Wesley College Melbourne Australia
Wesley College Melbourne

A pioneering approach to learning Chinese

Posted 24 August 2018

Elsternwick Chinese class

At Wesley College we are now into our third year of a pioneering Enhanced Language Program (ELP), a program that integrates students’ Chinese language learning with their learning across key curriculum areas: the arts; languages; mathematics; personal, social, spiritual and physical education; science; social studies; and technology. The integrated approach fits nicely within the inquiry-led curriculum framework of the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IB PYP). Underpinned by the IB’s transdisciplinary framework, the ELP supports Wesley’s goal to become a leading language school.

The ELP approach enables students to integrate their learning across the IB PYP's six transdisciplinary themes – who we are; where we are in place and time; how we express ourselves; how the world works; how we organise ourselves; and how we can share the planet – which is informed by a model from the field of Languages learning called Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).

A language immersion approach

The CLIL approach, in essence, uses the language being learned – in our case Chinese – as the medium for teaching and learning in other ‘non-linguistic’ learning areas. The CLIL approach is based on principles established by research on language immersion, which have revealed that students’ language acquisition is most successful when it takes place across the curriculum.

For the past two years, the ELP at Wesley College has delivered 20 per cent of the curriculum in Chinese through CLIL. CLIL is an ideal approach since the IB PYP curriculum framework at Wesley enables teachers to design transdisciplinary units of inquiry. The CLIL approach to the teaching and learning of language content and concepts, as Do Coyle, Bernardette Holmes and Lid King explain in ‘Towards an integrated curriculum – CLIL National Statement and Guidelines, ‘is about providing rich input through learning new content by processing this and extracting meaning in additional language.’

Preps sharing the planet: a transdisciplinary unit of inquiry

What does the ELP approach look like in terms of a transdisciplinary unit of inquiry? Our Prep ‘Sharing the planet’ unit focuses on the central idea that ‘Living things play an important role in ecosystems.’ In planning this unit of inquiry, our first step was to match the lines of inquiry with the relevant Australian Curriculum content descriptors for Prep and Year 1 Science. Our lines of inquiry focus on the features, needs and relationship between living things, which connect closely to the Australian Curriculum content descriptors for Prep science – ‘Living things have basic needs, including food and water’ – and Year 1 – ‘Living things have a variety of external features (and) live in different places where their needs are met.’

Our focus then was to determine the Approaches to Learning skills we wanted the students to develop throughout this unit, such as the skills of observation, acquisition of knowledge and comprehension. The students were provided with many opportunities to develop these skills – all within an environment where Chinese is the medium for teaching and learning.

Challenges

There are challenges in designing a unit of inquiry like this using a CLIL approach. One is how best to maintain a dual focus, ensuring that the unit enables students to use their Chinese language knowledge for learning science and at the same time ensuring that it enables them to progress in their Chinese language knowledge and skills through learning science. Ensuring students use their Chinese language knowledge for learning and through learning science requires close attention to strategies that make content comprehensible to students, for example by using clear pedagogical gestures, addressing content in familiar contexts, and adopting a simplified Chinese vocabulary and removing unnecessary terminology or jargon.

A further challenge is addressing the complexities of a CLIL approach in Chinese. This involves some serious thinking about the Chinese vocabulary students will require if they are to engage deeply in a unit of inquiry like the Prep science unit. This is partly because of Chinese language challenges such as learning scripts that are significantly different to English or the Roman script , which, as Ian Hill and Mark Shum note, draws heavily on memory function. And yet another challenge is differentiating the approach to meet the needs of students at different stages in their language learning, and monitoring learning progress in light of this.

Successes

Our monitoring clearly indicates that the ELP enables students’ Chinese language learning. Our next steps include finding relevant assessments and proficiency standards to more accurately measure students’ progressive achievement in Chinese language learning.

Anecdotal evidence also indicates that students enjoy their Chinese language learning. Asked, ‘What is the best thing about learning Chinese?’ student responses range from, ‘Knowing things my brother doesn’t,’ and, ‘At home my parents don’t know what I and my sister are saying,’ to, ‘Understanding other people in a different way.’

Further anecdotal evidence indicates that parents rate the ELP highly, with responses ranging from, ‘My child seems engaged and is able to retain words and phrases,’ to, ‘Our children have learnt second and third languages before. Wesley’s method seems to be effective.’

The approach we’re pioneering in our ELP requires the commitment of significant resources, time and expertise, given Wesley’s goal to become a leading language school.

Nicola Rule is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programme Coordinator and Yayoi Nikakis is an Enhanced Language Program teacher at the Elsternwick Campus of Wesley College.  

This article is based on their conference presentation, ‘A unique language journey: learning Chinese through the CLIL approach,’ at the IB Global Conference in Singapore. 

Image: Yayoi Nikakis and Year 3 students take a transdisciplinary approach to the curriculum as part of the Enhanced Language Program at Wesley College’s Elsternwick Campus.

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