When students make their thinking visible and teachers do not see it

The whole idea of visible thinking routines is not to generate decoration for the classroom walls or to inspire contemplation. The thinking students willingly illustrated for us is both an invitation for assessing where students are in the process of inquiry, for observing the opportunities to enrich the experience, to identify the support that needs to be given, to consider possible adjustments to the process, and to marvel at the revelations we might come across. Needless to say, observing and studying the ideas collected during the thinking routine is a time consuming process, but it is a walk all inquiry lovers should be willing to do, because the retributions are priceless.

At this point, though, it is worth asking how many times do students show how they are thinking and we do not see it? Likewise, I wonder, how many opportunities do we create in our tasks for students to demonstrate how they are thinking and for us to visualize it and try to find a way to support their development?

IMG_7015This reflection arose as students were participating in a vocabulary development activity that would serve as a bridge to observe the transformation of meaning from words, to statements, to paragraphs, to ultimately work on enriching one’s findings when doing research. As I was monitoring students’ work, I realized that one of my students (a quiet one, the one that thinks more than she says, and the one whose voice is mostly felt in writing) was working on a system to classify words to understand their function before rushing into just creating sentences- as some of her classmates would. I was pleasantly happy for her, and clearly took the opportunity to share with everyone what a good strategy she was employing.

Aware of the following stages in our inquiry, I started thinking of the things we might not notice in students’ journeys when doing research, so I decided to take some time and reflect on research skills, the ATL category that is our focus for this unit. The outcome of my reflection is this if you notice… possibly… so you might chart tool (an adaptation of Lucy Calkins writer’s workshop), in which I attempted to look at the different stages of employing one’s findings when writing a research text, and how we can take advantage of the information students reveal in their struggles and successes, in order for us to take action and enrich the experience.

Do you take the time to look at the way students are demonstrating their thinking?

Do your classes allow for opportunities to demonstrate how learners think?

Food for thought in the Year of the Monkey that begins next Sunday!

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20, 000 leagues of inquiry

“The deepest parts of the ocean are totally unknown to us,” admits Professor Aronnax early in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. “What goes on in those distant depths? What creatures inhabit, or could inhabit, those regions twelve or fifteen miles beneath the surface of the water? It’s almost beyond conjecture.” Inquiry is like the sea: it expands in front of our eyes and there is a point where it meets with the sky.

Inquiry is shapeless, boundless and immeasurable; but it’s livable, observable and, like clay, can acquire the form our hands give it. Teachers and students are, consequently, artisans when they embrace inquiry in the classroom and outside.

Collaboration is key in the MYP, but finding the pleasure in the shared responsibility when co-teaching two groups put together in order to enrich the level of communication is priceless. While planning an inquiry is an enjoyable experience, living it is a one of a kind experience.

IMG_7014One of my colleagues and I have been experimenting with different models of collaboration, and we have been following Kath Murdoch’s inquiry cycle to as our learning trail. This time, since we want to optimize on the opportunities to have a service-led unit, we have agreed to co-teach. This means that each of us would be leading a stage of the unit; this also means that we will need to have intense, meaningful dialogue on how we are sensing the unit is progressing; and this also means each of us will have the chance to experience and contemplate the inquiry process as the other is engaged teaching.

We are currently working on a unit on communication, in which our statement of inquiry (SoI) is: The way people communicate ideas is an ongoing evolving process that is influenced by context in which statements are uttered, and the purpose for which they are spoken. We have planned a wonderful set of provocations that rank from images on the different forms in which we communicate ideas; a comparison between animal communication systems and language in order to determine what constitutes a language; the way our voice, sounds, color, shapes and symbols change or modify the ‘meaning’ of words and statements; as well as the relationship between the items in these relationships. These provocations have served as an opportunity to introduce and play around with the language targets for the unit, which is fully loaded with the function of reporting (reported speech).

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As we were moving from the tuning in stage towards finding out, and eliciting the big understandings from students, questions started emerging. Clearly showing the original video of Rocky vs. an intervention that made us wonder about what if Rocky was a romance movie, allowed students to generate a diverse set of questions that could be researched on this key concept (communication), considering our SoI. As one of us typed the questions that were being projected, and the other worked on elevating the engagement students were demonstrating, our eyes met and realized that not only were the questions students asking indications of possible formative assessments that we could bring in in order to scaffold learning towards our summative assessment, but also were clear exemplifications of work for each of the strands in our four criteria. This moment proved to us that the journey in this sea of learning was worthy.

As we revealed the statement of inquiry and asked students to find connections with the questions that had been generated, we were able to see that not only were they showing how personalized their journey was so far, but also had already thrown themselves into an exploration of something that was making them feel curious. Thus the only thing we needed to do was to create an opportunity for us to assess how ready they were for the next stage of the unit, the stage in which things become more complex; the stage at which ideas form clouds and we have to look up and around as we continue to wonder. We, hence, asked students to choose one question they would like to focus their inquiry on, and to write why they were interested in it, as well as what they expected to find out. Silence took over, and we could even hear the music of our breath and heartbeats.

On February 4, 2016, with a gloomy sky, near a smooth sea, and a moderate breeze, QAIS MYP Language Acquisition students were conceptualizing at a speed of 13.43 thoughts per blinking of an eye; their ideas were churning the seas of understanding with perfect steadiness.

At 1:36 in the afternoon, an hour right after lunch, a collision occurred, scarcely noticeable at first, affecting the classroom’s architecture.

The language room was experiencing happenstance. This encounter seemed so minor that nobody on board would have been disturbed by it, had it not been for the shouts of one of the crewmen, who rose from his seat yelling:

“I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”

At the end of the day, as we allow our past experiences to copulate with our current interactions, we realize that while inquiry takes place, exist and can be felt as a collective, it is ultimately an individualized, personalized and internalized process that each one of us travels even beyond the limits our teachers can consider.


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Nothing burns like winter

“Winter is coming,” says George R.R. Martin in A Game of Thrones. Winter is here and it means it, I realized on Friday, January 22nd, 2016 when I returned home from work and found out that there was no electricity in my building. Unable to cook, I went out searching for food and felt the electricity in the air; the air was cold; on my skin, I could feel how freezing it was getting, and my feet informed me of the icy night that followed.

I took a deep breath and continued moving forward. Moving backwards is not a choice when the day is about to end, and a new day is about to be born. All of a sudden, an itchy sensation on my nose made me realize the snow flakes falling from the sky, rhythmically, peacefully, unemotionally, solely doing what they were meant to do: let me know it was going to be a cold night. And so it was.

I woke up on Saturday morning; -17 Celsius the thermometer read. Without electricity, the only light I could see was struggling sunlight that could make it through the dark clouds of winter in Qingdao. A sigh. Blankets were my best friends and embraced me like a mother embraces a child. Resignation. I got up and rushed to the bathroom to wash my face. The floor was full of data about the cold night that has just ended- it was indeed winter.

Once I was at the sink, in the bathroom, a second deep breath; I manned up and readied my face for the cold water than would soon make me get goose bumps and possibly curse, in Spanish, of course, it’s always more interesting in my mother tongue. However, to my surprise no water came out.

After a couple of calls to the building’s management, with my broken Chinese, I finally understood that the water pipes had frozen and water could not go up or down the 18th floor, where I lived. The beauty of Laoshan district now felt demolished by the absence of water and electricity, which also meant no heat.

A few hours went by and only electricity came back from its journey. At least I could be warm; yet, it was the absence of water that scared me. I could always go and take a shower at a friend’s house- which I did and thank my friends and colleagues for opening their homes to me; but it was using the toilet that worried me. As a result, I became a frequent customer of Starbucks and malls (luckily there are a few nearby), just to use the toilet.

I got angry; I was feeling depressed; I was disappointed. There was nothing that could be done about the situation in my building. In my desperation, it occurred to me that I had to move out. My school understood the situation and was very supportive to help me look for a new apartment. In less than a week I saw at least 5 places and had identified the ideal place that would return happiness to me. Easier said than done, always.

Money is not everything in life, but I love how it can help us gain perspective and get a reality check. As I was doing math on what I would pay to move (clearly the school would pay part of it) I realized that in my excitement to get my comfort back I had not thought about the monetary implications. Was this the cost of happiness?

And this is where my reflection took place.

As a genuine educator who happens to be an expat (a term I detest), I dislike how some teachers working abroad feel as though they are celebrities and behave in a way they would never behave in their countries. Many of us are working in schools in which we are encouraging students to be compassionate, empathetic, kindhearted; and aware of their rights, responsibilities, and privileges, and here I was acting like a spoiled child who was not able to endure hardship for a few days. Here I was, unable to act like Brian in Hatchet, showing how resourceful I can be in unfamiliar and unwanted circumstances. Here I was, the ATL lover and advocate, unable to thinking creatively and solve a problem that had to do with basic and most essential needs.

When I saw the figure of money that needed to be paid for me to be in a place with comfort, I couldn’t help but convert Chinese Yuan into Mexican Pesos and reflect on how wrong it would be to pay that amount of money that a common individual in China or my homeland would never afford to do if he or she was in my situation. I would not even entertain the idea of moving out if I were in my country!

I remained silent for a moment; I kept drinking my coffee; I felt strange. It was not guilt; it was the feeling of responsibility that comes with learning and remaining a learner.

I have decided to act like Brian in Hatchet and like Karana in The Island of the Blue Dolphins. I want to prove to myself that I can be resourceful, so that I can have first hand experience on this specific situation, just in case students and I need to talk about it one day. I will then feel truthful.

And by the way, “Nothing burns like the cold,” George R.R. Martin also says in A Game of Thrones.

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The Unit Planning Compass


Unedited image from: es.dreamtime.com

Teaching in an inquiry-based environment with conceptual teaching and learning practices in mind is a wonderful experience. Nothing empowers learners more than realizing they are handling relevant, real information, and knowledge. As for language teachers, this involvement and practice allows them to see that they are not solely language teachers, but teachers/educators who have all the information of the world at their disposal; instructors who hae the freedom to explore any area of knowledge that the theme they have chosen is connected to.

Planning MYP units has always being a big deal for me; essentially, because if I do not learn anything in the process of planning it and teaching it, I would not consider it to be a fertile unit. Learning conceptually clearly allow students to establish links between different areas of knowledge, and teaching in a conceptual manner definitely encourages teachers to access their strategy and experience (personal and collective) repertoire, and to identify possible opportunities to try something new. Thus, I like the messy thinking process of planning units, because once my ‘wandering and wondering’ around is over, I can choose what is best, I can filter and, hence, create a hierarchy.

I do not like teaching in a way that emulates how I learn. I like to see myself exposed, ready to learn something new if necessary, and that is why I do not think I have a formula for planning. Each new exploration demands a new method and approach for planning, and a different way of looking at things. However, there are patterns that I play with as if they were lego pieces.

Unlike intermediate or advanced language levels, beginning levels require more meticulous planning and scaffolding for students still need to learn and acquire many structures; in other words, this means that some of the great tasks one can plan might have limitations or have very high demands. If one decides to carry out a task that seems exciting and interesting, one might find that more time will be spent helping students engage with the task (assuming that it’s complex), and not becoming sensitized about the vocabulary needed to understand and produce ideas about the topic, which would automatically give them a sense of achievement. Therefore, one needs to find a balance between the complexity of tasks, the language targets, and the information from other subjects that will enrich the exploration, and turn the learning process into a meaningful journey.

One can start the exploration in their units by choosing the Key Concept (KC), Related Concepts (RC) and Global Context (GC) that resonate with the theme they are considering to teach. However, as stated above, many times this can result in many complex learning experinces that may not yield positive outcomes. One can also start the unit by looking at the language goals one has and the linguistic experiences one aims at achieving and then choose the KC, RC and GC that would best suit the purpose. So, for the purposes of this post, I will share my thinking process following a method in between both of the scenarios mentioned above.

For this post, I would like to focus on the early stages of language acquisition, as they are the phases at which it may be hard to believe that students handle big amounts of information. Definitely not. As a matter of fact, I firmly believe that it is conceptual learning environments what can empower students to accelerate language acquisition and consolidation more rapidly and mearningfully. So let me take what is many times the second topic in a foreign language-learning curriculum: school. [Clearly, the first one is always talking (and introducing) about oneself and others]

1As I throw myself into the planning, I like to ask myself:

  • What do I want students to say about my unit once it’s done? And how would I like them to speak about it?
  • How can connections to other subjects be made?

These two questions, for me, are essential, as they help me see the scope of my SoI; they help me measure if it’s doable, achievable, and if I can generate meaningful learning experiences.

4When I write the Statement of Inquiry (SoI), I try to use words that can help me and students unpack its meaning, and hence, establish a connection with language and several subjects.

Choice 1- using Communication as a KC
Teachers and students communicate and structure dialogue differently in school’s environments around the world.
Communicate- relates to KC also relates to GC.
Structure dialogue – related RC form and structure, slightly message.
School environment and nations – relates to GC.

Choice 2- using culture as a KC
Schools around the world have different systems and forms of communication between teachers and students, which depend on cultural values and beliefs.
Around the world- relates to GC.
Cultural values and beliefs- relates to KC.
Systems and forms- relates to RC.

2Once I write the SoI, I highlight the key words and I brainstorm on each first. I do this with students as well, and normally I make a mind map. This helps students visualize how the SoI will require them to utilize information and skills from other subjects.

At this point, I am ready to prepare what I am hoping students will know, understand and be able to do.


Once I know what I want students to know, understand and be able to do, I can consider the summative tasks that I would employ to assess students’ progress and understandings. Likewise, looking back at the SoI, visualizing the words in different colors, when I am brainstorming in my planning, allow me to think of activities that I can do to support the development of understandings, using the language targets I have considered. This is what will be included in LEARNING PROCESS.


The process of sequencing activities gives me an opportunity to determine and map the aspects of the SoI that I am covering. Likewise, this process gives me the opportunity to look at how flexible the learning scenarios are, in case I need to differentiate. Many times, observing how activities are connected as well as their specific featured (type of activity, conditions in which it will take place, materials needed, whether I will be able to use students’ outcomes later on, whether work in it will give room to establish connections) can give way to considering service-led tasks, and to store information that can be used as foundation and reference in the future.

It is also important to note that establishing the connections between the SoI and the summative tasks will now be easier to identify. Besides, one will also be able to see to what extend our scaffolding will truly prepare students for those tasks, while also evaluating the validity of those summative tasks for we will be able to measure the extent to which we have practiced certain skills, formats of work, and language items.

Regarding ATL- while one can target a set of specific approaches to learning for the unit, many times I like to look back at the learning experiences and identify truly authentics ATL practices that are occurring for, at times, the invisible aspects of the learning process cause other ATL experiences to become more evident and meaningful that those we consider at the beginning. Morever, since the MYP planner is also a documentation instrument and a reporistory of ideas that one will reflect upon, it is always a good idea to revisit our thinking process and expand the ATL spectrum.

After this journey, it is difficult to think that reflections will be brief. Anyoen who has worked with me knows that my reflections tend to be a bit lengthy. Yet, I value my planning and it is the journey I put myself and my students through what causes me to look back and evaluate every decision that I made, every adjustment that I attempted, and every student idea that I incorporated. Moreover, when I consider the possibility that a colleague of mine might teach the unit I planned sometime in the future, I try to provide as much information as possible, in order for those who consider my unit to decide what measures are to be taken, how they are to prepare themselves, and what modifications they are able to carry out for their creativity and teaching style will be clearly different to mine.

As I stated in my post ‘Fertile Units‘, this is the stuff that my intellectual sobremesa is made of.

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I came, I saw and Roma conquered me


I came to Rome nearly 10 years ago. It was my first time in Rome, and it was the *first Rome I visited.

All roads will take us to Rome; Rome was not built in one day; and when in Rome do as the Romans were 3 of the sayings that made me curious about this capital of the world since I was a child. As a student, every time I read about Rome I could not help but think of it as a place that defied space and time, change and innovation, permanence, movement and eternity. Yet, as I started walking its streets on that first time, I realized the languages I spoke did not offer enough adjectives to describe Rome.

Rome, Moscow and Mexico City remain my favorite cities in the world, and although there are many other magical places that also have my appreciation and admiration, these 3 cities represent everything that I like: they are living documents of history; they are cities whose present is vibrant and serves as a great connection between past and the possible future; they are cities that have inspired and hosted revolutions, and ideals; in these cities, the places locals and visitors appreciate dwell in the same, hence building a genuine experience . Essentially, these cities have walk hand in hand with their past and present. Rome, nonetheless, is my favorite city of all. Roma, ‘amoR’ (love in Spanish) when read backwards, need I say more?

My first visit to Rome happened in the times when cameras had not been replaced by smart phones. I remember how I prepared a playlist of Rome-proof songs in my Ipod and thus created the score for my adventures. For some strange circumstances, I lost my camera on that visit, so the only way to record my experience was with a pen and paper, with my pair of eyes, and the heart in my memory.

When I tell people about why I love Rome so much, I always say that it took me three days to realize I was in Rome. My eyes were suffering from history and information overload- there was so much to see and, conversely, to write about. I walked the city as if I had been asked to map its landmarks or, rather, the places where good memories can be made.

I promised to myself that the next time I came to Rome, I would come to revisit those places that caused me to think of stories, scenes of possibilities, and beginnings or ends of fantasies. There were texts that needed to become acquainted with the places where they were given birth. Thus, I needed to come again to make this communion happen.

My love for this city and the right my words have to meet their origins have brought me to Rome again, and it is in this occasion that I want to marry text and image, turning these experiences into a more lively memento of the relationship I have with this city.

In the link below you can download a collection of texts and images (by me) on my relationship with Rome.

Download / Descarga (iBook) Roma

Download / Descarga (PDF) ROME



* Istambul and Moscow are sometimes referred to as the 2nd and 3rd Rome, respectively.

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Fertile Units


Image from: www.wearethepractitioners.com

While walking the road to a unit’s culminating task, as I approach the end, I always remember a rather unpleasant experience with an assessment. It was the year the now forgotten Visual Interpretation criterion was introduced in Language Acquisition in MYP. This was an occasion in which I planned an assessment because I wanted to use something that I liked.

My explanation, when establishing connections with the also now forgotten significant concept, was automatically biased: I liked the stimulus so much that I was able to justify links and possibilities. Nonetheless, I hadn’t really wondered nor reflected on whether I wanted to use that stimulus to create an assessment to assess or to plant another seed in our inquiry.

The experience of choosing a resource to assess learning has taught me about the choices I make when choosing I unit to teach. Some explorations are wonderful; they yield a couple of fantastic ideas; but when we think about the fruits students (our main character in the story) will harvest, they turn out to be quite sterile.

A unit that resembles fertile soil will allow us to unfold a broad context that will magnify the learning experiences that can be designed. I have come to understand that asking myself why I want to teach this unit and why learning about its theme is important is not enough. I also want to think about how I want students to talk about statement of inquiry; at how I want students to use the big ideas generated in this unit to transfer in other scenarios; at the opportunities this unit represents for me to learn something new, and to challenge the already established parameters of learning that my relationship with students has crafted.

FullSizeRender 4Above all, I have realized the importance of trying to visualize how all the understandings produced in the unit will sink in, will find room in students’ memory, become internalized and remain ready to use when the opportunity calls for it. This is not memorization; this is the ‘noble and dignified memory’ that Octavio Paz talks about when he discusses things that matter.

These fruitful ground that I call fertile units allow me to see how learning grows; how its stem grows tall; how its flower begins to blossom; how it’s growth is threatened by circumstance; and how there is always a way to make things better. In this process, my students and I observe what keeps growth from continuing; and through dialogue, we devise ways to confront difficulties, to re-use strategies that have worked before, to stop using tools that are not working, not punishing ourselves for what we cannot achieve, but reflecting on what we have not done yet, on what we needs to be done to move on.
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It is this constant dialogue that occurs as a unit evolves what engages students in the learning process; what signals them to look back at the feedback they have been given and weaponize it: using it as a tool that will enable them to prevent harsh situations. Constructivism, constructionism, and connectivism are geographies that can define the weather of a good unit; feedback, approaches to teaching and learning (ATL) are the bricks and beams that we employ to build a home for our understandings; and reflection is the perfect *sobremesa.

Click here to read details of one of the most fertile units I have experienced with my students.


* Sobremesa is one of those special words in the Spanish language. It is the time spent after we finish eating, before getting up from the table. Time dedicated to chatting, socializing a bit more, digesting our food, nourishing our souls. We stay at the table as long as we possibly can. No meal is a complete one without a long sobremesa.

Posted in ATL, Curriculum, IB MYP, Inquiry, Planning, Reflection, Strategies | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What can teaching in China teach teachers about learning and language acquisition?


As a child,  when I started to learn English in Mexico, I thought that words in English would be formed in the same way that they are formed in Spanish: just by joining sounds. And there I was thinking that in English I only had to sound the alphabet letters in English. If we followed my rule, therefore, ‘whale’ would be pronounced as follows ‘dableueicheieli’ (sounding phonemes in Spanish, evidently). Very soon after that I learned the hard truth about English and understood the meaning of ‘doing gymnastics’ with a language. I recall this moment with a smile on my face, and have tried to bring back the power I felt every time I learned a new language, most recently 8 years ago, when I started to learn Chinese.

My first experience as a teacher in China occurred 8 years ago. I was not even in my 30’s, and I had elevated the level of challenges I wanted in my life – or so I told myself. Residing in Wenzhou, a city in China in which I could count the amount of foreigners with the fingers of my hands (and I would have fingers left at that time), I decided that I wouldn’t live lost in translation and, for this reason, started to learn Mandarin. Very few experiences in my life have taught me so much about the way I learn and the way I see learning. Learning Chinese ranks in my top 3.

If I once thought that we could just jam sounds together to form words, at nearly 30, when I started to learn Chinese, I was left speechless. Before I knew what Pinyin was, I wondered how Chinese people sounded words, as they didn’t have an alphabet. I wondered how they organized them in a dictionary. I also wondered what their typewriters were like, among many other questions. In a few words, my initial attempts to learn Chinese caused me to revisit every learning strategy that I had collected along my life as a learner.

I am back in China, after 8 years. I am able to speak decent Chinese to get me around; and while I keep on learning the language, what this new experience is teaching me now is how to teach and learn with students of Chinese background. This new experience has opened my mind to a dimension of learning that is fascinating, complex, and indescribable.

Teaching EAL and English B in MYP has allowed me to see the struggles Chinese background students undergo, and what many foreign teachers ignore. While the solution to the issue is to learn Chinese, I know that some people will prefer to remain monolingual, and monocultural; and this would even rise a Knowledge Claim in TOK as to how internationally minded are teacher who teach abroad and never try to learn about the ways in which learning occurs in that culture.

One of the most frequent comments I hear about Chinese students who move from a traditional Chinese setting into an international education one is: “Chinese children can’t read” or “they do not know how to put sounds together” or they do not know how to generate ‘fancy’ ideas. The answer for this is quite simple: Chinese students, when they learn characters, know that each character has a syllabic sound that conveys a meaning. Thus, when they come across words in Roman alphabet languages, they tend to memorize the word as a whole, and will be able to sound those words that they know when they see them together, but might not be able to appreciate and decode the phonemes in each word. One of he strategies I tried was quite simple. I just told a student: English doesn’t have ‘Hanzi’; it works as Pinyin. Eureka!

Another struggle I hear is the difficulty students face when pronouncing long words in English. The sense of length in a word is quite relative for speakers of different languages, so I use a strategy that I employ as I learn languages: I build sound blocks in a phonetic system I know. The strategy I used does require knowledge of Chinese; its effect is strong and it empowers students in a wonderful way. I basically write basic sounds in Chinese for students to read. Thus, a word like ‘Martin’ may be troublesome for some students as the two-consonant cluster ‘rt’ presents a problem, but if we know the characters that can emulate those sounds and stress them accordingly, we will find that that students will develop their own system: 吗二听 [(horse, 2, listen) Ma-r-tin]. I am aware that this will not allow students to develop pristine pronunciation, but I have come to see how this encourages students to become more courageous and free when speaking, and this is when we can work on pronunciation. Moreover, my focus as a teacher is always in meaning and empowering students to share their thoughts.

Many foreign teachers get irritated when Chinese students tell them they (teachers) ‘make mistakes when writing’. These teachers read and read and they cannot seem to find the error, so when they ask students to come to the board and point at it, they are surprised to see that Chinese students think that an ‘i’ without the dot on top is not an ‘i’; that a stylized ‘g’ or ‘j’ or ‘q’ is a letter they hadn’t seen before. Yet, if we consider that for a foreigner, learning how to read in Chinese sometimes feels like spot-the-difference, then it is clear why an ‘i’ without a dot on top is not an ‘i’. This is my justification: take the character for “special” (特) and the one for “grasp” (持), for example, which are the same apart from a small extra stroke on the left hand side of the former and a tiny upward tick at the bottom of the long vertical stroke of the latter.

One strength that Chinese learners have is their ability to observe and identify patterns. They are so sensitized about roots and additional components of a word, that teachers can just indulge in presenting them with all the word forms for a vocabulary item (happy, unhappy, happiness, unhappiness, for example) and, as long as students see them in a sentence and understand their meaning, they will automatically use them all. This capability comes from the singularity that Chinese characters have as they a basic character can change meaning (while still pronounced the same) by turning it into a compound one. For example, the character 包 sounding like ‘pao’ or ‘bao’ services as a side of the character combined with a radical that indicates what meaning the word may convey: 包 抱 鲍 饱 胞 苞 雹 孢 刨 炮 跑 泡 刨. This analogy can be used when asking students to understand the role of prefixes and suffixes.


When someone’s Chinese brain processes information a, b, z, ñ, q, n, s, l, c, y, r, f, s represent empty symbols which are difficult to understand for very few of them represent an ‘image’ on their own. Chinese is ideograhic and pictographic, and big ideas are formulated with the aid of very few characters. Thus, when Chinese students are expected to stretch sentences, connect ideas and understand the logic in a language system, it is hard for them to understand why they need more words. While in English we could say: I was looking for you but I could not find you (11 words), in Chinese this idea can be expressed with 3 characters, 3 morphemes (找不到-zhao bu dao).

Possibly, one of the most unexpected tools that I have added to my repertoire is learning to visualize elements of the written language. Learning to “spell” words in Chinese (there is no such a thing!) is like doing mathematics. Each character represents an opportunity to review. For instance, the word for ‘cover your mouth with your hand’ 捂 [wu]= 手 +五+口 (shou + wu + kou). Learning to read is fundamentally metalinguistic, and while it is constantly said that ‘there is little thinking about the way one thinks’ in Chinese students with a traditional education background, it is such an interesting experience to share this observation with them when looking at phrasal verbs or compound words.

Taking advantage of the tetris-like approach to building sentences in 4Chinese, and their incredible strong ability to memorize, I have experimented adding creativity and spontaneity by using word-dice and encouraged students to take challenges depending on the complexity of the sentences they want to build using super diluted generative grammar patters.

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A lot is said about the way students with Chinese background (many times even generalized as Asian) learn, and I always appreciate the insights people share in their experience. Yet, I feel that we have done that for decades, and I think this is a good time to look at the other side of the coin and wonder what we have learned from it, what opportunities there are still to continue learning from this scenario. After all, as lifelong learners it should be the pursuit of new ideas and ways of learning what should interest us.


In 2006, I wrote this reflection about PYP students learning Chinese in Mexico: 我喜欢中文

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