Teaching Mandarin With Aerobic Strokes

A team of teachers at Guangyang Primary School won the Gold Award at the recent PS21 ExCEL Awards for their new heart-pumping way for pupils to learn new Chinese words.
Teaching Mandarin With Aerobic Strokes
Left to right: Mrs Sim holds up the word ‘文’ (‘language’), while Ms Teo, Mr Seet and Ms Liew perform the character strokes (dot, horizontal bar, and left and right down strokes) according to the writing sequence.

Peering into a classroom, you might think you have chanced upon an aerobics session conducted in Mandarin. Clad in polo T-shirts, seven-year-old children are waving their arms, punching the air and performing jumping jacks – all while chanting in Mandarin.

This is no indoor Physical Education session, but a language lesson with a twist. At Guangyang Primary School, Primary 1 and 2 pupils learn to recognise and memorise Chinese words with body movements.

This novel way of learning vocabulary came about after the school studied their pupils’ learning needs, backgrounds and Chinese language proficiency in 2009. They found that the pupils, many from English-speaking homes, struggled to remember the Chinese characters learnt in class. Pupils were also bored with the traditional method of learning words through flash cards.

“For Chinese, you have to recognise and memorise every word,” says Ms Lucy Sim, the school’s Lead Teacher for Chinese Language. “But once pupils are out of Chinese class, it is not easy for them to practise.”

The teachers decided they had to make learning Chinese fun. Inspired by the hand and body gestures of the song ‘YMCA’ by Village People, Ms Sim conceptualised a teaching system whereby body movements represent Chinese character strokes.

She roped in Mr Seet Chia Song, Head of Mother Tongue Language Department, and teachers Ms Teo Wei Ping and Ms Serene Liew to develop her idea into a programme. Together, they devised a series of gestures that represent Chinese character strokes. For example, a 点 “丶” (dot) stroke is embodied by a punch, while the 撇折 “ㄥ” (horizontal break) stroke is a salute.

The team spent three months coming up with the actions for the various basic strokes. They later added more movements that signify other graphic components of Chinese characters. By 2012, new lesson plans for the lower primary level incorporated these gestures.

The project, called Chinese Character Aerobics, is based on American psychologist Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory. One form of intelligence is bodily kinaesthetic intelligence, a state where learning is best when paired with meaningful physical activities.

Different strokes

First, the teachers had to render Chinese characters into gestures that young children can easily understand. Some strokes are tricky to perform. “A character like ‘乙’ is not easy to show as it is twisted with a hook. Sometimes we have to discuss with the class how to act out this stroke,” says Ms Sim.

The pupils themselves often invent new ways of performing the stroke actions. For example, if a word requires many stroke actions that tire out the right arm, pupils can suggest using the left arm instead. According to Mr Seet, the only principle is that what the pupils perform should be similar to what they write.

The pupils’ imaginations often serve as inspiration. Ms Liew shares: “One pupil suggested that we could use our legs instead [of arms] to represent the ‘乚’ stroke for the word ‘包’ (‘package’). All the pupils started to tilt their legs.”

There is one challenge, however: the Chinese language’s stroke sequence is not integrated into the movements.

“The movements only help pupils visualise and memorise a word. Teachers still have to go through the sequential way of writing,” explains Ms Sim. But not every word’s stroke order needs to be taught. “Once you guide the pupils, they will know how to do it on their own.”

The teachers also prepare mirror image versions of the movements so that their pupils can easily imitate what the teachers demonstrate. To help pupils better learn the gestures, the teachers use colourful charts and songs.

No costly resources like special rooms are needed. Other schools that want to implement Chinese Character Aerobics only need some planning and training to incorporate this method into classroom teaching, says Ms Sim, who has 25 years of teaching experience.

Expanding vocabulary

By now the team clearly has established a strong rapport. When asked how they get ideas for new gestures, the younger teachers all point to Ms Sim. “Every time she goes to the toilet, she comes back with a new idea,” says Ms Teo.

Ms Sim admits with a grin: “Now they tell me, ‘Ms Sim, don’t go [to] the toilet anymore!’”

We can’t always have this (Chinese Character Aerobics) in every lesson. When I say no, they (the pupils) will be very disappointed.

In fact, all four team members contribute ideas, such as new gestures for character strokes, to refine Chinese Character Aerobics. They also get suggestions from impressed teachers of other schools in Singapore and China who have learnt about the project.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Indeed the method has been effective: according to research carried out by the team, the pupils’ Chinese spelling generally has improved. A survey in 2012 showed that about 70% of lower primary pupils who practised Chinese Character Aerobics also performed better in listening and verbal tests at the end of the school term.

More importantly, the team is encouraged that their pupils now have a greater interest and confidence in the subject. Parents share that their children show off at home what they have learnt in Chinese Character Aerobics lessons. The pupils are also motivated to look for new or difficult words that they can teach their classmates using the movements.

The pupils clearly enjoy this new dynamic way of learning. “Every day they ask, ‘Will we have Chinese Character Aerobics today?’” says Ms Sim. “We can’t always have this in every lesson. When I say no, they will be very disappointed.”

Knowing that children learn best through play and movement, the team is working with the Ministry of Education to spur the love of learning Chinese from an early age. The ministry is now studying how the model can be adapted for kindergarten children, and there are plans to share the team’s lessons package across the teaching profession through the ministry’s online portal for educators.

So we might just hear more Mandarin being uttered confidently by young Singaporeans – dramatic gestures included.

Watch a classroom demonstration of Chinese Character Aerobics at bit.ly/guangyangLeft

    Jan 22, 2014
    Siti Maziah Masramli
    John Heng
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