Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

The benefits of a comprehension-based approach for teaching and learning Chinese

This is the second post in a series of three focusing on comprehension-based Chinese learning and teaching, written by Diane Neubauer. Please read the first part before continuing! It contains both an introduction to comprehension-based methods and a short author biography. In this part, the focus will be on methodology, which means that it does have more emphasis on teaching than learning, although it is of course impossible to separate the two. The third and final article in the series will offer more hands-on advice for what you can do as a student. Enjoy!


This article contains three parts. First, we’re going to look at some of the underlying ideas behind comprehension-based methods. This is important for understanding not just how the methods work, but also why. Second, we’ll look at what this means for students in terms of their proficiency development and general experience of learning Chinese. Third, there will be an overview of different methods and teaching practices that are based on comprehensible input, along with links so you can find out more if you want.

What are some underlying ideas behind comprehension-based teaching?

In order to better understand comprehension-based teaching, let’s look at some of the ideas behind it. As you will see, some are very different from how Chinese teaching is typically conducted.

  • Relying on the comprehension hypothesis instead of the skill-building hypothesis: the idea that comprehending language allows your mind to build fluency in the language, with no need to rehearse speaking and writing. This means that there is less, if any, repeating after the teacher, and little to no memorization for its own sake. Language is mainly heard and read in context instead.
  • A limited role for direct instruction about grammar: while useful in editing one’s speeches and writing, grammar study is not helpful for in-the-moment conversational ability. Grammar study may help those (rather few) students who enjoy grammar to address their appreciation for analysis about language. In a class with communicative goals, a little reference to grammar and information about the language may allow those students just enjoy the meaning of the language again. I have had a few students like this!
  • A limited role for rehearsing speech: perhaps speaking practice can build confidence or can be fun, but it not necessary for fluency to develop. The premise is that if we aim for comprehending input, we’ll get more spontaneous output over time.
  • Using natural and high-frequency language, without too much concern for the grammar involved, rather than lists of words on the same topic (like most textbooks) or curriculum determined based on “simpler” and “more difficult” grammar.
  • Avoiding direct error correction: that is, the teacher generally does not point out student errors and ask them to repeat correctly.
  • Communication at the level of students’ acquisition: really communicating ideas during class, whether about stories, the students’ actual lives, or content of relevance to the students, and not just rehearsing or role playing.

What are student results and experiences like in comprehension-based instruction?

All this talk about input sometimes makes people wonder if comprehension-based teaching aims for student proficiency in the language. Can students speak proficiently? Can they write in Chinese? Yes, indeed. When aiming for comprehension, there is evidence that students also gain speaking and compositional writing skills.

Speaking from my own experience as a Chinese learner, I have experiences both with a grammar-oriented, mostly memorization-based approach to reading. When I moved later to China, I had conversational, one-on-one tutoring courses that were a great benefit as my teachers tailored class to my language ability.

More recently, I have been developing my Chinese through listening to videos, podcasts, and audiobooks, and reading books in translation that interest me. In addition, over the past two years, I have been part of a Chinese church and have been reading the sci-fi trilogy 《三体》. I am sure that my Chinese is better than when I lived in China, especially since my Chinese teacher told me so when I went back for a visit a few years after I moved back to the USA. (She wasn’t just being nice; she was honestly surprised, since I was no longer surrounded by Chinese every day).

Moreover, I like working on my Chinese now. When I thought I had to drill myself on vocabulary everyday, and read material that was too hard for me to grasp easily and enjoy, I rarely studied and then felt guilty for neglecting my goal to press on towards ever-better Chinese.

However, when I did study, I felt like it wasn’t very productive, since I’d forget a lot. Therefore, I am planning to continue with comprehension-based approaches as the main bulk of my continued development of Chinese fluency.

Results in proficiency development

  • My experience with teaching other ways in my first years teaching Mandarin suggests that comprehension-based teaching has been more effective at developing students’ Chinese abilities. However, let’s say it only just matched results from other methods of instruction: the relative pleasantness of class time makes me believe these are still a good set of principles on which to base my Chinese classes.
  • Reading Chinese characters included: In particular, Cold Character Reading (see below) has made it much less tedious for a high percentage of my students to develop Chinese character literacy. It used to be common for only a few students to retain character reading skills, and most to struggle, some struggling very significantly. Since one of my goals as a Chinese teacher is to make Chinese accessible to anyone who wishes to learn it, it is very good news to find means of helping people not raised in a character-based language setting to read Chinese confidently and with pleasure.
  • Aptitude is therefore less of a factor in success at language gains. Attitude and engagement are now more predictive of students’ successful development of Chinese proficiency. More of my students succeed in Chinese through these approaches.
  • As examples of Chinese students’ proficiency development, I collected a YouTube playlist of videos of students in high school Chinese classes that are taught through comprehension-based approaches.
  • For a more scientific measurement of results, research in Chinese as a Second Language already offers some support, indirectly and directly. For example, Dr. Michael Everson found that students who first read in pinyin later read those same words and phrases in reading in characters more effectively (therefore, I note, after the sound and meaning were familiar). That seems similar to results seen with Cold Character Reading. Also, research on reading in Chinese by Dr. Helen Shen came up with the same 98% comprehensibility level (the same percentage recommended for Extensive Reading) as an ideal percentage for strong reading comprehension in Chinese.
  • Forthcoming research based on data collected about ten beginning-level middle school and high school students who participated in a 2-week Chinese STARTALK language camp in 2016, which included TPRS and Cold Character Reading. Results suggested that students were able to read familiar texts well, but also were able to read unfamiliar texts and recognize many of those words out of context (Riggs, forthcoming; citation link coming soon).

Enjoyment and perceived success factors

Low levels of stress during class, and regarding learning Chinese in general, seem to be another benefit of comprehension-based teaching. A deliberate goal is to align instructional practices to ways the brain acquires language, so perhaps that is one reason.

Another may be that one aspect of language learning that is notoriously stressful for some people — speaking the new language — happens much more within the student’s control and their desire to speak, rather than being required to speak beyond their current sense of confidence.

My students hear about Second Language Acquisition theory from time to time in class, and they are aware I am intentional about how I teach and why. Most of them took language classes before mine, and realize there are some elements of difference. Who better to ask about a student’s perspective on comprehension-based language classes than students with that experience?

So, while working on this article, I asked my students the question: “What does someone in a comprehension-based Chinese class need to know?” I encouraged them to share challenges, tips for success, and what helps them. They came up with an excellent list of suggestions.

Here are some of their comments combined roughly by topic and only slightly edited:

  • All of the visuals help with comprehension: gestures, pictures, drawing, acting.
  • You can’t let your mind “turn off” in class, though after a while, it wants to. If you aren’t hearing and understanding, you’re not going to make progress. Listening and looking at the teacher is also important because when you listen to her, she makes gestures and its easier to follow. (This is a reason I provide brain breaks: short pauses during class to move, watch a brief video, or play a short game. I was also reminded to be sure I do brain breaks when students need them, not just when convenient for me.)
  • Characters and reading are not as hard as you expect; there are steps to reading. You need to read a lot. Without massive literary input, it is much more difficult to formulate sentences. Pinyin is your friend and it feels “safer” at first.
  • It’s ok for you to understand more than you can say. Understanding is more important and comes before being able to speak Chinese. 1) Hear it; 2) Read it; 3) Speak it.
  • Don’t stress about tones, just focus on the meaning of what’s being said. Also try speaking even with errors. Not being perfect is okay. Also, you can say a lot even without having a large vocabulary size if you know very useful words first.
  • It’s better if you enjoy class! Find ways to enjoy it.
  • Keep an open mind and just go with the flow of the class and how the language is. This is not memorizing random conversations, taking a quiz, and then forgetting. It’s a repetitive style of class, not memorization. It’s okay not to be able to understand everything as soon as it is taught; it may take a few days for things to stick. Don’t worry if you can’t pick up on some reading at first. Stay focused and not discouraged, because it will all come in its own time if you stay working at it little by little everyday. “Immersion” helps a lot, and even if you don’t understand everything, some sticks. Ask questions.
  • Engage in class activities because it helps you comprehend new words more easily. Participating is a big thing!

At the risk of appearing boastful, I will share a couple of recent, unsolicited comments from people who have learned Chinese through comprehension-based methods with me. Many teachers, myself included, keep notes like these to re-read on the tough days. (So if you are learning Chinese, remember to share your positive feedback with your teacher!)

  • From a student in his third year of high school Chinese classes: “Your way of teaching Chinese is awesome and whenever I talk to people about it they always want to hear more about it, and think it is the most productive way to learn.”
  • From an adult learner after her first two 1-hour Chinese classes over Skype: “Prior to my first lesson, I was nervous about learning Chinese.  I brought a pen and paper to take notes, but then ended up not taking any notes at all.  Just before my second lesson, I felt myself getting anxious again, but then I reminded myself about how easy and enjoyable my first lesson was.  The anxiety instantly melted away and I was able to enjoy my second lesson.  Even though it’d been over a week since my first lesson and I hadn’t done any ‘homework’, I was able to remember most of what I had learned and then apply it to comprehend more than I did the first time!  I was even able to read the characters out loud in Chinese!”

What are some methods or language teaching practices that could be considered based on comprehensible input?

There are a variety of methods and activities that were deliberately based on the idea of comprehensible input. These vary in exactly how input is provided, how comprehensible the input needs to be, and they include varying degrees of interaction.

However, the methods and activities listed below are based on the idea that languages are acquired through understanding input, which leads the brain to create a mental picture of the new language. Many teachers seeking to follow comprehension-based teaching principles use some variety of methods.

A visual of the “umbrella” of comprehensible input (CI) methods that might be used may be helpful. Fluency Matters, led by Carol Gaab, includes many of these options in training teachers.

Speaking for myself as a Chinese language teacher, I draw on many of the following:

  • TPR: Total Physical Response, developed by Dr. James Asher. In TPR, the essence is that the teacher (and later on, perhaps volunteer students) say actions that the teacher models and the students do. Comprehension is immediate because of the modeling by the teacher, and students are quickly able to understand quite a lot of language with low stress and effort.
  • TPRS: Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, developed by Blaine Ray. In the US, this methodology may be the most well-known of comprehensible input-based teaching methods. TPRS techniques for making language comprehensible and interesting are used in other methods as well. Perhaps those techniques most often emphasized are:
    • Slow: the teacher’s pacing their speech to allow students to process the meaning of language;
    • Questioning: asking many and varied questions and allowing students to answer with a nod, one word, a phrase, or a sentence based on each students’ readiness; and
    • “Teaching to the eyes,” a term from Susan Gross referring to the teacher’s need to stay connected to the students by observing  students’ eyes for feedback about comprehension and interest. The teacher then rephrases, slows down, or repeats as needed.
  • Generally TPRS is described as having three steps: Establishing meaning (quick introduction to new words and phrases), Asking a story (not story telling), and Reading. Students may be involved as actors as the stories are created in class, with more or less speaking involved, depending on the TPRS teacher.
  • Based on TPRS, a newer approach to Chinese literacy has been developed by Terry Waltz, PhD: Cold Character Reading. Following a class or two mainly focused on auditory input that includes a few new words or phrases, students are then guided through intentionally-designed reading material much longer than typical textbook dialogues and reading passages. In reading material designed for Cold Character Reading, the new words appear many times in a meaningful, (hopefully!) interesting context. Initially, the context helps students read the characters aloud; later, through repeated exposure, the characters “stick” and are recognized in new sentences.
  • Some task-based classes, for example, those advocated by Dr. Bill VanPatten, predominately with examples from university language classes. The tasks would be scaled to the language level of the students; rather than rehearsing speaking tasks, for example, significant input would be provided, resulting in some acquired language that students would then use for a task. Tasks may also be more input-based.
  • Extensive Reading: Language learners chose reading material of interest to them which is easy to understand. 98% familiar language is often suggested. The ER Foundation’s guides (in several languages) are helpful to teachers or to language learners.
  • Story Listening: Dr. Beniko Mason-Nanki advocates story listening, in which the teacher finds stories of interest to his or her students, and tells them in the language, using drawings, voice inflection, synonyms and rephrasing to make the overall story comprehended. Students also do extensive reading of their choice for literacy development.
  • Automatic Language Growth: This method emphasizes listening comprehension and observation by learners, and discourages speaking practice, translating, and memorizing. Rather, the goal is imitating the process a child has in acquiring a language by understanding native speakers who are using the language, not practicing in class or with fellow students. There is a well-known language school in Bangkok, Thailand using this method.
  • The Natural Approach: Tracy Terrell and Stephen Krashen developed a methodology reflecting Krashen’s five hypotheses about language acquisition.
  • The Language Experience: This is an approach to literacy development designed for students with some oral skills already.  The teacher asks a student to describe something that happened. At the same time, the teacher acts as a scribe, writing or typing them up in real time. It would be incredible for heritage speakers of Chinese, or those who have considerable oral Chinese skills but who have not developed strong character reading yet.  I use a modified version of The Language Experience with my students by asking a lot of questions that provide input, and students according to their level. They see Chinese turned immediately into reading material that they can understand. I have a video example here in which students are helping me remember a story we created in class the day before, and I am typing it.
  • Focal Skills: Dr. Ashley Hastings developed methods for international students entering US universities. Many of these students had years of English study in their home countries, but they lacked real-time comprehension and fluency. Focal Skills aims efficiently to prepare those students for their US university experience. One aspect of the Focal Skills program is MovieTalk, in which short videos, or full-length films, are used to greatly increase students’ listening comprehension in an enjoyable way. The growth is listening comprehension also has carry-over benefits on their speaking, reading, and writing skills.
  • A collection of videos of numerous Chinese language teachers using several of the above methods can be seen where I blog along with several other teachers at Ignite Language.

That’s the end of the second article in this series; continue reading the third and final instalment here! Diane Neubauer (杜雁子),is a Mandarin learner and teacher from the United States. She has been teaching Mandarin for ten years, with students from elementary school age through adults. She has a BA in East Asian Studies and an MA in Religion. In addition to teaching full-time at a high school, Diane is involved in teacher training and writing. You can find her blogging with other language teachers here or on her YouTube channel.

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  1. DanielG says:

    The phrase “pinyin is your friend” has been bouncing around in my mind for a few days since reading this article. Until now, I may not have regarded pinyin as the enemy, but surely as a crutch to be discarded at the earliest possible moment. It seems that one of the consequences of not using a crutch is hobbling. The effect is most obvious when reading. If I read a pinyin text out loud, it gives a fair semblance of someone who can speak Chinese fluently. Even a person with only rudimentary knowledge of pinyin can already sound intelligible when reading. When I read a character version of the same text however, even one in which I can recognize and recall all of the characters, I constantly need to pause in inappropriate places and it sounds, well, not fluent at all. It makes sense as the author points out that learning characters is easier and faster if one has already internalized their sound and meaning. It also seems that it is easier to focus on the meaning of the sentence as a whole if one is not bogged down by having to think, even briefly, about the individual characters.

    When I got started learning Chinese, I heard the advice to avoid learning to write characters too early, but I hadn’t heard the advice to delay learning to read them. It seems that the approach of delaying both probably has some merit. My thought at the time was that the characters are such an integral part of the language, that I should dive in right away, but I suspect that had I viewed pinyin as my friend, my character acquisition might have been quicker, and my general comfort with the language might have been greater.

    As it is now, I essentially only use pinyin to discover or confirm the pronunciation of individual words. I do wonder though, now that I am at an intermediate level, if it is possible and useful for me to try to use pinyin in other ways. The textbook I’m currently using, Integrated Chinese, includes pinyin versions of the texts and until now I’ve largely ignored them. Perhaps I should give them another look…

  2. Peter says:

    Diane, these posts are a great resource. Thanks!

    请问 I totally buy into the comprehensible input approach, but it’s been a struggle to find suitable material (particularly written fiction) at my level. I’m beyond graded readers (I’ve pretty much read them all) but don’t yet have the vocabulary to read translated middle grade novels such as Harry Potter and the Alchemist (to say nothing of 三体). Is there anything out there to bridge the gap?

    1. Hi Peter! Thanks. Hopefully the third article will give you some suggestions about finding comprehensible input at your level.

      Have you looked at the Tales & Traditions series? They are short stories on Chinese cultural topics, sometimes historical or related to 成语, and vary in their language level. I think about 450 characters up to about 1500 character levels. I also have used sites like Chinesepod.com’s Advanced & Media lessons — especially the Media lessons — since they helped scaffold into authentic materials. You might also consider comic books. Calvin & Hobbes is fun in Chinese; Diary of a Wimpy Kid is available in Chinese, too. An advantage to these: if you have an English edition, you can easily check for meaning if you need it.

    2. Olle Linge says:

      Regarding Diane’s answer about the third article: It’s been published! You can read it here.

  3. Amanda says:

    This is a resourceful post and I was delighted to read the part to help students with some speaking ability read or elevate their literacy level in a joyful setting. Is it necessary to put students with heritage background and students with non-heritage background in two different groups?

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