Educators Learn to Teach Chinese at U.Va.'s STARTALK Academy

July 09, 2010
Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Jane Ford:

July 7, 2010 — Immersion, exposure to culture and technology are among the tools used today to teach Chinese to American students. Language teachers from around the U.S. attending a University of Virginia program recently spent a week reflecting on contemporary theories and participating in workshops and interactive activities to learn how to implement these and other tools in their classrooms.

Miao-fen Tseng, a lecturer in U.Va.'s Department of East Asian Languages, Literatures and Cultures and an expert in second language acquisition and teacher education, brought the Summer Chinese STARTALK Academy program to the University, after leading it for the last two years at Virginia Commonwealth University. She said she moved the program to U.Va. to take advantage of classroom technology and to benefit area high school students.

After a week of intensive training, the 16 teachers – all native Mandarin Chinese speakers – are applying what they learned in a two-week practicum, teaching 24 high school students who do not have prior learning experience in Chinese. The three-week program concludes July 15.

"The goal of the STARTALK program is to create the next generation of speakers of critical languages," said A. Rachel Stauffer, outreach coordinator at U.Va.'s Asia Institute, who recruited students from several area high schools to participate in the program.

The program is funded by a federal grant through the National Foreign Language Center, a research institute at the University of Maryland. Chinese is among several languages identified by the U.S. State Department as critical for Americans to study and master.

The program of study aligns with standards set by the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages that integrate foreign language skills through reading, writing and speaking.

"These are very crucial concepts in teaching foreign languages," Tseng said.

The concepts of immersion in culture and language had a huge impact on the STARTALK participants.

Yun Lillian Zhang, who teaches at the EF International Academy in Tarrytown, N.Y., said the program has reversed her perspective on teaching.

"We used to teach language and then bring in a little bit of culture, but today we teach culture as the topic, as the theme, and then bring language with the culture," she said.

Diana Lim teaches in Tech Valley High School in Glenmont, N.Y. "I used to think that explaining with English is easier, but then having gone through the program I realize that the best way for students to learn is to have 100 percent immersion."

The teachers learned how to develop lessons based on themes and activities that put language in a real-life context. The classroom example they were presented centered on the activities one would engage in to plan the transportation to China of the giant panda bear Tai Shan, born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Tai Shan left for China on Feb. 4, under the terms of an agreement with the Chinese government.

In their practicum, the teachers will lead the students through lessons based on making plans to visit the 2010 Expo in Shanghai. Students will have to make travel arrangements, research places of interest to visit around Shanghai and develop an itinerary. They will also learn to write a letter of introduction to a host family, shop and dine in a restaurant.

The themed scenarios immerse the students in Chinese culture and language acquisition through role-playing, problem-solving and discussions, Tseng said.

During training, the teachers embraced technology. One example was the use of a camera to videotape their own short classroom scenarios, which the class subsequently reviewed and critiqued.

Technology will also play a role in the students' experience. They will use personal digital assistant devices to type in transliterated Chinese using the Roman alphabet, then choose from a list of Chinese characters.

"New technology is heavily embedded in the program, which makes the teaching come alive," said Jai-Pei Hon, who teaches at Verona High School in Boonton, N.J.

Technology will extend the program beyond this summer. Each teacher is required to create and share an e-portfolio, to include a curriculum vitae, teaching philosophy, a developed thematic unit and lesson plans, and a demonstration teaching video developed during the STARTALK program and posted on the STARTALK website.

Hou began teaching in 1984 when memorization, drills, patterns and grammar were the focus.

"Now we know the trend of language teaching and learning is different, more focused on communication," she said. "Many times we are so comfortable with our old methods, but this will help me to pen a new page in my career."

— by Jane Ford