SF State News {University Communications}

Image: Photos of SF State students and scenes from around campus

Mandarin academy combines literacy and technology

June 25, 2008 -- Twenty middle school students are spending a month learning Mandarin on campus this summer, and there isn’t a textbook in sight. The students are immersed in the language by reading graphic novels, watching animations, playing games and creating podcasts and digital stories.

This innovative Mandarin program, devised by Christy Lao, professor of elementary education and Peggy Benton, professor of instructional technologies, uses a curriculum infused with relevant reading materials and the latest technology, designed to boost the students' grasp of reading, writing, listening to and speaking Mandarin. "Language teaching is still very traditional and is often based on textbooks," said Lao. "Here, we aren't using textbooks, but there's still a big emphasis on reading."

A photograph of student Hugh Gerstin wearing a headset, recording a podcast onto a computer.

Hugh Gerstin and his classmate record podcasts in Mandarin.

On campus, the 20 students start each day with an hour of free reading, settling down on beanbags and lime green couches in a classroom transformed with soft furnishings and lamps. "It's a pretty relaxed atmosphere and I've already noticed my Mandarin improving after a few days," said Hugh Gerstin, a pupil at Alice Fong Yu School in the Sunset district.

"There is a lot of reading," said Jonathan Pang, also a pupil at Alice Fong Yu. "I've learned some new idioms from the stories and comics I've read, phrases which I will be able to use in conversation."

Adjacent to the reading room is a computer lab where the students record their own podcasts, produce comics and create digital stories using VoiceThread. The web-based tool allows users to create online albums of photos, sound, video and text.

"This is a way of leveraging the cache of technology," said Benton. "Podcasts and digital stories involve both visual and auditory components and they include repetition which is useful for language acquisition."

During the program each child is given a free portable media player. "These encourage the students to engage with material in Mandarin at home," said class teacher Mindy Chaing, demonstrating a short animated film on one of the touch screen devices. "It helps reinforce what they have learned in class. Students can choose to listen to the spoken Mandarin, read the subtitles or even just pick up the storyline from the visuals."

The summer language academy is part of Startalk, a national initiative funded by the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense to improve the teaching and learning of strategically important world languages. Alongside the student program at SF State, 20 newly-qualified Mandarin teachers are participating in a teachers' course.

As the program draws to a close on July 11, the hope is that the students will continue their reading and podcasting over the summer break and beyond, staying in touch with each other through an online community.

For professors Lao and Benton the learning continues too. As teacher educators in the College of Education, they will assess how their methods have helped the students' language development. "We hope to write a paper about our findings from this pilot project to teach others what we’ve learned," said Lao.

-- Elaine Bible


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