Learn Chinese with Tasks: Task Design from a Cognitive Development Perspective

In my first blog, I mentioned the adoption of Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT) in my first-grade Chinese classroom. One of the most important factors of adopting TBLT is to successfully design tasks that are suitable for students. To achieve the goal of designing effective tasks for first graders, it is extremely important to understand their cognitive developmental stage [1]. Cognitive activities involve, solving a problem, gathering and interpreting information, and completing a task etc. The well-known developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, divides children’s cognitive developmental progress into four stages: sensorimotor intelligence (from birth to approximately 18 months of age), preoperational thought (from toddlerhood to age 5 or 6), concrete operational thought (age 6 or 7 to age 11 or 12), and formal operational thought (adolescence).

Without careful consideration of students’ cognitive abilities, it may create huge difficulty for children to understand the task procedure, let alone Chinese language development. Since the ages of my students are around 6, most of them are at the boundary of preoperational thought stage and concrete operational thought stage according to Piaget’s category of developmental stages. Therefore, I will present characteristics of children in these two stages and appropriate tasks for them correspondingly.

前运算阶段 Preoperational Thought

Description of the stage

According to Piaget’s theory, children in this stage are characterized by the capacity for semiotic or representational thinking. In other words, children begin to understand that one thing, either symbols or signs, can stand for another. The formation of symbolization brings flexibility to human thought, opening opportunities for children to “communicate about the past or the future, as well as the present” (Nelson, 1999, as cited in Newman & Newman, 2007). Based on symbolization and representation, children are able to share experience with others and to create imagined experiences.

Implication on task design

Based on the description above, role-play tasks are suitable for children of this developmental stage as they allow the use of language, development of imagination, and other aspects of symbolic thought. Role-play utilizes children’s imagination and representation skills that emerges from their cognitive development stage. It also helps children connect the task with their past experience, so they know the expected discourse naturally due to their previous observation of others, making the task implementation easier.

The example I present here is the role-play for waiter/waitress and customer. At the beginning of the task, I pretend to be the waiter by holding a picture of the role. Then I ask them “你吃什么?[What do you (want to) eat?[2]]” and “你喝什么[What do you (want to) drink?]”. With a menu on their hand, I expect my students to answer the question with “我吃……[I eat]” or “我喝……[I drink]”. The goal of the task is to produce these sentence structures as well as vocabulary words of fruits and drinks.

During the procedure of the task, students barely need any explanation from me since this task attracts students’ interests in pretend play as a developmental outcome of imagination and representational skills. Students had a lot of fun in pretending to be waiter/waitress and customer, which promotes their motivation of acquiring the target language form.

具体运算阶段 Concrete Operational Thought

Description of the stage

According to Piaget, this stage marks an increase in logical, focused problem-solving abilities. Children start to develop mental operational skills. In other words, they can carry out an action within their mind. However, this mental operation is more tied to physical reality, and they are unable to understand abstract concepts or think hypothetically. This is the rationale for the word “concrete” in the name of this stage. Two operational structures are prominent in this stage. The first one is conservation – children gradually understand that certain physical attributes (e.g. mass, weight, number, etc.) of an object will remain unchanged even with the change of shape or container. Number manipulation also belongs to this category. The other is that students develop more advanced classification skills. Children can hold a consistent concept in mind and make a series of decisions based on it.

Implication on task design

Recognizing the development of conservation and classification skills, teachers can design tasks that utilize these skills as well as promote them. My students are at the entry point of concrete operational thought stage, so I include  simple classification skills in the tasks.

The worksheet C of My First Chinese Words Lesson 1 is a great example of involving classification skills in language learning. Students have to divide objects/people into family, animals and school stationaries as well as pronounce the vocabulary. To make the task more communicative, teachers can ask students to complete the task by pairing/grouping with each other and asking them to conduct a simple interview. Teachers may also ask students to brainstorm additional words that belong to certain categories. If students are at higher cognitive and language level, teachers can ask students to come up with their own standards and classify objects/people based on these standards. For instance, teachers may ask students to think of ways of classifying the things from their backpacks. The categories can be shape, color, things they like or dislike, etc. According to Willis and Wills (2007), having students come up with their own standards of classification provides students with richer space of language use while also setting up higher requirements for learners.

This is just a glimpse of how I consider students’ developmental stage when I design tasks. It might also be helpful for teachers of other grades to refer to Piaget’s theory and design tasks that are suitable for their students.


Newman, B. M., & Newman, P. R. (2007). Theories of human development. Psychology Press: New York, NY.

Willis, D., & Willis, J. (2007). Doing task-based teaching. New York: Oxford.

[1] Cognitive Developmental Stage: by definition, cognition is the process of “organizing and making meaning of experience” (Newman & Newman, 2007, p. 82).

[2] Instead of teaching “你想吃什么”, I choose another intelligible form – “你吃什么” to make understanding easier.


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