I Didn’t Believe My Own Advice

*This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. 

I have a major confession to make.

Even though I have written a book about teaching your kid Chinese and have written extensively on how to get your kids bilingual and bi-literate, I secretly was afraid it wasn’t true.

That I was full of crap.

That maybe, what I was advocating was fine in theory but kinda sketchy in the application.

I mean, I had seen examples of people ahead of me on the Chinese journey and it’s what they did (and did successfully), but I had yet to really see my kids get to a level where I could semi-breathe a sigh of relief.

Yes, yes.

They’re not bad, but where was this miraculous “just make them read and they will start becoming more literate” thing going to kick in for me?

Cookie Monster is almost eight. WHEN IS THIS GOING TO HAPPEN?

In fact, right before we left for Taiwan, we were going through a rough patch of reading. We had been going through a daily reading workbook as well as the 小書包 (xiao3 shu bao)/Little Back Pack series, and Cookie Monster was getting better at reading comprehension.

However, for some reason, he started having trouble with his tones. I was getting super mad at him and yelling and he would be in tears.

And even though he went on a trip to DC with my mother to visit my brother and she said Cookie Monster did really well with reading in Chinese that trip and that both she and my brother were really impressed, I wasn’t reassured. (Although, Cookie Monster did text me a lot in Chinese and he was handwriting the texts and it was hilarious and awesome.)

Then, we went to Taiwan for a month and I did not bother making him read at all.

When we got back, we started back up with the reading again and he was again, super horrible with his tones. I couldn’t understand how he could go from having no problem with tones to having HUGE difficulty with discerning and saying the second and third tones.

Needless to say, I was not patient or kind and my poor child shriveled before my eyes.

I had to super chill out and remind myself that I was not a failure and neither was Cookie Monster.

But mostly, I was pissed off that I had wasted so many dollars on zhuyin teachers and Chinese tutoring because clearly, he was not improving – and not only that, he was regressing.

And then, this week, it happened.

IT HAPPENED.

I think it was the eclipse.

On a whim, I decided to issue myself a two week challenge to try and have Cookie Monster finally attack a chapter book after a year long break. (We had tried the Little Bear series and though he read them, he wasn’t that interested and it seemed a little hard for him.)

I made him read the Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel (I will be reviewing this next week) and halfway through the second book, IT HAPPENED.

Something clicked and he refused to stop.

Cookie Monster started to pick up the book without me asking him to and would read a chapter or two. Then he moved on to reading a whole five chapter book in one sitting.

He even started reading silently to himself.

And when he was done with the series? He asked for more.

He said that he liked longer books because they were more interesting.

And then, Cookie Monster went looking on our bookshelf and took out a Mr. Men and Little Miss book. Even though these books are harder to read than to listen to on CD, I think because he had heard them so often in the car, it wasn’t so bad for him.

And read he did.

For years, I would hear of my friends complaining that their kids would just read and not do anything else and how it seemed ridiculous to complain about it, but FFS, the kids wouldn’t do homework, eat, bathe, or sleep.

I would laugh and say, “Too bad I don’t have this problem!”

But now, I do. (Or at least, I have had this problem for the last few days.)

I AM BOTH SO HAPPY AND RELIEVED AND ALSO ANNOYED THAT I NOW HAVE THIS PROBLEM.

He has now started following me around to pester – I mean, ASK – me about zhuyin pronunciations. EVEN WHEN I AM TRYING TO LOAD KIDS INTO THE CAR FOR CLASS OR PUT SASQUATCH DOWN FOR A NAP OR WHEN I AM GOING TO THE BATHROOM.

This just goes to show you that I will never be happy.

Cookie Monster has now attempted to read while I was trying to teach him the different types of matter (solid, liquid, and gas), while cleaning up (and as a result, walking into things), and while eating lunch.

He has refused to play with his siblings because he wants to read – and Gamera and Glow Worm were baffled.

And annoyed. They were really annoyed.

Gamera kept asking me why Cookie Monster wanted to read so much. (Literally word for word the same thing Cookie Monster would ask Fleur’s eldest daughter, Bebe, when she was reading Magic Treehouse and Harry Potter.)

He even told me today that he really wanted to read a lot and to get better at reading Chinese.

Seriously. I almost checked the sky to see if there were pigs flying.

So, is there a point to this post other than my shameless bragging about my firstborn FINALLY showing an interest in reading (which is one of my favorite pastimes)?

I’m so glad you asked.

Other than another totally legitimate way to plug my book and my excellent advice that though I doubted, CAME THROUGH AFTER ALL, I thought I would give some unsolicited advice about the process of literacy (Chinese or otherwise).

Incidentally, the process in general is: Front load as many characters as possible (usually via Sagebooks). Teach zhuyin. Read, read, read.

And of course, all of this is useless without comprehension so obviously, increase that. (Just buy my book already.)

Alright. On with my unsolicited advice.

1) It’s okay to doubt the process. Do it (the process) anyway.

I mean, again. I wrote a book about it. I still worried and felt like a fraud. But I put in the work (although somewhat inconsistently) and eventually, it paid off.

2) Consistency is key.

I’m pretty sure if I had just consistently persisted with helping Cookie Monster read daily, he would have made the leap to chapter books and considering reading as pleasure much earlier.

I am trying to learn from my mistakes and be MUCH more consistent with Gamera (5.75) who, though she loves to hear stories in Chinese, is really resistant to reading in Chinese. Because it’s hard. And takes effort.

I have to remind myself that I did not demand as much from Cookie Monster when he was her age and that though she is really good at reading with zhuyin (and honestly, better than Cookie Monster), she is still two years younger and has a much different tolerance level for hard work.

3) Having a library is important.

You know, Guavarama constantly blogs about building a Chinese library and often told me that I needed more books at certain levels and though I bought them, part of me was really resistant.

I mean, HOW MANY BOOKS DO WE REALLY NEED, AMIRITE?

Even the ever patient Hapa Papa was annoyed at all our Chinese books. He kept saying, “Why are we spending all our money on books no one is ever going to read?”

I wanted to smack him because he doesn’t read books in general, but also because he voiced a small, terrible fear that would whisper in the back of my mind as I threw down hundreds and thousands of dollars on boxes of books.

Anyway, I finally stopped buying so many picture books and early beginning reader books because COME ON!!!

But now, I’m worried that I do not have enough because Cookie Monster is tearing through the books. He read 4-5 Mr. Men books JUST THIS MORNING. (Thank goodness there are 96 in the set.)

This brings me to the real reason why you need a library in your home (or spread across the homes of your friends). If you are willing to put in the work and drive, your local libraries may also be useful.

You need a LOT of books available because your child may not read all of them.

This pains me to say, but though I have been methodically working my way through all the books we own with the children, they sometimes just aren’t interested (or don’t have the comprehension). So, some books just might never get read.

You also need at least two levels ahead of your kid’s current reading level. Why? Because kids jump levels or sometimes blast through levels very quickly.

And if you do not have those books at your home or readily available and you order books from Taiwan or China, for Pete’s sake, don’t be a cheapass. Pay for shipping by AIR.

What is the point of waiting two months for the books to ship by sea? HAVE YOU NEVER MET A CHILD BEFORE?

First of all, that’s two months your child could be reading.

Second, in two months, your kid might not care or regress or any number of things because children are assholes and live to thwart our will.

This way when lightning strikes, (and boy, did it strike), and your kid all of a sudden wants to read as many books as they can get their hands on, it’s fortuitous and expeditious to have the appropriate leveled books in your house.

All Cookie Monster had to do was go to our bookshelves and pick out the books he wanted to read. And he did.

Otherwise, he might have been interested and willing, but by the time I got books from a friend or the library or from a very slow boat, he might not have been interested and willing anymore.

You know how kids are. They suck.

Capricious bastards.

4) Competency and comprehension are vital.

It is belaboring the obvious, but that’s what I’m here for: to point out the obvious!

Look, it’s not fun to read if you’re not good at it.

Case in point: I can read Chinese books just fine if there is zhuyin. If there is not, it is a painful, laborious process and it doesn’t matter how awesome the story is or how great the illustrations, we are not reading the book because I associate it with pain.

The corollary is, it’s not fun to read if you don’t understand what you are reading.

Ever read the fine print in a contract (like when you sign away your life to Apple when you update your iOS or download an app) or the contraindications of a medication? Those are all words and you can read them, but are they comprehensible?

No. They are not.

No one reads these things for fun. If you do, YOU ARE A MONSTER.

If we as adults hate to read things we can’t read or understand, how much more so with children?

5) Age, maturity, development, and interest matter. 

As much as we would like to push our kids to be super readers, sometimes, it just depends on where they are developmentally and interest-wise.

It’s kind of like making your kids less picky eaters.

You just have to present a bunch of foods (or books) to your kid and make them try as many as you can and eventually, your kid either gives up and just eats crap they might not like, or they discover foods they didn’t realize they would like. But ultimately, it takes time – and sometimes, you just have to wait a phase out.

Hmmm. This metaphor may have devolved and not be as useful as I initially thought.

Whatever. You get the idea. You can’t expect your newborn to crawl, run, or be toilet trained. Same thing with literacy. Your kid just might not be there yet. The best you can do is to plug away, slowly but surely so that when the stars align, you’re ready.

See? I can be useful and non-braggarty!

I know I am nowhere near the finish line, but this week has given me hope and a very necessary boost. It helps me know that I’m on the right track and if I stay consistent, most likely the next leveling up will happen, too. (That would be reading books without zhuyin.)

Also? You’re not alone.

It’s totally normal to think that it’s taking forever and maybe it’s not worth it and OMG YOU HAVE WASTED ALL YOUR MONEY ON BOOKS AND CHINESE TUTORS.

Just keep at it and before you know it, another celestial event will happen and your child will be reading Chinese books. (Now, I just have to time it for GameraGlow Worm, and Sasquatch.)

For those of you who are ahead of us on this journey, any other advice? Let me know in the comments.

Guest Post: A Road Map to Early Chinese Literacy During Early Childhood

Today, we have another guest post by Alex Pang! He is a valued contributor to the Raising Bilingual Kids in Chinese & English Facebook group and has made several helpful posts in the past on MandarinMama on Sagebooks and Greenfield.

This time, he wanted to address some questions he sees oft repeated on the Facebook group and thought it would be helpful to others for him to detail HIS road map and what worked for him.

Despite Alex’s modesty in stating that he doubts people will be interested, I completely disagree. As much as I feel as if I’m brilliant and a genius (I mean, come on, you know it’s true), I concede that I am not for everyone and that my way is not the only way.

And like all fields, we benefit as a community to read diverse methods and strategies and tactics. Plus, you never know what awesome ideas you will pick up from other people.

Keep in mind, both Alex and his wife are full time doctors so they definitely present a different POV than mine as a SAHM. Our philosophies might overlap a bit, but the application and the time carving is a totally different beast.

So, without further ado, I present to you Alex’s post. I hope you enjoy it and find it as helpful as I do.


Author’s Note: Much of what I say below echoes and summarizes what has already been stated by many others.

This little guide serves the busy working parent who is floundering with limited amounts of time and energy to teach Chinese, and therefore desires an efficient framework to lay a reading foundation. I have written down what I consider the minimum amount of work necessary for developing an adequate reading ability in Chinese at the early elementary (primary 1 and 2) level.

The prerequisites for this endeavor include:

1) at least one highly motivated parent who is also a fluent speaker and reader at 3rd grade level and above (if this already proves a roadblock, at least substitute with as much hired tutoring as possible); and

2) access to age-appropriate books.

I will presume your child has speaking and listening fluency at a near-native level (which basically means that your commitment to speaking Chinese started at birth).

Here is the fine print—first and foremost, prepare to persist and commit for the really long haul, as it is the parent who is the primary determinant of reading success in these early childhood years.

Second, the child must reside within as much of a Chinese language environment as possible. For example, we employ a Chinese-speaking nanny, play Chinese-subbed cartoons, and listen to Chinese pop in the car…all in the name of the cause (FYI my kids attend English-language preschool/preK/K). Expensive trips abroad to Taiwan and China will definitely help but are not critical at this juncture.

Third, I do not claim that our method is necessarily the simplest, fastest, or the best, and there are clearly many other children who have achieved early Chinese literacy without going through the same process my child did. This road map merely reflects our ongoing experience.

The following presents some of the books and tips we found most helpful in establishing the reading base over the last two years, assisting our child in making the large jump from Sagebooks 500 and Greenfield readers to “real” books (more like crossing a chasm, actually!). The ages listed are approximate ranges for the respective book levels.

So what is the secret ingredient that encourages early childhood literacy? The answer is…there is no better ingredient than daily reading.

We read for at least 20-30 minutes, EVERY day without fail, even while on vacation.

Despite being relentless about my endeavor, it was incredibly difficult to fit time in to read every day for the past two years (I once read with my kid while she was on the can!) But I knew that each day that passes by without reading in Chinese is a day lost to English.

The reading exercise cannot simply comprise of reading characters or words for the sake of reading characters and words. Similar to learning any language, reading this early in Chinese relies on continuous interaction between parent and child, whereby the fluent parent will explain and expound on words/vocabulary, phrases, and context.

Ages 4-5: This is a pre-reading stage. At this age, establish a solid five hundred character base with the entire Sagebooks 500 (including the treasure box sets), learning at least one new character a day with quick review of previously learned characters. Making character flash cards yourself or buying them from Guavarama as these will help with review.

Establish reading fluency by repeating a sentence until reading speed is adequate for the child to actually understand what she is reading. If there are lengthy pauses between characters, then the child is just reading random words/characters aloud without the ability to interpret and process what she is reading.

I suggest additional supplementation with leveled readers like Greenfield’s I Can Read (我自己會讀) and Magic Box (魔術盒), or Sesame Publishing’s Ding Ding Dong Dong readers (丁丁當當) for practicing and building confidence at this stage.

Ages 5-6: Teach zhuyin, no matter how long it takes! Use short readers to assist with this.

Why learn zhuyin? My child could read most children’s literature after tearing through 500 characters from Sagebooks, right?

Sadly, anything worth reading requires knowledge of at least another 1000 or so characters. Zhuyin, then, allows for incremental development of reading skills and enables the child to read interesting books while still learning to recognize new characters. Some very good practice for zhuyin include those ubiquitous 3-minute bedtime storybooks (三分鐘故事).

After learning zhuyin, power up to Level 0 with easy zhuyin books in the following order:

1) Little Bear set (小熊看世界);

2) Frog and Toad set (青蛙與蟾蜍);

3) Little Fox set (小狐狸系列) from the Storybook Ferris Wheel collection (故事摩天輪);

4) any other Level 0 books on Guavarama’s list, and then move on to Level 1. See the photo of my bookshelf for suggestions.

At this point, additional supplementation with ANY book that interests the child is good. The goal is to develop reading speed/fluency.

It is paramount that the book is appropriate to comprehension level. Starting Magic Treehouse at this age may not help very much other than verify that the child knows zhuyin. For other good book sets at Level 0 and Level 1, please refer to Guavarama’s post on building a Chinese library.

Ages 6-9: Now you are well along on your journey together. You will perceive the improvements in vocabulary and idiom knowledge gained simply through extensive reading.

It probably happens like this—the child uses a word or idiom you know you never taught. Then you ask your spouse, or the tutor, or the grandparents, but each denies it. Then you ask your child if she learned the word from a book. And she will simply shrug her shoulders and look at you with a blank expression. But you know it had to be the books!

At this point allow yourself a pat on the back for a job well done, but do not rest on the laurels. Continue reading daily!

Other book sets appropriate for this age range include the remainder of the Storybook Ferris Wheel collection (故事摩天輪); the Reading 123 set (閱讀123); and the Magic Treehouse set (神奇樹屋).

The photo represents ~30% of my Chinese book collection and nearly all of the books I have used so far after the pre-reading stage. Top shelf: Sagebooks 500, Greenfield I Can Read, and Greenfield Magic Box. Middle shelf: Level 0 and some Level 1 books. Bottom shelf: picture books.

The photo represents ~30% of my Chinese book collection and nearly all of the books I have used so far after the pre-reading stage. Top shelf: Sagebooks 500, Greenfield I Can Read, and Greenfield Magic Box. Middle shelf: Level 0 and some Level 1 books. Bottom shelf: picture books.

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Alex Pang asked me to include the updated version of his bookshelf which added some books and rearranged books in reading level.