Mandarin Chinese 1 North Carolina Virtual Public Schools Online course Review

08 Nov

Review of Mandarin Chinese 1 North Carolina Virtual Public Schools Online Course 2015


I have written about NCVPS courses before and a little about Mandarin 1 Chinese, but I wanted to write a more solid review for those who are considering it.  I think having the option to take other languages besides just 2 or maybe 3 choices at all schools is wonderful and NCVPS makes that possible for students in North Carolina schools.  Some students attend a middle school where they get 2 years (equivalent to one high school semester) of Mandarin Chinese but then go to attend their base school only to find that Mandarin is not an option at their school.  They want to continue with the language they started so one option is to look to NCVPS online classes as a way to continue with the same language if it is not possible to offer languages in feeder schools.  Personally I feel if Mandarin is offered in Middle School A and it feeds into High School B and C, then High Schools B and C should offer Mandarin.  However, I realize this might not be feasible and at least we do have the option of online learning.

Now, we look at the effectiveness of learning a language online.  This is a very difficult thing to teach online and in an independent format.  As an adult (who is also an educator) I know that it is even a challenge for me to learn a language through self-study and things like tapes that provide immersion situations have helped me much more than trying to meet course expectations at the same time I am trying to absorb a language.  A good educator knows how students learn, this is independent of what they are learning, there are just certain things that apply in general to learning, such as learning gradually, having material presented in small amounts and then gradually building on the foundation.  Students need repetition and practice of patterns to learn them.  If we sit down and make a list of what is needed to create a good learning environment for students in general and then specifically for learning a foreign language (and then specifically for Mandarin) – we can see if NCVPS is successful at achieving these goals in their online course.

Learning foreign languages is a lot like learning mathematics, everything you learn builds on the former foundation and you must always look for patterns.  This is why they say students who do good in math are more likely to be successful with foreign languages.  Also, just like in mathematics, you can’t start teaching a student Calculus if they haven’t learned how to multiply.  In Mandarin, you can’t start teaching past tense if you haven’t built a foundation of basic sentence patterns and vocabulary.  You need to go slow enough to let students get that foundations so they can be successful when you put those higher layers on otherwise the “house” will just tumble down from a weak foundation.

Looking at the current (2015) curriculum for Mandarin 1 NCVPS – it comes from a program developed by Learn NC:

In the course, students go through 10 lessons in a block schedule of 18 weeks (which in the end boils down to about 16 weeks by the time things get started and end a little early for grading and transition).

The first few weeks are spent going slowly building the foundational blocks of Pinyin and pronunciation.  Students spend time just learning to associate the sounds that the different English letters make, for example, x makes the /sh/ sound so xi says “she”.  Students are also introduced to the four basic tones.   Students do not actually start with much vocabulary yet, just work on these sound concepts.

A few weeks later, students finally dive into the first actually lesson of the 10 week lessons – now that it is already almost a month into the course, students are allotted about 1.5 weeks per lesson.    In each lesson, they learn new vocabulary, new pronunciation, practice more pinyin and tones, begin to associate characters to words as well as the pinyin to the words, and have grammar lessons that introduce them to sentence patterns – for example, in Mandarin, you don’t write, I am smart, you would write I very smart.  You would not put the “to be” verb “am” in there and you be expected to put “very” in front of smart.  You would write, “My dog very cute.  My friend very pretty.”  This would be just one example of a pattern you would learn.  However, the curriculum does not spell that out in easy to understand terms like I just did, you have to kind of figure it out on your own by looking at the examples and finding a pattern on your own – which for many kids won’t ever happen.  Finally, the students get a quiz (that they can do open notes) but it is all in characters (which they don’t know) to test if they have figured out these hidden sentence patterns from within the text and grammar notes.  It is almost a game in “hide and go seek.”

As the lessons get more difficult, the amount of vocab greatly increases, the meaning behind the words becomes more complex and are often not well explained in the notes and the patterns continue to be very difficult to tease out of the notes.  They will use words that have multiple meanings but the notes don’t share all the details so as a student tries to get more information on their own they just get confused.

Students also have coaching 2 times per week for 45 minutes each.  These sessions are with about 6 other students.  The coach will usually talk about things from the lessons and then ask students to read and practice pronunciation, build a sentence pattern, tell the meaning of a vocab word, etc.  However, it is ineffective because the amount of time students actually get to interact with the coach one to one and “practice” something really useful is less than 10 minutes and nothing is repeated enough or demonstrated in a way that really builds the strong foundation because the pace of the class is so fast.  Examples of things she might ask:  Each student has to read from a dialogue, each student has to match a character, each student has to say a word using the word di which turns a number into an ordinal, each student has to give a date, each student has to say a number, etc.  Making these sessions have more direct focus on essentials such as one that is just practicing pronunciation in the beginning but then just building sentence patterns and just working on conversation where she quickly goes from one student to the next or all students can answer at the same time would be much more useful.

By the time lesson 9 rolls around, the number of grammar situations that have been introduced are more complex.   There are no practice sheets for these sentence patterns (in pinyin which is how students are learning at this stage) that are simple, clear, and have the answers.  It would be very helpful if students had practice sheets with answers to check where they were told to first do direct word for word translations so they could get used the pattern in the backwards way they write in Chinese.  For example, students might be told to write in pinyin:  I 7:00 as early as came.  Later, they can get the sentence in form:  I came as early as 7:00.  This way the students learn the backwards way to write it and practice both the vocab and the backwards patterning first and then later have to remember how to put it together to match the way we say it in English later.  They should do this for many different vocab words, for example, the next one would be:  He 9:00 as early as was in the library, step two would be translate from:  He was in the library as early as 9:00.  As the student does both more and more, they will get used to the location of words in the sentence and the pattern.  However, there is nothing set up in the curriculum for the student to do this.  All there is on this lesson is a brief and hard to understand description and two examples without any practice for the student to remember it.  Most students cannot simply learn a language by “reading” sentence patterns, they need to be actively involved in writing (and speaking) these sentence patterns.  This is what is lacking in this curriculum.

Additionally, a student can only move so fast.  You cannot teach a student Calculus 1 in one month, it is not reasonable.  Also, having the expectation that a student will go from never having spoken a word of language to knowing all these sentence patterns, huge amounts of vocab, pinyin, grammar, idioms, and perhaps even characters in less than 4 months is not realistic.  Even the language tutor that I hired said her college classes did not move this fast.  On top of that you do not have a personal teacher there helping the student learn and you have insufficient practice for the student.  A student can do well in the class because they are allowed to use notes to do assignments and can re-take quizzes, however, the grade does not reflect mastery of content presented in the class.  In other words and A does not mean that the student now knows all the vocab, idioms, sentence patterns / grammar, characters, pinyin, can speak fluently, etc. of all the content in lessons 1-10, so if that is an assumption for Mandarin 2, that is a worrisome thought.

I believe the material here could be a foundation to build a curriculum from, however, one needs someone who understand how students learn and knows how to write good curriculum to jump on board and help create lessons and practice that align with this to improve the course.

If a student needs/wants Mandarin, my suggestion would be to plan on getting a tutor with this class so they have someone to help support them.  With my own son, I had a tutor and am planning on having her reteach him throughout the summer so he can be prepared for Mandarin 2.  Hopefully, NCVPS will get some feedback and make the needed changes to make this course more successful for students.  If you have taken it or have comments, please let us know, we would love to hear from you.


Written by:

Lynne Gregorio, Ph.D. Mathematics Education

Mother of Student who took Mandarin 1 through NCVPS



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