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Responding to the diversity of Chinese language learners in Australian schools.


Until recently Chinese language learning in Australian primary and junior secondary schools has been characterised by programs primarily designed for second language learners who have had no prior knowledge of or exposure to Chinese language. Participation in such programs by Australian-born children who speak Putonghua (Mandarin) or another Chinese language (or dialect) at home has increased significantly in recent years. At present considerable diversity in learner background and learning experience exists within individual classrooms, within school programs, and across school Chinese language programs in general. Research has identified ways in which language background impacts on achievements in Chinese classrooms, and suggests that background language learners' needs and interests are so distinctive that they should be addressed separately in both curriculum and classroom practice. Diversity in Chinese language learner background has been recognised to some extent at the senior secondary level (Years 11-12) through the provision of differentiated syllabuses or curricula. The recent development of Australian Curriculum: Languages has also recognised learner diversity in Chinese language learning through the provision of three separate pathways: for Second Language, Background Language and First Language learners. This initiative has provided some further impetus toward improving the overall provision of appropriate courses for learners of diverse backgrounds in school-based


Chinese language programs. There are however still significant challenges to improving learning experiences and outcomes for all learners in the Chinese language classroom. Chinese language learning, learner diversity, learner background, first language learners, second language learners, background language learners, heritage language learners, Australian Curriculum: Languages, Chinese curriculum/curricula


Until recently language learning in Australian primary and junior secondary schools has been characterised by 'beginners' programs primarily designed for second language learners that assume learners have little or no prior knowledge or exposure to the language. However in the case of languages with substantial communities of speakers living in the community, school language teachers often find it necessary to cater for a wider diversity of learners. In the case of Chinese language learning, programs established in the 1980s and 1990s were essentially second language programs with limited participation by children who spoke Chinese at home. In the last 20 years, however, participation by Australian-born children who speak Putonghua (Mandarin) or another Chinese language (or dialect) at home has increased substantially. Despite the provision of an additional syllabus/ curriculum at senior secondary level (Years 11 and 12), designed primarily for learners born overseas and at least initially educated in Chinese, the presence of Australian-born learners with Chinese as a home language participating in second language courses remains an unresolved issue in many classrooms at primary and secondary levels. The recent publication of a national curriculum for Chinese has provided, for the first time, a Chinese-specific, differentiated curriculum which acknowledges and seeks to address the challenges of diversity in learner background and experience faced in many Chinese language classrooms across Australia. The implications of its introduction across the country are however still to be revealed.

This paper documents the nature and diversity of learner background in Chinese classrooms. It summarises some recent Australian research into the impact of language background on learner achievements in Chinese classrooms to highlight the qualities and distinctive nature of achievements of background learners, findings which reinforce the recommendation put forward in Orton's (2008) report that students who speak Chinese at home should be offered a separate curriculum and assessment framework from students with no background in the language. The paper also reviews efforts made by state curriculum authorities to provide differentiated pathways both at senior secondary level and more recently at primary and junior secondary levels. It argues that while some curricula are in place to assist teachers and learners by providing differentiated programs relevant to learner background, much remains to be done to achieve the best outcomes for all learners of Chinese in schools.

The Australian context: The Chinese community in Australia

The teaching and learning of Chinese language has attracted more interest and support as state and federal governments and the business community seek to engage with China and benefit from its growing economic power and influence, with China now ranked as Australia's major trading partner, ranking highest in terms of total value of imports to Australia, and exports from Australia in 2013-2014 (DFAT 2015). Participation in learning Chinese in schools has increased significantly over the last few decades, with support for school-based Chinese language education growing substantially under the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) Strategy (operating 1994-2002), and then under the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) (operating 2008-12). Chinese is now taught in hundreds of schools with many tens of thousands of students engaged in the study of Chinese at each year level at both primary and secondary school. National statistics on participation rates are difficult to gather, but one relatively recent study (Orton 2008) found that there were over 300 Chinese programs in Australian schools. Lo Bianco (2009) reported nearly 50,000 students engaged in Chinese language learning at primary school and over 30,000 students studying at secondary school level. There figures however constitute only some six per cent of the school age population, ranking Chinese as only the 6th most studied language in schools, after Japanese, French, German, Italian and Indonesian (Lo Bianco, 2009).

The rise of China as an important economic partner for Australia has coincided with increased Chinese migration to Australia, and an increasing prevalence of Chinese language use in the wider Australian community. According to the most recent national census undertaken in 2011 (, over 866,000 Australians (4.3 per cent of the population) declare Chinese ancestry (a cultural group they most closely identify with), with a large proportion of these being first generation, or overseas born. The Peoples Republic of China is now the largest source of non-English speaking migrants to Australia with over half a million speakers of Chinese (all dialects) residing in Australia (ABS, 2011). Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) has replaced Italian as the most common language spoken at home after English in Australia; 1.6 per cent of the Australian population speak Mandarin at home and another 1.2 per cent speak Cantonese, making Chinese (inclusive of all 'dialects') by far the most common 'second language' in the Australian community. In addition there are also approximately 120,000 students from China studying in Australia, constituting nearly 30 per cent of all international students in Australia with a small proportion of these studying at secondary school level (AEI, 2014).

Consequently, while Chinese language learning in Australian schools was previously characterised by predominantly second language programs for learners who have had no prior exposure to Chinese, participation by Australian-born children who speak Putonghua (Mandarin) or another Chinese language (or dialect) at home, and by children who were born and raised in 'greater China' (Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong) or in Chinese communities in South-East Asia has increased. Many of these overseas-born children from countries where Chinese is the national language or is available as a medium of instruction in schools received their initial school-based education in Chinese prior to migrating to Australia. There is also evidence that a significant number of these overseas-born children, and children born of Chinese-speaking parents in Australia maintain or continue to develop their Chinese skills through regular attendance at Chinese community language schools in Australia. Lo Bianco reported that Chinese has the largest number of students studying their 'mother tongue' as a community language (outside the mainstream school system) with over 11,000 children enrolled in Chinese community schools in 2008 (Lo Bianco, 2009).

Thus while the ongoing interest in the study of Chinese languages and the active promotion of Asian languages in school education suggests an expanding field for Chinese language education, this tends to conceal a complex situation of learner diversity that challenges the effectiveness of current approaches to school-based Chinese teaching and learning. Orton (2008) highlights the fact that while Chinese language learning appears to be in demand, it also suffers from a high attrition rate of non-background learners at senior secondary level, resulting in a situation where 'by senior secondary school, the teaching and learning of Chinese in Australia is overwhelmingly a matter of Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese' (2008, p.4). The issue, Orton argues, is that 94 per cent of second language learners drop out before Year 12, usually once the language is no longer mandated (Orton, 2008). The reason Chinese second language students drop out, she argues, is due to three factors: the first and main one being the presence of large numbers of first language speakers, locally born or otherwise, who share their classes and overwhelm them in assessment; the second and third factors being students' sense of limited success in developing their proficiency, due to the intrinsic difficulties of Chinese for an English speaking learner, and the often unsupportive environment for learning Chinese as a second language in Australian schools (Orton, 2008). O'Meara (2014, p. 20) provides data on retention rates in Victorian Chinese language programs and also argues that 'this pervasive presence of Chinese speakers in the (Victorian) Chinese Second Language course (at Year 12) is one of the great deterrents for second language learners to continue their studies'. Consequently, while it is clear that there is an ongoing change in the national demographic with increasing numbers of Chinese speaking students enrolling in school language programs, actual evidence of this diversity in individual classrooms and schools is in fact limited.

Complexity and diversity in Chinese classrooms

In 2011 the author undertook an informal study of learner background across a sample of two secondary schools; one an inner urban government secondary school noted for its linguistic and cultural diversity. Chinese is one of a range of languages taught at the school from Years 8 to 12. The other school selected was an outer urban Foundation--Year 12 independent school where the majority of learners are of Anglo-Australian background. Chinese is taught from the Foundation Year to Year 12 at this school. The purpose of the study was to document the nature of diversity in terms of both language background and learning experience, in two diverse contexts. Students in Year 8 Chinese classrooms were invited to complete a short anonymous survey of their linguistic background and Chinese learning experience.

At the inner urban secondary school, there were 24 learners in one Year 8 (first year of secondary school in this state) Chinese classroom; 17 of these students were born in Australia and seven students were born overseas. Of the 17 students born in Australia, only four students' parents were also born in Australia and spoke only English at home. Nine students' parents were born in Vietnam and spoke Vietnamese, or Cantonese or both at home, and four students had parents born in China and spoke Mandarin at home. Of the seven students born overseas, six were born in China, one arrived before starting school, two during primary school, and three arrived after completing primary school in China. All spoke Mandarin, and six regularly attend Chinese Community School on Saturday and all stated they could read and write Chinese well. One student was born in Sri Lanka. Overall, four students speak English at home, seven speak Vietnamese, 12 speak Chinese (Cantonese or Mandarin), and one speaks Sinhalese at home.

In the outer-urban private school, there were 21 students in the Year 8 Chinese classroom; 20 were born in Australia and speak English only at home. One student was born in China, speaks Chinese and attends community school. Of the 20 Australian born students, two began Chinese in Years R-1, four began Chinese in Years 2-3, three began in Years 4-5, four began in Year 6-7, and seven began learning Chinese in Year 8, for the first time.

This Chinese classroom in the inner-urban high school highlights a feature of many urban school Chinese programs: the presence of, and, in some cases predominance of, students who speak some form of Chinese at home, with a smaller subset who were educated initially in Chinese overseas, and another subset who continue to study Chinese at community school. This diversity of background and learning experience is often evident in a classroom where the teacher still needs to teach Chinese as a second language to new learners. Diversity for the students in the outer-urban private school classroom is reflected in their prior Chinese learning experiences in primary school rather than in their language background. In both these school sites the teachers typically use the same range of resources designed explicitly for non-background learners and which assume no prior knowledge or experience on beginning the study of Chinese at secondary level. Irrespective of their home background or extent of education in the Chinese language, most of these students will remain eligible to sit the Chinese Continuers (second language) examination at Year 12, if they continue their studies to that point.

More recently at the same inner urban government high school mentioned above, teachers were asked to classify students of Chinese at each year level according to background: second language learners with little or no background in Chinese; background language learners born in Australia who use Chinese at home; and Chinese first language learners, born, raised and initially educated in Chinese. Figure 1 illustrates the relative proportion of each group at each year level, displaying how this diversity tends to change as learners progress through the years of Chinese language learning toward the Year 12 external examination. The total number of learners studying Chinese at each year level (Years 8-11) remains fairly constant, with approximately thirty students in each year level. In Year 8, there is a predominance of second language learners. By Year 11, however, there are almost no second language learners left. The number of Chinese background language learners increases each year until Year 11. The number of first language learners (typically international students) is limited in the middle school but they begin to enrol in Chinese classes as they arrive from overseas and ultimately represent the majority of learners in the classroom at Year 12 level. Despite the promotion of Chinese language learning and encouragement for young Australian-born students to study Chinese as a second language, the determination to complete secondary school with Chinese language skills appears not to be a strong priority or aspiration particularly among non-background second language learners, resulting in the condition Orton (2008) describes as Chinese (second language) classrooms being increasingly a circumstance of teaching Chinese to learners who are Chinese.

The examples of diversity outlined above represent individual case studies of linguistic and cultural diversity within one year level and across one school site. Besides attempting to provide differentiated learning experiences in the one classroom, schools often have strategies in place to assist in responding to such diversity. One strategy is to segregate and teach learners in background learner and non-background learner classrooms, where the numbers of students are sufficient to justify such an arrangement. Another strategy is to 'accelerate' background learners into higher year levels where curriculum structures support such options. However, in the latter case in particular, background learners are simply being asked to learn beside other second language learners with a slightly longer time-on-task, while still being offered essentially second language teaching-learning and assessment practices, in line with the textbooks currently available for Chinese in schools. In the segregated classroom, teachers are left to decide what should be taught and how, with little curriculum guidance or resources available for teaching background language learners, and knowing full well that in most cases the background language learners will still be eligible to sit the second language Continuers Level examination, if they continue to Year 12.

Given the fact that background language learners bring with them extensive prior knowledge and experience with the Chinese language to the classroom, it is clear that curriculum specifically designed for them is now essential.

The nature of learner background knowledge and achievement in Chinese

Research into the impact of language background on school achievement has been addressed in a number of Australian studies. In a review of literature on background language learners' levels of achievement Elder et al (2012) found a range of factors potentially influencing achievement including the variety and status of the language to which a learner has been exposed (i.e. how closely it conforms to the 'modern standard' language of schooling), the frequency and domains of exposure, and the extent of prior schooling or literacy development in the target language. The literature suggests that Chinese learners who were more recent arrivals (with substantial schooling in Chinese overseas) perform much better than non-background learners in school examinations. Literature investigating the distinctive features of achievements of students of Chinese background (typically referred to as heritage learners) in the USA (He & Xiao, 2008; He, 2008; Kondo-Brown, 2006, 2008; Xiao, 2009, 2010) argues that the characteristics of language use displayed by US-born background language (or heritage) learners in schools and colleges in the US has more in common with second language learners than with overseas-born (i.e. China-born and educated) native (or first language) speakers. Students who were born in China or other Chinese speaking communities in Asia generally tend to display age-appropriate literacy skills in Chinese that are far beyond what could be expected of background language learners who simply speak Chinese at home. Locally born learners who speak Chinese at home, on the other hand, tend to bring a level of oral language competence and an inherent awareness of the basic structures and features of the grammatical system well beyond that expected of a second language learner with no prior knowledge of Chinese before formal classroom learning. However, the ability of such students who speak Chinese at home to transfer these oral skills to engage with the Chinese written language in meaningful ways to develop their literacy skills also tends to be limited. These characteristics are not common to all background language learners, however, as their personal identification with Chinese language and culture, their degree of oral literacy in Putonghua (Mandarin) and extent of print literacy (in either simplified or traditional/full-form characters) are all likely to vary, depending on contexts and purposes for which the language is used and the extent of prior formal learning in for example, local community schools (Wu, 2008, Xiao, 2009). Consequently their advantage over second language learners, while significant in many instances, cannot be assumed. What is clear however is that studying Chinese for a limited time in a typically second language learner environment cannot compensate for or ever compete effectively with early literacy learning in-country, as is the case with what are commonly referred to as first-language learners, or compete locally born and raised background language learners with sustained home use of the language.

A recent Australian study explored the similarities and differences in achievements between Australian-born students who use Chinese at home and students with no prior knowledge or experience of learning Chinese beyond the classroom. The Student Achievement in Asian Languages Education (SAALE) Project (Scarino et al, 2011) investigated the performance of learners of Chinese (as well as Japanese, Indonesian and Korean) by language background in Years 6, 10 and 12. The SAALE study contributed systematic and empirical evidence about achievements of learners in common assessments in school-based Chinese language classrooms, and explored the differences in achievement for three different groups of learners:

* Second Language Learners with no prior learning or use of Chinese language and little or no affiliation with the Chinese culture

* Background Language Learners with home use of Chinese (or dialects), limited overseas education but cultural identification with the Chinese community, either born or long-term resident in Australia

* First Language Learners recently arrived in Australia, educated in Chinese in their home country.

The study reported that overall, students who speak Chinese at home performed better than students who speak only English at home; overseas-born and educated students performed at much higher levels than Australian born students; and Australian-born students who speak Chinese at home performed, on average, at a higher level than students with no such Chinese language background (Scarino et al 2011, p. 67-71). An additional study (Scrimgeour, 2012) compared the performance of second language and background language learners from the SAALE study on common writing tasks administered to learners in Year 10. These data suggest that Australian-born learners with home background in Chinese perform not only better but also differently in writing tasks from learners with no such background. A detailed analysis of performance identified that differences were most evident in students' knowledge of and ability to use grammatical structures, in terms of the range of structures used, and more specifically in the use of structures that are Chinese-specific (in terms of word order in a sentence for example). The most evident feature in second language learner writing was their over-reliance on English language sentence patterns, particularly when attempting any form of Chinese-specific elaboration, such as the use of relative clauses, verb complements, and prepositional phrases. In terms of character knowledge in writing tasks, while achievements of both background language and second language learners at high levels of achievement were consistently good, within the limits of their known vocabulary, at average levels both background language and second language learners display different problems in accurately representing their ideas using Chinese characters. Significantly, achievement at background language learner average level displays particular weaknesses, the most obvious being difficulties they faced in mapping their well-developed oral language capabilities onto the correct written forms. Students typically wrote characters well, but often displayed difficulty in selecting between graphically similar or phonologically related characters and the actual character required. Second language learners typically struggled to represent the required characters correctly, with orthographic errors such as omitted strokes or misplaced components predominating.

Overall the data from the SAALE project highlights the impact of learner background on learning and achievement in Chinese in classroom-based contexts. Background language learner's performance while typically more like second language learners than overseas educated native speakers, tends to be stronger in terms of accuracy, variety and appropriateness of forms and structures, which supports the view of Wu (2008), and Xiao (2010) that their knowledge of language structures and features, and their character writing skills, tend to extend well beyond that typically covered or possibly expected from second language learners in the Chinese language classroom at this level. Clearly, the needs of such learners extend beyond simply accelerating them to higher levels of an essentially second language program at school. A dedicated curriculum that understands their linguistic and cultural association with the language, recognises their knowledge and skills as well as their weaknesses, and attends to their particular learning needs and communicative potential is now essential.

Curriculum responses to diversity in Chinese language classrooms

Frameworks for languages curriculum across the years of schooling have been developed in some states and territories in Australia over the last two decades. Such curricula have endeavoured to recognise and respond to issues of diversity in prior learning experience or background in different ways. In some cases the approach taken assumes learners with background in the language will progress more rapidly along a common pathway. There is no attempt to differentiate curriculum for either group or recognise difference in learning needs or outcomes.

In Victoria the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) for languages (other than English) (VCAA, 2007) recognised the in-depth knowledge of the target language that many students bring to the classroom and suggests that such students would progress more rapidly through some aspects of the standards than typical second language learners.

In New South Wales the Chinese K-10 syllabus (BOS NSW, 2010a; 2010b) provided no differentiation in content or achievement for learners of Chinese background, but made the assumption they would enter Chinese programs at an appropriate stage of the curriculum framework and reach anticipated outcomes quicker than their non-Chinese background colleagues.

In other cases the content descriptions and related performance standards developed actually differ for both second language and background learners at each level.

The South Australian Curriculum Standards and Accountability (SACSA) Framework (DETE, 2001) developed two broad curricula, one for alphabetic languages, one for non-alphabetic languages (with specific Chinese and Japanese annotations) and designated two pathways for learners (from Foundation to Year 10) based on learner background;

* Pathway 1: Second language learners, for students with little or no prior knowledge of the target language at entry.

* Pathway 2; Background learners, for students with some prior learning and use of the language at entry.

The SACSA framework therefore represented one example of a curriculum framework that did attempt to explicitly address the content and achievement expectations for background learners in a manner distinctively different to that for second language learners.

The extent to which these broad frameworks actually influenced teacher practice, especially where students were still taught in the same classroom (and were permitted to sit the same Continuers Level (second language) examination at Year 12, as discussed below) is however not easy to determine. Learners with background in Chinese working towards the same senior secondary examination as their second language classmates were typically still taught within the second language curriculum context, using the same resources that were actually designed for students with no background in the language and culture.

Current systems for grouping students at senior secondary level

Curriculum and assessment authorities in each state or territory have tended to seek means to address diversity in learner background by providing differentiated syllabuses with clear criteria for participation in second language courses at senior secondary level. Much of the impetus for curriculum differentiation developed from an understanding documented in the Report of an investigation Into disincentives to language learning at the senior secondary level (Tuffin & Wilson, 1989) that the presence of home language users in second language courses was a clear disincentive for non-background learners to continue their studies of the language to Year 12. The issue of eligibility and course provision is particularly important at Year 12 level where students' language learning achievements are assessed relative to a syllabus or course of study they have undertaken, and where the scores are used to determine tertiary entry ranking (the ATAR) for competitive entry into courses at university. The issue of how to limit participation by students with substantial background knowledge of the language in courses designed for second language learners was first addressed in the National Assessment Framework for Languages at Senior Secondary Level (NAFLaSSL) Framework implemented in the early 1990s. The first syllabuses for learners with substantial background in Chinese (at that time termed 'Specialist Level') were implemented in New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia in 1993. Currently, some twenty years after the first syllabuses/courses for background learners, the criteria for eligibility into second language syllabuses/courses differs in each state or territory to some degree, but in general align with the revised Collaborative Curriculum and Assessment Framework for Languages (CCAFL). Under the current CCAFL arrangement, as represented in the current CCAFL model (SACE Board, 2014a), the three levels are:

* Beginners--for students with little or no previous knowledge of the language (an ab-initio course beginning at Year 11)

* Continuers--for students who will have studied the language for 400 to 500 hours by the time they have completed Stage 2 (Year 12), or who have an equivalent level of knowledge

* Background speakers--for students who have a background in the language and who have had more than one year's education in a country where the language is spoken.

The definition of these target groups is very general, the distance between each target group is substantial, and the boundaries between them are difficult to distinguish. States and territories following the CCAFL Framework set eligibility criteria for Continuers Level (second language) courses in particular, in slightly different ways.

In New South Wales eligibility for Stage 6 (Year 12) languages (BOSTES, 2014) states students will be deemed ineligible for Continuers level if they:

* have more than one year's formal education in the language in a country and/or school where Chinese is the medium of instruction, and

* speak Chinese at home, or elsewhere outside the classroom, in a sustained manner with a person or persons who have a background in using Chinese.

In South Australia, the SACE Board of SA eligibility for enrolment in languages at Continuers Level (SACE Board, 2014b) states students will be ineligible for Continuers level if they:

* have more than one year's education from the age of five years in a country where Chinese is a major language of communication or a medium of instruction.

In Victoria the VCE Chinese Second Language eligibility criteria (VCE, 2014) state students will be ineligible for Chinese Second Language (i.e. Continuers level) if they:

* have 12 months or more education in a school where Chinese is the medium of instruction, or

* three years (36 months) or more residence in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macau.

In Western Australia, the WA Schools Curriculum and Standards Authority (SCSA, 2013) use a process that scrutinises the first 10 years of a student's life during which a first language is typically acquired. Various points are allocated depending on the country of birth/residence and the language or dialect of home use/education. A judgment is made on balance on the basis of all information provided to determine which background speaker candidates, essentially any student living and learning overseas up to the age of six, would be deemed ineligible for Continuers level.

In Queensland, where the CCAFL model is not followed, the QCAA Languages senior subjects website states the Chinese Senior Syllabus (QSA, 2008) is intended for students who wish to study Chinese as an additional language and who have studied the language at junior secondary level in Australia or in a similar environment. No additional syllabus for background language learners was provided at that time.

In general, despite the variations in approaches to determining eligibility, students excluded (deemed ineligible) for second language courses are typically born and educated overseas for at least one year, rather than simply having more than 400-500 hours of classroom experience. Thus students who speak Chinese daily at home are still deemed to be 'second language learners', while overseas born and educated learners only are deemed ineligible for Continuers courses and are required to take the First Language level or Background Speakers level course. In NSW however students who 'speak Chinese at home, or elsewhere outside the classroom, in a sustained manner' are deemed ineligible for the Chinese Continuers (second language) courses and must compete in the Chinese Background Speakers course with students born, raised and educated overseas, if they wish.

Recent changes to the provision of courses at senior secondary level

In the past 10 years, the numbers of Australian-born, Chinese-background learners enrolling in Chinese courses has increased, as has participation by Chinese international students eligible to enrol in Chinese Background Speaker/First Language courses. This has meant that in general more Australian-born home-users of Chinese are enrolling in Chinese second language courses, creating an increasing perception of disadvantage for non-background second language learners, and more overseas-born and educated students recently arrived in Australia are enrolling in background language courses, creating an additional perception of disadvantage for the longer term resident Chinese speakers for whom those courses were originally designed. As a result, individual states have developed alternative curricula in response to these changes in enrolments.

In 2004, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority introduced a Second Language Advanced level course (VCAA, 2013a), which is based on the Chinese Second Language Study Design with modified tasks and assessment criteria.

Students formerly required to take the Victorian Chinese First Language syllabus are deemed eligible for Chinese Second Language Advanced syllabus if they:

* have less than seven years of education in a school where Chinese is the medium of instruction.

The main intention of this course appears to have been to respond to the apparent disadvantage suffered by students born, raised and educated in China who had arrived in their primary years of schooling from the First Language course, which is now dominated by the rapidly growing number of Chinese international students now undertaking VCAA senior secondary courses in both China and Australia. The term Second Language Advanced appears somewhat contradictory title for a course designed for students typically born, raised and initially educated in Chinese in a Chinese speaking community overseas.

In 2009, the NSW Board of Studies also developed an additional level, described as the Heritage Language Course of Study (BOS NSW, 2010b). Students are deemed eligible for the Heritage Language course for Chinese (but remain ineligible for Continuers level), if they:

* have no formal education beyond the year in which the student turns ten years of age (typically Year 4 or 5 of primary education) in a school where Chinese is the medium of instruction.

This course was thus designed for students who use the language in a sustained manner outside the classroom (therefore ineligible for the Continuers (second language) Level course, and have limited education in a school where Chinese is the medium of instruction. This course therefore aimed to address the concern that significant numbers of home users of Chinese already deemed ineligible by strict exclusion criteria from courses designed for second language learners, were also in fact unable to compete with overseas born students with 10 or more years education in China, now studying in Australia and taking the Chinese Background Speakers Level course.

In Queensland a Chinese Extension course was introduced in 2011 (QSA, 2011) to cater for students with well-developed communicative skills in Chinese. This group may include students who:

have completed immersion courses in Years 8 to 10, or have participated in exchange schemes, or have formally studied Chinese for a significant period of time. It is not specifically designed for background language learners, and is only available to students who have been enrolled in school-based Chinese programs in lower year levels of secondary school.

In 2013 a discussion paper, Strengthening Chinese language provision in senior secondary schooling (VCAA, 2013b) was released in Victoria. The discussion paper recognised a common perception that, despite the different levels of Chinese language courses that are available, students who do not have a Chinese language background are currently discouraged from continuing with their study of Chinese language as part of their senior secondary program of study. This, it is argued, is because of concerns they will not be able to compete on an equal level with those who do have a background in Chinese language (VCAA, 2013b, p5). Among the initiatives proposed were a recommendation to modify eligibility criteria for the current three VCE Chinese studies (to restrict the numbers of background speakers in Chinese second language), and the possibility of a new VCE Chinese study, which would include conversational Chinese and the study of Chinese culture and society, designed for second language learners and reducing the Chinese language learning expectations, particularly in character reading and writing. No decision has yet been announced on what option will be adopted.

Finding adequate means to determine eligibility and ensure courses are appropriate to background and experience at senior secondary level have only been partially successful, and the issue of Australian-born and often community schooled students of Chinese language background taking the second language examination still remains largely unaddressed. Additionally, due to the enormous variability in background knowledge and experience that Chinese background language learners display, and the challenges of verifying or validating such information, there is no easy solution. As Orton (2008) argues, echoing again the findings of Tuffin and Wilson (1989), in second language courses the numbers of background language learners of Chinese continues to grow in both primary and secondary schools, and the perceptions of disadvantage that non-background, second language learners feel continues to limit their ongoing participation into Chinese courses at senior secondary level. While there is now a range of courses available for students of Chinese background at senior secondary level, finding appropriate means of determining eligibility and an adequate mechanism for differentiating between Australian-born students for whom Chinese is a second language and those for whom Chinese is a language of daily use at home and elsewhere remains an ongoing issue. An area of great concern is the ongoing lack of attention to the needs of Chinese background learners in primary and junior secondary curriculum and classrooms. The lack of recognised curricula for background language learners at these levels has contributed significantly to the perception that home users of Chinese are just second language learners with some 'home-advantage', rather than a distinct class of learners with their own learning needs and potential capabilities in Chinese language learning.

The development of differentiated curriculum for Chinese in the primary and secondary years

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has recently developed curriculum for Chinese and a range of other languages taught in schools. In order to provide curriculum sensitive to the diverse needs of learner groups in Chinese, ACARA determined that three pathways would be developed: Second Language learners. Background Language learners, and First Language learners. The recognition of differentiated pathways for Chinese language learning meant that curriculum could be developed that acknowledged the linguistic and cultural backgrounds and learning needs and interests of each identified group of learners in a manner quite distinct in content and orientation from the other pathways. Flow the process of curriculum development attempted to address the distinctive characteristics of the language and the particular needs of the three learner groups is described in Scrimgeour, Foster and Mao (2013). In brief, the development of three pathways for Chinese provided the opportunity for writers to address the characteristics and challenges of the Chinese language itself, in particular issues of oral language development and print literacy development. These are two components of Chinese learning and use that are likely to develop at different rates and in different ways for different groups of Chinese language learners, ranging from those with no prior experience with the spoken and written forms of the language, to those who bring a substantial oral language capability but have underdeveloped reading and writing ability to the classroom, and those for whom Chinese has been their previous medium of education. For Chinese background language learners, a dedicated curriculum from early primary through to middle secondary school also provides the opportunity to support learners to deepen their sense of identification and engagement with, and reflection on, their wider Chinese community, and to develop their bilingual and bicultural awareness, thus better understanding the nature of the two language and culture systems they engage with daily, and to become more aware of the particular characteristics of Chinese language use in its own cultural context. These curriculum features are distinctive to the background language learners experience and highlight the reasons why such a dedicated curriculum is such a necessity.

Implementation of the Australian Curriculum for Chinese will however face many challenges. The Australian Chinese language classroom is a complex place, containing a rich diversity of learners, in terms of language and culture backgrounds and learning needs. That is, variability within the three groups remains, and will require different responses. Teachers will in the end need to find their own context-specific ways of interpreting and applying the new curriculum pathways as appropriate to their own context of learner diversity in the classroom as they see it. Chinese teachers themselves display a rich diversity of education and language background, teaching experience and expectations of learners and curriculum. Thus how they interpret the curriculum will be influenced by their prior knowledge and experience, and expectations of learners will differ. The curriculum developed by ACARA highlights the need for teachers to go beyond the basic task of generic Chinese language and culture learning and to pay more attention to the nature of learner background, and consider what knowledge and skills they bring and how they may be best utilised in the process of building learners communicative capability and intercultural understanding through Chinese learning.


It has now been more than 35 years since the Tuffin and Wilson (1989) report first acknowledged the issue of background learner participation in Chinese language programs in schools. Since then China's extraordinary re-emergence as an economic super-power and the changing social demographic in Australia with increased migration and international student arrivals from East Asia has only exacerbated the issues arising from background learner participation in Chinese language learning in schools.

The fundamental issue is that teachers are faced with both a complex cohort containing a full spectrum of learner background, from beginner students with no linguistic and cultural association with Chinese, or any other east Asian language, through to students with degrees of home use of Mandarin or another 'dialect' of Chinese, to those who regularly attend community school and gain some formal literacy training in written Chinese, to students recently arrived having completed all their prior education in modern standard Chinese, both spoken and written.

Add to this the challenge of teaching what is generally accepted to be a 'difficult' language from an English language, alphabetic perspective, where learner language background is shown to impact significantly on the rate and nature of learning outcomes, and where consequently a differentiated approach to teaching the language is required. The second major issue therefore is the inadequate recognition of differences in learner background and of the impact these differences have on the consequent learning needs and achievements of learners with diverse degrees of oral or written proficiency and cultural association with Chinese language. There is also a distinct lack of resources for responding to the diversity of learners, with the common suite of textbooks for classroom learning of Chinese assuming a homogenous purely second language learner cohort, with the alternative resource base for background learners being 'imported' mother-tongue primers for young learners which fail to acknowledge the diversity of age, interests or learning needs of home language users living in a different cultural environment.

The third, critical issue confronting Chinese language education in schools, identified by Tuffin and Wilson (1989) and reinforced by Orton's (2008) report, is the recognition that despite the strong but intermittent support from political leaders and the business community for improved Asia literacy among young people, the numbers of young Australians undertaking studies of Chinese language at school continues to lag behind the other major languages taught in schools and, significantly, the numbers of Australian-born non-background learners completing studies of Chinese at senior secondary levels remain critically low. Currently there appears little prospect for improvement in second language learner completion rates.

Over the last 35 years some 'solutions' to learner diversity have been implemented at senior secondary level. Such solutions have been confounded by the complexities of eliciting personal information on linguistic and educational background based on documentary evidence of overseas education or year of arrival in Australia. Anyone born in Australia but speaking Chinese at home, even attending community school, has typically been badged as a second language learner and permitted to study and be assessed alongside true beginners. Despite some curriculum innovations in some states at junior and lower secondary levels there is little evidence of real differentiation in teaching, learning and assessing learners of diverse background from the Foundation Year to Year 10, except in schools where dedicated 'mother-tongue' programs exist due to the high numbers of Chinese background learners in such schools.

Now, at last, we do have a differentiated national curriculum for Chinese that recognises three learner groups and provides a detailed set of content descriptions and achievement standards from the Foundation Year to Year 10 (from Year 7-10 only for first language learners born overseas). While teachers have shown a great deal of interest in the nature and orientation of these pathways, the timing and extent of implementation of the new Chinese curriculum around the country still remains unclear, and how this new differentiated curriculum will impact on both participation rates and learners achievements can only be speculated. What is clear, however, is that further longitudinal research is necessary to document the impact of the Australian Curriculum: Chinese: to understand how teachers of diverse background and experience interpret and apply the new curriculum; how they organise their classrooms in response to the identified pathways: what resources they determine to use to meet diverse needs; and how teachers engage learners in truly intercultural experiences of Chinese learning and using that recognise their background and the Australian context in which they study and potentially apply their devolving Chinese language skills in the future. Much remains to be done before we can be confident that the needs of each learner group are being adequately recognised and their achievements rewarded in ways appropriate to their own linguistic and cultural background.

Caption: Figure 1: Student diversity in one school Chinese program

Caption: Figure 2: Mapping current eligibility criteria for participation in courses in Chinese at senior secondary level against student background variables


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Andrew Scrimgeour is a lecturer in Languages Education and Chinese at the University of South Australia. He has been involved in research on aspects of Asian languages teaching and learning, particularly on issues in learning character-based languages. He has been involved as a researcher and professional development provider for a number of federally funded, collaborative research projects, and has been involved in the development of Chinese curriculum for many years.


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