Teaching and Learning Chinese on an iPad (part 2)

Most of my students in my weekly Mandarin classes are native speakers who require brushing up on grammar, pronunciation or perhaps fluency.  As I learned Chinese in the eighties I’ve used books, newspapers, magazines and other media to keep up with the changing language over the years, but these days I rely heavily (though not exclusively) on technological tools to ensure the Mandarin I’m teaching is current.

The iPad is useful for access to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social network site, as well as YouTube, blogging sites and language resources such as ChinesePod and the search engine Baidu. I follow several Chinese microbloggers on Twitter and I can usually pull together some topical dialogues on appropriate subjects that reflect Chinese commentators’ opinions on things happening that week.  This helps to keep the lessons fresh and current.  Back in my student days, my own Chinese teachers often used fairly dull and artificial-sounding phrases based on asking someone where the nearest post office is and so forth.  It was a functional approach but it scarcely thrilled, and these days I find I can engage students more easily with lessons that take as their subject matter topics that are genuinely being debated on various web-based forums that week by authentic speakers.

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Above Sina weibo, China’s most popular microblogging site. Weibo is a Mandarin term for web, although others exist.

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Baidu (above) is China’s answer to Google. It is illuminating to search for the same terms on Google and Baidu and see the differences in what comes up – although it can also be illuminating and surprising to see what remains the same too.

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ChinesePod  (above) is a useful repository of dialogue-based learning. The accompanying podcasts vary in quality but can be very good.

Recently, I’ve also been using Siri to test my students’ pronunciation. The idea is that if Siri can understand their question and provide a reasonably coherent answer, that is the benchmark for communicativeness. If, on the other hand, Siri responds with the wrong information or simply asks the student to repeat the conversation (she is fond of the phrase 对不起我不明白! which translates as “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that”), the student needs to try again.  Usually, the problem is with the tones of the language (Mandarin is a tonal language where the inflection used in one’s voice can change the meaning of each utterance), but occasionally, my students have made some amusing mistakes with the wrong word completely.  These have included one student’s asking directions to Paris and ending up with a recipe for an Indonesian dish called Bami!


Here a student has asked Siri how long it would take to get to Paris. After repeated efforts to get Siri to understand the word Paris, the student hit on the idea of saying “Paris France”. Siri responded with a route map from Cobham to Paris (below)!



Siri’s welcome screen (above) suggests things you can ask her. Students can work in pairs to translate these suggestions and either ask Siri exactly what she suggests or make up their own variations.


Before the student added the word “France” to her question, Siri offered a number of solutions to the situation she understood the student to be asking about. Above, the options include directions to the Eurostar homepage (which handles train bookings and information between London and Paris), but also flight information for flights from beijing and Shanghai to Paris too.

The ubiquity of Siri means that students can practise at home on their own devices and then come in with screen shots of dialogues they have exchanged with Siri.  We’ve probably only begun to scratch the surface of this instructional strategy’s potential but the students are having fun with it, and the learning is authentic so for me that’s a “ying ying” situation.


Back to Nature

My kids (I mean my OWN kids) have long been fans of Toca Boca. The latest offering from this Stockholm-based company is Toca Nature.

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Toca Nature presents you with a landscape you can shape to your will.  You begin with a plot of land roughly square and mysteriously floating in space. Day and night drfit by and you can rotate the landscape using the globe icon to view it from different compass directions.  You can dig depressions in the land which eventually fill up with water and are populated by fish and other wildlife. You can also raise mountains. If you keep building mountains they get higher and eventually snow will settle on their peaks. You can also plant trees. Different tree species attract different species of fauna such as woodpeckers, deer, hares, bears and foxes. These animals interact with the landscape (usually foraging for their favourite foodstuffs). It quickly becomes addictive providing food for the wildlife as they roam.


Children playing the game quickly learn that they can match the food to the animal and that sometimes it’s not a straightforward process. For example, some bears prefer blueberries and some red. Beavers won’t touch the fish but the foxes will. You can also get wolves to come if you plan the landscape well enough.








The various animals sleep and forage. Sometimes they give you a hint through strategically placed thought bubbles what food they would like. The whole thing is a lot of fun and there is an element of mystery in the game in the presence of huge footprints that can sometimes been seen on the ground, and that recalls the game’s logo as well as speaks to the potential for a future development.

My kids appreciated the orienteering possibilities in the game (it IS Swedish, after all!) By rotating the game through various degree in the globe function, you can travel across the landscape and then challenge each other to navigate back to any giving starting point.


By tapping on mushrooms, acorns, berries and fish you can replenish your stock ready to feed the animals when the natural sources of these foodstuffs become scarce. The thrill on my kids’ faces when they collected enough mushrooms to get the deer through a particularly barren period when no mushrooms appeared to be growing on the ground, was very satisfying.

Inevitably, the kids quickly want more species to be available and different landscape features (volcanoes, jungles, coral reefs, deserts!) These may be forthcoming in future editions of the app, but for now I rather like the woodland setting – especially given the current real weather outside. Definitely the best app of the season.

World War One on the iPad

If ever there was an apt day for discussing World War One on the iPad, this one would have to be pretty near the top of the list. In fifteen minutes the entire country will fall silent to remember the Fallen for the customary two minutes. It marks the high point of a year of remembrance that has found expression in art, music, drama, dance, cinema, television and the printed word. Perhaps no single act of commemoration has touched the nation more than Paul Cummins’ Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, an installation in the moat of the Tower of London consisting of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each one representing a British or colonial death during the First World War.

App writers have joined in too.  There are now more eBooks, podcasts, iTunes U courses, poster collections, music compilations, electronic games and online quizzes available on the iTunes Store than one could possibly consume in any given year, but the quality is to say the least mixed.  Although I did indulge a boyhood passion for First World War aircraft earlier in the year by downloading an app dedicated to them (and surprised myself by how much geeky knowledge about the SE5a or the Fokker DVII I still retained), even I had to admit the app was at best a filler for those of us who have a specialist interest in this esoteric subject matter.  There are some worthy collections of First World War voices, and the poetry works especially well in audio format of course.  But I remained disappointed in my search for a truly comprehensive and worthwhile (not to mention affordable) app that I could use to support conversations or lessons with students about this huge event in twentieth century history.

Happily, as the year progressed things improved.  On reflection I feel the best app currently available is the BBC History Magazine’s The First World War Story.

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This is something of a win by default.  The app is far from perfect; the maps feature is particularly disappointing in failing to take advantage of the interactive possibilities afforded by the medium (it presents just two cartographic representations of the European theatre – one from 1914 and the other from 1923 that allow one to compare the two sets of political boundaries). But the app is reasonably comprehensive – at least as far as the European theatre is concerned, and the scrollable history of the war runs to 50 parts and links to some excellent articles and audio contributions from authorities on war-related subjects.

There is also video footage to peruse, although other apps and specialist courses do this better. Whilst World War One remains without a definitive representation for teachers and others seeking to understand it using the iPad as their main source of information, The First World War Story is a worthy launching pad for further exploration, and for £4.99 it represents good value for money.

Hearkening Back to Simpler Times

This week I’ve been playing with some writing toys. I don’t think anything will tempt me away from Evernote, Pages, Book Creator and Scrivener as my main tools of choice, but I do often use other apps for the odd writing task here and there and the evidence is that students do too.  Notability, Drafts, Notes and Textilus all have their adherents at ACS, and I have found that I visit the little folder that sits next to Evernote on my home screen and that is simply titled “All Other Notes” is one of the most visited folders on my iPad. For the record, it contains Plain Text, Penultimate, PaperPort, Bamboo Paper, Moleskin, Noteshelf, Annotate+, neu.Annotate, neu.Notes+ and mental Note as well as the four listed above – and, yes, I do use all of them although, admittedly I do a lot of writing.

None of these can match for sheer fun Hanx Writer, however. I don’t necessarily think Hanx Writer was designed for anything serious, and it would probably drive me mad to have to write a serious paper on it, but it has been a delightful experience using this typewriter emulation app this afternoon while typing up notes, making lists, composing letters and otherwise wiling away a few hours catching up on what I assumed would be mundane writing tasks.

Hanx Writer comes from Hitcents.com, Inc and via them from Tom Hanks, the American film actor and producer.  It really does nothing more than simulate the sound and look (sort of) of an old fashioned typewriter, but that’s enough for me – especially considering it’s free.  There is a suite of additional functionalities that you can buy for an extra £2.99, but most will probably be happy with the one style of typewriter and the black ink.  The in-app purchase option gives you a choice of red and blue ribbons in addition to the black and two further styles of typewriter with associated noises and typefaces. You can also change the colour of the back ground. It’s a fun app and it’s only fair to leave the last word to Hanx Writer itself!

Hanx Writer


Screen Reading versus Real Books

The beginning of the school year is always a busy time for administrators but it is also a time when many of us look forward to being able to discuss with our colleagues workshops and training we have experienced or given over the long summer break, or reading we have done during the period away from our classrooms and offices. Two reports that have appeared in shortened form in the education Press were hotly debated in the first week back – at least if the e-mail exchanges I was copied in on are anything to go by.

The first of these reports appeared in the national and education press in August and discusses research led by Anna Mangen from Stavanger University that suggests readers of a short story were better able to respond to test items that demanded certain mental reconstruction skills such as sequencing if they had read the story in traditional print form than if they had done so on a Kindle. Mangen observed that her study appeared to support the findings of an earlier study in which 73 tenth grade readers in a Norwegian secondary school were divided into two groups and required to read a short story. The control group read the story in traditional print form and the experimental group read the same story in pdf form on a computer screen. The experimental group performed significantly worse on test items that measured immersion constructs such as empathy, transportation and narrative coherence.

The Kindle study that attracted such attention in August 2014 appears to have been extremely ill-structured. One report claimed only two individuals constituted the entire experimental group, but Mangen, whose recent work has also included a study that explored phenomenological reflections on the digitization of literature in early childhood learning contexts, concludes from the earlier Norwegian study that reading comprehension is significantly impaired when students read on a screen. She postulates that haptic elements such as the compression of the pages and the sense of progress internalized by the reader’s feeling the amount of reading already completed, as measured by the increased number of pages held in his or her left hand (assuming the reader is reading left to right), may contribute to the superiority of the printed form over the on-screen form for fomenting reader immersion. The study has clear implications for policy forming and the development of technology resources to support reading programs in schools. It also, rather neatly, provides a modern-day context for Jane Austen’s observation in Northanger Abbey that the physical presence of the book in the reader’s hand constitutes an interplay between text and textuality and limits the ability of the writer to control the reader’s assumptions.

                 The anxiety which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.

– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

This is the sort of research that all of us can relate to and extend to ourselves. Following Nicholas Carr’s famous example of self-study described in The Shallows, I began to reflect this summer on my own screen and paper reading habits.  Although I am not a Kindle owner I do read books on my iPad fairly regularly, and I have even read one or two entirely on my iPhone.  More frequently, I begin reading in one form and continue switching between the two depending on where I am when I find myself with time to read. For example, when I read Moby Dick last year it happened to coincide with a month I was travelling quite frequently. Although I did not want to lug my heavy hardback edition of Moby Dick around with me on trains and planes, I did prefer to read the novel in that form when at home. I, therefore, read about half the book on screen and the other half on paper.

However, a year on, I find I cannot remember which sections of Moby Dick I read in which format. This contrasts sharply with my memory of reading from the time when all my reading was done in traditional printed form. For example, I last read Northanger Abbey in 1984. However, thirty years later (i.e. just now) when I needed to quote a passage for this blog post I could remember that the passage lay on the left-hand side of the page towards the end of the book. A few minutes ago before beginning this post I went to the high school library to get the same Penguin paperback edition to quote from and there it is – top half of the left-hand-side on page 234, some two and a half pages from the end. It took me literally three or four seconds to locate the exact quotation I needed.  I doubt I will ever be able to do that with an eReader – although I accept there will be electronic tools to assist me when I lose that faculty.

Northanger Abbey

An equally interesting study was reported in the Times Educational Supplement last month that appeared to show high school students in the UK are showing less enthusiasm for working with iPads in schools than in previous years. The study, conducted by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) surveyed more than 600 British schools in an attempt to explore the extent of investment in iPads. According to Vaughan (2014), the study found that there are currently over 440,000 tablets in British schools with the number set to double by 2016. However, the study also surveyed teacher’s perceptions of interest in iPads among their students. This reflected a decrease from 89% in 2012 to 78% in 2014 of teachers responding that their students did have at least some interest in tablets. This pattern is indicative of the same product adoption life cycle as that observed in tablet use in the commercial world. A further analysis of the BESA data reveals a gap between the high levels of engagement teachers perceive being demonstrated by students at elementary school and the much lower levels of engagement teachers perceive are typically displayed by students in middle and high school. The existence of this gap is supported by more robust research (Marks et al., 2011) and suggests the possibility of social factors affecting the data. It is, for example, possible that tablet devices are now so commonplace in the lives of some middle and high school students that there is no special attraction to their presence in the classroom. Younger students, on the other hand, often appreciate being given opportunities to use devices that are possibly monopolized by older siblings at home. Although unexplored in the BESA report itself, this idea, in my humble opinion, would be worthy of pursuance.




Flood, A. (19 August 2014). Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study     finds. The Guardian. Retrieved 19 August 2014 from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/19/readers-absorb-less-kindles-paper-study-plot-ereader-digitisation

Mangen, A., Walgermo, B. R., & Brønnick, K. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal Of Educational Research5861-68. doi:10.1016/j.ijer.2012.12.002

Vaughan, R. (8 August 2014). Once it was “wow”, now it’s “whatever”. Times Educational Supplement Connect. Retrieved on 13 August 2014 from http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6439349


Learning Chinese on the iPad

The summer holidays, as always, is a chance to reflect back and project forward.  The new school year starting in August will be the first where we introduce large numbers of iPad Airs, and the first where we begin the year with Casper as our MDM system.  Further afield, we have collaborate research projects set up with Hurstpierpoint College and with our sister schools in the ACS group, and invitations to present our research at several international conferences.

But I’m keenly aware of how easy it is for the researcher to become too intensely focused on the mechanics of the research process itself, and to lose sight of the connection research must have with real life.  This is a danger to which researchers whose day to day school role is in administration, not teaching, are especially susceptible and so the subject of this month’s blog is deliberately pragmatic and stems from my classroom experience teaching my weekly Chinese class.

Language teachers commonly complain that there are no decent apps for teaching language. This may be true (although the picture with all apps is so fast-changing that it is difficult to make definitive statements about anything), but it misses the point.  The conversations I have had most recently with teachers of French and Spanish at my school certainly leave me better informed about apps like Linguascope and Duolingo, but they also make it very clear that the most engaging activities that teachers appear to find effective are those where the students are using the target language incidentally, rather than as a conscious exercise in mastery.

When I was training as a language teacher more years ago than I care to mention, the prevailing (but at that point untested) thinking was that the best way to master a language was to study something other than the target language through the medium of the target language.  At International House, where I studied for an RSA Diploma in TEFL, I observed students in a film studies course whose fluency in both spoken and written academic English developed as they pursued their learning about film.  My own mother-in-law developed her English through studying a higher degree in Education. So we have known for a long time that making the target language incidental to the learning can be effective, and the lesson for teachers teaching with iPads is to make the iPad the tool to achieving tasks other than directly learning French, Spanish or, in the case of my own students, Chinese.

In my Chinese classes I have been known to set the odd quiz in Socrative, but I admit that these serve little pedagogical purpose beyond giving the students a mental break from other tasks.  The biggest benefit I have seen in quiz setting (other than giving the impression to some parents – and a recently-departed education minister – that real learning was going on when it wasn’t) is the experience it can give students in mastering test-taking techniques. But passing a test, rather than acquiring mastery of the learning the test is supposed to assess, is a very limited horizon for which to set one’s course.

This is where one needs to consult the research and adapt pedagogies and instructional strategies that we know assist language acquisition.  These include (but are not limited to) the following:

Hands-on activities
Project-based learning
Reciprocal learning
Student-centred learning
Simulations & Rôle Play
Reflect & Write
Anything involving Rhythm, Rhyme, Music & Rap
Graphic (visual) Organisers
Collaborative learning

I’ve written on most of these before, but in the context of teaching Chinese there is a resource I am prepared to endorse that I have used for about six years now and which, with a bit of tweaking, allows the teacher to cut out a lot of the donkey work involved in lesson planning.

The resource is called Chinese Pod and it started many years ago as a podcast. You could download the podcast and listen to it on your iPod as you got on with your day. It often involved conversations about topics that were in the news or of general interest to ordinary folk at the time. Therein lay an important difference between Chinese Pod and even the best textbook – it was fresh and unpredictable; relevant and topical. You couldn’t flick ahead and see what was coming. Although pre-recorded, it felt live and the presenters (typically two – a waiguoren and a native Chinese speaker) didn’t worry about the odd slip of the tongue. It had the feel of people enjoying themselves.

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Allied to the podcast was a webpage from which you could download and print off dialogues at different levels. I’m actually a great believer in dialogues as a way of learning languages. I learned Chinese this way myself and occasionally even today I find myself slipping into phrases I learned wholesale from those days. Chinese Pod’s dialogues ran the gamut from Newbie to Advanced, with pinyin support available where appropriate.  They discussed things like pop music, St Valentine’s Day and who was going to win the World Cup – the very conversations I knew my students were having in the recess playground.  

Today, these dialogues are still there on the Chinese Pod website, and subscribers can make use of Lesson MP3s, Dialogue MP3s, Audi Review MP3s or just a straightforward pdf transcript of the dialogue.  We use all of these in my classes, and my students access them via their iPads either before or during the lesson, but they also give me ideas for prompting my students to write their own dialogues, and we record or film these after they have had a chance to practise them.

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Today, students can produce sophisticated translations using Google Translate (see above – and also on their iPads in the form of an app), and can have the phrases modelled for them by a native speaker to guide their pronunciation and tones, but this really doesn’t matter. Students get a buzz out of seeing themselves and hearing themselves speaking Chinese, and if they keep the recordings, they can use themselves as revision aids or teachers in the future.   

Of course, I also encourage the students to use the Chinese keyboard on the iPad, and we have had some success in the past with the app iChinese as a way to encourage students to master the correct stroke order (although it has been admittedly mixed success as it is time-consuming – and I have to say I sometimes get stroke order wrong myself even after years of learning Chinese), but it’s probably fair to say that reading and writing Chinese are the last two skills to be mastered (albeit, there is a thrill to be seen on the students‘ faces when they manage to translate a piece of text written entirely in characters!)

To that end, there are a number of apps for both iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch that have proved effective over the years.  Here are some I still swear by.  

Apps Screenshot

The Flashcards app can be especially addictive – in a wholly positive way.  Many years ago I would spend hours on trains across China taking a pack of flashcards out my my jacket pocket and trying to commit them to memory. Those I knew I would transfer to my right-had pocket; those I didn’t, I would shuffle to the bottom of the pack and try again when they surfaced.  The Flashcards app (see screenshot below) is the modern equivalent of that. So with that in mind, I’m now going to roll the clock back and see how well I do on the advanced set.