Radical Chinese

My colleague, Chinese teacher Wendy Liao, has kindly agreed to co-author the following post, detailing her experiences using the iPod Touch for the teaching of Chinese language. I think she has fantastic ideas for the use of technology in Language teaching which need to be shared!

Wendy works with multiple grade levels, but for these lessons she wanted the Grade 3-5’s to learn some new vocabulary – what she describes as ‘simple Chinese characters’, that will help them understand more difficult characters later on. Wendy explained to me about the importance of learning the root of the character – also known as the radical. As this website explains, “The radical usually, but not invariably, gives a name or clue as to the meaning of the character.”

Wendy gave me the following example:

In the same way that we have bi = 2 and tri= 3 in English, Chinese has root words (or radicals) as well, e.g. 木 = tree, 林 = wood, and 森  =  forest. They all have the root word of ‘tree‘.

Learning the order in which the characters are written helps students understand the meaning of characters they are not familiar with – they will know what the character is about, as this example shows:

妈 姐 奶 姨 = Mum, Sister, Grandma, and Aunt, all have the same radical of female 女.

One way Wendy might have previously taught this sort of lesson is to give each child the Chinese characters together with their meanings. She would then show them how to write the character, and try to emphasize the importance of writing each character in a particular order. The trouble was, she tells me, the kids would never remember about writing the character in the right order, meaning they were missing the opportunity to understand more complex characters as the radicals weren’t clear to them.

This is where the iPod Touches came in. She used this free Chinese/English Dictionary app: It is a basic dictionary app which allows you to write the characters, and then provides the pinyin, together with the definition in English.

Wendy gave the list of characters, this time without the definitions. She gave a check sheet showing the stroke order for half of the words, but the rest, students would have to figure out themselves.

Students had to try and use what they knew about the order of the characters (the basic principal when writing Chinese characters is left to right, top to bottom), to try and find the definitions of the characters. Check out the video below to see the students in action:

Using the iPod Touches was particularly motivating for the students – they were absolutely determined to find out the meanings, they were eager to write the characters correctly so the dictionary would be able to find the definitions, and they were great at helping each other and making suggestions for ways of writing the characters.

So where was the learning? I asked Mary van der Heijden, our Vice Principal of Curriculum (who observed one of the lessons), and this is her response:

Every child had hands on experience of drawing the root of the characters. Not just once, but repeatedly. This was because if the characters weren’t  written  fairly well the dictionary couldn’t read it. Therefore the children had plenty of practice in trying to form the  characters correctly.

What empowered children more was that they could keep trying and different characters kept coming up in the dictionary and even at the lower level they look  for patterns and shapes to try and match the correct character with their own attempt.

The language between the children was constantly reinforcing the correct way of writing. For instance they would say, ‘no not like that, top to bottom’, or ‘that’s not straight’.

This application was also very good for hand eye co-ordination and this skill can be transferred to other areas of learning.

In addition, the problem solving skills developed  were very clear. Use of trial and error, looking for patterns to make links with, using prior knowledge were all important strategies.

Collaborating with a partner to assess where each child might be going wrong was very beneficial to improving their attempts and then sharing their findings.

Persisting even when the tool they were using didn’t seem to be able to understand their writing was also a good development.

Knowing how a dictionary works, whether for Chinese or any language was key in the activity and children progressed in their understanding of using it.

Finally the most important aspect was that the children were engaged and motivated. What might have been a tedious dictionary lesson, turned into a very powerful learning situation which would aid children’s memory of characters and vocabulary suitable for various levels of ability.

I hope this approach proves useful to people, and that it sparks some other great ideas. We would be very interested in hearing other ways iPod Touches are being used in Language lessons, so please let us know what is going on in your classroom/school.

2 thoughts on “Radical Chinese

  1. Pingback: Langwitches Blog » links for 2009-09-18

  2. Pingback: Connected Admin » Radical Chinese and the iPod Touch

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