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Step 5: Know the basic rules of pinyin
In this series, I’m sharing seven areas I pre-teach to new learners before starting any course or programme. They are:
Digital Dictionaries 📓
Stroke Order 🖌
Tones & Numbers 1️⃣
For teaching purposes, I reframe the steps like this:
✅ Inspire: Have a sparkly eyed “aha” learning moment with characters (read here)
✅ Equip: As soon as possible, equip learners with a digital/web based Mandarin dictionary & set up input of Mandarin in phones & computers (read here)
✅ Write: Begin to learn, practice and appreciate stroke order (read here).
✅ 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
When I switched to online teaching, I discovered that by asking learners to type the pinyin of the character in the chatbox, I was able to correct their spelling more efficiently.
As a result, I find typing in pinyin one of the most underrated ways to help learners speed up their acquisition of characters and improve pronunciation.
In this step of the very first lessons I teach new learners of Mandarin, I cover the rules of pinyin and potential pitfalls to watch out for. If the first few characters 你好，我叫，你呢，再见 have been drilled well, there shouldn’t be any major pinyin spelling errors when entering these into text or characters.
Session 5 objectives:
In this lesson, the main learning objectives are:
To be able to type in correct pinyin and select the corresponding character using a phone/computer
To understand the difference between basic pinyin vowels: e.g. wo & wu
Know some shortcuts for typing pinyin into phones and computer, and general texting culture (e.g. typing NH will make 你好 appear)
Session 5 lesson outline (~1hr)
Spiral progression - review & refresh:
Welcome new learners and see if they greet you with ‘老师好‘ as you taught in the last lesson. Start again with a warm up by reviewing again the original characters shared in the first lesson. Since this lesson is a pinyin focus, give particular attention to the pinyin - perhaps show the flashcards of the characters and have a race to see who can type or write the pinyin the quickest.
You could also share some flashcards with the basic radicals 口，水，火 that we looked at last lesson and see if learners can type or write the correct pinyin for them.
Classroom vocab: Cover the same vocabulary as last time: 好不好, 好 or 好的, 上课, and now add a new one: 对不对?
Explore what 对不对 means with them, and point out it is similar in structure to 好不好. This is really important exposure that prepares them for when you share the question and answer formats in later lessons beyond these steps.
Share learning objective: I share the learning objective: that we’re going to focus on pinyin and learn some rules and tips to help with it.
Share the measure of success: e.g. that they end the lesson knowing that wu and wo are not the same at all!
Plenary 1: Ask learners a big question: Can you learn Chinese effectively by only using pinyin (e.g. never learning characters)? Show a few pictures of mainland China, or a food packet with Chinese characters on it.
Explain that there will always be a limit to your ability if you try to only use pinyin.
Explain that in China, characters are used everywhere - not pinyin. It is rare to have pinyin placed under or near characters.
Activity 1: Ask learners to look up the pinyin for shi. Let them tell you how many options they can count for the characters that appear. (It should be pages and pages of them). See if they can find 师 from 老师 that they learned in the classroom vocabulary last week.
Explain that a single pinyin word ‘shi’ has too many options for what it could mean, thus characters are vital.
But emphasise that pinyin is vital too, because it is a portal to the character, and a single spelling error could show us the wrong set of characters.
Explain that to find the correct character when you type, you must type and spell the Pinyin for the word correctly - so it is very important to pay attention to the spelling
Set a few more challenges: show a character that is the same pinyin as 你, e.g. 泥， and ask learners to try and find these characters by typing in the correct pinyin. Examples of good ones to use are showing different characters with the same pinyin as the ones they have already learned from the dialogue: ni , hao , wo , jiao , ne , zai , jian.
Plenary 2: Ask learners whether Chinese words have more than one syllable per word, like in lots of English words. Also ask them how they would read wo / wu, chu / qu / zhu, dou/duo. Discuss how these feel to try and read. Drill them a few times and share experiences on how it feels to say/hear vs read/type them.
Explain that some pinyin words look and may even sound very similar at the beginning: dou and duo, re and ri, zhe and zhi and ju and ji, wo and wu, chu and qu and zhu, etc.
Emphasise that it takes practice and exposure to learn to differentiate between sounds, and to learn to say them correctly.
Encourage learners to say these pinyin sounds with you.
Go back to the original characters (你好，我叫，你呢，再见）, and read through the pinyin with them again.
Read out the following characters for the students: 这 知 上 生 我 五 and ask learners to try and find them on their computers or phone inputting.
Note that I don’t add any qing / xing / cui words here. I always find they are a bit too much for the first few lessons.
Share some info on the tricky words that seem like you should read them in the ‘English’ way, in pinyin and ways to think about them. For example:
The ni from nihao - e.g. Ni, Li, Qi, Mi - it’s pronounced not like ‘high’, but like 'knee'. And the Hao from Nihao - e.g. Rao, Lao, Mao, Kao. It’s pronounced like 'ow' from ‘plough’.
Plenary 3: Ask learners to look at some pinyin with accent marks on them. Discuss what they are, how they might help.
Explain that the tone marks never appear on typing pinyin. But they are important to help us when we’re learning, and we may be asked to write the tone marks for our written tests. They are also helpful for letting us remember what the tone should be, and show up in dictionaries in particular. But they often don’t appear at all when typing pinyin.
Activity 3: Finally, have a little competition using words that are common for new learners. See who can write the compound word correctly.
The words I usually choose are: 学生，目的，天气，and 听写.
Reflect on this activity: ask learners to note whether the tone mark shows if they input pinyin to their phones. Then ask them to note whether the tone mark shows in their dictionary entry results. Discuss these differences and how they will affect our learning of Chinese.
In this activity, it’s important also to point out the following tips:
e.g. they can shorten pinyin input sometimes for compound words: Nihao = nh / xuesheng = xs / zsh - zaoshanghao. Let them try it.
Also, let them notice that no gaps are needed when typing sentences or words in Chinese, not like in English.
Finally, point out emoticons show up just like when typing in English! e.g. 哈哈 😄
Summary: Ask learners to tell you what the most interesting tip from the lesson was for them.
As a final little tidbit of cultural tech information, I usually share the fun language use of numbers in texting: 88 can mean byebye, and 5555 can mean that someone is unhappy or crying! And that 嗨 can mean ‘Hi’ etc., and 哈哈 is haha, and can be typed by entering ‘hhhhh’ many times! I find my students usually love learning these informal practices of the language, and use them with me informally afterwards.
This lesson is built up of reflective questions, followed by related practice. I think it is one of the most important lessons because knowing pinyin helps so much with differentiating sounds and finding characters. It’s a foundational part of learning Mandarin, and great to teach these concepts for ab-initio learners right at the beginning.