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Monday, July 30, 2012

Potato Chinese™: From Reciting to Writing

This post is written for the many parents who have bought Potato Chinese™ from me. Many have asked...
(1) Why it is necessary to Listen, Read and then Recite simultaneously... Why not just READ only?
(2) Whether Potato Chinese™ aims to increase vocabulary.
(3) Whether Potato Chinese™ helps a child to write better Chinese compositions.
(4) How to transit a child from reciting Potato Chinese™ to writing Chinese compositions.

Why Is It Necessary to Listen, Read and then Recite
Neuroscientists that study the brain have noted a phenomenon they call Brains on Fire with gifted learners.  When gifted learners are exposed to learning material, multiple parts of the brain light up. Some parts of the brain that light up had little or no relevance to the material given to the gifted learner. For example, if given something to read, parts of the gifted brain that processed sounds and tastes could well light up. Scientists began to call this "multi-modal learning". The gifted brain engaged naturally in multi-modal learning, leading to better grasp of material (since the brain approached learning material from multiple perspectives) and better retention.

When I developed Potato Chinese™, I assumed that Little Boy is NOT gifted at Chinese. Hence, I went about artificially stimulating multi-modal brain engagement. Potato Chinese™ requires the child to
(1) listen to an audio-recording (to stimulate the parts of the brain that process sounds)
(2) read printed text on paper (to stimulate the parts of the brain that process sight)
(3) recite (to stimulate the parts of the brain that control the vocal cords and mouth)

This multiple, but highly co-ordinated, stimuli excite the normal brain to waking up and working harder, thereby enhancing retention and grasp. If you want to know more about Brains on Fire, click here.

Does Potato Chinese Aim To Increase Vocabulary?
The answer is No.

Potato Chinese™ is designed to stimulate the development of brain synapses for processing the characters, sounds and meanings of the Chinese language. In other words, Potato Chinese™ was designed to build cognitive infrastructure as was described here, without which the Potato Child finds it highly effortful to even differentiate one Chinese word from another, let alone recall and write them. Parents who CAN speak and write even some Chinese will find this really hard to understand. How is it possible to not tell the differences between one Chinese word VS another? The differences are stark.

I do however, assure you that it is not only possible, the phenomenon is very real in the lives of those who are illiterate in Chinese... and that includes many Potato Kids when they enrol in Primary school. It was the daily reality for Little Boy up until Primary 5. I am illiterate in Chinese. I really have difficulty differentiating Chinese words one from the other even when they are side by side. Don't even ask me about retention and recall.

Similarly, my Spanish friend cannot differentiate the "b" sound and the "v" sound simply because her language does not make a difference between these 2 sounds and the brain synapses to process these sounds differentially have not developed at all in her brain. She can't even HEAR the difference between these 2 sounds let alone remember them. Here is yet another example. The ability to immediately differentiate between more than 10 different types of snow is absent in my brain. The Eskimo teenager, however, can take one look at a pile of snow and know what type it is. For me snow is snow is snow.

I devised Potato Chinese™ to stimulate the development of brain synapses in Little Boy's brain that would help him process the Chinese language. Potato Chinese™ is a brain exercise to stimulate the brain to develop synapses relevant to differentiating one Chinese word from another, retaining them and recalling them. It is not an attempt to increase vocabulary.

However, after 15 Potato Chinese™ compositions, Little Boy could recognise many new words and he knew how to use them in context too. Does this count as increased vocabulary? Yes. But it is a welcome side benefit of Potato Chinese™, not the aim of Potato Chinese™. Once the brain synapses are in place, then there is no more need to recite and memorise Potato Chinese™ anymore. Nowadays, Little Boy simply needs to read a new composition in order to learn and retain new words and phrases. He needs 15 minutes. Gone are the days when we had to do Potato Chinese™ for 7 hours a day.

If your child is NOT a Potato Kid, please don't waste your time on Potato Chinese™. Your child already possesses the brain synapses to process the Chinese language, why waste time with Potato Chinese™? Just get your child to quickly read one Chinese composition a day or one Chinese novel a week, and that should be fine. Faster... less tedious and just as effective.

Indeed, these days, that is what Little Boy does. We don't waste time on Potato Chinese™ anymore. We've gone beyond.

Does Potato Chinese™ Help Children to Write Better Compositions?
The answer is No.

Within 3 weeks, Little Boy memorised and recited 15 Potato Chinese™ compositions in December 2010. He went back to school in January 2011... and we saw definite improvements in Chinese spelling (ting xie). He needed far less time to learn his spelling list AND he was achieving much better scores. He also achieved better scores in Listening Comprehension because he could now process Chinese sounds more clearly. He achieved much better scores in Written Comprehension because he could now recognise more words. He actually topped the class in Chinese Oral Reading because all that recitation gave him confidence to read with style and expression.

BUT, he failed his Chinese composition writing even after memorising and reciting EVEN MORE Potato Chinese™ compositions, in May 2011. Little Boy knew many words. He could recognise them. He could read them. However, he could not WRITE them. This is because Potato Chinese™ focuses on memorise-recite. There is no emphasis on writing.

To get Little Boy to pass his Chinese compositions, we had to take the next step - transit from reciting to writing.

How to Transit from Reciting to Writing?
So what did we do to help Little Boy score better at his Chinese Compositions?

Little Boy had to go back to all the compositions that he had memorized-recited... and pull out good expressions and vocabulary. He listed them all out in an old exercise book. In all, he pulled out 40 short expressions. He knew how to use them because he had seen how they were used in context. This meant that he would not use them wrongly as he was prone to doing in the past... when he memorized the lists of disembodied words Grandma gave to him. We divided the list of 40 words into sub-lists of 8 words each. We worked on one sub-list every week. Little Boy gave himself ting xie of 8 expressions a day on each day of the week. Every Monday, we switched to a new sub-list. By the end of 5 weeks, he had mastered 40 expressions for use in his compositions.

Then we began WRITING compositions. He did one composition every day for 3 weeks, i.e., 15 compositions. We first worked on technique... and when he had gotten the techniques right (more about techniques in another post eh? This one is getting really long), we worked on speed and length. We targeted to write 2 A4-sized sides of paper in 50 minutes. This was not easy for Little Boy. But by the 15th composition, we did manage to write 2 A4-sized sides of paper in 50 minutes.

Meanwhile, even as he practised writing his compositions, Little Boy continued to accumulate nice phrases and expressions for self ting xie. We pulled 50% of these words from the Potato Chinese™ compositions. We pulled the other 50% from PSLE level compositions sold in  Popular bookstore.

As of today, I believe Little Boy has a list of 240 expressions that he revises again and again so that he does not forget how to write them. He uses these in his Chinese compositions. Then one day 1.5 months ago, he came home and announced "Mommy, I looked at XXXXX's Chinese compo today. I notice that I have as many good expressions as he does, and I use them correctly too. My problem is that I write too many simple words wrongly (even though I get the difficult words right). XXXXX has at most 1 or 2 wrong words. I have 9. He can score 35/40 and I am stuck at 29/40"

With that realisation, Little Boy went on a mission to fix his simple words. He gave himself ting xie daily on all the simple words he was prone to writing wrongly. Grandma had in the past burst a few blood vessels trying to tell him about his high incidence of wrong words. All Little Boy did was nod. It was not until Little Boy noted, owned and took charge of his own weakness did he make any progress in this regard. Little Boy can do anything, but only if HE decides to. Sigh!!

And finally, Little Boy began to hit the 30s in his Chinese compositions.

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