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Teach Chinese to Very Young Learners: Pathways to True Differentiated Instruction

How do you teach very young learners when they hardly know how to speak? How would you design your lessons when you have a group of students with varying ages? This article is going to show you the magic of true Differentiated Instruction (DI) in a pre-K to K setting where students age from 4-month to 5 years old. Modification of teaching materials based on specific classroom situation will also be discussed to help teachers meet various learners’ needs.

Very young learners: Immerse & Grab Attention

Usually, I would differentiate my students according to their ages and  design different sets of lesson plans. For very young students who have not learned to talk yet, I immerse them into the Mandarin language by singing songs (insert link) and reading storybooks (insert link). For example, when teaching numbers, I repeatedly sing the song “一二三,爬上山” and play Number Claps (see Appendix).

Assessing young learners’ language acquisition could be difficult since they are still developing their cognitive skills. However, teachers could immerse young learners in the target language where they could imitate and learn naturally. Considering young learners’ short attention span, singing songs and playing games help draw their attention and keep them engaged.

Toddlers: Modeling, Group Work, & Individual Work

For toddlers, I would recycle the Number Claps game and make minor modification. Instead of me doing all the speaking and actions, I ask my students to clap their hands for certain times while I speaking the number of clap times. In this activity, I follow the  “I-we-you” sequence,  meaning the teacher demonstrates first, then students work in groups, and finally students break down to take turns doing individual work. I often facilitate turn-taking by playing “hot potato” (击鼓传花).

Students love the game and they are more motivated to participate. Teachers can also use effective strategies to facilitate turn-taking and manage their classrooms better. For example, positive narration could be a good instructional strategy where teachers praise a student’s positive behavior and motivate other students to behave accordingly. Teachers can use a teddy bear as motivation by saying: “I will give the talking teddy bear to the student who turns their listening ears on.”

Kindergarteners:  Interactive Activities

Kindergarteners are able to handle a variety of interactive activities as they are more cognitively and linguistically developed. To modify and add to the game Number Claps, teachers can ask students to take initiatives in clapping.

The game works as follows: everyone closes eyes, one student claps his/her hands for no more than 10 times, and another student states the number of claps in Chinese. The key of the activity is to practice numbers in Chinese, and teachers could review numbers in future lessons as well. For example, whenever I bring in multiple pictures to class, I would ask my students to count the pictures with me in Chinese.

Constantly reviewing what have been learned is vital for language acquisition. The “i+1” theory (Krashen, 1988) shows that the teacher should help students make one step forward on the basis of their previous level. Thus creating engaging activities that are a little bit challenging for kindergarteners will help with their learning.

Differentiated instruction is a concept that can be flexibly incorporated into various contexts. For language teachers, how to twig, modify, and upgrade your material to suit different learners’ needs is key to the success of learning. If you have any great ideas about teaching Chinese to pre-k and kindergarten students, feel free to leave a comment and let me know!


Krashen, S. D. (1988), Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, Prentice-Hall International.

Appendix: Number Claps

   The teacher claps and speaks the number at the same beat.

   一 (Clap once)

   二、二 (Clap twice)

   三、三、三 (Clap three times)

   … …

   十、十、十、十、十、十、十、十、十、十(Clap ten times)

Twig one: Students clap according to the number the teacher speaks.

Twig two: Everyone closes eyes, and one student claps while others listen and state the number.

 About the Author

Fan Sun

Fan Sun

Fan Sun is the Teacher Training Specialist at Better Chinese. She graduated from the TESOL program at University of Pennsylvania. Having worked as an ESL teacher as well as a Mandarin teacher in Philadelphia schools and non-profit organizations, she has developed great passion and interest in curriculum development and teacher education.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. February 27, 2015

    Usually I don’t read article on blogs, but I wish to say that
    this write-up very forced me to check out and do so! Your writing taste has been amazed me.
    Thank you, very nice article.

    • Fan Sun
      February 27, 2015

      Thank you! I’m glad that you find this article helpful. We will continue to deliver high-quality blogs that are beneficial to language teachers.

  2. February 27, 2015

    I haave found in my personal expertise that practicing numbers in English is a helpful use of time for students
    at any level.

  3. April 2, 2015

    Hello I am Crystal.I have been being employed as ELL teacher
    in Hong Kong for many years.I’m in search of something similar to this for my ESL group.
    I’m lucky I have found your website while searching for brainstorming ideas,
    there are massive amount of tips.I am so thankful to know such a
    wonderful website at hand! Thanks!

    • Joanne
      Joanne permalink
      April 8, 2015

      Thank you! I’m glad that you find our blog is helpful to your teaching. We will continue to deliver high-quality blogs that are beneficial to language teachers. If you have any ideas that you’d like to share with others, you are also welcome to contribute :)
      For more tips on how to teach Chinese, follow our Facebook page at

  4. June 14, 2015

    His work might be discovered in many American literature anthologies and can easily be incorporated into many ESL lesson plans.

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