Case study: Teaching Mandarin and a virtual trip to China

Written by: Chris Ansell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The LEO Academy Trust launched its immersive Mandarin programme three years ago and recently held a virtual trip to China to give pupils further opportunities to practise speaking. Chris Ansell explains

At LEO Academy Trust, we see teaching MFL as a key part of not only developing our pupils’ language and communication skills but also providing them with the opportunity to understand other ways of living and to become more informed, tolerant and cultured global citizens.

We introduced an innovative approach to teaching languages across our schools in 2018 which saw all year 4 pupils learn Mandarin virtually.

We chose Mandarin for several reasons, not least that it is presumed to be the most spoken first language in the world, with more than one billion people speaking the dialect.

It provided a great chance for our pupils to improve their ability to communicate with people on the other side of the world and to understand a different culture. We also felt that living in a modern and diverse world, Mandarin was a good reflection of our student demographic.

Finally, China is a growing powerhouse, so by giving our pupils the skills to speak the language and understand the culture, we believe many doors can open for them as they progress into the world of further education and work.

The provision was through an online immersive programme and Mandarin lessons were conducted virtually with a Mandarin teacher in Beijing – well before remote education became part of everyday life.

Lessons are also supported by online resources that can be accessed in school and at home, allowing pupils to follow their interests and be inquisitive. As a result, our pupils have developed their knowledge and learnt many Mandarin phrases, including greetings, numbers, countries, foods, families and hobbies.

As a culmination of their learning, our pupils were due to visit China last academic year. The trip was to be funded for 60 disadvantaged pupils, with further places available for non-disadvantaged pupils. However, due to Covid-19, we were forced to rethink the trip.

We were determined not to cancel the event, and instead found another way to provide an exciting and immersive experience and the chance for pupils to speak Mandarin in real-life situations, expand their vocabulary, increase their confidence, and deepen their cultural appreciation.

So, we organised the next best thing and held a virtual week in China from the safety of our classroom. We had limited time to organise activities, so we employed a company and signed up for a virtual excursion to Chengdu.

The materials provided were excellent, offering detailed information booklets, follow-up activities that pupils could complete at home and scripts for teachers to navigate each session. We also had our own host for the live tours.

However, as we did not organise the week, it was not specifically tailored to the needs of our pupils, and we did occasionally adjust the timetable so that it allowed our pupils to work most effectively.

All pupils who had been learning Mandarin were invited to take part and it was fantastic to see all our pupils from the four classes reunited for this special experience. This in itself was a highlight of the week – having been separated and learning from home for so long, the children loved being back together and the energy in the classroom was brilliant. Throughout our virtual visit to Chengdu, pupils enjoyed a series of amazing activities designed to help them practise and improve their language skills and develop their knowledge of China’s history, culture and identity. We had informative sessions in the morning and practical activities in the afternoon.

The morning sessions included virtually exploring downtown Chengdu and the Hejiang Pavilion, learning about the ancient Chu civilisation, visiting the Sanxingdui Museum and, of course, the Chengdu Giant Panda centre was a big hit.

These sessions were incredibly interesting but taking part remotely was challenging. Had we been there in person, our pupils could have led their learning and explored the attractions themselves and it was difficult for some pupils to stay seated for long periods.

To combat this, if the children were restless, we would step away from the itinerary for 15 minutes and pupils would work on a presentation of what we had learned. This gave them a chance to move around, talk with friends and carry out practical work.

Our pupils particularly thrived during the practical afternoon activities and loved having a go at Chinese calligraphy, Chinese cooking, Kung Fu and lantern-making for Chinese New Year. We were fortunate that our pupils could try a range of Chinese food each lunch break and they were very excited to learn how to use chopsticks, open their fortune cookies and try new flavours.

We also had the chance to tour our sister school in Chengdu and speak with the pupils there. This was a most valuable part of the week. It gave our pupils the autonomy to lead their learning, connect with pupils their age and use their language skills to ask questions that genuinely interested them, from learning about the Chinese school day to what pets they had and which football teams they supported. I recommend to any school planning something similar to create as many opportunities as possible for pupils to speak with their counterparts.

The immersive experience was fantastic for reigniting our pupils’ love for learning and Mandarin. After many months in and out of lockdowns, the effect of siloed learning was taking its toll, so to be able to have a fully immersive experience and a buzzing classroom full of pupils excited to be together and learn together was priceless.

Our pupils ate, lived and breathed the culture, we decorated the classrooms, and we took part in many cultural activities. If you are not travelling abroad, a virtual week has to have an impact and create the same excitement to engage pupils effectively, so it is worth putting the effort into creating this “wow” factor.

Elsewhere, LEO’s commitment to MFL in primary schools has now been recognised by the government, as the trust has become one of just 114 schools and trusts awarded funding under the new Turing Scheme to send pupils on life-changing trips overseas. We have been awarded £65,000 to fully fund a two-week trip for 30 disadvantaged pupils to visit Hangzhou, China, in 2022.

  • Chris Ansell is the Mandarin language lead at the LEO Academy Trust, which serves more than 3,500 pupils across Sutton in south London.

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