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!

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