What Are The Key Elements to Successful Chinese Dual Language Programs?

By: Ping Liu

California State University Long Beach

When you plan to start a Chinese Dual Language Program (CDLP), a review of the guiding principles (Howard, et. al., 2002 & 2018) would be a must to examine key elements contributing to a high quality DLP. Moreover, it is critical to take characteristics of Chinese language into consideration to implement a well-designed CDLP (Liu, 2009). In this article, the following aspects about program development are discussed in view of student developmental needs, program goals, and cognitive/social interactive theories.


  1. Version of Chinese characters

The history of Chinese characters can be traced back to Oracle (1300 BC). Chinese characters are formed by strokes and radicals, and characters showing the same meaning were written differently at different times in history. The difference can be viewed through Chinese characters of traditional (繁体) or simplified (简体) used by people around the world today although most of the characters are identical between the two. For example, the following six characters among the most frequently used are the same for both: 的, 一, 是, 了, 我, and 不. So, even characters in simplified may not be that simple. A primary difference between the two sets is that some characters in traditional (not really used at an earlier time) generally have more strokes or radicals than simplified.

See below for evolution of “cloud”:

To select a version of Chinese characters, difficulty to learn a language and CDLP goals should at least be reviewed:


  • According to the Foreign Service Institute, foreign languages are classified into four groups by how difficult they are for English speakers to learn (Pittman, 2012). Chinese belongs to Group 4, which means that the most instructional hours are needed for students to reach the same proficiency level. Additionally, a study of a K-5 CDLP indicates that the highest level was 6 in listening, speaking, and reading except writing for the group according to testing results (Padilla, et. al., 2013). Therefore, efforts should be made to increase efficiency and effectiveness in studying Chinese, especially in writing.
  • Goals for both content and language development and features of building a CDLP from kindergarten deserve a highlight. Following a sequence of starting from simple to more complex, simplified can be adopted to address needs and characteristics of young children. For example, kindergarteners can enjoy learning 飞in simplified with an image of head, body, tail, and wings of a bird and know how Chinese characters were initially formed. The challenge level of this task would be appropriate. The experience can help kindergarteners get prepared to further study and appreciate its corresponding traditional character飛 (coordination of飞,飞and升) when they have improved fine motor skills and are more cognitively developed. This may explain why the vast majority of CDLP schools in the US have chosen simplified (Mandarin Immersion Parents Council, 2019). Consequently, more resources and textbooks such as Envision Math Chinese are only available in simplified.

2.Chinese resources online and in communities

  • Compared to Spanish DLPs, CDLPs are more recently developed. One main challenge is to acquire grade level appropriate content relevant Chinese materials. Ways of resource search may include:
    • Review the Mandarin school list (see the reference above) with location and contact information and get connected with other CDLP schools. It is helpful to know what resources other schools use, why they made a certain selection, and how they evaluate the selected resources.
    • Find bookstores that carry a good Chinese collection in communities nearby. A bookstore manager can help you find materials, especially children’s books beyond what’s available in stock.
    • Search for digital and multimedia books online. By doing a Google search with key words of “Chinese children’s stories”, “儿童故事” or “兒童故事”, you have access to weblinks of books in Chinese to choose grade level appropriate materials for instruction or enrichment.
    • Collect more information, resources, and materials about Chinese learning through attending conferences or events organized by the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (actfl.org) and organizations of Chinese language teaching and bilingual education. Professional network can be developed through participation.
  1. Subject integrated curriculum framework

After target subjects are chosen for instruction in Chinese, review content standards of the subjects in detail to develop a subject integrated curriculum framework (Liu, 2012). The content of the subjects becomes the base for selecting key vocabulary and high frequency characters. For example, if science is taught in Chinese, part of key vocabulary for kindergarten would include “需要” (needs) and words related to needs. Since “需要” can be broken down into four independent simple or high frequency characters (雨,而,西,女),content connection can be made to weather, directionality, or female in Chinese language arts. These simple characters can further be disassembled by finding 一, 水, 下, and 小in 雨(rain)for example. In doing so, motivation and active learning are promoted when students practice character hunts through investigating details. In the process, they have an opportunity to get familiar with the characters by exploring how they are related in format or meaning. As students develop competence in writing more complex characters, they have opportunities to reinforce learning of simple characters.


The main purpose of studying characters is for application in content development. When guiding students to create sentences using these words, a teacher can use scaffolding to facilitate learning. By completing challenging yet manageable tasks with teacher support, students are prepared to achieve goals and develop confidence. For instance, when writing, 人需要雨水 (we need rain/water) , kindergarteners use four of the characters on needs to express their learning of the concept. They are able to showcase their accomplishments in content and language learning through writing sentences with characters purposefully selected and organized at their level.


Chinese teachers are at the forefront in CDLP instruction. They are often challenged to address features of Chinese language in helping students meet goals. Professional development is, therefore, indispensable. Teachers’ ability in applying strategies to address students’ needs and make learning interactive and meaningful (Liu, 2015, 2018 & 2019) should have a major impact on learning outcomes.


In summary, a careful examination of the aforementioned aspects to design and sustain a quality CDLP is highly recommended. Program development requires collaboration of many members/parties to lay a solid foundation for achieving program goals. When possible, seek external professional support to assess and explore all available information and resources before vital decisions are made. A good beginning can avoid unnecessary adjustments, increase clarity, and improve program stability and continuity as more grades are added to a CDLP.




Howard, E. R. & Christian, D. (2002). Two-way immersion 101: Designing and implementing a two-way immersion education program at the elementary level. Santa Cruz, CA: CREDE.

Howard, E. R., Lindholm-Leary, K. J., Rogers, D., Olague, N., Medina, J., Kennedy, B., Sugarman, J., Christian, D., & (2018). Guiding principles for dual language education (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Liu, P. (2019). Chinese instructional activities for interaction and meaning construction. National Association for Bilingual Education Perspectives, 43(2), 14-16.

Liu, P. (2018). Applying graphic organizers to support Chinese language and content development. NABE Perspectives, 41(2), 20-22.

Liu, P. (2015). Facilitating Chinese language and content development in a visual rich context. NABE Perspectives, 37(2), 20-23.

Liu, P. (2012). Curriculum framework of a dual language program: Integration and cohesion. APA Perspectives: National Association for Asian Pacific American Education, 28(1), 1-7.

Liu, P. (2009). Developing a Chinese Dual Language Program in elementary schools: Responsive to language characteristics. NABE Newsletter, 32 (1), 13-15.

Mandarin Immersion Parents Council (2019). Mandarin immersion school list. Download on January 26, 2020 from http://miparentscouncil.org/full-mandarin-immersion-school-list/

Padilla, A. M., Fan, L., Xu, X., & Silva, D. (2013). A Mandarin/English Two-Way Immersion Program: Language proficiency and academic achievement. Foreign Language Annals, 46(4), 661-679.

Pittman, J. (2012) How long does it take to learn Chinese? Chinese Language. Download July 10, 2020 from http://joannpittman.com/chinese-language-2/2012/how-long-does-it-take-to-learn-chinese/?doing_wp_cron=1378247104.5103349685668945312500

For more information about successful Chinese Dual Language programs, join The Chinese Dual Language Network on Facebook!

One thought on “ What Are The Key Elements to Successful Chinese Dual Language Programs?

  1. This is a very helpful article. I’d love to know the author and if he/she/they are open to providing professional development and/or looking at our district’s scope and sequence document for CI? Thank you.

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