Chinese for Kids and It’s Your World: China by Carole Marsh

There aren’t many workbook-type social-studies resources available in the education marketplace to help teachers, homeschoolers, and family travelers introduce foreign cultures, especially those from Asia. I work in this industry and have been keeping my eyes open at tradeshows and when new catalogs arrive for such materials to use with my daughter, as well as to review for the weninchina community.

These 32-page workbooks are each from series published by Gallopade International, covering many countries (14 in that series) and languages (7 in that series). Each book is priced at a reasonable $5.95 and printed in black on good-quality paper. Both books are written for an older-elementary / middle-school reading level using a conversational (and perhaps overly excited) tone. (Source disclosure: I received both of these books at no charge from Gallopade at an education trade show.)

Chinese for Kids (copyright 2004) presents translated words in their context (greetings, food, and such) and uses matching exercises and fill-in-the-blank puzzles that progressively build vocabulary. The format of It’s Your World: China (copyright 2009) is to present new information at the top of each page and review / reinforce it with activities at the bottom such as crosswords, timelines, matching games, creative writing, or drawing.

With books about China like these, there are always several concerns: (1) the book can try to do too much (a comprehensive view of Chinese culture in 32 pages?); (2) the information can become out-of-date very quickly; (3) the pacing and difficulty level of the activities can be uneven … or too little / too much for a child to do.  All three of these issues are at play with these books.

With supplemental educational materials, the writing and editing staff need a clear understanding of the product’s intended use: will a child be using this book independently as a self-contained learning tool, or will a teacher / homeschool parent be using the book as an element in the context of a broader lesson plan that uses multiple materials? It’s unclear with these two books just what the intended instructional context is supposed to be.

As standalone books, there just isn’t enough content in either to be a complete social-studies of foreign-language teaching unit. For instance, the language book introduces Mandarin words but never explains how the language works, what the Pinyin sounds actually are, or how to make the all-important tones.  While the social-studies book has many interesting individual page activities, they jump from topic to topic so that the student never dives deeply into any particular issue. The writing style is breathless – using many exclamation points! – even in topics that perhaps need a more somber tone. While several pages talk about Communism and even the Cultural Revolution, there is no discussion of post-1980s reforms, how the country is actually governed today, the status of Hong Kong, or the “3 T’s which must not be discussed” (Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square). For young children these topics aren’t critical, but for the middle-school age range these books are written for, these more-challenging critical-thinking topics are not just worthwhile but also the kind of content that they crave. China’s history is amazing, but what’s going on there today is also compelling, and more concrete for kids and teens to discuss.

I’m not able to recommend either title for homeschoolers or traveling families to use on its own – you would need substantially more supplemental materials so that you could introduce one page from these books at a time, in the context of other media, and that’s a tall order for families to coordinate. For educators, you also would need to carefully choose specific activities from these books to coordinate with other materials in your China lesson plans; these are not standalone resources.