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Teaching Mandarin via video conference

  • Teaching Mandarin via video conference

Jeremy Sutcliffe visits a rural village school where video conference technology is being used to teach Mandarin to a mixed class of juniors...

It is five minutes into the lesson and the Chinese lady on the whiteboard has just finished warming up the class with a quick-fire counting session. Today’s star pupil, nineyear- old Tom, is rewarded by the class teacher with a team point for being the first to count to 20. The lady on the screen now holds up a card with a mysterious Chinese symbol. What does it mean?

“Imagine,” she tells the children, “this vertical line is a flag pole and this square in the middle of the flagpole is an indicative symbol. This is what it means: ‘in the middle of the pole’. It means ‘middle’, ‘the centre’.

“In the past, many emperors and kings thought of their countries as being right in the middle of the world. It’s the same in China. The emperors thought their country was right in the middle of the world. So they called their country Zhang-guo which means, literally, ‘country in the middle of the world’. Now say it out loud.’”

“Zhang-guo! Zhang-guo!” chorus the children. The lady on the screen is YiShan Lu, a 34-year-old Mandarin teacher from Taiwan who has just completed a PhD at Leeds University. Today’s lesson is being beamed from her virtual classroom in London to 26 excited lower juniors, aged seven to nine, at Tilston Parochial Primary School 200 miles away in rural Cheshire. Soon the children are playing a game, identifying flags from around the world and calling out the countries’ names in Mandarin: Ao-da-li-ya (Australia), Mei-guo (America), Ying-guo (Britain). Miss Lu points to the Chinese symbol for Britain, which is crowned by a spiky-looking hat. “It means flower in ancient Chinese. So imagine it’s a country full of flowers. Ying-guo. Britain. Country of Flowers,” she tells them. By the end of the lesson the children have been split into groups and are practising their Mandarin, supervised by the class teacher Emily Wright and teaching assistant Maree Hegarty who make sure even the shyest pupils get their turn.

“Where do you come from?” “I come from Britain, Chester.” “Come on Sasha, stand up and come a bit closer to the microphone,” says Miss Wright encouragingly. “I come from Britain, Chester!”

“Well done Sasha!” says Miss Lu. Tilston Primary is one of three schools that have been taking part in a pioneering experiment to teach Mandarin to Key Stage 2 pupils via video conference link. Since January, 56 juniors, split into two mixed-aged classes, have been receiving weekly 40- minutes lessons. As Easter approaches, half way through the two-term introduction to Mandarin course, the children’s progress has been remarkable, says headteacher Richard Harley.

“The results have been quite wonderful. By working with a specialist teacher the level of challenge is high and both pupils and staff – who are learning alongside the children – are doing really well.

“The children are already able to count and hold simple conversations with each other in Mandarin. They can understand and write simple Chinese characters and are also learning about Chinese history, geography, culture, music, art, songs and rhymes.”

Good connections


The lesson is delivered via broadband connection and a whiteboard using a camera that pans and tilts to allow the onscreen teacher to interact with the children. The camera is controlled by means of a simple point-andpress remote control device operated by the class teacher or an assistant. The only other piece of kit is a desk top microphone. When Emily Wright joined the school as a newly-qualified teacher in September, the last thing she expected was to be helping her pupils learn a language she knew nothing about. “I was really quite excited, especially teaching in a small village school. I hadn’t really thought this would be part of our curriculum at all but it’s such a fabulous opportunity not only for the children but for me as well,” she says.

“The children absolutely love it. It’s really lovely because they see you completely differently as you are learning alongside them, which is quite empowering for them. They really enjoy the competitive element – ‘Who can count to ten the quickest in Mandarin?’ And every time they beat me, hands down!

“It’s also really important for them to see you don’t get things right necessarily first time. And as I am quite often far worse than they are it’s lovely for them to be able to see that, even though Miss Wright struggles, she still perseveres. That’s a good message for them to be able to take into their own learning because it encourages them to be more resilient.” Another school taking part in the project is Topcliffe Primary in Castle, Birmingham, where 15 mixed ability juniors recently completed a six-week taster course in Mandarin.

“The level of progress was outstanding. By the end of the course the children were able to read basic symbols and pick up enough of the language to make themselves understand. It’s given them a skill-set they can really use,” says deputy headteacher Dickon Taylor.

“The Mandarin teacher was a real positive. The challenge for her was to get the relationships right with the children and it was clear she was brilliant at it from the progress they made. The other positive was the technology, which really engaged the children. The unusual nature of the lesson and the fun of the technology made it exciting, like a game.”

Call in the experts


From September 2014, all primary schools in England will have to provide a foreign language from Year 3 onwards, choosing from a list approved under the revised national curriculum. The approved languages are: French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian, Latin and Ancient Greek.

With an acute shortage of Mandarin teachers – there are only about 100 specialists with qualified teacher status in the country – many primary schools may struggle to offer the language. Video conference could be the only answer for primary schools looking to provide specialist Mandarin teaching as the deadline approaches.

Certainly video conferencing is becoming rapidly more popular as schools recognise its potential to extend learning and support creativity in the curriculum. Its popularity can be gauged by the large number of schools booking conference calls with specialists and guest speakers through the government-funded Janet Video Conferencing Service (JVCS). One school to use the service is Highlands Primary School in the London borough of Redbridge, which recently linked their pupils with Nelson Mandela’s former bodyguard to support work they were doing on civil rights and Black History Month. They also used it to support a topic on the Tudors by linking with the National Archive, who showed pupils documents signed by Henry VIII.

“Children can get so much from video conferencing. It makes learning real and can be completely inspirational,” says Alison Seagrave, Highland’s IT specialist teacher.

Set up your own video conference

The Mandarin course for Key Stage 2 pupils piloted by Tilston and Topcliffe primary schools is now available to all schools. The course has been developed by MB Learning Solutions, formerly Nelson Thornes Distance Learning, which has 20 years’ experience of delivering courses via video conference link to secondary schools.

Following on from the government’s intention to make foreign language teaching available to all children at Key Stage 2, the company is now developing courses for primary schools in several other languages. To find out more about these and the Mandarin course, contact Colin Scaiff on 01492 580101 or visit the MB Learning Solutions website, mblearningsolutions.co.uk To find out more about video conferencing, go to the Janet Video Conferencing Service, website ja.net

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Pie Corbett