole class immersed, involved—and more importantly—interested in learning Chinese.
In this post, you’ll discover the ways to incorporate stories into your Chinese lessons. You’ll also find some tips, resources and benefits of story-learning for Chinese beginners.
- 5 Ways to Teach Mandarin to Beginners with Stories
- What to Consider When Choosing Chinese Beginner-friendly Stories
- Recommended Resources for Teaching Mandarin to Beginners
- The Benefits of Teaching Chinese Beginners Through Stories
5 Ways to Teach Mandarin to Beginners with Stories
1. Pre-teach key vocabulary to provide comprehensible input
Pre-teaching means first using massive doses of any new words that appear in a story that you later intend to share with students. Once those words are familiar to their ears, they will be prepared to listen and follow along.
Keep in mind that asking questions, slower speech and staying within the vocabulary your students know are key to teaching Chinese with stories.
2. Read aloud with the class to build literacy
I used to think that reading aloud to students was making it “too easy” for them. Later, I learned that reading aloud is a major strategy for developing literacy!
Chinese audiobooks that allow us to hear and see the text at the same time are also excellent. But teachers can do even better than an audiobook alone, as we can watch our students for confusion and pace our speech according to their needs.
3. Do kindergarten-style reading
Reading aloud from a picture book and pausing to let students enjoy the pictures can be fun even for older students from time to time. I read upside down so the book faces the students, pointing to each word as I say it.
Be sure to use dramatic inflection and emotion! If you are any good at making different voices, now is the time to use that skill. It’s okay if your students think it’s cheesy. It still makes the experience richer for them.
Let students sit wherever they wish as they watch you read. At least let them out from their desks. If you have a rug, that could be a good story-reading location. Letting students bring in a snack to share during reading aloud is always popular.
If you have a large class, use a document camera to display the text or read from an e-book version.
4. Get the students involved in reader’s theater
I like to use this technique after reading a story once through entirely.
Stories that are visually interesting—with obvious actions and emotions—work best. You might use only one part of a longer story.
As you read again slowly, student actors should silently act out the meaning. Or volunteers can each dramatically read a part.
A few simple props made by your students before the theater add a lot of fun to this technique.
5. Draw a mural of the story
This approach is better for stories that don’t already have pictures. It helps the whole class visualize what is happening. Stick figures work great, so artistic talent isn’t required.
Read a sentence or two from the story. Pause and get a student to volunteer to draw its meaning on the board. As the student draws, you might ask a few questions about the sentences or the drawing to keep students from the temptation to talk about something else.
Continue to read the next sentence or two. Bring up another volunteer student to add to the drawing accordingly. Eventually, you’ll have a mural of the whole story’s meaning.
Remember to take a photo before erasing it! Use that photo for review discussions and writing prompts.
What to Consider When Choosing Chinese Beginner-friendly Stories
Pick teaching material with limited vocabulary
Teaching material for total beginners in Chinese needs to include very limited vocabulary, with even fewer new words—very limited vocabulary can still make for something of a plot.
Let’s compare two short readings to see how this can work:
I like apples. He likes apples. She likes bananas. Mom likes pears. They like oranges. I don’t like oranges. I like apples.
This one feels like “practice.” There’s a list of fruits and a verb, but the writing doesn’t have much direction or interesting qualities. It also limits sentence structure unnaturally.
I like chocolate, and he also likes chocolate. But mom doesn’t like chocolate. She likes broccoli! She really likes broccoli. We like chocolate, but mom likes broccoli!
Now we have something quirky that might make us wonder what happens next. It’s still very limited in vocabulary but has a little bit of plot started (you can imagine the “I” and “he” are children at snack time). It only has two types of food, one action and its negation, but has a variety of natural sentence structures.
Consider the age, abilities and interests of your students
Some beginner-level reading has been created for very young children learning Chinese, perhaps in immersion schools. However, those materials are less likely to appeal to American high school students or adults.
Similarly, books designed for heritage speakers and native Chinese-speaking children to learn to read aren’t ideal for non-native, total beginners. Chinese can be challenging to learn to read because it’s not written phonetically, yet books of this type present many new words all at once.
For children who are already fluent in aural and spoken Chinese, that may not pose such a problem. But non-native speakers who may only know 10-30 words in Chinese need even simpler material so reading can be pleasantly easy.
Choose material that teaches meaningful communication
Sometimes teachers feel a great sense of pressure to only use authentic materials, defined as “for native speakers, by native speakers.”
But “authentic” can also be defined as allowing meaningful communication with the students. By that definition, using materials that only include Chinese that your students understand can be authentic in the sense of a real exchange of information.
Recommended Resources for Teaching Mandarin to Beginners
Terry Waltz’s Readers
These are quirky, funny picture storybooks with very limited vocabulary and fun references to American pop culture sprinkled in. Simplified and traditional script editions are both available.
- “Giuseppe想吃披萨” — Giuseppe Wants to Eat Pizza
- “Egbert为什么哭” — Why is Egbert Crying?
- “Herbert的生日” — Herbert’s Birthday
- “Mavis不高兴” — Mavis Isn’t Happy
- “George想吃牛肉包子” — George Wants to Eat Beef Buns
- “The Three Pandas”
Haiyun Lu’s Book Series
These are sweet stories featuring beautiful illustrations. Stories are often about finding one’s value and friendship, but with cats as the main characters. Each book has both simplified and traditional scripts in the same volume.
Ignite Chinese Reading Corner
This website includes free, short stories and readings by Chinese teachers and students (edited by their teachers). All materials are free to download and use as you wish.
The latest submission was back in 2015, but the stories are still available. Search “novice” to find the simplest stories.
Stories don’t need to be limited to printed materials. Audio and video make the experience more interactive.
Besides being a language learning program based on authentic Chinese content, FluentU offers audio and video clips for every level, including absolute beginners.
With bilingual interactive subtitles that are linked to the program’s video dictionary, these clips are just another way to visually share stories that you can either play in class or assign as homework.
After watching and reading these visual stories, students can take quizzes and check out the flashcards for review. With the teacher account, you can keep track of your students’ progress and quiz scores.
Zhongwen: Chinese-English Dictionary
This browser add-on allows you to hover over any Chinese words and see immediate pinyin and English translations.
The pop-up dictionary also contains links to Chinese Grammar Wiki and gives the option to add words on Skritter.
The Benefits of Teaching Chinese Beginners Through Stories
Here are some good reasons to start using stories in your beginning Chinese class right away:
- Brain research continues to point to the value of stories for stronger retention of content.
- Stories present the whole language in context, naturally demonstrating correct grammar and vocabulary use.
- Stories can more easily get our students involved. Teachers can ask questions to compare characters in a story to students, ask students’ opinions of the characters and talk about what the characters do. Asking “你喜欢他/她吗?” and similar simple questions brings your students into the story. In that way, even a simple story read aloud gains some of the same emotional interest levels as videos. And you can use stories in video format, too!
- Stories can stand alone as the basis of your curriculum or can be used by any teacher in conjunction with your school requirements. If you need to follow a textbook, you can still add an occasional story to the mix of activities.
- There’s no need to wait until students can read 300 characters anymore. More teachers are realizing the benefits of reading meaningful stories early on, and more materials to meet that need are being published.
- Reading simple material builds our students’ confidence and prepares them for the enjoyable and beneficial habit of reading in Chinese. As they become more advanced, stories will make for great extensive reading material. Allow students who are a little further along in their Chinese to spend some class time reading their choice of an easier storybook on their own.
And that’s everything you need to teach Mandarin to beginners with the help of stories!
Hopefully, you have been inspired to make reading a fun and interactive experience for students. 加油!