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7 areas to pre-teach new learners of Mandarin (and why they make teaching easier)
(+ a draft learner objectives checklist)
In this article, I’ll be outlining the 7 core skills / tools I pre-teach before a student even opens a course book. Heads up: I wrote this with teenage or adult ab initio learners in mind.
Some years ago, when I had a brand new group of Emirati ladies start learning Mandarin with me, I asked myself a question:
How would I want someone to teach me Mandarin?
I reflected on the great and not so great experiences of learning Mandarin in China, and at SOAS, University of London.
Then I spent the next months and years testing and trying various ways of teaching my learners…
…And through it all, I’ve found it makes teaching so much easier if I pre-teach a certain set of skills, tools and ideas to learners before they start any new course or programme. I now make sure to teach or refresh these for any new learners I teach. Here they are:
7 core tools / skills / ideas I pre-teach learners before studying any Mandarin course
Digital Dictionaries 📓
Stroke Order 🖌
Tones & Numbers 1️⃣
Note how characters comes before pinyin. I pondered over this for a long time before doing it this way.
When I do teach these skills, here’s what happens:
Benefits of pre-teaching the 7 areas:
Students are more confident and curious and don’t depend on me to be their dictionary if they come across a new character
I don’t have to teach stroke order for every character, students know how to find it and train for it themselves
I can make slides using only characters, I don’t have to add pinyin under every single character - yay!
I don’t have to spend so much time preparing introductions to complicated characters
I can talk to my learners over WhatsApp etc. in Chinese, and they love it! There are lots of 哈哈哈s in my messages with them, especially during virtual classes
It’s easier for me to make games with characters online because students easily type in Chinese
I don’t have to push them to prepare for a tingxie, they train for it independently
Which one of these benefits resonates with you?
For me, it’s number 3. I save so much time not needing to add pinyin everywhere! That was a very fiddly part of preparing my PPTs before.
These benefits are all pretty neat.
But how do you go about specifically teaching these things to a teenage or adult ab initio learner? For me, the order and flow of introducing each area is key.
Edmund Burke says ‘Good order is the foundation of all things’. I think good order of a curriculum can be the foundation for making teaching and learning Mandarin much easier.
All these years, I’ve been this teacher with questions about this very topic. What’s the best order of teaching a new learner with zero background? How do you keep a balance of inspiring and not overwhelming them? What content and characters (if any) should be used to teach these effectively at the beginning?
I have grappled with all these questions for years.
So where to begin? Should we avoid characters until basic pinyin is learned? Should you spend a lot of time assessing and checking pinyin tone marks? Should you focus on tone correction first or stroke order correction? Ahh! The questions are many.
After lots of trying different ways to effectively get my learners to master those 7 areas over and over again, I’ve found the following teaching order to be very effective:
The order in which I pre-teach an ab initio learner:
This is the general flow that I have found works for my learners:
Inspire: Have a sparkly eyed “aha” learning moment with characters
Equip: As soon as possible, equip learners with a Mandarin digital/web based dictionary & set up input of Mandarin in phones & computers
Write: Begin to learn and value the importance of stroke order
Appreciate: Start to recognise and appreciate basic radicals
Type: Know the basic rules of pinyin
Count: Memorise the numbers 1-10 by heart in correct tones
Tingxie: Have a positive experience of doing an (often dreaded) dictation
Having taught many ab initio students several times now, I’ve found covering the entire 7 skills in depth usually takes around 5-10 hours of direct contact lesson time, depending on the learner.
I have summarised it into a checklist based on the 7 areas, and the specific outcomes I check whether learners can do.
Once learners can do the things mentioned in the checklist, I find it’s much easier to teach other things from a coursebook. Plus, they aren’t daunted by a tingxie, or a new character. :)
At this point, if you have any interest or time to spare to review the objectives checklist, it would be great! You can check it out here.
After many years of teaching ab initio learners, there are 7 vital areas I pre-teach new or ab initio learners:
Digital Dictionaries 📓
Stroke Order 🖌
Tones & Numbers 1️⃣
I have found pre-teaching these seven areas in detail makes it easier for me to teach Mandarin in the long term.
Closing & a small favour
To the kind teachers who find this as fascinating as I do:
I turned these 7 areas into a set of learner objectives/”able to” statements in a checklist here. If you have the time to take a look, I would so value your input: do you have anything you might add or change? Would you add a section or remove something? I’m curious to know - your comments would be welcome. Before I turn this into a more streamlined document, I wanted to seek your feedback.
You can check out and use the ab initio learner objectives checklist here:
If you read down to here, I do have a question:
For me, perhaps being a non-Chinese teacher, typically I stick to language teaching, and don’t venture into culture. Would you add anything in a culture section for a brand new learner? If yes, what would you teach?