Conversations about Greenfield

So, even though I’ve owned the Greenfield Series for at least a year, I’ve always been intimidated by them because there are SO MANY books. (Granted, it takes less than a minute to go through them, but because I am lazy and have never looked through the books before, I had no idea.)

Well, for this fall, part of my goals for Cookie Monster was for him to go through Greenfield since I had them and it seemed a waste not to go through them. Besides, I had been hearing from people (and telling people) to go through Sagebooks then Greenfield and it seemed as if that was the next step since Cookie Monster has finished Sagebooks and is mostly working on his zhuyin. But I still wanted to increase character recognition for him.

Anyhow, after I started Cookie Monster on Greenfield the first day, I kind of panicked. He ripped through the entire twelve books of the first set (Red) of the I Can Read Series and even though there were a few characters here and there that he and I both didn’t recognize, it was super easy, highly repetitive, and I despaired that we were going to have to keep track of which characters Cookie Monster didn’t know.

But the thought of doing that was exhausting.

A complete pain in the ass and the last thing I want to do when teaching something is to have it be harder than necessary.

So, what did I do besides complain mightily to my friends? I asked my friends who have already gone through Sagebooks and Greenfield for their opinions and advice.

Below are a few of our conversations. Hopefully, they may address some of your similar concerns. When we’re finished with the series, I will post my review. (We’re almost done, but life happens, so you never know.)

1) PharmGirl

MM: So did you like Greenfield?

PG: It’s ok. It’s not as good as Sagebooks, but it’s still good exposure to new words. Rhythm Girl (4.5) loves the pictures. Twist (2.5 boy), too! She wasn’t quite ready for the length of the Little Bear series after finishing Sagebooks, so Greenfield is a good in between.

There was quite a lot of vocab I learned along the way too. My family said some of the sentence structures and vocab was a little off. Then they saw it was from HK and said that’s why

MM: Did she learn new vocab? Like memorize the words? Or you just used them as readers? Not so much for vocab?

PG: Overall yes. Some stuff was just kinda obscure and we don’t come across it outside of Greenfield so she has trouble remembering those.

But some stuff like jungle gym and city she remembers really well.

MM: So you used the flash cards? Remembers the characters? Or what the word actually is in conversation?

PG: I didn’t use flashcards cuz my copies are bootlegged. And the magic box doesn’t come w flashcards. I wrote them on a dry erase board and we practiced similar to the way PW (one of our previous Chinese preschool teachers) does.

MM: You are amazing. The thought of using flash cards or constantly reviewing hurts me

PG: She remembers the word in conversation much better. She only recognizes the characters if we repeatedly see it used outside of Greenfield like in another book.

The downside of Greenfield is they are so short and not repetitive enough that she ends up memorizing the sentences without paying attention to the actual characters.

Haha. I thought about making flashcards like Guavarama did for Sagebooks and it just hurt my head. I just write it on the dry erase as we go thru..she actually keeps asking to write it herself, cuz she likes to be 小老師 (xiao3 lao3 shi/little teacher).

Sorry I think the jungle gym vocab came from Sesame, not Greenfield

But you get the idea. My feelings toward Greenfield are the same as Sesame.

MM: What was Sesame?

PG: Very similar to Greenfield. 8 page readers geared towards preschool age. Whole language approach. Originally from HK, but the TaiwaneseR version is much cheaper and has zhuyin. Lemme try to find a link.

No CD or flashcards like Greenfield, but there are comprehension activitiesi on the last two pages. I never did any of those.

2) Fleur

MM: Have you done the Greenfield books?

F: With Bebe (7.5)?

MM: Yeah.

F: She stopped at the 2nd to last set. Haven’t picked it up again.

MM: Did you review words she didn’t know? Or mainly used as readers?

F: She knew all the words until second to the last set. Then started encountering characters she didn’t know.

MM: I see. Cuz there are random words Cookie Monster doesn’t know.

F: So I need to sit down and figure out what words she doesn’t know. Lol.

MM: But I don’t really care or know how to drill into him.

F: Hahaha.

MM: Is that bad?

F: No. He’s clearly learning words.

MM: I guess I don’t see the value of Greenfield.

F: I think since they know 勹夂冂匸, Greenfield isn’t really useful for them. Just another set of books to read.

MM: Ok.

F: I guess I could make her do the workbook.

MM: Because it seems kinda silly to me, too. Sigh. But then I have to rip out pages.

F: Hahaha.

MM: And laminate or whatever.

F: I did already. All in binder now. No need to rip, just pull out staples and use paper cutter to slice pages in half. But again, no 勹夂冂匸, so if they can’t read instructions or don’t understand, you’d need to explain. Sob.

MM: Exactly. Have to say, I’m kinda disappointed – at least with the first set.

F: It would work if we weren’t doing 勹夂冂匸.

MM: You think so? It would take a lot of effort. Because I would have to keep track of what word he doesn’t know. And there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.

F: Yeah. I suppose so.

3) Guavarama

MM: Ok, help.

How do I use Greenfield books? They seem stupid. Cookie Monster knows most the words and the words he doesn’t we have to look up but don’t remember which ones he doesn’t know.

GR: Lol. You read it in a series. That’s it. With Astroboy, what I did was repeat.

MM: So, just read? Not drilling?

GR: Like today read red1-5, tomorrow read red 3-8 or something. I know. that’s why I said it’s not too helpful. The only way to make it work a bit is to repeat read.

MM: Cookie Monster blasted through Red 1-12 and Orange 1-2 today.

GR: Also, we’re [the kids are] too old. Also I would skip repeat. There’s no other way. you have to figure out the repetition schedule.

MM: What do you mean?

GR:  When to repeat to remember the characters.

Like Day 1: red; Day 2: red+orange; Day 3: orange+yellow.

Or maybe it’s Day 1: red; Day 2: orange; Day 3: red+Yellow, Day 4: orange+green, etc.

Or else, just blast through these, repeating the series where he doesn’t know a lot of characters, and move on to reading with zhuyin.

MM: Ok. We are reading with zhuyin every day. Or trying to. So we do two sessions of readings 4-5x/wk.

GR: Yes. I think just back to guided reading 10 minutes a day with zhuyin. Unless his zhuyin is good enough he’s always reading correctly, in which case, with reading he will just pick up words and you don’t have to guide.

I mean, with GLS teaching him writing as well, that’s good enough, right?

MM: Ok. He forgets blending and keeps mixing up certain zhuyin just like Gamera.

I was going to do the reading comprehension workbooks with him, too. And then do guided reading. Mostly just to improve his zhuyin. I think he and I are both too impatient.

GR: Yes. He has to improve his zhuyin blending. That’s always the hardest. I find for Astroboy, it doesn’t quite work just repeat reading and he naturally will self correct because he doesn’t have the speaking skills to pick up what he’s saying wrong. Like he doesn’t have enough comprehension.

MM: Ah. Makes sense. I’m sure it will improve in Taiwan.

GR: Yes, but you can’t wait a year for that cuz in the meantime, anything he reads, he doesn’t understand and can’t self correct. So then your reading practice is moot in a way.

MM: No, for Astroboy. Not for Cookie Monster. Lol.

GR: Oh! Hahaha. I hope so. Cuz he’s not moving. Sigh.

MM: Lol. Sometimes, they just need a break or a change in environment.

GR: He’s just neglected.

MM: Lol. So is Gamera.

GR: Luckily, Gamera is strong in the language department.

MM: Yes, but she is lazy.

Alright. Yes. This is the post for today. Totally a cheat post, right? But hopefully, it gives some insight into the Greenfield Series and how three different moms used it with their children. When Cookie Monster is done with the I Can Read Series, I will write an actual review.

Until then, have a great weekend!

Why Sagebooks Requires Chinese Fluency

*A/N: For more information and a basic background about Sagebooks, please refer to my previous posts or GuavaRama’s previous posts. This post is part of a mini-series on Sagebooks and might not make as much sense without context. 

After last week’s post, a non-zero number of people have asked me whether or not I was sure that Sagebooks is inappropriate for non-speakers. I understand the impulse. After all, I’ve just raved on and on about Sagebooks and I did a good job because now these folks really want their kids to use Sagebooks to help them learn the 500 most frequently used characters in children’s books. But then, I specifically state that non-speaking kids aren’t going to benefit from them.

How utterly frustrating.

But honestly, you are doing your non-speaking child a great disservice if you are using Sagebooks as a means to teach them Chinese. There are far better materials out there that are specifically designed for non-speakers in a non-native environment.

Also, I should clarify that even if you do not personally recognize written characters, as long as you can speak and understand relatively fluently, you will be fine. There is pinyin on top of each character and an English translation beneath so you can follow the story. Plus, you will learn, too! (And even if you don’t, your kids will.)

Here then, are some reasons why I am so insistent that Sagebooks is only truly helpful for kids who are already fluent:

1) There simply isn’t enough repetition or useful phrases and words for a person to learn Chinese efficiently.

For instance: the first character Sagebooks teaches is 山 (shan/mountain). The second character is 高 (gao/tall, high) so that children can read their first sentence: 高山 (gao shan/tall mountain).

How is this remotely useful for someone learning a language for the first time?

There is a reason why most new language courses start with teaching conversational basics such as, “Hello” or “My name is” or “How are you?” or numbers. The whole purpose of learning a new language is to effectively communicate – and “tall mountain” will have a limited range of application.

So unless you just want your kids to learn random Chinese characters and have them be able to pronounce (I wouldn’t use “read” because “read” implies comprehension) a bunch of them without understanding their meaning, there are better uses for your time (~18 months + 3 months for shipping), money ($250-300), and effort (substantial). Keep in mind: Sagebooks only provides pinyin and an English translation of the content. It does not provide a word for word translation.

This would be like a non-English speaker learning how to read English (ie: using phonics to read) but not having the vocabulary or comprehension level to understand what they were reading. Or, like me, a non-German speaker, thinking I can “read” German because English has a shared alphabet.

Reading without comprehension is meaningless.

2) Chinese comprehension matters with Sagebooks. 

For example, Cookie Monster had a hard time remembering the more abstract terms like 終於 (zhong yu2/finally) and 到處 (dao4 chu4/everywhere). After several days, I finally had a breakthrough and realized he might be having a hard time remembering the characters because he didn’t know what they meant. That’s why he couldn’t guess the words contextually. When I translated them into English, he could finally remember the characters.

I started noticing that if the characters were words that I rarely or never used with the kids, Cookie Monster had a hard time recalling the characters. He would have an incredibly difficult time – sometimes taking as long as a week to finally have the word click. Even when I broke down a character into its components, he would only remember the components, not the actual word.

For instance, it had been almost a week and he just couldn’t recall 連 (lian2/to join, connect). Just that it has 車 (che/car) in it. It was hard for me to explain because in the context, Sagebooks used 連忙 (lian2 mang2/hastily). I had never heard of the term. But once I realized the character was also used in 連起來 (lian2 qi3 lai2/connect together), I could explain.

Unfortunately, Cookie Monster still couldn’t remember. In fact, he didn’t consistently recall the character until we learned 運 (yun4/transport) – which is the almost the exact same character but with a “冖” component. I don’t know why, but that’s when it finally hit him – 2.5 books later.

The funny thing is, after figuring out what was going on with Cookie Monster, I realized I had the same problem! If I don’t commonly use the terms or had never heard of them, it is very difficult for me to remember the characters.

I have found as I’m going through Sagebooks with the kids that no matter how hard/difficult a character seems to me, that isn’t the determining factor for whether or not they retain it. Often, it is a matter of them actually knowing or comprehending the words. So if it’s a character that they understand or use often, they will remember. If it’s a character they’ve never heard of, they won’t.

You would think that 醫生 (yi sheng/doctor) would be a very difficult word to read. I certainly have a hard time with it! However, because Cookie Monster knows what a doctor is in Chinese, he has no problem remembering the character. It is a breeze.

3) The characters are symbols for words the kids already understand and know.

Actually, that is all that reading is, right? All written language is symbolic. The physical components represent spoken words and concepts. This is even more so in the Chinese written language where all the characters are literally symbols/glyphs.

How is this pertinent? Well, in a phonetic language like English, you phonetically sound out the letters in a word to “read” it. Even if you do not know the meaning of a word, you can still read it. However, in Chinese, the word is literally a symbol. You either know the character or you don’t. You cannot “sound it out.” Thus, if you do not understand Chinese, the symbols cannot be appropriately associated with the word.

For instance, I don’t know why but when speaking, Cookie Monster always confuses the word 麵 (mian4/noodle) for 飯 (fan4/cooked rice). So, when he learned the character 飯 (fan4), he always read it as 麵 (mian4). Cookie Monster would make the same mistakes reading as he did while speaking.

Relatedly, in words which are composed of multiple characters, both Cookie Monster and Gamera sometimes mis-read a character for its adjacent characters. For example:

– Reading 邊(bian1/side) when they see 旁(pang2/next to) because 旁邊 (pang2 bian) means, “on the side of.”
– Reading 衣 (yi/clothes) when they see 服 (fu2/clothes) because 衣服 (yi fu2) means, “clothing.”
– Reading 學 (xue2/learn) when they see 校 (xiao4/school) because 學校 means, “school.”

Both these examples confirm for me why comprehension is so important to reading.

(Also, I’m really butchering this explanation so I hope at some later point, I can be more coherent. Hopefully, you can still catch my meaning.)

4) By Set 5, there are a lot of 破音字 (po4 yin zi4/homograph) in use without any explanation.

破音字 are characters with two or more readings, or where different readings convey different meanings. An example of this in English would be the word, “august.”

– August (/ôɡəst/), with a capital “A” and pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, is the eighth month of the year.

– august (ôˈɡəst/), without a capital and pronounced with the emphasis on the last syllable, means respected and impressive.

(eg: In the month of August, I met a person of august parentage.)

Without Chinese comprehension, this would really screw up a kid’s reading because how would they know when to use which pronunciation unless they understood the surrounding context? The only way, then, to know when to use the correct pronunciation would be by memorizing all the word combinations that call for a particular pronunciation (which is likely, how teaching Chinese as a second language accomplishes this particular linguistic problem).

However, Sagebooks doesn’t provide any explanation for why different pronunciations are used, what the different meanings are, nor when to use them. That is not a good way to teach a second language.

My children, other than the initial stumbling over having alternate pronunciations of a character, can guess and accurately predict which iteration to use just through the story context alone. They have a broad enough vocabulary to immediately incorporate the alternate pronunciations and meanings in a way that makes sense and is grammatically correct.

Some examples of the po yin zi found in Sagebooks:

– 長 (chang2/tall); 長 (zhang3/to grow)
– 樂 (le4/happy); 樂 (yue4/music)

5) As if po yin zi weren’t confusing enough, there is also tonal sandhi to contend with.

Tonal sandhi is a linguistic term for when the tones of individual characters change depending on adjacent characters and their tones. Truthfully, I’m not even entirely clear on all the tonal sandhi rules for Mandarin. I mean, I couldn’t break it down for you if I tried (hence the Wikipedia links).

However, just as with po yin zi, my children instinctively know how to incorporate the rules of tonal sandhi while reading because they know how to speak the language and what the words sound like when speaking.

Tones are hard enough for a beginning Mandarin learner. Now, you’re going to have the tones change when they’re associated with the same character but it depends on its adjacent characters? That’s just mean.

I cannot repeat it enough: Sagebooks are not appropriate for non-speaking families. 

If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider what MJ, one of my fellow moms in a Chinese learning FB group, had this to say about Sagebooks:

“I bought 2 of the books 3 years ago when my Chinese knowledge was nil. I was unable to learn from it. Now that I know some Chinese, I can use the book to teach my son. If I myself didn’t understand Chinese, I wouldn’t be able to teach anything from the book to my son in a meaningful way.”

Look. I’m not some fictional gatekeeper preventing you from Sagebooks in all its wonder and glory. You do not need my approval or opinion to do whatever you want to do. I am not even a non-speaker so I can’t give you my experience in that particular regard.

However, if you don’t actually want to believe my opinion, why are you reading this long and technical post about Sagebooks?

Look online at Sagebook’s YouTube Channel and if you think it works for you, then it works for you.

Have a great Friday!

Sagebooks Update

Entire set of Sagebooks

*A/N: For more information and a basic background about Sagebooks, please refer to my previous posts or GuavaRama’s previous posts. This post, as usual, is super long. In fact, it was even longer before I broke it up into multiple posts and created a mini-series of sorts. You’ve been warned.

For those of you who are new and haven’t heard much about Sagebooks, again, please refer to previous posts. Otherwise, this post will not be nearly as useful or understandable. For the tl;dr crowd, here is a blockquote from myself:

Sagebooks is a publisher of a proprietary set of Chinese books that help children learn to read. Instead of focusing on the “easiest” Chinese words to learn, Sagebooks focuses on the top 500 characters children need in order to read children’s books. The theory being that even if kids recognize a bunch of Chinese characters, unless they are used in the context of storybooks or readers, the characters are meaningless and the kids can’t really read a story from start to end. Thus, an incredibly frustrating experience for both parent and child.

In this way, they are like the BOB books that help children learn to read in English. The books build on each other so that in each lesson, you can read more and more stories and more and more books. Kids build up their confidence and competence – and most kids respond well to small successes so that they are encouraged to continue.

Also, after going through this series with Cookie Monster (6) and Gamera (4), I don’t see how children with no fluency in Chinese can use the book with any type of usefulness. Sagebooks is best used for Chinese-speaking families wherein the children can already speak and understand Chinese. 

Sagebooks are not appropriate for non-speaking families. 

Just as a person who doesn’t speak English would not be best served learning English from the BOB books, there are far more appropriate books out there for kids who do not yet speak Chinese and want to learn. Sagebooks require Chinese fluency.

Also, before I begin in earnest, I wanted to go over some terminology I will be using in this post. Sagebooks consists of the following:

– 5 sets of readers (500 characters total) [1 set = 5 readers (100 characters/set); 1 reader = 20 characters]
– 4 Treasure Box Sets (for sets 1-4)
– 1 Bunny Comic Book
– 5 Idioms Comic Books
– 1 Zodiac Collection (4 books)
– 2 Antonym Books

For clarity, when I refer to a specific Sagebook, it will be in “Set.Reader” format. (eg: The 3rd book of the 2nd set = Book 2.3)

Sagebooks flashcards by Mindful Mandarin

Also also? If you’re considering buying just a set or two, might I encourage you to just buy the whole set already?

You can buy them piecemeal, but what’s the point? The whole idea for Sagebooks is to teach your kids the top 500 most frequently used characters they need in order to read children’s books. Why go through the whole rigmarole of teaching them the characters if you don’t also buy supplementary books for them to actually use the characters they just learned?

That’s where the Treasure Boxes and Comics and other collections come in. They only use the characters taught in the readers. For a far better post explaining why you should buy ALL the Sagebooks, I will refer you to GuavaRama.

Also, though it’s admirable to have the kids recognize even just 100 characters (and I am definitely not advocating NOT learning them), it will still be very frustrating for your children. Even with the 100 characters, they really won’t be able to read even simple children’s books – unless it’s the Sagebooks Treasure Box for Set 1 (because they are written to utilize ONLY those 100 characters). Thus, those 100 characters will not really be relevant to their life – nor useful in that sense.

I swear I’m not a Sagebooks rep! But I really do think that if you have the verbal/understanding part down, you should buy the whole series.

Alright. With that said… on with my review/application of Sagebooks.

I LOVE Sagebooks.

Seriously. I cannot overemphasize. I love Sagebooks

In particular, I love their methodology and the thinking behind their books and supplementary materials. I love how each chapter/character builds upon the previous chapter/character and there are few surprises. There are no words that pop up that you haven’t learned so everything is readable immediately. It makes kids feel very competent.

Anyhow, back in May 2015 when I first wrote about Sagebooks, I had already received them in the mail and bought (and made) a bunch of flash cards from Mindful Mandarin. (If you are going to invest the ~$250-300 in the full series, you really should just fork over the money and buy Mindful Mandarin’s flash card sets. I mean, why reinvent the wheel?)

So, fully a year after I originally ordered the full set of Sagebooks, and months after I prepared the learning materials, I was finally ready to dig in. My goal for Cookie Monster (6), was to have him finish all 500 words by the end of the school year in June 2016. I wanted to take things very slowly and not put too much pressure on either myself or Cookie Monster since he just turned six and we’re homeschooling Kindergarten for the first time.

Also, I tend to crumble under expectations.

Cookie Monster is all done with Sagebooks!

Cookie Monster is all done with Sagebooks!

As of right now, we just finished the entire 500 characters and I am super excited. (I was extra motivated to make sure we were done by the end of the year because I am posting this piece on 1/1/16.) This pleases me greatly and I figure, since I’m so far ahead, I can now be done and coast for the rest of the school year, right? Just kidding! We’ll be working on becoming more fluid in reading zhuyin for a few months (all the while reviewing the Sagebooks readers, treasure boxes, and supplemental books), after which, we’ll move onto the Greenfield Rainbow Series.

I have also inadvertently started going through the series with Gamera (4) because she wants to be like her big brother. We are currently on book 3.3 and I fully expect us to be done with all 500 by the end of the school year.

Additionally, I am also learning new Chinese characters so there’s that bonus! Four people learning from one set of books – talk about getting my money’s worth. (I’m including Glow Worm (2) for future learning purposes.)

First, some background. 

I am a second generation ABC/T and I am verbally fluent in Mandarin Chinese with no discernible “American” accent. I can read approximately 800-1000 characters (Traditional) and can read almost anything if there is pinyin or zhuyin support. Comprehension-wise, I would approximate that I can understand 90-95% of everyday speech. However, I most likely won’t understand a lot of idioms or cultural touchstones. I definitely would have major difficulty in any type of specialized speech (with the exception of Christianity thanks to growing up in a Chinese church).

Hapa Papa has no Chinese background and communicates with the children solely in English.

All my children have been bilingual since birth and have two first languages: Mandarin and English. They are likely stronger in English due to it being the community language, but they fully understand and can communicate in Chinese.

Full disclosure: At the start of the series, thanks to their two preschool teachers, Cookie Monster already knew ~350-400 characters and Gamera already knew ~300-350 characters (a mixture of Simplified and Traditional).

Like I mentioned before, my intention was for Cookie Monster to get through all 500 characters in nine months (already half the recommended 18 months) because I am lazy, and quite frankly, I hate putting any kind of pressure on myself at all. Also, I didn’t intend for Gamera to go through Sagebooks until she turned five, but hey, if the kid wants to be like her big brother, that’s fine with me.

So, Cookie Monster started with Book 1.1 in early September at the start of the school year and just finished the last book on December 31. (Mostly because I got motivated for him to finish before the first of the year.)

Gamera started with Book 1.1 some time in October and we’ve only sporadically gone through the books because she has a much lower attention span and I have no desire to push her if I don’t have to yet. I’m fine with her being entirely self-directed at this point. As of this writing, she is in Book 3.3.

Because Cookie Monster and Gamera already had several hundred characters under their belts, the first two sets were incredibly easy. They could each go through one book of twenty characters in one sitting with there perhaps being 1-2 new characters for them to learn in each book. This, of course, gave them both huge confidence and made them want to read the books because they knew 95% of the words and they liked to feel smart.

Unfortunately, when we were first getting used to reading the Sagebooks, I was very sporadic and would let a week or so pass before picking up again. Since I wasn’t fully aware of just how many characters Cookie Monster actually knew, we would repeatedly start over from the beginning of each reader because I didn’t want him to forget the previous characters. (It turned out to be totally unnecessary because he already knew them.)

How Gamera "reads"

How Gamera occasionally “reads.” I find it endlessly frustrating.

Same thing with Gamera. I didn’t realize just how many characters she knew because she has a much harder time recalling characters out of context. (ie: She doesn’t do as well with flashcards, but if she is reading, she remembers.)

Also, Gamera, being 4, has a much shorter attention span. She gets distracted easily and while she may have the desire to read more, she doesn’t have the patience to actually sit through the process. (Actually, more than likely it’s her mom who doesn’t have the patience to endlessly wait for her to get back on topic.)

Oddly enough, when she is reading books she likes such as The 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac (affiliate link) by Lai Ma, she has no problems focusing intently on the reading (in Chinese, of course, since she can’t read English) and has much longer staying power.

However, once I got us on a consistent reading pattern of 3-4 times a week, we zipped right through them. Often, we would go through at least half a book in one sitting.

By the 3rd set, Cookie Monster was learning about 4-5 new characters each book. As the new characters increased, I would often start our sessions by reviewing previous books and the newer characters to ensure that he had a firm grasp on them. At first, it was hard for Cookie Monster and Gamera to review because they hate going over things have already learned. However, Cookie Monster has begun to appreciate the reviews as he encountered more and more characters he had trouble remembering.

Again, I want to emphasize that because we already had a good foundation, we were able to zip through the first three sets at a very quick rate. If you are starting from scratch with baseline zero, you will most assuredly not go at the same clip. In that situation, I have heard that you should try to do three words a day. Also, I should mention that Cookie Monster has an incredibly ridiculous memory – especially for pictures (and isn’t that what many Chinese characters are?) so often, he just needs one or two exposures and remembers the characters.

Cookie Monster also went through a period of only wanting to read the first two sets because he already knew the characters and did not enjoy the discomfort of not knowing certain characters. However, once I explained to him that if he only practiced the words he already knew, he would never learn new things, he got on board. It didn’t hurt that it was relatively easy for him to remember new characters.

By the time we hit Book 4.3, Cookie Monster hit a wall. I was likely more frustrated than he was. I confess: I got really mad at him a few times because I had gotten so used to his prodigious memory that I didn’t know what to do with him having a difficult time learning new characters. He felt so bad he would apologize for forgetting characters and then I would feel awful (as I should!) and apologize to him, too. I didn’t want to have him be afraid of learning new things just because sometimes it was hard and I would yell at him. What an awful thing to pass on!

However, like all hard things, we eventually moved past it and funny enough, Book 4.5 was super easy for some reason and by that time, the characters that had tripped Cookie Monster up so badly just a week before were now easily integrated.

When we hit Set 5, Cookie Monster was super excited that we were nearing the end and it has definitely motivated him in sit longer so we can blast through these last few books. I was surprised at how quickly he was absorbing new characters – even though by this point, he only knew 5 characters out of the 20 in each reader. Even then, we were going through about 15-20 new characters in a sitting.

Incidentally, by the end, because the characters are chosen with much thought, Cookie Monster was picking up a lot of the new characters because they had the same components (whether they be the radical or sound or meaning components) as a lot of the characters he had previously learned. As a result, he could guess some characters more often than not.

For instance, 座 (zuo4/a) was guessed because it looks almost exactly like 坐 (zuo4/sit). 城 (cheng2/city) was guessed because of 成 (cheng2/to make).

Also, by Set 5, there are a lot of 破音字 (po4 yin1 zi4/homograph). Po yin zi are characters with two or more readings, or where different readings convey different meanings. Without Chinese comprehension, these instances would be really difficult. The only reason Cookie Monster caught on as quickly as he did was because he is familiar with the terms and knows in context which pronunciation to use. I will detail a few of the po yin zi in a later post.

As a bonus, both my kids love the illustrations (even though I personally find them weird). They think the pictures are hilarious and often laugh at the pictures or try to make the funny faces that the kids in the book make. Also, they remember which kid is which. I think they all look the same – and yet, my kids know exactly who is who.

In addition, I found that both Cookie Monster and Gamera would pause at the beginning of each page to digest what was going on in the pictures before they would read the text. As someone who values text way more than pictures, it was an odd thing for me to get used to. But I have discovered that the pictures are a vital part of the learning process.

Not only are they visual cues for what is going on in the text, thereby helping my children remember or guess characters contextually, the pictures are also great at spurring discussion and questions. Every now and then, Gamera will ask me why something is happening in the picture and I get to tell her to read and find out. It is a very helpful tool to get her to read because she wants to know what happened!

My children also really enjoyed the Treasure Boxes because they absolutely LOVED being able to read a book all by themselves without any help. The pictures are entertaining and the stories are interesting. I recommend going through the Treasure Boxes for each set after finishing their corresponding set. It’s a good review for characters as well as a reward for learning 100 new characters! Plus, it’s nice for the kids to read something OTHER than their readers.

My kids haven’t yet progressed to the comic books, idioms, or antonyms because I presume they require knowing all 500 characters so you will just have to wait until I go through those for that review.

I have really noticed how much easier it is for my children to read the Chinese children’s books we own. I want to say that they are able to read a good 90% of the text without help from either me or the accompanying zhuyin. Sagebooks’s methodology is spot on.

So, in summary, here are the pertinent facts for how we used Sagebooks:

1) Starting character knowledge: 300-400.

Because my children started off knowing ~350 characters, this chart details the range of characters that were new to my children in each reader and set. (If you start from baseline zero, each reader introduces 20 characters for a total of 100 characters in each set.)

New Characters In Each Sagebook Reader/Set for My Kids

Set #New Characters/ReaderNew Characters/Set
11-25-10
21-25-10
34-520-25
45-1025-50
510-1550-75

2) Go through the books 3-4 times a week

a) 10-15 minutes: Review previous characters (especially ones they have a hard time remembering)

b) 15-30 minutes: Learn “new” characters (For most of the first three sets, my children already knew the characters so technically, they were not new.)

c) If they have a hard time remembering a character, I will flip back to a the part where Sagebooks originally introduced the character. Often, the combination of the text and pictures of the original post will be enough to jog their memories.

d) STOP as soon as they are not interested or ask to stop. (Occasionally, I may ask them to try a few more – but more often than not, that backfires and everyone is cranky and mad at the end.)

3) Go through Treasure Boxes occasionally (only after they finish each set since the Treasure Boxes of each set require knowing all the characters from that particular set).

a) Sometimes, if I’m feeling lazy and only want to review characters, we will just read a 2-3 Treasure Box books of any set that they have already finished.

b) Very rarely, I will make them read 1-2 Treasure Box books in addition to review/reading. On those days, we usually cut short the reading.

Anyhow, as usual, my post is super long because I am incapable of brevity. But if you have followed me a long time, it’s no surprise – so really, if you don’t like blathery posts, you really should stop screwing yourself over and not read me already. (That being said, thanks for reading!! You are thoroughly appreciated and apparently love blather!)

Amazing enough, I actually have more to say on the subject of Sagebooks so stay tuned for them. I will have posts delving deeper into why Sagebooks truly require Chinese fluency; some tips on how to best use Sagebooks with your kids; as well as review the comic books, idioms, antonyms, and additional stories when Cookie Monster goes through them.

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

Should Your Child Learn Traditional or Simplified Characters?

traditional or simplified*A/N: This piece is part of an on-going series. You can find the rest under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or under the Resources Menu. Special thanks to Mind Mannered for many of the references re: Traditional Chinese. I would not have been able to write much of this post without her diligent work and research. Thank you!

ETA: Also, I particularly want to apologize to Mind Mannered. I am very sorry if my laziness and lack of due diligence caused her harm in any way. My original post used her Tables without her permission. I didn’t realize she had done all the hard work of making the charts and tables in the references into a comprehensible format. I have removed her proprietary work and included the original charts instead. The original Table 1, I no longer included because the abstract is behind a pay-wall. However, I have now gone through and added links to the original references when possible. 

**A/N2: Also, this is a highly sensitive topic for some so please be respectful. I will employ my commenting policy with a tyrannical hand both here and on my Facebook pages. I presume the admins will monitor the threads on the pages I do not “own.” Don’t be a dick. Also? I get to decide who’s being a dick. You’ve been warned. Behave. 

I’ve taken a few weeks off from the series because my brain broke while writing it. Who knew I had so much to say and required so many words with which to say it? Furthermore, some of these topics require a lot of background research and reading and although I would love to spend all my time doing that, my family actually requires attention. (I know, I know. RUDE.)

Anyhow, I thought I’d get back into the swing of things by launching myself head first into a somewhat contentious and heated debate on Traditional and Simplified Chinese Characters. (What can I say? I’m a giver.)

For those of you without a personal stake in the matter, the issue may seem a bit silly and perhaps, unnecessarily muddies the water in Mandarin Immersion schools and curriculum discussions. However, it is a rather important thing to consider and decide because even though they are both the written language for Chinese, they are different enough that someone who only reads Simplified may have difficulty reading Traditional (and vice versa).

So, what is the difference?

Traditional Characters are Chinese characters that do not contain the newly created characters or character substitutions performed after 1946 by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These characters are used primarily in the Republic of China (ROC aka Taiwan), Hong Kong, Macau, and overseas Chinese in South Asia.

Simplified Characters are the standardized Chinese characters in use in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the 1950s, the PRC drastically simplified many Chinese characters on average by about half their strokes in order to promote literacy. (See, even Chinese people thought Chinese was hard to learn!)

Okokok. Those are pretty dry definitions and actually do little to help folks completely unfamiliar with Chinese characters which to be fair, likely all look the same to the illiterate.

After all, how does a person who has little to no first hand experience with Chinese characters decide what their kid should learn?

For those of you who see the rather intimidating block of text below, here’s the tl;dr:

If you do not have a particular preference, choose whatever will be more easily supported by your time, interest, resources, and abilities.

If you have just a little bit more time, I refer you to my Fancy Flowchart™ (aka: Mandarin Mama’s Guide to Deciding Whether Your Child Should Learn Traditional or Simplified Chinese Characters) that should help 80% of you out there. As for the remaining 20%, let’s be real. No flowchart, no matter how amazing, would suffice. But fear not! There’s more info after the Fancy Flowchart™.

(As a side note, I am inordinately pleased with myself for creating this flow chart. It’s a sad but real thing that it took me HOURS to create. But I will forgive myself because most of that time was spent trying and discarding different free flow chart software both online and off. Now, if I can figure out how to make it Pinnable, I will win the internets for today.)

Traditional or Simplified Characters Flowchart

For those of you who do not know, there is a raging debate within the Chinese community about whether Traditional or Simplified characters are better and why. Some of it is due to political ideology, some based on preference, and some based on practicality. If you are really curious, may I suggest to you this link.

It will be no surprise to many of you that I preferred Traditional Characters – and staunchly. However, as much as I personally prefer Traditional characters, that doesn’t necessarily follow that I think your child should learn Traditional. (Of course, it would benefit me if more folks chose Traditional because then there would be more materials easily available in the US, but that is an entirely different topic and not altogether germane to this particular discussion.)

In true fact, my opinion on what people should choose has changed greatly. I find that the further along I am on this journey of teaching my kids to be literate in Chinese, the more nuanced and pragmatic my opinion becomes.

When I was younger, I was told Mao butchered the Chinese language in order to pass along a Communist agenda. After all, why else would you take the “heart” out of “love” and truncate characters associated with goodness and virtue but leave whole all the characters associated with evil and disobedience?

(Incidentally, whether this is true or not, I’ll leave up to you to decide. But also know that many of the Simplified characters were changed to older or cursive forms of the characters, so it’s not as if Simplified characters were just made up out of whole cloth. There are rhymes and reasons to the simplification.)

In fact, I was so against Simplified due to this “Communist agenda” that I had at first, refused to allow Cookie Monster to go to one of his current Chinese teachers because she only taught Simplified. I didn’t want him learning to read and write Simplified Chinese. It seemed contrary to all that I had been taught and believed about the beauty of the Chinese language. Plus, I was worried that he would be confused learning both Simplified and Traditional characters – as well as prefer Simplified because it would seem easier.

And yet now, I can’t imagine Cookie Monster not attending class with this teacher. She is wonderful, kind, and fantastic. (I had initially been intimidated because she seemed super Tiger Mom and I was really worried Cookie Monster’s spirit would be crushed. I was so, so wrong.)

Cookie Monster has no problem recognizing the same Chinese character in both Traditional and Simplified. He just accepts that there are different ways to write the same word and rolls with it. I think that is a good way to go.

Here’s the thing: Language isn’t static – no matter how we may wish it.

After all, American English evolved from British English – which itself has evolved from Old and Middle English (which is nigh incomprehensible to us modern folks). Yes, the different spellings, phrases, and terminology isn’t as drastic as the differences between Simplified and Traditional, but you get the idea. My point is that they all still manage to be English and neither are Old English.

There will always be people who lament change to language. (Confer “literally” now also meaning “figuratively” and joining the dubious ranks of “cleave” being both itself and its antonym. Boggles the mind.) I am often one of those lamenters. But I also recognize that language is a living, breathing organism, constantly changing and morphing, depending less on official definition and more so common use. So, if the common person is woefully ignorant, so thus changes the language.

And say you object to Simplified characters on an ideological basis (ie: Communism is bad, etc.). I get it. I do. However, you speak English, right? Americans, the English, and other English speaking countries have totally edited their history and language to erase the past and their colonial and genocidal tendencies. That has not led to my boycotting English.

Or perhaps you speak Spanish? Or Japanese? Or German? Or Russian? Or Arabic?  I mean, seriously. If we’re going to argue against a written language based on bad shit that people speaking/reading/writing the language did (eg: mass genocide; fascism; you name it, a country’s done it), then quite frankly, we should just all start speaking Esperanto.

But I digress.

Anyhow, for the rest of this article (and really, any other articles about Traditional and Simplified characters), you will need a basic understanding of how a Chinese character is formed. I promise it’s relatively painless and quick. (I also blatantly copy/pasted from Wikipedia because: laziness.)

Ok. Here are the basic types of Chinese characters and what they mean. If you want actual examples of characters, click through to their respective links.

If you are a language nerd like I am, you can find out more here (The last three are links to GuavaRama because quite frankly, she’s awesome and breaks things down in very simple terms. She is, after all, teaching her young children.):

1) How a Chinese character is formed.

2) Chinese character structure

3) Chinese character shapes

4) How to write beautiful Chinese characters

Alright, enough preamble. (Good Lord, I babble.) Here then, are some more of my abbreviated thoughts on Traditional/Simplified characters. I am using bullet points because quite frankly, I’m tired and it’s far more concise and easier to visualize.

(A/N3: Much of this information would not be possible without the fruit of Mind Mannered and her careful research, summary, and references. Seriously, without them, my post would be mostly opinion, conjecture, and wikipedia links. All of the academic references and a good portion of what follows comes from Mind Mannered’s summary as indicated in the references, but I also include many of my own points.)

Traditional

1) Strengthens parsing semantic and phonetic information due to the way Traditional characters are structured and formed (see above). (1)

a) Provides more visual cues to support reading and helps facilitate learning and character recognition. (1)

i) Researchers have explained how this often helps young children recognize Traditional characters more easily than Simplified characters. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

b) Focuses more attention on the general principles of the written language, particularly how phonetics and semantic radicals are combined to make characters. (1)

i) Children perceive characters as being more similar based on how they sound vs how they look (3)

ii) Allows children to guess words based on context and combined phonetics/radicals.

iii) Follows more regular patterns (7)

iv) Research on language learning emphasizes how explicit, systematic instruction in the structure of the language is more helpful than incidental exposure and rote memorization (7)

2) Easier transition to reading Simplified even without prior instruction (Table 1)

3) Harder to write

4) Even within the Traditional script, there have been adoptions of Simplified characters.

a) 台灣 (tai2 wan) instead of 臺灣 (irony: the “Tai” in Taiwan)
b) 画 (hua4) instead of 畫
c) 什 (she2) instead of 甚

5) Fewer resources in the US and harder to access materials unless you buy/ship from Taiwan/Hong Kong

a) No textbooks/curriculum adhering to Common Core

i) I can understand that unless a Mandarin Immersion school was formed specifically with the Traditional characters in mind, most MI schools may choose Simplified for this reason alone.

Simplified

1) Strengthens visual and spatial relationship skills due to the way Simplified characters are structured and formed (see above). (1)

a) Provides fewer visual cues so requires more attention to detail when learning characters via rote memorization. (1)

i) Even with fewer visual cues, 1 billion Chinese people still manage to learn and be literate.

b) When controlled for reading ability, results showed that children learning Simplified characters demonstrated superior visual skills. (Table 2)

c) Children perceive characters as being more similar based on how they look vs how they sound (2)

2) Easier to write

3) Approximately 1 billion people use it

4) Lots of resources in the US due to the Chinese government, in conjunction with the Obama administration, actively encouraging US students to learn the language.

a) Common Core textbooks/curriculum are developed (although untested and many are in their first editions)

5) Harder time reading Traditional without prior instruction (Table 1)

a) However, I know plenty of people who have figured it out with great facility so I doubt it’s much of a hurdle.

6) Same character represents multiple words.

a) Context helps and I refer you again to 1 billion people who have figured it out. Plus, English has many homonyms and English speakers figure it out without much problem so even though I find it weird that Simplified Chinese has made many separate characters with the same pronunciation into the same character, I am confident that people can figure it out from context.

I know that this is far from all-encompassing, however, short of becoming a PhD in the subject (and I emphatically am not), I think this should suffice for most folks who have no preference (or clue) regarding Traditional or Simplified characters. And if not, well, Google is your friend. Also, the library.

And so, after this ridiculously long post, (and come on, when have my posts in this series been short?), I refer you again to what I said at the very start:

If you do not have a particular preference, choose whatever will be more easily supported by your time, interest, resources, and abilities.  

(See? I told you all you needed to do was read my Fancy Flowchart™.)

Thanks for sticking it through. If you’re still wanting more, I have included tables and references below. Many thanks, again, to Mind Mannered for her research and hard work. Your summaries cut down my research time significantly. Plus, your documents were so well executed!

Have a great weekend, everyone!


ETA: Again, my extreme and humble apologies to Mind Mannered. I would be furious and hurt if I were in her shoes. I was super lazy and and an idiot and didn’t check your references to ensure that I wasn’t stealing proprietary work. I am very sorry for any and all distress I may have caused. Also, thanks to Mind Mannered, we have a lovely list of references to check out. 

References

  1. Mind Mannered (2015). Research Highlights on Learning to Read and Write Chineseprivate paper
  2. Seybolt, P. J., and Chiang, G.K.-K. (1979). Introduction. In P. J Seybolt & G. K.-K. Chiang (Eds.), Language reform in China: Documents and commentary (pp. 1–10). NY: M.E. Sharpe.
  3. Chen, M. J. and Yuen, C.-K. (1991). Effect of pinyin and script type on verbal processing: Comparisons of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong experience. International Journal of Behavioural Development, 14(4), 429-448.
  4. Hannas , W. C. (1997). Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  5. Ingulsrud , J. E. and Allen , K. (1999). Learning to Read in China: Sociolinguistic Perspectives on the Acquisition of Literacy. Lewiston, NY : E. Mellen.
  6. McBride-Chang, C., Chow, B. W.-Y., Zhong, Y., Burgess, S., and Hayward, W. G. (2005). Chinese character acquisition and visual skills in two Chinese scripts. Reading and Writing, 18(9), 99-128.
  7. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  8. Liu, T.Y., and Hsiao, J. (2012). The perception of simplified and traditional Chinese characters in the eye of simplified and traditional Chinese readers. In N. Miyake , D. Peebles, and R. P. Cooper (Eds.), Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 689-694). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Additional References:

  1. Lin, D., and McBride-Chang, C. (2010). Maternal mediation of writing and kindergartners’ literacy: A comparison between Hong Kong and Beijing. In Research in Reading Chinese (RRC) Conference.
  2. Lin, D., McBride-Chang, C., Aram, D., Levin, I., Cheung, R.Y.M., Chow, Y.Y.Y., and Tolchinsky, L. (2009). Maternal mediation of writing in Chinese children. Language and Cognitive Processes, 24(7-8), 1286-1311.

Tables:

Table 2: Compares the skills of college-attending adults’ in reading and writing Chinese in their less familiar script (excerpted from Liu & Hsiao, 2012, Table 1).(8)

Table 1: Compares the skills of college-attending adults’ in reading and writing Chinese in their less familiar script (taken from Liu & Hsiao, 2012, Table 1).(7)

 

Table 2: Compares the reading and visual skills of kindergarteners at two different time points (taken from McBride-Chang, et al., 2005, Table 1).(5)