How To Teach Chinese Writing (作文)

IMG_9865This is to answer Karen’s question to me about how to teach our children Chinese writing. I am assuming she is referring to Chinese composition writing.


First of all, I must stress that I am by no means a trained teacher and whatever I share may or may not work for you. Secondly, this is not a step-by-step guide but more of a sharing of certain approaches that may be useful. Needless to say, a lot depends on the Chinese standard of the child. A child who is really struggling with Chinese may have to resort to some stop gap measures just to handle the exams, whereas a child who is better at the language could do more.Unless otherwise stated, I am referring to picture compositions (看图作文) that most kids do in school. So here goes, in no particular order :

1. Don’t look at the pictures too much

Most people, including Chinese teachers, think that picture composition is easier than writing a composition based on a given title (the almost-equivalent of what is called, situational writing, in English lessons 命题作文). Most teachers would recommend their average to below average students to stick to picture compositions because it is less likely that the students will write out of point.

I tend to disagree with most people on this point. I do not think that picture compositions are necessarily easier. In fact, I find them too restrictive and sometimes unhelpful in building writing skills. When I was in primary school, we had the “Chinese stream” and the “English stream” and my parents put me in the “English Stream”. Unlike the “Chinese Stream” students, we did picture compositions. But I always found it much easier to write with just a given title. In fact, I remember writing my own compositions and sending them to the Chinese newspapers frequently and I got paid a few times when my compositions got published in the student’s section. I wonder if they still pay for people to 投稿. It may be a good incentive to encourage our kids to write and send in!

Coming back to picture compositions, what I noticed is that most kids with limited writing skill tend to do this :
1. Start with a standard opening.
2. Look at Picture 1 and write a couple of lines about it.
3. Look a Picture 2 to 4 and write a couple of lines about each picture.
4. Try to close with a standard closing.

This results in a lack of coherence in the story, hardly a plot and most certainly not enough length to make it a good pass grade.

I do not think our kids have an issue with creative writing. If they can write a reasonable story for English, it proves that most of them do not suffer from a lack of ideas. The problem is that somehow, they don’t seem to translate that same writing skill to Chinese writing.

Why is this so? Certainly having a lower level of competency in the language contributes greatly to this handicap. However, I am not sure if it is also because they have been “trained” to confine themselves to the pictures, so much so that the way they approach Chinese writing is to just write a few lines to describe each picture. In other words, ‘Picture Description’ instead of ‘Picture Composition’.

One day, frustrated with the way my son (can’t remember which one) was writing, I covered the pictures and asked him to tell me what happened in the pictures. Suddenly, free of the pictures, he was able to give me a coherent recount of the story instead of the piecemeal descriptions that he was giving before. So I said, OK don’t look at the pictures anymore now and start writing. Of course, he got stuck at the nuts and bolts of the language sometimes but at least we are getting a better story! Grammar we could deal with separately. I think the boy also felt the ‘freedom’ of not having to keep looking at the pictures to try to describe the pictures. So from then on, I told my kids to have a good look at the pictures, get the general idea of how the story goes, flip the page over and write without looking at the pictures anymore.

2. Start with Picture 0

Typically, the kids are given 4 to 6 pictures in a series depicting something that happened. If the first picture is Picture 1, I would tell my kids to start writing from Picture 0. Most kids do not take time to build the story. Instead they jump straight in to describe Picture 1, which technically is supposed to give you the setting but it is not always so. Anyway, it is good to think about what happened before Picture 1 because then you are giving more information (but not too much!) and talking about one more (non-existence) picture actually fills up more of the length quota, so it is a good thing. 🙂

What can you write about Picture 0 when there is no picture? For instance, you can describe the protagonist, especially mention something that would be relevant to the story. You can also talk about something that happened in the past that would have a bearing on the story that follows (flash back 回忆开头法). Suppose the pictures are about a picnic at the beach – an incredibly boring storyline that will take a lot of creativity to make interesting – you can talk about, for example, the protagonist just finishing an important examination and after working so hard for so long, her parents suggested they take a day off to enjoy a day as a family at the beach, AND the moral of the story would be something along the line of enjoying yourself after you know you have put in your best effort at work is a priceless experience (yes, a moral is always necessary; I will come to that later). Same story, you can also start with : father of the protagonist has been away for work for a few weeks, after he returned, the family went out for a day at the beach for family time. In the story itself, make special mention of time spent with father. End of story Moral : family is the most important thing and family time priceless.

You see how useful Picture 0 is? It gives a much better setting for the plot and enable you to actually have a better plot for an incredibly boring story. Even if the child’s language ability can only allow him to write a few lines describing the protagonist (perhaps he memorised a few useful phrases to use), doing this still helps him to fill up the length and adding descriptions will actually help him to score some points.  But be careful that you do not start off with something that will cause the rest of the story to go completely out of point.

3. Please, why not use the 5Ws+1H?

This totally puzzled us at our Chinese Writing Camp. None of the kids were taught to use the 5Ws+1H skill for Chinese writing in school and we had no idea why. This is another reason why I think perhaps some school teachers are too focused on training the kids to stick to the pictures. When we told the kids to use this skill, they all went :“Can meh?”(sic)

Of course you can! Please do! If you are afraid of going out of point, or not writing according to the pictures, like some of the kids at the camp who were so incredibly afraid of transgressing some rules about sticking to the pictures, then start off first by making note of where the 5Ws+1H can go in the pictures. E.g. Perhaps the “Where” and “Who” can be slotted into Picture 1, so make sure the kid writes about the “Where” and the “Who” at Picture 1.

4. There must be a Moral of the Story

If you have not noticed by now, take note that moral values is a very big thing for Mother Tongue. Apparently, one of the objectives of learning Mother Tongue is to impart cultural and moral values. Take a close look at the Comprehension segment of the written paper, the last question is always “what do you learn from the story?” or “What would you have done/what do you think the author should have done?” kind of questions. Likewise, for compositions, there must be a Moral of the Story. In fact, you can broadly categorise the compositions into two categories :
(a) 好人好事 – someone did something good and gets praised for it
(b) 一个教训 – someone did something bad or witnessed something bad and learned a lesson from it.

So for every composition, think about what category the story falls into and make sure the last paragraph must include something about the protagonist getting praised or learning a lesson. It would be extremely useful to learn some useful idioms and phrases to describe the positive and the negative. Make sure there is always a positive learning point. Strange logic and questionable values will definitely get points deducted.

5. Descriptions will score some points

There are many things to describe in any given compositions :
(a) place
(b) people
( c) weather
(d) Feelings
(e) Things

Descriptions range from very simple to very flowery. Whatever the child’s ability is, there will be something that he can do to add in descriptions. If his language is limited, at least use some simple adjectives or idioms (成语). I find that the most important things to describe are people, especially if there is a key figure in the story (e.g. old lady crossing the road and tripped – must describe the old lady and her movement), and feelings. Most kids will neglect to describe feelings when it is one of those things that will set one’s composition apart from the rest. A composition without any description is not going to score very well. If the child cannot remember to describe all the rest of the stuff, at least try to describe people and feelings.

If you do not know where or how to start, there are guide books you can get from Popular that are essentially collections of good descriptions used in compositions. They usually classify these descriptions into categories, such as “Happiness”, “Anger”, “Old People”, ” Rainy Day”. Pick a few from each category and memorise them.

6. Frequent practice is necessary

Writing is a skill and like any other skills, it is honed through frequent practice. My experience with two schools is that the teachers hardly have time to make the kids write every week. Typically, in a semester of 20 weeks, the kids do roughly 3 to 4 compositions in class and sometimes, not even all of them are complete ones. They may do only opening or planning for one or two. From what I hear from other parents, this seems to be a common norm.

This is grossly insufficient. I am actually quite appalled by this because when I was in school, we wrote every week, and we wrote whole, complete compositions, and our teachers would mark every single one of them. The teachers then seemed to understand the value of frequent practice and we even had one day a week with a 3-period slot for us to do writing in class. This applied to both English and Chinese. Apart from compositions, we had to do journal for Chinese every weekend. So we did a lot more writing compared to the kids these days.

Stick to the Old School Method. Make the kid practise writing every week if you can. There is no way to get around frequent practice if you want to see improvement. It does not matter if there is no one around to mark the paper and you are not comfortable doing the marking yourself. The point is to just write as much as possible. You can even check with your child’s school teacher if he/she could help look through the compositions for you.

7.Divide and Conquer

I am a strong advocate of “Divide & Conquer”. Basically, I tackle the problem a bit at a time. Suppose you find it impossible to make your child practise writing every week because he finds it too difficult to write something out from his head, then instead of not writing at all, how about memorising someone else’s compositions instead? Memorise one a week means you would have memorised a lot in a year. Get a “Good Compositions Book” from Popular and start memorising. If even memorising is difficult, how about copying? Copy one composition a week. Surely something will get into the kid’s head after all that copying.

Basically, do something!

8. Ban This!

You know that famous “一个风和日丽的早晨” opening? Ban this! Anything with “风和日丽” in it is strictly forbidden. This is the mother of all cliche and you want to avoid it like the Ebola virus. I know. I know the very first phrase the children are taught as an opening line is this line, but forget what the teachers say. I told the kids in our Writing Camp : imagine the PSLE examiner marking hundreds of compositions and every one of them starts with this “风和日丽” thing because the kids all learned from their teachers to start compositions this way (add yawning bored look for effect), and suddenly, one starts with something entirely different and interesting, which one will stand out?

The truth is this : as a first step, yes, the teachers usually teach the kids to start off using this. But subsequently, the teachers themselves may also ban this phrase. If the teachers do not ban this phrase for upper primary level, then all the more you should disregard their instruction.

9. Progressive Improvement

Here’s a technique we used at the camp : we gave the children a simple topic to write. After the first draft, we taught the children one skill (e.g. how to have a better opening instead of “风和日丽”!!!!). Then the children were made to write a 2nd draft of the same composition but this time incorporating the new skill they learned. After that, we taught them something else to improve on their writing (e.g. descriptions!!). They were made to rewrite again. At the end, we let them compare their first draft with their last draft so they could see for themselves what a difference a few things can make. It also (hopefully) helped them to learn to analyse their own writing to make improvement on their own.

So you could do the same. Pick something that could be added or improved upon and make your child rewrite with that improvement. This can be repeated a number of times, depending on how much is needed to be worked on and improved. At the end, let your child compare the progress of his writing.

10. Don’t make stupid mistakes, like writing wrong words

This is a simple, common sense rule that applies to both English and Chinese writing exams : if you cannot write/spell the word, find another way to convey the same thing, or don’t write it at all. Do not write the wrong thing and get marks deducted for mistakes.

The way compositions are graded is like X points for Language and Y points for Content. If you have reasonably ok content and your language is also ok, you should get an average pass grade. However, if you have a middling grade, and at the same time you have a few grammar or spelling mistakes (for Chinese, it would be writing the wrong character or writing the character wrongly 错别字), then you get marks deducted for these mistakes. These mistakes are avoidable. If you avoid making them, you can at least get an ok pass grade. Make a few of these stupid mistakes, you may fail your composition exam.

If you understand how this works, you will need to explain this to your kid and remind him not to make these mistakes. By the way, dictionaries are allowed during exams so there is really no excuse for writing the wrong characters.

11. Read, Out Loud.

You know how the kids will write something that grammatically you may not find a fault with it but it just sounds really strange? You know how it is like to read something and you know there is something not quite right but you cannot explain why it sounds strange? When kids write weird sentences like that, it is because of a lack of 语感. I would call it the ‘feel’ of the language. Most of the time, they don’t even know the sentences sound strange. Their lack of 语感 is because they do not use or hear the language often enough to notice when something does not sound normal.Making the child read out loud frequently will help to instil some 语感. This is different from listening passively. The child has to read AND listen to himself. The brain process is different from simply talking (which we all know will never happen if the child does not come from a Chinese speaking background) or just listening (which is usually passive).

12. For the young ones, Copywork and short writing.

Depending on the schools, I think, some teachers will start teaching writing from Primary 1 while others start at Primary 2. Typically, they start with getting the children to write a few sentences on a certain topic, like “My June Holiday” and the sentences need not be written in a paragraph.What you can do at home, if you have a P1 or P2, even a K1 or K2, is to start off with copywork, then simple writing. Copywork involves copying whole sentence or whole paragraph, depending on the ability of your child. Through copying, the child learns writing by modelling after what other people write. When your child is comfortable enough to start doing his own writing, then let him write on something that interests him, for example, his favourite animal or a recent trip to the Universal Studio. Do not expect whole story with proper opening and proper ending. You can ask for a few sentences like the schools do. If you prefer to have a clearer structure, you can give some rules like the first sentence must talk about “When” or “where”, then second sentence about “Who”, the third sentence about “What” and so on.

13. Read

Ideally, the child should read widely and as much as possible. Realistically, I know this may not be something possible for every one to do. The Stop Gap Measure would be to at least try to read other people’s writing from those “Good Compositions Books”. At least get some ideas on how to approach the different types of stories.If you can, read together with your child and discuss things like how the author tells the story, how the author describes certain actions, underline some nice phrases that your child can learn and finally, read out loud to get the feel of the language.

14. Stop Gap Measure – Memorising may Help or may harm

In Point 7 above, I talked about memorising other people’s writing but I was not referring to memorising other people’s writing to regurgitate wholesale at the exam. Memorisation has its place in education but I will not go into this right now.The memorisation I am talking about here as a Stop Gap Measure is what most kids have been told to do by their parents or their teachers : memorise whole compositions or huge chunks of it and regurgitate them in the exams. There are pros and cons to this. It is useful for the children to memorise a few good openings and closings because opening and closing are the parts most kids cannot do properly on their own due to their language skill. It is also useful for the kids to memorise some useful, common sayings and idioms, especially those pertaining to the ‘moral values’ I mentioned earlier and use them in their writing. However, the danger is that the child regurgitates indiscriminately and end up submitting something that is out of point or does not fit the pictures given. The other danger is when the regurgitated opening or closing is too obviously, well, regurgitated. They obviously do not fit in with the rest of the compositions, like having a fully made up face, properly done hair, and wearing Jimmy Choo on your feet but in the middle you are wearing something cheap and shabby.So memorisation may be a useful Stop Gap Measure but use it with care.

15. Stop Gap Measure – memorise a few plots

This one is more useful for compositions that are not picture compositions but the ones that the children have to write about with just a title (命题作文). Children doing Higher Chinese will be required to write such compositions.

One useful Stop Gap Measure is to memorise a few common plots. The child may not have enough ideas of his own, or have enough time to think during the exam, so memorising a few common plots would be useful. There are some broad categories that most compositions will fall into. Memorise a couple of plots for each category. Again, use with discretion or else the child will write completely out of point.

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