Spaced Repetition character learning with Anki

This May, we finished our Sagebooks.  Right after, I got ambitious and wanted to do something similar to Sage for the next 500 characters.  I partly stopped because Thumper went through my first 20 characters way too quickly.  I randomly estimated then that maybe she knew about 600-650 characters, because she whizzed through set 4 and set 5 pretty quickly.  However, summer and life took over and we concentrated on learning zhuyin and getting into reading instead.

Recently, I’ve been getting quite anxious that Thumper’s not formally learning any of the next 700 characters (our goal is 1200 this year) and it’s October already.  We really need to reach this goal this year because I’m not sure my inner anxiety can take another year of her not reading in English.  (On a side note, just met an all english unschooler recently whose 8 year old isn’t reading either.  Made me feel just a tad better there are others out there.)

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Human Anatomy

After the craziness of our co-op last week, despite the fact that the kids had fun, I decided I really needed a change.  I have a lot of trouble keeping my calm when there is just too much noise and the kids aren’t being respectful and talking over each other during a presentation, or not paying attention to me.   As I mentioned in the Earth’s Rotation around the Sun post, I saw the kids concentrating and remember that is part of my goal.  I also talked to Co-op Mama and asked her if her other co-op was like this and she told me about how they start each session with a circle time.

My Body

Reference book

So for this week, we made two changes to our presentation.  First I brought a book to read as a transition activity for the children.  This gets them to come sit together in a circle rather than me telling them every 5 minutes we’re going to start our presentation.  Then I chose an activity that will lend itself to concentrated work.  Basically, we kept the presentation part short.  (I swear, I learned this in training.  Presentations are only to be 15-20 minutes long.  Somehow needing to teach kids for 1.5 hours twice a week made me forget that.)

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The Earth’s Rotation

The BFSU’s curriculum is divided into 4 sections, Life Science, Physical Science, Earth Science, and Nature of Matter.  Since we’d been covering a lot of Nature of Matter and Physical science, I thought maybe we should cover something from Earth or Life Science.  Life science doesn’t lend itself to very fun activity in the beginning presentations.  So Earth science it was!

Thanks to the ever resourceful Co-op Mama, we the kids had a really great time.

First we started with an AC/BD presentation and Long Black Strip presentation, where I had a hard time wrangling the kids.   Then after a lunch break, we started on the presentation.

Co-op Mama first brought out her creation.  The kids went wild.  Everyone wanted to put it on.

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History: The Long Black Strip

Totally fun!

A few weeks ago, I presented the long black strip to the kids in the co-op.   It was a big hit and really made an impression with Astroboy.

The Long Black Strip is one of the early lessons in the Natural History section of the Montessori History album. I had already showed Thumper the First Great Lesson (Creation of the Universe) and the Second Great Lesson (Coming of Life), thought it was time to talk about humans in this long timeline.

In the presentation the children rolled out a very long, 40 meters, black ribbon in the playground.  The younger children really wanted to roll the ribbon out.  As they walked and unrolled, I talked about how the darkness that came after the creation of the universe went on for a long long time, or how it rained and volcanos erupted again and again for a long, long time.  (as the Earth was forming).  Here’s a sample of the presentation from Montessori Services.  Mine’s slightly different, especially since it was in Chinese, but basically the same idea:  

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Back to handwriting Chinese

As I mentioned in my previous post, I decided that for us, writing for now means learning to handwrite beautifully in addition to learning the composition skills.  The question for me then, was how to teach handwriting.

For me, there are two components to handwriting, recalling how to write a character (English equivalent of “spelling“) and writing beautifully.  I know that if there is no continual usage, the kids will forget how to write, so I’m not going to be too insistent upon it.  But at least while we’re learning to write, I’m going to teach them to remember by using character components.

I remember as a child, I learned how to write characters by writing it over and over again, probably 6-10 times.  And writing homework probably fills at 1-2 pages, kind of like this picture here.  As an adult, I’ve tried re-learning how to write this way, only to forget how to write them the next day.  There is something in the nature of repetitive writing that zones my brain out.  Especially since I’ve already learned stroke order, I just mindlessly write one stroke after another without thinking.

For me, this is not how I want Thumper or Astroboy to learn how to write.  For two reasons.

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Squeezing it in: Music and audiobooks

I’ve been repeating this past month that I cannot squeeze in everything in our work period.  Particularly, I was having trouble squeezing in music and audiobooks, even though to me that is very important in language acquisition.

I finally got around this by not making it a subject to study.

For example, our theme in September was time.  So in the car, during lunch time, during break time, I would play My Grandfather’s clock, in Chinese and English.

Ken Kirai also has a Japanese version, if you want to get children exposed to other cultures and languages.

I was amazed that after about a week, the children all started singing the songs and asked to listen to them again.

Before Thumper goes to sleep, I now let her listen to Magic Treehouse in English, per her request.  I really hope I can find Chinese audiobooks soon.  sigh

Each week, we make a 30 min to 1 hour drive down south for our co-op, Chinese class, sometimes Books and Me library, 4H, etc.  If Thumper’s not reading, then we listen to Radiolab, Story of the World, Chinese history, or Chinese Encyclopedia (Astroboy’s love), and Qiao Hu.

If I had a choice, I would wish the kids could somehow follow up on what they’re listening to and research whatever topics interest them.  But I’m figuring I need to give up this idea till they actually learn how to read and write!

I think the hardest part about squeezing things in is intention and prep.  It takes time to convert all of my audio into mp3s that I load onto my iPhone.  It takes time to go back every week or every month to select the next batch of Chinese Encyclopedia topics we want to listen to, or find the right Radiolab episodes, or add new Story of the World tracks.  Then getting my ass in gear and remembering to play any of these audio, instead of trying to steal time for myself when the kids are working.

Intention is always something I struggle with.  One thing that helps me sometimes is to say, I will work on one thing this month.  Maybe this month I will just work on playing audio during our driving time.  It also helps to have scheduled prep time.

To learn to write or not to write Chinese?

A week ago, I printed out 1200 characters or so.  Thumper and I highlighted the characters she recognized.  Close to 800!  When did that happen?  A lot of it was through reading apparently.  Because she’s telling me left and right as we go through them which book she picked it up from.

With 800 characters down, suddenly I’m not so stressed about learning 1200 characters this year.  And I’m casting my eyes on the question of To write or not to write…..? 

I will sum it up first to save you reading a long winding post:  We need to separate writing curriculum into handwriting and composition writing.

Arguments for Writing

Now a days, I find that I have a lot of problem with knowing how to write emails, FB posts, etc.   I often write emails back to Taiwan to make inquiries to booksellers.  They need to be in a more polite form than normal speech.  On FB posts, same thing.  If I type the way I speak, then it comes out sounding very unschooled, very elementary Chinese level.

My sister the ESL teacher tells me, writing is not the same as speaking.  It’s a separate skill you need to teach.  Just because you can speak does not mean you can write.  Her ESL students speak fine, but they still have trouble with writing.

As of now, there are still instances when I have to handwrite.  Unless I always have technology with me, I cannot take notes, make a todo list, write a grocery shopping list, in Chinese, on a scratch paper.  And I already use technology way more than most.  More importantly, when I go back to Taiwan and I have to fill out official documents or or take notes, I always have to ask others to write it down for me.  It’s so frustrating on my end when that happens.  I also get embarrassed that my writing looks like an elementary school child’s.

Arguments Against Writing

I’ve been reading FB posts of other parents’ experiences and most people concentrate on reading.  The typical experience is that a child forgets how to write easily.  And that they don’t expect their children to write because we’re in the U.S.  The kids already have enough to preoccupy them in their English curriculum and to add the usually painful experience of learning to write as well is too much.   The typical Chinese writing curriculum consists of writing many times a single character.  Muscle memory and all that.

I can totally vouch for the forgetting to write.  I could write in Chinese till I was 12 or 13, then I stopped writing letters back to Taiwan.  I’ve forgotten how to write most characters.  In fact, my siblings who have much lower levels of Chinese than me remember how to write more because they went to Saturday Chinese school for a year as teenagers.  Now a days, I can type in pinyin and it really doesn’t stop me from communicating.  My mother herself cannot remember how to write sometimes.  So, writing requires continual practice.  Will my kids still be writing as teenagers?  Not sure.

Of course, another argument is that my Hapa kids are not going to have the same experience as me.  What is the likelihood that they will go back to Taiwan and live there like I do?  Or that people expect them to write?  They’re considered 外國人 (foreigners) to the Taiwanese people we meet and people are already surprised and happy they even speak Chinese.

Lastly, if you tie your writing curriculum with learning new characters, then your child will not progress fast enough in the reading department.  This is an especially important point for kids in the US, where you want them to read before their English reading skills catch up.

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