Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Improving your spoken and written Chinese by focusing on the process

I’m sure many readers are familiar with the term process writing, because it’s used by many teachers when teaching native speakers and second language learners alike. As the name implies, process writing puts the focus on the process rather than the product. In traditional teaching, you write an essay, your teacher corrects it and gives you a grade and that’s it. Most students only look at the grade and throw the essay away.

Feedback is extremrecycleely valuable

This is terrible waste. Feedback is the only thing in language learning you really have to pay for and students are throwing it away! This is because the course design is awful, there are usually no incentives for the students to learn from their mistakes unless they are very motivated and do so spontaneously on their own.

But what’s the point of a teacher correcting your essay if you don’t learn from the errors your teacher has found in your writing?

There is no point, or at least there is no reason you need a teacher in that case, you could just write an essay and don’t show it to anyone. You could also do the same and post it on Lang-8 for free. I guess the reason why we see this happening in schools is that the system requires teachers to grade students, but teachers seldom require students to actively process the feedback they give.

Process writing helps you learn from your mistakes

Process writing is meant to solve this problem. Instead of giving you one deadline and one grade for the essay, there are several, let’s say three, separate deadline and grades:

  1. Rough outline –This is just meant to be an outline. What are you going to write about and how are you going to structure the text? What do you want to express? To whom? Students often skip this step, which leads to poor texts, especially if you write in a foreign language. Very experienced authors might be able to do this intuitively, but most students can’t. By having a separate deadline and feedback after that deadline, the teacher forces the student to pay attention to structure.
  2. First draft –The next step is to actually write the text. This works like a normal writing exercise, except that students have received feedback from their outlines, hopefully leading to a more clearly structured text. The first draft is handed in and corrected by the teacher. Feedback is given in such a way that students have a fair chance of improving their drafts (i.e. they need to understand what they’ve done wrong and what they should have written instead).
  3. Final version –The students now read the feedback they received from the teacher in the previous step and try to improve their texts, correcting mistakes found in the draft. Again, this forces the students to focus on the problems they’re making, prompting them to correct them and hopefully remember what they have changed for later.

Repeat until you see significant progress

The above steps are of course just part of a cycle. You will only be able to identify and fix a few problems at a time (in fact, trying to correct too many errors at once is generally a bad idea). When you have corrected the most urgent problems, repeat the process again. This is probably an infinite cycle because perfection is a direction, not a destination. Still, this depends a lot on if you need quantity or quality for your writing practice. I think the above three steps are enough for most learners.

Naturally, following the above procedure means that it takes much longer to produce a text, but I think everybody can agree that the goal of composing a text in Chinese isn’t to write as many characters as possible. We’re unlikely to produce texts with intrinsic value anyway, so if we don’t learn anything from the process, we might as well not bother with writing the text in the first place and spend our time and money somewhere else. It’s the quality of the text you produce and what you learn from the process that matter.

Now apply this to speaking ability as well

Process writing is being widely used around the world, but I haven’t heard many teachers talk about process speaking. I think you can guess where I’m heading just by reading the word “process speaking”, especially after seeing the breakdown of the process above.

This is how process speaking works:

  1. Prepare an outline of a short speech or presentation on any topic. If you’re a beginner or intermediate learner, stick to things you’re already familiar with. Advanced learners should challenge themselves and select topics you are not familiar with in Chinese (but that you still know in your native language). The outline should consist of all the facts you want to include and in which order you want to present them.
  2. Practice your presentation until you know it reasonably well. Don’t write it down and just memorise it, talk your way through it until you actually know what you’re saying. If you’re not sure about how to say something, look it up or ask someone. Copy structures and words from others, but avoid lifting entire sentences, because they are obviously not your own and hard to internalise.
  3. Record your presentation, audio is enough, but video is even cooler. If you’re doing this for a course you’re taking, either bring your phone and record your own presentation or ask a classmate to do it for you. Save the recording in any way you see fit. Again, this is for future reference and analysis and you don’t need to show the recording if you don’t want to.
  4. Analyse the recording with a tutor. Up until this step, everything is standard practice (except perhaps that some people tend to write down their presentations first and then memorise them, which isn’t very good if you want to practise speaking). This feedback step is almost never performed, however. Ask your teacher (or hire someone else) to analyse the presentation you just recorded.
  5. Prepare and hold the presentation again. Some ambitious students actually do ask for feedback on their presentations, but I’ve almost never heard of anyone who actually hold the presentation a second time. Listen to the advice, which might include things like pronunciation, intonation, word usage, presentation technique, voice projection or anything else, then hold the presentation again.
  6. Repeat the process until you feel that you have made significant progress (in general, the more advanced you are, the longer you need to spend). I would say that giving the presentation just one extra time based on your teacher’s feedback is already a huge improvement over just doing it one single time. As was the case with process writing, I do think it’s better to move on after the second or perhaps third time, because covering new areas in new presentations is useful in itself and we don’t want to get bogged down in the same area for too long, especially not as beginners.

Stepping up the level of your current Chinese course

Naturally, if you’re enrolled in a course of some kind, you will probably encounter many situations where you have to give oral presentations or write texts about specific topics. Even though your teacher probably won’t encourage you to do what I have described above, you can still do it on your own, but it does require you to start earlier.

If you finish your presentation a week before deadline, you can give the presentation in front of a private tutor or friend and let them help you improve your speaking ability. You then have at least a week to practice and both your final grade and your spoken Chinese will improve!

Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox

I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!


  1. nommoc says:

    I’m still trying to fully grasp the point of this article.

    Read it twice and basically would sum it up as, be as conscious about the results associated with each step rather than simply the final product? Is the accurate?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m not sure what is unclear, actually. In general, people don’t care about the process at all. They just deliver a speech or a text and then don’t do anything with it. Some people practice, but mostly on their own. Very few keep the feedback they get from their teacher, improve on it and try again, unless required to do so (and I have yet to encounter a teacher who requires this for speaking; writing is common enough, at least in Sweden).

      1. nommoc says:

        Is there a reasonable way for teachers to start doing so?

        It would have to time efficient as many teachers are short on time as it is.

        1. Olle Linge says:

          I think you’re looking at it the wrong way. There exist a weird misconception that quantity is the only thing that matters in formal language education, regardless of quality. You have to cover x chapters per week and if you don’t finish book y by the end of the year, you’re probably a bad teacher. This is complete nonsense, especially if the teacher is responsible for testing. Who cares how many chapters you finish? It’s what the students learn that matters, not how much material you have covered. Who cares about how many texts you have written if you haven’t learnt much from writing them? It’s relatively easy to fit this into most curricula, simply write fewer texts but spend more time on each text. If we add the minimum of two versions of the same text, I guess the time it took would be about 50% more than for writing it just once. That’s not too bad.

          1. Teresa says:

            I think what you just mentioned is the biggest problem in Chinese language courses in China. I took Chinese classes in Shanghai at two different universities for two years and it was only quantity what mattered. I remember learning 90 words per class a week. Obviously I don’t remember almost any of those words. I actually think the advice you give in this post is really good, and I will try to put it in practice through Lang-8, maybe.
            I wish I had found your blog when I was back in China studying Chinese!!

  2. Sara K. says:

    This is why I actually spend more time correcting my Lang-8 entries than actually writing them.

    I know that if I don’t correct my entries, then I’m not going to process the feedback, which means I might as well have a private diary which I show to nobody as far as learning is concerned.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Same here. I probably spend roughly the same amount of time writing as I do correcting and reading feedback. If I include the follow-up questions and subsequent queries into why it should be X and not Y (usually not done on Lang-8), I spend perhaps twice as much time on the correction process. Sure, writing itself is actually useful, just as speaking to yourself might be, but if you do that, you miss out on so much. There are some things you can only learn from negative feedback (which makes me think that I should write an article about that).

  3. Kay says:

    Thank you for this article. You are right, of course, that we neglect the process and hurry students through to the outcome (which is not good quality learning at all) and I am going to try and focus more on it. However, there is these terrible ‘t’ words which really get in the way of good learning and teaching ‘time’ and ‘timetable’. However, it is always good to be reminded about the importance and value of the process rather than continuing to focus on that other ‘t’ word ‘tests’.

  4. Sara K. says:

    This is also why Alfie Kohn (among others) advocates eliminating grades altogether – research shows that, when a paper comes back with a grade and feedback, many students only look at the grade, but when a paper comes back with feedback only, most students will actually read the feedback.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think this is separate from the the debate about grades in general. You could easily grade a paper three times instead of just one: the draft (perhaps 10%), the first draft (perhaps 30%) and the final version (perhaps 60%). That way, you encourage students to focus on what’s important rather than the grade itself. I think grades are very good in many situations, but they need to be very carefully thought out. They need to count what counts, rather than what happens to look good on paper or what is convenient for the teacher. Grading badly done is… well, bad, but that doesn’t mean that grading itself is bad.

  5. george says:

    From the teacher’s point of view, teaching writing is extremely labor intensive.. even in first language.

    Correction can become overbearing and counterproductive, themes can be uninteresting and ill-choosen, time can easily run short.

    So… to become a good writer really takes a self-motivated student that is an able and avid reader. Attempting to get a poor or so so reader to write well is a bit premature. Add in the burden of learning and recalling Chinese characters and expectations far exceed realities.

    After 19 years of living in Taiwan, I primarily write Chinese for withdrawal slips at my bank and my name and address on an applications or internet purchases that require such. I do read a lot more.. signs of all sorts, street addresses, instructions for the dog’s medication, menus… but with an electronic dictionary in hand.

    At times I do read conversation sub-titles on TV as I listen to the movie dialog or the news in Chinese.

    I have had a lot of students that want to write well in English, but even though I am sure I fully understand what they would need to do so… they cannot afford the time to achieve first language results.

    The one student at a university that submitted a near perfect English composition to me and recieved an A from me and high praise was promptly drumed out of the classroom for buying an essay on line and not doing her own work.

    Excellence in writing is just about the last thing we all learn in language. And many of us never master it in our first language. If you are one of those that can’t write well in English, what is going to make the outcome any different in Chinese?

    1. Kay says:

      You are so right, correcting writing is incredibly labour intensive. I only have a relatively small class and I know how much time it takes to correct/improve/make suggestions knowing that the students are not really taking much notice of the corrections and that under exam conditions much of the work they submit will be my work rather than theirs. Our students are permitted to do one of the two extended writing tasks on the computer which is much more realistic. I can’t remember the last time I actually wrote an extended text in characters by hand. In an ideal world it would be all about ‘what they have learned’ but the reality for my students is that they just want the mark. My challenge for next year will be to rethink some of my strategies for teaching writing to try and combine the needs of assessment, the wants of my students and my desire for a better learning outcome.

      1. Xiaofeng says:

        What if we suggest that students type their essay drafts, then after receiving feedback on the final drafts, they hand write them? This way they can focus on the composition (other than the mechanics of characters) first, yet still have the opportunity to practice character handwriting (if that is also the expectation).

        1. Olle Linge says:

          Good idea! Not only does it make it easier for the teacher, it also makes it easier for the student. In fact, we could even try doing something like this:

          1) Outline in English (only keywords)
          2) Draft in Chinese (computer)
          3) Final version in Chinese (handwritten)

      2. Olle Linge says:

        You could have fewer writing assignments and do more with them. Quantity isn’t what counts. And I don’t think that “the students just want a grade” and “in an ideas world it should be all about what they have learnt” are good excuses at all. You could use those arguments and just skip all teaching. Don’t you care if they learn anything from when you teach them pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar either? I’m sorry, but that the students don’t want it is a very poor excuse to not do something as a teacher. Of course, I know fully well that correcting and giving feedback are time-consuming tasks, but you can keep the time factor constant simply by writing fewer and/or shorter texts. Using a computer for part of the process is also fine. If teaching isn’t about what the students learn, why bother? The only valid excuse I can think of is if the institution requires you to work in a certain way that doesn’t allow you to accomplish that, which is, sadly, often the case.

        1. Kay says:

          My apology, you misunderstood my comments and they are certainly not a reflection on the dedication I have towards my job. I will withdraw my comments.

          1. Olle Linge says:

            If I misunderstood your comment, it’s I who should aplogise, not you! Perhaps you could explain what you meant? I might have over-reacted a bit, but I read three comments in a row that seem to reflect the same line of thought that I just don’t subscribe to. Sorry if I misunderstood your comment!

    2. Olle Linge says:

      You could make the same argument for listening, speaking and reading as well. Even though I think it’s true that whether or not a student succeeds in learning to write (or, in fact, if anyone becomes good at anything at all) is mostly dependent on him/her, I don’t like your conclusion. You seem to be saying “since this is dependent on other things (how much time they spend on their own and their writing ability in their first language) there’s not much we can do”, but perhaps I’m misunderstanding your post. Also, I think you’re misunderstanding the goal here. Very few second language learners, especially in Chinese, have the goal of becoming good authors in Chinese. Writing practise in the classroom is much more about forming decent sentences that together deliver a message at roughly the same level of complexity as everyday speech. Most normal native speakers can do that in their own language.

  6. Joyce says:

    Hello! I’m a Korean-American undergrad student who just graduated w/ a Chinese major and linguistics minor. It’s been a struggle to learn & practice Chinese by myself, but your website is helping a LOT. Thank you so much for creating this website for Chinese language learning students like me! 🙂


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thank you for the kind words! Good luck and happy studying. 🙂

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.