Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reading Strategies for Chinese Learners-Really? The Same Strategies?

The answer is "yes" to the questions I pose in the title.  The same reading strategies we use naturally when we read passages in our native languages can be applied when we read something that is in another language.  However, using these strategies in the new language doesn't come naturally at all, meaning we need to re-learn or re-teach ourselves strategies when we glance through morning newspaper or product pamphlet. 

Language learners tend to focus on every single vocabulary word and make direct word-by-word translation when they read.   How about students who study Chinese?  They go above and beyond, focusing on every single Chinese character and losing the big picture completely.  This is a hard habit to break and this habit really slows readers down or frustrates them.  Therefore, teaching students how to predict and scan for main ideas is important.  Elements, like title and first paragraph or even the first few sentences, help us predict the main idea.  Have students complete a few pre-reading exercises.  For example, only show the title and ask students to predict what the passage is about.  Give more clues, for example, the first two sentences or the concluding sentences and have students edit the main idea.  Having students come up with brief one-sentence summary for each paragraph is another helpful exercise.  

Getting a main idea usually is not sufficient for in-depth comprehension.  Understanding the details is equally important.  When students focus too much on individual vocabulary words, they also miss the details.  If you teach teenagers, they are just not good at grasping details.  As the teacher, one almost needs to design exercise that forces students to zoom in on those details.  Some scaffolding is absolutely needed.  For example, underscore or highlight what you want students to focus.  Ask highly relevant open-ended questions that forces students to find the related passage.  First of all, you might have students brainstorm what kind of information in a certain passage could be considered as details.  Ask students to form open-ended questions about the piece they are about to read is an effective activity for this purpose.

Now, how about those vocabulary words that they don't know and they will see in an authentic reading piece?  Tell them, loud and clear, "skip it first."  Then teach them how to make inference.  Their knowledge of the basics of Chinese characters and their own vocabulary are essential.  Teach students how to use radicals to find meanings or make associations for new characters.  Practice with character (同部首不同字/拆字) and word extension (组词/組詞), word categorizing, matching, and other vocabulary exercises.  Model how to use known characters to guess the meaning of a new word.  Also model how to use context (上下文)to get the same result.  When having students practice this specific strategy, give them new words that are from the passage and have them use the strategy to come up with the definition.  Trust them (even though it might be difficult initially) and they will be on the right track.

Knowing that they have all these strategies they can rely on, encourage students to decode authentic materials.  You don't need to modify the words or sentences used in the article, but you can always take out a few characters and add some pinyin for the unknown phrases or words.  You simply lower students' anxiety by adding some pinyin and they can show you more about what they understand from the reading material.  Of course, you might wonder how we can assess reading comprehension.  There are a few different ways, which I can discuss next time.  

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