An authentic Montessori program for toddlers and preschool/kindergarten, taught in in Mandarin Chinese

The Mandarin immersion program is an authentic Montessori program for toddlers and preschool/kindergarten. The only difference to the English program we offer at our other Irvine campuses is that this program is primarily taught in Mandarin Chinese.

  • A full Montessori environment. Our Mandarin immersion programs for toddlers and preschoolers are authentic, high-quality Montessori programs. Children are guided by AMI-trained Montessori teachers as they work with a full range of Montessori learning materials. Just like in our English-language programs, children have time to deeply engage with the learning activities in their classrooms. They thrive in a mixed-age environment, where they interact with their peers and develop strong social skills.
  • Taught in Mandarin Chinese. In both the toddler (ages 18 months – 36 months) and preschool class (ages 3 – 6 years), both teachers in the classroom are native Chinese speakers and will speak only in Chinese with the children and with each other.
  • A full immersion approach with a goal of full bilingualism.  Our goal is to help children achieve full bilingualism—understanding, speaking, writing and reading—in their two languages. That’s why we have chosen a full immersion approach. Children will be surrounded by Chinese: the teachers are speaking with them in Chinese; they are singing Chinese songs and reading Chinese stories; they are surrounded by Chinese culture, from big celebrations like the Chinese New Year, to little touches like Chinese art and practical life activities in the classroom. Because all interactions are in Chinese, even children who do not know any Chinese pick up the language and learn to not just understand, but also speak it.
  • Traditional Chinese characters and Zhuyin for reading and writing. Our Chinese literacy curriculum is based on traditional Chinese characters and Zhuyin (or Bopomofo). You can read the full rationale for choosing this approach in the Mandarin Immersion FAQ. With the Zhuyin phonetic system, children can learn to read and write Chinese phonetically starting at age three or four, in parallel with learning to write and read in English.
  • English writing and reading introduced starting at age three. Once a child joins our English preschool program, she will have regular instruction in English writing and reading by a Montessori trained English-speaking teacher. This ensures that even while the child learns to speak in Chinese, she is still able to work on her English writing and reading skills during the early sensitive period for language.


We enroll children between the ages of 18 months and 3 ½ to 4 years at our Irvine Mandarin and Fountain Valley schools. Our Emeryville school accepts children over the age of 4 provided they have a minimal level of Mandarin language skills. Those students will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Our Emeryville school also offers regular Montessori elementary, so if your child doesn’t gain admission into the Mandarin Immersion program, he may still attend Emeryville in the English program.

Our Mandarin Immersion Montessori programs are designed for children who have some English language background at home: At least one parent should be able to speak English at home, and commit to speaking and reading in English daily with your child at home, especially if your child is an infant or toddler and has limited exposure to English in the community.

We welcome children with Chinese knowledge into the program. Just note that our Mandarin Immersion programs are not designed for native Mandarin-speakers who will not be able to learn English outside of school; those children may be better served in our English-language Montessori classrooms, where they can complement their strong Mandarin skills from home with English language skills. If you only speak Mandarin at home, one option to consider is starting your child in our English infant or toddler program, to give your child a strong grounding in English. Then, when your child turns three, she can move on into the Mandarin immersion track. In either case, we encourage you to meet with a LePort Head of School, to discuss your family’s unique circumstances, and to develop a plan that is tailored to your child’s needs.

Our Mandarin immersion program is designed to include the full three-year Montessori cycle in mind; that is, it extends until your child has reached the age of 6 (this includes the traditional kindergarten year). This ensures that your child is in the Mandarin immersion program long enough to acquire not only strong Mandarin skills but also to learn the fundamentals of English literacy. Since the first few years focus strongly on Mandarin language skills, it’s important to stay for the 3rd program year (kindergarten), where we invest significant time in English written language skills.

The Mandarin-Immersion Learning Method

To enable children who do not speak Mandarin to acquire an ability to not just understand but also speak Mandarin, we put in place a full immersion environment, where both teachers in the classroom speak only Mandarin with the children for a large part of they day.

Younger children experience Mandarin completely during the academic day (8:30 am – 3 pm) and will only interact in English at school if they stay for extended care. Older children, once their Mandarin skills have solidified, will receive some instruction in English (from a few hours to several afternoons a week). This afternoon English instruction focuses on acquiring literacy skills in English.

Our full Mandarin immersion environment enables children to gradually transition from speaking only in English to understanding Mandarin (i.e., having passive language skills), to naturally speaking Mandarin  (i.e., having productive language skills or “fluency”).

Children who enter our program naturally speak in English as their native language. In the Mandarin immersion program, teachers will consistently respond to children in Mandarin and give lessons in Mandarin only. As children speak to teachers in English, teachers will provide the Mandarin expressions and encourage children to repeat back in Mandarin as well.  Experience shows that in an immersion preschool class, over time children naturally switch to speaking in the new language: when they have mastered the Mandarin vocabulary needed to express their needs and thoughts, they naturally want to use their new, exciting language!

We do not force children to speak in Mandarin. Ever. We want Montessori school to continue to be the joyous, natural environment children enjoy in any language. In every one of our Montessori classrooms, a child’s voice is valued, whether he is speaking English, Spanish, Chinese, or another language. We know that the child has an inner desire to use his new words, so there’s no need to rush his progress and destroy that personal development. All children will communicate in their nascent second language, but all children will not do so at the same time — and in our school, that is okay!

We know that learning Chinese in America is a challenging endeavor. Since children are not surrounded by Chinese characters in their environment, nor do they hear it spoken regularly, it is difficult to naturally absorb the thousands of characters needed to become literate in Chinese. To help our students meet this challenge, we draw on many linguistic insights to make our curriculum engaging and effective for our students.

  • We surround children with spoken Chinese and encourage them to speak Chinese every day. As few of our students come from homes where both parents only speak Mandarin with them, vocabulary development is a critical component of our program. All of our native Chinese speaking staff only speak in Mandarin with our students. They cook—and label ingredients. They play games on the playground and board games in after care. They read books aloud. They memorize poetry. They have conversations during lunch. This constant exposure and interaction in Chinese develops their oral knowledge of the language, and helps them acquire good pronunciation.
  • We teach Zhuyin early. Learning to read Chinese phonetically enables children to access content in Chinese, even if they haven’t yet mastered thousands of characters. Many of our Chinese books, and all of our classroom content materials display both characters and Zhuyin. This enables children to read in Chinese, to grow their vocabulary, to feel at home in the language. It separates out vocabulary development from character memorization, instead of making the former dependent on the latter. Once we open a Mandarin immersion Montessori preschool program in Emeryville (there’s a good chance that will happen by fall 2015!) our preschoolers will learn Zhuyin before they even enter our elementary program!
  • We use the power of stories and images. Our brains are much better at remembering images and stories than memorizing abstract symbols! That’s why we use images and stories whenever possible in our teaching of Chinese. Children label objects with moveable Zhuyin. They learn key Chinese building block and compound characters using the Chineasy materials we have adapted for our Montessori elementary program. We call their attention to key character components—like電 (electricity) which is found in many related characters (e.g., 電影 (movie), 電腦 (computer—literally, electronic brain) or電話 (phone, or electrical talk!). We help students break down these key components into their respective pieces, semantic and phonetic alike. By studying the meaning, the stories behind the characters, they find it easier to remember them. They also learn the logic within the Chinese language, which in turn helps them learn new characters independently. And, of course, our students also write stories in Chinese, just like they do in English—first by dictation, then using Zhuyin, and then by over time substituting mastered characters for Zhuyin.
  • We emphasize interleaved, varied practice and frequent self-testing. Learning Chinese by massed, rote repetition is a tedious chore—and, as research shows, it’s not the most effective way for learning it. (Read a great analysis of this challenge on the blog Hacking Chinese—a very helpful resource much aligned with our approach at LePort!) Instead, we purposefully create many different ways for learning Chinese characters. Students practice stroke order with an engaging iPad game. They build sentences with moveable characters. They match characters to the stories behind them. They play memory games matching up Chinese and English identical sight words. They write characters in language notebooks, and, to encourage beautiful handwriting, on rice paper that they bind into beautiful booklets. Many of these materials involve self-testing—such as the game component of the iPad app, or the memory play with the characters. This is important, as research shows that effortful recall is much more effective at creating lasting memory than mere repetition.
  • We separate concept/vocabulary development from character mastery. In our immersion program, our goal is to teach lessons across the curriculum—from history to geography, from botany to chemistry—in both English and Chinese. If we relied only on children’s knowledge of Chinese characters, it would be impossible to do this. Since our content materials are all created with the Chinese characters and the Zhuyin transcription, our students are able to tackle challenging work in Chinese, early one, ensuring they stay engaged and progress in their content knowledge in both languages, even though mastering the reading of Chinese characters progresses at a slower pace than mastery of English reading.
  • We use a purposefully selected master character list. One of the key questions each Chinese program needs to answer is which characters children should master, in which order. The easy answer would be to just go with the lists taught in China or Taiwan. However, those lists don’t necessarily align with our Montessori-inspired approach, nor do they work well if we want American children to use Chinese to talk, read and write about topics of interest to them. For example, the first 1,000 words taught in Taiwan don’t include such important (to children!) words as park, ice cream, beach or baseball! For our program, we’ve reviewed a half dozen source lists, compared them with each other, and analyzed them on relevance for our students. These lists include the characters taught in Taiwanese elementary programs, the most common Chinese radicals, the highest frequency words in Chinese—as well as the top 500 English sight words, and frequent words found in stories written by elementary children. They include individual characters, as well as multi-character words. We’ve culled these lists to create a set of 750 Chinese words we aim to teach to our students during their first three years in our program.

Language Development

In our Mandarin Immersion Montessori programs, our goal is to help your child acquire strong Mandarin language skills. By the end of the 3rd year in Montessori preschool (the equivalent of traditional kindergarten), we aim to enable your child to:

  • Understand age-appropriate Mandarin Chinese.
  • Sustain age-appropriate conversations in Mandarin with teachers and peers.
  • Acquire a starting level of literacy in Mandarin and will learn the basic strokes that make up Chinese characters; third year students who have mastered English at a solid phonetic level will also be introduced to Pinyin, the phonetic alphabet used in China to help children learn to read.

All these goals assume that your child will join the Mandarin immersion program by age 3 and stay in the Montessori preschool classroom until age 6 (that is, through the 3rd year in the Montessori preschool cycle). Of course, children who join late or leave before the 3rd year may not be able to achieve all of these goals.

As children learn a second language, it is normal for them to sometimes mix languages. We encourage parents to read up on language development in bilingual children — see resources here.

Because our Immersion programs focus on building Mandarin language and literacy skills first, your child’s literacy skills in English may lag initially in comparison to his peers in our English-speaking Montessori preschool rooms. Rest assured, though, that he will stay on or ahead of track in English compared to children attending play-based or traditional preschools. And this lag disappears as he enters adolescence.

  • Later introduction of reading and writing in English. In the Mandarin immersion program we introduce English letters and sounds in parallel to Chinese characters, starting as young as age three or three-and-a-half: Dr. Montessori identified a sensitive period for learning the sound-letter association, and we want to ensure that children on the Chinese track do have the same joyful experience with the Sandpaper Letters that their English- and Spanish-program friends have.
  • Delayed mastery of advanced English reading skills.Because we introduce English reading later, we may not be able to complete the Montessori phonogram program during the preschool years. While many (but not all) English-only Montessori preschool students can read regular books by the end of the kindergarten year (i.e., they read at a 1st or 2nd grade level), a typical Mandarin immersion preschool student can expect to read at grade level in English (that is, be able to decode phonetically controlled text with no or limited multi-letter phonograms). He will be well prepared to enter a normal (public-school) 1st grade program. If he continues on to our English-language Montessori lower elementary, he may need some extra time to catch up to his mono-lingual peers in English written language skills, a process which our Montessori teachers will, of course, support actively.

Why combine Montessori with Mandarin Immersion?

LePort’s authentic Montessori programs provide the perfect environment for learning a second language. Unlike traditional preschools and day care centers, the Montessori teaching approach naturally encompasses many of the key elements for optimal language learning:

  • Children learn language at different speeds and levels. Good language instruction is able to differentiate in speed, method, and emphasis for each individual child. Montessori preschool instruction is individualized by design. Our Montessori teachers are masters at observing each child and tailoring lessons to his or her abilities. As a result, no student is ever pushed beyond what he is capable of or held back to remain at the level of his peers. Each child is free to progress at his own pace, guided with nurturing support by a trained Montessori teacher who understands his unique growth as an individual.
  • Real-life interactive instruction. Linguists look for opportunities to provide language in a real-life context, rather than out of textbook pages. In the Montessori immersion environment, teachers are vocally responsive to children’s activities and will speak to them in the new language throughout the day. They will greet them in the new language and provide instruction in the new language. The continuous hours of being immersed in the new language helps children absorb it naturally. This is Spanish or Chinese the way it should be learned: through interactive experience.
  • Extensive vocabulary building. Montessori preschool environments abound with words of objects and ideas — from animal figurines to actual screwdrivers, from math concepts to the language of good etiquette — all words they don’t have to memorize from a textbook, but rather get to use and hear everyday in the classroom! Teachers are always describing what they are doing. A child who is building the pink tower will learn about concepts of size; one who is setting the table will learn the names of household utensils; another who runs across the classroom  receives vocabulary centered around walking slowly and respecting the needs of friends.
  • Care for a child’s growing sense of self-esteem. Children learn better when they are comfortable and not nervous about being put on the spot to perform, and when they are confident in themselves and feel “at home” in their learning environment. In much of traditional language instructions, children are called upon in a group to say things in the other language. This can provoke performance anxiety, which hinders language learning. In contrast, mistakes in a Montessori preschool are always positive, encouraging learning opportunities privately between the teacher and the child. Since much of the interaction in Montessori preschool happens one-on-one between the teacher and the child, the child does not feel the threat of failing in front of the whole class.
  • Monitoring and self-correction. You only get better at speaking a language if you realize when you have made a mistake. The Montessori environment is also ideal in this regard. Many Montessori preschool materials have a built-in “control of error”, where the child naturally sees and corrects his own mistake (spilled rice means the child chose a cylinder that doesn’t fit, but he can redo the task with a larger cylinder, etc.). By repeatedly observing when things don’t work — and independently correcting them — children learn to monitor their activities and self-correct, rather than waiting for a teacher to show them how.
  • Knowledge of grammar. Especially in the elementary years, knowing grammar is critical for becoming literate in a second language. Montessori excels here as well. Students start learning parts of speech with the Montessori grammar symbols as early as preschool, and continue a rigorous grammar program through the elementary school years. (This formal teaching of grammar at such a young age is only possible because of the sensorial nature of Montessori grammar materials. If you’ve never experienced them, please come visit — they’re quite wonderful!)
  • Clear, intentional language. Children absorb language habits from their environment. How teachers speak is critical. Our highly-trained Montessori preschool teachers are careful speakers, every day, all the time. We say things like, “I invite you to get up and wash your hands so we may come together for Circle Time” rather than, “Ok, Circle Time, kids!” And as we have two teachers in each class who speak fluently in Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, children also get to hear authentic, quality dialogue in Spanish or Chinese between adults as well.
  • Children learn language better if they can repeat what adults are saying and doing. Linguists are amazed how naturally this happens in Montessori preschool: our students are used to teacher demonstrations followed by their own student practice. They have internalized learning by modeling the lessons of their teachers! Thus, they naturally want to repeat after their Montessori teacher, when she speaks in Spanish or Chinese, fostering stronger language skills.
  • Cultural competency. Language is inevitably tied to culture. In fact, children often default to speaking the native language of the surrounding culture. A LePort Montessori preschool classroom provides a rich environment for cultural experiences. Practical life activities can incorporate Spanish or Chinese customs, from foods we prepare together, to the type of fabrics we use in our materials. Songs and stories from Spanish-speaking areas of the world bring Spanish culture to life in the classroom, as do Chinese songs and stories. We also encourage those families who come from a Chinese or Spanish-speaking background to share the culture’s events, such as Chinese New Years celebrations, or the fall Moon festival. Naturally, the strong Montessori preschool geography program enables our students to locate the cultural regions where Spanish or Chinese are spoken on the world map!
  • An early start. Language learning happens most easily during early childhood. In fact, Dr. Montessori first identified a “sensitive period” for language learning in children from birth to age six, where they can apparently effortlessly absorb language skills from their environment. A Montessori Spanish or Chinese preschool immersion program which starts as early as infanthood or the young toddler years and continues on at least until age six, leverages the child’s “absorbent mind” by surrounding him with Spanish so he can absorb his second language just as naturally as his first.

In the end, Montessori preschool and language immersion are a perfect match. Now if only we had had such a rich experience as children — as opposed to learning a new language in high school by reading dry language texts and taking written tests!