Why Schemes of Work or Curriculums Should be Skills-Focused and Not Content-Driven

This is forever a difficult area for any teacher of Mandarin that has to mediate with short-term goals set by school management, that is pupils reaching “so and so level at so and so time”.

I know that levels have now apparently become obsolete in schools due to the NC guidelines published within the last two years. However, there still hangs this overriding anxiety of what level pupils should be at what particular time throughout their years of Mandarin study.

Now let me define quickly what people may interpret as a certain “level”.

As far as I’m aware, people tend to see “levels” as pupils knowing a certain amount of vocabulary and grammar at a given time e.g. pupils having so-called “mastered” the basic vocabulary for say “Food and Drink” after completing Jinbu 1 Chapter 5 hence have “levelled up” to having acquired this new area of vocabulary.

There are perhaps some educators out there who believe that if pupils arrive at this level very quickly that they are automatically seen as “at a higher level” than pupils from another school who are perhaps two, three or maybe four chapters or units behind them.

This is of course, complete folly. How can pupils master and consistently apply the basics of Mandarin with the amount of attention to detail that is required for pupils to progress with a solid core base of vocabulary?

Very much in line with Philippa Vallely’s comment to my previous post:

“You might feel that it’s eating into curriculum delivery time, but it is (in my opinion) worth the time for the dividends it pays off for the rest of the year. Just my opinion!”

I  have found with my pupils in particular that mastery of the basics has been key to them making even faster progress now than perhaps they would have done if they were rushing through huge amounts of content. It also means much less marking for me as pupils make far fewer mistakes e.g. writing the wrong stroke at the top of 看, missing the stroke that should close the radical 目, writing the sun radical 日 at the bottom of 有 instead of the moon radical 月…the list goes on and on!

If such common errors can be nipped in the bud sooner – that is, pupils have mastered the very basics from the beginning and is a key theme of your SoW or curriculum, then pupils are bound to progress much quicker at a later stage.

To quote Philippa, “you might feel that it’s eating into curriculum delivery time” but it certainly pays off dividends in the future, you just need to be patient enough to foresee the fruits of consolidating the basics right from the start and throughout your teaching.

I will outline the basics of Chinese as the following:

  • Spacing – This is absolutely crucial in ensuring pupils write their characters in proportion and a key part of Chinese Calligraphy which should always be taught right at the beginning of any Chinese character course. Shaz Lawrence provided an excellent resource to my colleague a few years ago that we use at our school to raise pupils’ awareness of the spacing of each radical relative to the character. You will find that anyone can do this intuitively without any prior knowledge of Chinese and is very encouraging for someone who has just started learning. It is essential that you have pupils memorise the different kinds of spacing so they can apply it on a regular basis throughout their Chinese studies. If they do not do it, you will then find that their characters will be consistently out of proportion, particularly more difficult ones like 游 and 戴.  Here is the PowerPoint for this for you to download:  Chinese characters aren’t scary!
  • The Basic Strokes – an excellent handout of this can be found in “Collin’s Easy Learning Mandarin Chinese Learner’s Dictionary”, get pupils to stick it somewhere where it can be easily accessed on a frequent basis. Common pitfalls for pupils is that they tend to “curl” hooks rather than just write with a little flick and write horizontal strokes in a diagonal line. However, if you remind pupils that these are absolutely not Chinese character strokes by referring to the handout then it should minimise their tendency to do this.  You can download the handout here: Strokes table – note that the inclusion of turns and different types of hooks is particularly useful for getting pupils to writing characters/radicals such as 七 and 儿 correctly.
  • Stroke Order – As I mentioned in my previous post, this is a particularly frustrating area, as pupils just automatically assume that stroke order is some kind of bolt-on for the basics of Chinese, whereas a matter of fact, it is absolutely crucial for making Chinese easier to learn. A fantastic stroke order guideline can be taken from Jinbu 1 where we have made a handout for pupils which can be found here: Stroke order for writing Chinese characters handout.pptx – be sure to remind pupils that these are just guidelines that work most of the time. I agree with Shaz Lawrence that pupils should be told the Global Rules of stroke order (i.e. Top to Bottom, Left to Right) which pupils can consistently apply with ease. For more information on this please read Shaz’s very insightful article: http://www.creativechinese.com/blog/re-thinking-character-stroke-order/
  • Radicals – There is a basic radicals list in the back of Jinbu 1 and 2 and a more extensive list in the back of the Edexcel GCSE Mandarin Chinese textbook. You should definitely get pupils to memorise this as early as possible. Luckily, with the berth of Chineasy, pupils can learn that techniques such as visualisation are super handy for memorising radicals/characters almost instantly. To raise pupils’ awareness of this, show them this video of the Chineasy TEDtalk, the pupils love it! – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=troxvPRmZm8 – There is also a list of simplified radicals that I obtained from Aurelie Sanner at Chobham Academy while on placement there. Though this radicals sheet looks daunting at first, it is an excellent reference sheet for pupils to slowly build up a bank of radicals knowledge over a long period of time. As you may well know, if pupils know all of these radicals off by heart then they will basically be able to write practically any Chinese character. The sheet can be downloaded here: List of Simplified Radicals
  • Pinyin – There is a very handy Pinyin Pronunciation Cheat Sheet you can find here: https://www.yoyochinese.com/files/yoyo%20chinese%20Pinyin%20Cheat%20Sheet%202.pdf – however I would recommend editing it to suit your own purposes as much of the equivalent sounds to English on here are in reference to American English. I’m also not convinced by the author using the “s” in “Asia” as an equivalent to the “r” sound in Mandarin. What I found works really well is telling pupils to make a tiger growl but “taking the growl away”, this is a pretty much surefire way of them pronouncing “ri” almost perfectly every time. This cheat sheet also doesn’t include guidelines for the pronunciation of “yu”, which is vital for pupils pronouncing Mandarin correctly. For this one, I have pupils round their lips and say the letter “E”. This enables the to say this sound perfectly every time. These pointers are not only helpful but pupils also find them highly amusing! Again, if you design your own pinyin pronunciation cheat sheet, be sure to have it somewhere that pupils can access it very quickly and easily. The pinyin chart on the yoyo Chinese website is also extremely helpful as it contains video explanations of how to pronounce the most difficult sounds. The link can be found here: http://www.yoyochinese.com/chinese-learning-tools/Mandarin-Chinese-pronunciation-lesson/pinyin-chart-table
  • Tones – I cannot emphasise how many times I’ve heard pupils speak Mandarin with a complete English accent with no regard to the tones whatsoever. This is difficult to avoid as to pupils’ lack of opportunities to practice Mandarin extensively on a regular basis. However this “Tone Pairs” handout is absolutely fantastic for getting pupils to pronounce the tones correctly almost every time – https://www.yoyochinese.com/files/Tone%20Pairs%20Chart-1-v2.pdf – pay special attention to the tone cues listed at the bottom of this sheet. For the third tone example, this is referring to the “half tone” for the third tone which is how it is often normally pronounced. It is worth teaching the pupils this at some stage after they learn that the third tone when spoken independently sounds like a slow “boing!” sound. Even if pupils don’t necessarily master the tones perfectly from the beginning, it is worth teaching them these strategies so they can be prompted/referred to at a later stage, especially if or when pupils decide to take Mandarin to GCSE or A-Level. This is because at this stage classes are much smaller and you will have the time to focus more on tones during lessons and provide much more corrective feedback.


I’m pretty sure I haven’t missed anything in the above, please let me know if I have!

Concluding Thoughts

As explained above, if the basics of Mandarin are a key theme of your teaching right from the beginning, then pupils can start to develop good learning habits which will stay with them throughout their Mandarin studies. It will also significantly reduce your marking and workload as all you merely have to do is point out to pupils where they’ve gone wrong according to the basics of Mandarin. Luckily for us, Chinese grammar is very simple hence relatively easy to teach. Conversely, areas such as strokes and tones are not so easy to master and takes time to consolidate.

Conclusively, it is important for us to ensure that we do not necessarily follow a very rigid and fixed curriculum i.e. “pupils by Week 5 Lesson 3 must have learned the comparative structure 比” but instead take a more formative approach where pupils can consolidate and brush up on the basics to create a solid platform for moving onto more complex material, even if it does take much longer than the planned and projected time period set out at the beginning of the year.

In my next post, I will be talking more about skills-focused curriculums centric to the theme of learning strategies, which is the subject of my workshop at this year’s annual Chinese teaching conference.

I really hope to hear your opinions on what I have written, again all of mine are completely subjective and open to be picked apart! If you prefer to discuss your views in private, please feel free to pop me an email at the following address: chriswebster1985@outlook.com

Thanks for reading!



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