Masterworks Chinese Companion: Expressive Literacy through Reading and Composition. Compiled by Qin-Hong Anderson. Boston: Cheng & Tsui. 2004. 194 pp. (Reviewed by Michelle Fu, UCLA)
Reviewed by Michelle Fu, UCLA
Masterworks Chinese Companion, complied by Qin-Hong Anderson, is aimed at high-intermediate students of Chinese, especially heritage learners, who have already mastered basic skills of oral communication in Chinese. According to the author’s preface, the book was designed to help these students develop effective writing skills that will eventually allow them to write with eloquence.
To achieve this goal, Anderson has selected ten modern texts of Chinese literature and two classical poems as model materials. The modern texts are written by six renowned masters (Xu Dishan, Hu Shi, Sun Wen, Zhu Ziqing, Liang Qichao and Lu Xun), and the poems are by internationally well-known poets Wang Bo and Li Bai.
Anderson’s criteria for selecting the materials included can be understood from her comments. For example, the back cover of the book exclaims, ‘Learn from the texts that students in China study!’ Liang (2005) has confirmed that of twelve master pieces in the textbook, seven are included in the textbooks for 7th and 8th graders in Taiwan. Anderson believes that if the selected materials are good for natives, they must be suitable for overseas students, especially for heritage students at a high-intermediate level. The selection of these materials also reflects Anderson’s belief, as she states on the back cover, that students must learn to read skillfully before they can write skillfully. Her intention is that in the course of reading and completing exercises based on the literary texts appearing in the book, students will learn the writing techniques employed in those works and will become skilled writers themselves.
The ten modern texts appear in the first eleven chapters and the two poems are in the last chapter. The layout for each chapter is similar to what might be found in a traditional textbook for students learning Chinese as a second or foreign language: the reading section is followed by a vocabulary list, a grammar section, and exercises for practice.
The book’s design shows that Anderson has taken care to meet the needs of the targeted students. For example, both traditional and simplified character systems are used throughout the book. The length of each selected text is consistent, running one and a half pages in the first ten chapters and a little over two pages for the last text. The size of new vocabulary lists is consistent from chapter to chapter, ranging from thirty eight to fifty six items. New words and expression are underlined in each reading selection. Each new vocabulary item is carefully annotated with pinyin and the English translation. Various font sizes are used for an optimal visual effect. An index for all vocabulary items is provided at the end of the book.
To facilitate students’ understanding of the selected readings, Anderson has carefully identified five to seven words and sentence patterns as important for further explanation in all but the final chapter. To show how each identified word or pattern is used, Anderson has provided in her explanation two additional sentences with the identified expression. This feature makes new expressions more accessible and reduces their morphological and syntactic strangeness for learners.
Anderson takes pride in the exercises she has created for each chapter and considers them ‘the most distinctive and original features’ of the book. Each exercise section for Chapters 1-11 has seven sub-sections. The first sub-section contains discussion questions based on the reading, and these questions are indeed original and thought provoking. They carefully guide readers from the surface meaning of a text to a deeper, much more abstract understanding, thus bringing students to a higher level of comprehension.
The exercises in sub-sections two to five vary from chapter to chapter. In general these exercises can be divided into the following categories:
- Oral exercises for group or pair work, such as role playing and pair discussion
- Vocabulary and grammar exercises that include the following types
- identifying parts of speech
- cloze exercises
- matching the elements across columns to form a meaningful unit
- identifying wrong characters
- identifying radicals
- providing pinyin and then add characters to form meaningful units
- composing sentences
- Reading comprehension exercises
- locating and producing information provided in the text
- multiple choice questions
- true and false questions
- Writing exercises
- using one sentence to summarize each paragraph’s main idea
Sub-section six in the exercise section includes a free writing activity in which students use previously learned skills to write about their personal responses to the text. The author provides a suggested composition topic in this section. Sub-section seven focuses on writing techniques employed in each reading. For example, the first two chapters introduce the use of punctuation. Chapter Three explains the framework of a narrative composition and chapter four the structure of an expository composition. The remaining chapters introduce rhetorical techniques, such as reduplication, metaphor, parallelism, rhetorical questions, exaggeration and sentence length. Each explanation is followed by one or two exercises for practice.
As is shown above, the exercise designs are comprehensive in that they offer both oral and written practices for learners. They also provide training at both a macro level, such as composition structure, and a micro level, such as words frequently confused and misused. The exercises are clearly well-organized and pertinent to the points covered. While acknowledging these strong points, I would like to identify a few areas in the book that could be improved. Liang’s (2005) review criticized the organization of the book and made the following recommendations (p. 94-96).
- Explain, demonstrate, and practice writing techniques more concretely and systematically.
- Coordinate composition topics with the main text and the “writing reference” sections.
- Replace the poetry lesson with a text by a writer who lived contemporaneously with the other writers featured in the textbook.
I agree with Liang’s recommendations and would like to offer a few additional comments.
One advantage of using authentic materials in language teaching is that they provide authentic cultural information (Richards, 2001). However, these types of materials also involve some disadvantages. Richards argues that they may contain too many unknown words and complicated sentence structures for students. Martinez (2002) points out that authentic materials may have cultural biases. In the case of Masterworks Chinese Companion, the cultural information embedded in the selected readings is radically different from what students raised in a western culture are accustomed to. Without clear guidance and careful explanations from the instructor, learners will not be able to decode the true meaning of the texts and thus may feel confused, frustrated and possibly de-motivated. For example, in Chapter Two’s reading, Life Lesson from Mother, the author Hu Shi describes the way his mother disciplined him when he was a child. Her punishments include refusing to let Hu Shi go to bed in the evening, ordering him to kneel down, and even pinching him. Hu Shi ended his essay by expressing sincere thanks to his mother for teaching him how to treat people with kindness. Learners who are brought up in a culture that forbids any form of child abuse will find it difficult to follow Hu Shi’s logic. Unfortunately, the textbook provides no information that would help the students bridge the gap between what is culturally acceptable in the U.S. and the author’s perspective, so that the task of helping them is entirely up to the instructor. To explain the text’s cultural assumptions, instructors would have to provide the context to explain the text, drawing on history, culture, philosophy and even psychology.
In addition, a close look at the reading and writing exercises reveals that proportionally there are more exercises on vocabulary and grammar than on reading and writing, which does not appear to be consistent with the author’s goal of helping students develop effective writing skills through reading. Moreover, some vocabulary and grammar exercises, such as the ones on radicals and word association, appear more appropriate for lower level students than for the learners the book is designed for. Other exercises introduce expressions that may be too difficult for students. For example, on page 13 students are asked to compare jidu (嫉妒) with xianmu (羡慕). The former appears in the exercise without any annotation, but the latter appears in the vocabulary list. One can therefore conclude that Anderson assumes students have learned the former expression already. However, according to the Handbook on the Standardization of the Chinese Language (1997: 123-135), a Chinese government publication on language policies, xianmu (羡慕) is a more commonly used expression than jidu (嫉妒). Consequently, if students do not know xianmu (羡慕), it is unlikely that they know jidu (嫉妒). Cases like this can increase the exercises’ difficulty level and cause confusion among learners.
The type of writing skills covered in the book would also benefit from some revision. Anderson has introduced a variety of micro skills, such as the rhetoric techniques of reduplication and exaggeration, but devotes only brief attention to macro skills, such as paragraph and text structure. This imbalance is analogous to a situation where students are taught to make individual bricks without being shown how to put the bricks together to build walls and eventually houses. Students need more training in organizational skills at a macro level, so that their writing is not characterized by loosely strung sentences that lack clarity.
The book also contains several errors. For example, in Li Bai’s poem introduced in Chapter twelve, a wrong word (忘) is used instead of the correct one (望). Because of this error the meaning of the poem is changed. Moreover, several web links provided by Anderson to sites about the authors of the selected readings have become inaccessible since the book went to press. Finally, the book’s appeal would be increased if it had been produced in color and had pictures.
All in all, Masterworks Chinese Companion is a valuable textbook. It appears at a time when few materials are available for advanced students, especially for heritage students. Its rich information, the original features of the exercises and the careful annotations have certainly made the book a fine companion for advanced students, especially for heritage learners who desire to use authentic materials to improve their Chinese.
语言文字规范手册 [The Handbook on the Standardization of the Chinese Language]. 1997. Beijing: Chinese Language Publishing Company.
Liang, Hs. Review of Masterworks Chinese Companion: Expressive Literacy through Reading and Composition by Qin-Hong Anderson. Journal of Chinese Language and Teachers Association. 2005. Vol. 40: 3, pp. 91-97.
Martinez, A. Authentic materials: An overview. Karen's Linguistic Issues. 2002. Retrieved on June 22, 2006 from http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/authenticmaterials.html
Richard, J.C. Curriculum development in language teaching. 2001. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Published: Wednesday, September 13, 2006