The local school system assumes a considerable level of support at home. Homework is a big part of family life and students also need to prepare for a relentless stream of dictations, small tests and exams. Textbooks and worksheets may include Chinese characters and vocabulary that have not been taught in class.
If you are a non-Chinese speaking/literate family, you are probably going to need some help!
Talking to the Teacher
The classroom teacher should be the first port of call if you feel your child needs extra support.
Before you talk to the teacher, think carefully what you are asking for. What do you think would help?
Sometimes parents simply need clarity about what is required. When do you have dictations? Which words are in the dictation?
Would it help if the teacher did a voice recording of the dictation words? Or wrote the romanisation next to each character? Do you want the teacher to recommend some extra reading passages? Or help your child interact with the other students in the class?
Be Careful what you ask for. If you simply say ‘my child is not coping’. The teacher’s first reaction might be to reduce the workload. Give the child less words for dictation. Less questions to answer on the worksheet. But perhaps your child needs ‘more’ practice, not less. Perhaps what is needed is clarity about what is required. Or extra help writing the foundational characters? Or tips on how to learn new vocabulary.
The idea of tutoring, especially for primary age children, may be anathema to you. However, bear in mind that many native Chinese speaking children in Hong Kong have personal tutors or go to an after-school tutorial centre. If they need a tutor, then your child certainly will!
The benefits are:
Your child gets an extra hour a day of Chinese language input.
When you get home, the homework is done and dusted and they are free to play.
Tutoring can help preserve the parent/child relationship, so you are not always being the big bad wolf nagging about homework.
It’s a good idea to tell the tutor what you need. Do you simply want help get the homework finished? Do you need help with Chinese in general? Could the tutor read Chinese language books to your child? Or prepare some writing exercises?
How to find a tutor?
First decide if you want your child to go to an after school tutorial centre or have a tutor come to your home.
Most residential areas have a few after school tutorial centres. Some centres are run very efficiently, they know the school curriculum and march the students through their homework, using any additional time to prepare students for school exams. Others tutorial centres simply promise to get the homework done.
Tutorial Centres often do not have English advertising on the shop front, so you may have to ask other parents where to find the nearest place. Look out for the characters: 補習.
Privately run tutorial centres are targeted at helping local Chinese speaking students, they are unlikely to be able to offer your child support that is specific to the needs of a CAL student.
Private Home Tutor
A private home tutor saves a huge amount of time at the end of a tiring school day. The cost of private home tutoring varies hugely, depending on the tutor’s experience and travel fee.
You can ask for recommendations on the Cantonese School Parents Facebook Group.
If your budget is quite limited look out for students advertising on the Hong Kong Teen PT Facebook page, or check out the notice boards at the local universities.
A private home tutor is more likely to be able to tailor-make their teaching to the needs of your child. However, it's still unlikely they will have had any special training in the discipline of teaching Chinese to non-native Chinese speakers, so it will still be up to you, the parent, to tell the tutor what you think will be most helpful for your child.
Online teaching has been given a huge boost by Covid and the clear advantage is that your child doesn’t have to leave the comfort of your own home.
As a parent you might have to be more involved sending over photos of your child’s homework and worksheets.
Online tutoring can be a good way to get additional Chinese input, so long as you are prepared to prep the teacher.
Check out the tutors on www.italki.com. You can usually do a trial session before committing to a package of lessons.
Community after school homework support centres
Some charities also offer after school homework support at their community centres. There is no cost - or minimal cost for these services. You can find out more about these services at these links:
Hong Kong Unison
(provides personal tutors, not a homework centre)
Link Centre: The Support Service Centre for Ethnic Minorities.
HKSKH Lady MacLehose Centre
Community homework centres are usually staffed by volunteers. The volunteer tutors change daily and have little or no training. There is a risk that the volunteer tutors simply do the homework for the child. Boxes are ticked. Teacher, parent and child are all happy. But has the child learnt anything?
Reach out to other parents
Do try to establish a network of support with other parents, whether by actively seeking to talk to them at the school gate, or by setting up a group on Facebook or WhatsApp.
Chinese parents may magically have information about tests, exams or even what to take on a school trip, that has somehow not made it to your household. Other non-Chinese parents can help share resources and offer moral support.
If you are a South Asian, Caucasian or other visibly non-Chinese family, and feel like you stick out rather obviously from the Chinese majority, it’s easy to feel alone.
However, you might be surprised to find that some ethnically Chinese parents face similar challenges. There are plenty of ‘returnees’, Chinese who were brought up overseas and speak Cantonese fluently, but are not literate in Chinese. Yet, so much of the homework relies on the ability to read Chinese.
There are also many Hong Kong native Chinese speaking parents who feel ambivalent about the amount of homework required and the need to balance school work with a relaxed childhood.
You may feel alone with your worries, but you are probably not.
Do reach out - it’s much easier to laugh about the idiosyncrasies of the school system if you are among friends.
Join the CALHK Facebook Page and look out for our meet ups.
The Cantonese School Parents Group on Facebook is a wonderful resource, providing practical information and a platform for parents to discuss their concerns.