How to embed Mandarin into your curriculum

With Mandarin growing in popularity, teachers explain how schools can make the most out of teaching the language

Clare Cook

Teaching and learning Mandarin

“Why is learning Mandarin beneficial to children? Where do I start,” asks Liqun Dai, the head of Chinese at Archbishop Sentamu Academy in Hull. 

“The Chinese language is unique. It is a tonal language, and in terms of cognitive development, it enhances students' maths and music ability, and problem-solving skills.

“China is the second-largest economy in the world, and four out of five businesses have job opportunities created by foreign trade. Learning Mandarin will definitely give students a head start in their future careers, and an edge in the job market.”

Related: How to set your pupils on the path towards fluency in Mandarin

Background: Seven reasons to teach Mandarin

Read more: Want to introduce Mandarin to your school? Here's how

Archbishop Sentamu Academy is one of hundreds of schools across the country now teaching Mandarin alongside other modern foreign languages, and uptake is increasing. In August 2018, the number of students choosing Mandarin at A level overtook those taking German for the first time, and since 2016 more than 6,000 students have enrolled on the Mandarin Excellence Programme, funded by the Department for Education. There’s no doubt about it: schools, parents and the government are switched on to the value of learning Mandarin.

How are schools implementing Mandarin into the curriculum? 

Dai believes it’s important to introduce students to Chinese culture when teaching Mandarin and uses videos/cultural input to bring her language lessons to life. This includes showing videos from her own trips to China in her lessons – pointing out household objects, and food and drink. She often brings in the food and drink to the classroom, for the learners to cook and taste. 

“Children need to have hands-on activities,” she says. “Of course, when they move to GCSE level, it’s more academically demanding for them. To engage them in those lessons, we explore Chinese issues like the economy, education, families – all topics that are relevant to their own lives.” 

Yadi Luo is a teacher at St Mary Magdalene Academy in London, where there are more than 500 students learning Mandarin. There, Year 7 students have an “intensive learning day”, where they are given a treasure map with clues written in Mandarin, she explains. 

And around Chinese New Year, older students are taken to a "Reunion Lunch" in Chinatown and encouraged to order and speak to the waiters in Mandarin. Other classroom activities include watching Chinese plays, creating Chinese art and linking up with other students learning the language to share experiences. 

Frank Fan, head of languages at Melbourn Village College, in Cambridgeshire, uses learning activities and games in his Mandarin lessons – as well as a sense of humour.

“I refer to my classroom as ‘The Great Wall of China,’” says Fan. “Outside the classroom is the UK, inside my classroom is China. Every week, to enter ‘China’, students wait at my door and give me the password in Chinese. I believe that anyone with a positive learning attitude can make good progress in Mandarin Chinese language learning.”

Melbourn Village College, St Mary Magdalene Academy and Archbishop Sentamu Academy are all participating in the Mandarin Excellence Programme (MEP), and say MEP has been instrumental to the success of the language in their schools. 

Teaching and learning Mandarin

What is the Mandarin Excellence Programme? And how does it work?

The MEP is an intensive language programme in which secondary students spend eight hours a week learning Mandarin: four hours at school and four hours at home. Learners take part in intensive study activities throughout the year and sit an exam, The Hurdle Test, at the end of the year. 

The programme is funded by the Department for Education and delivered by the UCL Institute of Education in partnership with the British Council.

How is the Mandarin Excellence Programme different from normal curriculum approaches?

Luo says participating in the MEP has allowed her to offer a comprehensive and worthwhile curriculum to the 500 students learning Mandarin at her school.

“I really want my students to be able to develop great speaking skills in Mandarin. When I was learning English, I was drilled on grammar and writing, and when I came here, I couldn’t ask for a bottle of water. I don’t want my students to experience that. 

“Before MEP, I didn’t have time to say to my class, ‘Let's pause for two seconds,' and say, 'You’ve asked me if you can have a piece of paper in English – let’s do that in Mandarin, and think about how to form that sentence.’”

The format has also enabled students to develop an appreciation for the language. The appeal for students, Luo says, is that it’s easier, at least in grammar terms, to learn compared with European languages. “We don't have the feminine and masculine elements like in French or German, nouns and verbs don’t conjugate. Speaking wise, and grammar wise, it's quite easy for students to catch on. 

“When it comes to writing, students do find it hard because it’s not alphabet-based but is all on pictograms instead. But once you learn the characters, it’s easy,” says Lou. “There are around 500 characters with so many different combinations. So, for the word ‘computer’, the characters are ‘electric brain’, and for film it is ‘electric shadow’. It’s all about building on the characters: the more you learn, the more you can master it.”

Dai says although her school already had a Chinese curriculum embedded in the MFL department, the MEP funding has allowed teachers to enhance the offer. In each year group, there is one class learning Mandarin, and many go on to study the language at university. 

What impact does the Mandarin Excellence Programme have on students and local communities?

A key component of the MEP is the extracurricular trips. As well as an intensive residential course at the University of Nottingham, students also benefit from a trip to China.

This year, due to restrictions on travel during the pandemic, the trips were conducted virtually. Over 1,300 MEP students were provided with a two -week opportunity to take live Mandarin lessons at a Chinese university, collaborate with Chinese students and experience visits to cultural and tourist sites and attend panel events with experts. This was the largest virtual study trip to a foreign country that any of the partners know of. 

For disadvantaged students, extracurricular trips are often out of reach, especially those trips necessitating flights and accommodation. But the grant funding they receive through MEP makes all the difference, says Dai. 

“The financial support created equal opportunities for the students who really wish to learn this language and experience the culture,” she says. “They also have the opportunity to be involved in these residential intensive study courses in the UK, and these are hugely beneficial to children, not only academically, but socially, too. It helps to build their independence and resilience skills.” 


Dai says the impact goes beyond the secondary school but into the local community, too. “We offer Chinese teaching to our local primary school, and we’ve gained support from the headteachers. It's very much a community thing now, because the word is spreading and people's friends, siblings and cousins know they've been to China, and have got jobs there.”

Lou says the impact the MEP has had on students is immense – and highlights one of her Year 11 students who has just won an award at an international Mandarin competition. He won a five-month scholarship, at the university of his choice in China, with all his tuition and accommodation paid for. 

“He was one of the first cohort of MEP. And without the programme, I wouldn’t have the time to make him talk with confidence and flair. Without this programme, a lot of things that we have achieved would be impossible,” she says. 

The Mandarin Excellence Programme is a Department for Education-funded programme that is being delivered by the UCL Institute of Education in partnership with the British Council. The Department for Education has confirmed that the programme will continue to be delivered by the UCL Institute of Education in partnership with the British Council for a further three years from 2021-2023, with the next cohort of 2,000 pupils enrolling in September 2021. Find out more here.

Clare Cook

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