It has been 4 years since I started teaching my youngest son. It has been a great learning process for the both of us. In the area of teaching Chinese it was really a venture in unchartered water. When I wrote about the learning experiences of my three boys in the area of Chinese, I mentioned that #3 was a kind of experiment and the final outcome was yet to be seen. Years have gone by and at this point in time, I can say that I am quite pleased with the result so far. I have gained a lot more insight compared to 4 years ago. Every year, I am learning new things not just through teaching #3 but from the mistakes I made with the older boys as well.
After all these years, if I were to pinpoint one very important thing to do that will make a material difference in the learning of Chinese, it is definitely the reading aloud of stories on a daily basis. This one single thing that you can do lays a strong foundation for your child. I would even say that if you can only do one thing, do this.
There are a few things I noted about #3 that I can attribute to the reading of books to him :
1. He is not averse to Chinese
2. He enjoys Chinese books as much as English ones
3. He picks up vocabulary and recognises some characters (Although I have also been teaching him character recognition, he also picks up words that I have not taught him through reading of books.)
4. He has no problem with written comprehension in school (by this I mean doing those comprehension passages in worksheets and tests)
I started reading to him when he was three, before he picked up all the negative things about Chinese from other places, when he was eager to do ‘school’ and Chinese was like history or science – just another interesting subject. His not being averse to Chinese now is largely because of the daily reading and this is something that I value above all the other points above. As long as he is not afraid of Chinese and does not hate Chinese, it is half the battle won already. All the other benefits that come about through reading of stories are added bonuses.
The least you can do for your child to help him learn Chinese is to read stories to him. If you cannot read, then get a reading pen, or buy some audiobooks and listen together with him. There are always pockets of time that you can use. For me, since bedtime reading was for English books, I read to #3 during lunch time when I fed him lunch. I started with very simple Chinese picture books with very beautiful illustrations. Whether he understood or not, I did not really care. I just wanted him to be familiar with Chinese and to enjoy Chinese books, so I read. Of course, I would explain things to him along the way. But if he could not understand some parts, it did not really matter. So we kept up with this for years. Since last year, we have “graduated” to reading chapter books with short stories. Right now, I am training him and building up his confidence in reading independently.
If your child has private one-to-one tutoring, I suggest that you get the tutor to spend 10-15 minutes of each session reading a book to your child. Reading is building a long term solid foundation for your child. On that note, if it is possible, also get the tutor to spend 10-15 minutes talking to your child. Just chit chat. Exercise and worksheets are important. But do not underestimate the usefulness and importance of simply listening to a story and just using the language in chit chats. These will build what we call 语感, which is like the ‘feel’ of the language, which many kids lack and they end up writing grammatically bizarre sentences.
Finally, I know that most parents are eager for quick and effective solution that will kill this Mother Tongue monster. I wish there is but unfortunately there is not. When it comes to the learning of a language, the road is long. Certainly we need to master the exam skills to deal with the exams. But ultimately, all these are short term, firefighting, stop gap measures. To get real lasting results, we need to invest time and effort in the building up of foundation. You may not see results in one month, even 3 months, through reading stories alone. It will not be so apparent. But in the long term, this will really make a difference.