School Principal, Irene Lai and the teaching team at Pat Heung Central Primary School are an energetic bunch of people, who are clearly committed to helping children from non-Chinese speaking families learn Chinese.
The school, in conjunction with Chinese University, designed their own school-based curriculum, which teaches Chinese in Cantonese and uses Jyutping romanisation to help the children learn how characters are pronounced.
This is the first time the CALHK team has seen Jyutping taught systematically in a local school setting. Students are first taught how the various Cantonese sounds are written in Jyutping, before they learn vocabulary using the system.
Learning Cantonese Tones
Students also learn the Cantonese tonal system.
Many schools, unsure of 'how' to teach tones, simply dodge the issue altogether.
So it is refreshing to see textbook materials which explain Cantonese tones in a way that can be understood by primary school children.
Learning to speak Cantonese
One big challenge when teaching Cantonese in Hong Kong schools is how to differentiate between spoken Cantonese and standard written Chinese. This is certainly a huge problem. Some schools simply skip spoken Cantonese altogether and go straight to writing. This makes learning Chinese a very strange, detached, experience and leaves children from non-Chinese speaking families seriously disadvantaged when they leave secondary school and enter the job market.
Pat Heung Central Primary School is dealing with this problem head on by creating materials that specifically teach spoken Cantonese and encourage the children to use the language actively.
Using Cantonese style characters
We were very excited to see spoken Cantonese written using authentic Cantonese style characters. Characters such as 咩 (me: what?) and 嘅 (ge: of) , and words such as 屋企 (uk1 kei2: home) 鍾意 (zung1 ji3: like) are not usually found in classroom materials.
The children don't have to learn to write these Cantonese style characters, but learning to recognise them will certainly help students input the Cantonese sentences more effectively. Besides, these characters can be seen around Hong Kong on adverts, in magazines and in comics, so it's really important students are familiar with their usage.
In some cases, the standard written Chinese is shown below the Cantonese characters, so the children can begin to understand the conventions of standard written Chinese. (See the characters 他 and 的 written below 佢 and 嘅).
And how good to see clear lesson objectives displayed on each page!
Another nice feature of these texbooks is the use of QR codes to play audio of the key vocabulary. Written Chinese is largely non-phonetic, and Cantonese presents the additional challenge of learning 6 tones, so using audio to read out the sounds is very helpful.
At CALHK we are firm supporters of using Jyutping romanisation to help children learn Cantonese, but not all parents (or even teachers!) are familiar with Jyutping, and it does take time for children to learn the system. So adding audio is a great way to ensure all students are 100% sure about how to pronounce new vocabulary accurately.
Learning to write Chinese: Let's start from the very beginning...
The school teaches Chinese writing from scratch too. These textbooks assume no prior knowledge of Chinese and teach stroke order rules and foundational characters using clear instructions and copysheets.
It is genuinely difficult to find suitable resources to teach Chinese in Cantonese to children from non Chinese speaking families. None of the mainstream publishers provide anything remotely suitable, so it's great to see these new materials being created and used at Pat Heung Central Primary School. Hopefully other schools can take note and use similar strategies to ensure all children get a good foundation in spoken Cantonese and the conventions of the written language.