Ling Mu Reports from ACTFL in Denver

2011 ACTFL Conference Report
Nov. 17-21
Ling Mu
East Asian Languages and Literatures

The 2011 Chinese Conference at ACTFL was the largest in scale, attracting over 300 attendees from all over the world. Five parallel sessions had to be arranged at all times compared with two to three parallel sessions a few years ago. My panel was on Friday afternoon, 5:00-6:00pm, under the theme “Chinese Literature for Chinese Language Students.” The panel had three speakers with an audience of around 50 colleagues. My presentation was “Literature for Language Teaching: New Approaches in Reading Short-Short Stories,” which discussed the textbook that I have co-authored with my colleague Rongzhen Li and another colleague from Iowa State University. The principles of using literature for language materials include the following points:

  • Rendering literature as language texts. This is different from treating literature as literature. When selecting a text, we should pay attention to the language elements as the most important factor. By reading literary texts, we expect students to learn words, sentences, and ways of expressions rather than knowing literary history or literary significance in terms of literary history. Traditional literary texts used for language are based on their literary merits or on the literary reputation of writers, rather than on words, sentences, or language structures. For example, while Lu Xun is a great writer in modern Chinese literary history, his texts are too murky to understand. Many words and expressions are no longer in circulation in contemporary Chinese.
  • The advantages of using literature as language texts:
  • A story itself could convey the eternal beauty of a language masterpiece. People love stories, which can inspire discussion and imagination, the best materials for class activities.
  • Rich language features. In stories, there are rich descriptions, vivid dialogues, and detailed narrative, etc., representing all aspects of social and cultural life of a target language.
  • Short-short stories are attractive due to their size. Each story is at a manageable size.
  • Features of our Reading Chinese Short-Short Stories
  • Texts are selected based on good story and good language quality. Each text is about 1,000 words. Each lesson has one main story, and one to two independent stories as reading comprehension exercises.
  • We designed a variety of exercises, including the following main categories:
  • Pre-class quizzes so that students have to pre-read the story before they come to class.
  • Introductory reading. This is a unique feature of the textbook. The introduction is virtually a short reading of the text. A literary text is full of descriptions and narratives, but it does not usually have enough words and expressions in terms of criticism. That means students can read a story, but might find it hard to express their opinions about the story or a character in the story. The critiquing language provides students with a set of words and expressions that they can use in class discussions and compositions. At the same time, in an introductory text, the editor provides one reading of the story by questioning a motive of an action, by raising questions, or by exposing the inner world of characters, thereby helping students to see some things more profoundly than their current language ability would allow.
  • In-depth questions so that students will have guides to read into the stories. The questions are such that students are led to think in ways that what they could hardly do on their own. Each question offers some key words that students can easily use to form their answers.
  • Vocabulary exercises, including filling in blanks, multiple choice on usage and grammar, and translations with given key words.
  • Essay questions with specific topics designed to use themes and subject matters of the story. Students are provided with specific questions and vocabulary so that they find writing more manageable.

On the whole the presentation aroused warm interest and several sample books that I brought to the conference were quickly sold.

I also attended several other panels at the conference. Some interesting topics were: how to teach movies by Wang Yang of Brown University, how to teach grammar by He Wenchao of the University of Rhode Island, and how to use media to teach advanced Chinese by Liang Hsin-hsin of the University of Virginia. The most popular session was the one headed by Prof. Chow Chih-ping of Princeton University. As always, he questioned the validity of theories such as the 5- Cs, arguing that the theories are mostly from Western languages and may not be as effective for Chinese. Instead he suggested that the conventional approaches of emphasizing drills in classrooms and accuracy in pronunciation were still the most powerful techniques in teaching Chinese. Another colleague in this panel suggested that we should come to the language itself, to study more of the language, and the linguistic features of the language, rather than focusing on pedagogy alone. This panel attracted several hundred attendees, leaving several parallel panels with empty rooms.

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