Guest Post: Sagebooks Review

Back in May, I wrote about Sagebooks and some of its philosophy. I hadn’t really yet started Cookie Monster on the series, and mostly, just referenced, Guava Rama’s blog and her thoughts. We’ve since gone through the first set of books and are starting on the second set, but until we finish the series, I likely won’t give an in-depth review. (If ever!)

You can find all of Guava Rama’s posts on her kids’ journeys with Sagebooks on her blog here.

Today, instead of my own thoughts on the process, I bring you Alex Pang’s review of Sagebooks with his then four year old daughter. Alex wrote up his reviews on the Raising Bilingual Children in Chinese & English Facebook group and he has given me permission to post it on my site.

Thank you, Alex!

Review of Sagebooks 500 by Alex Pang

My daughter just finished the Sagebooks 500 series, so I wanted to post a review and summarize our experience so that other parents may benefit from a few ideas or use this as a rough outline for study. The caveat is that your mileage may vary and is dependent on several factors including fluency of spoken Chinese (both parent and child), age and attention span of child, and parental commitment to teaching.

Background: I am a HKBC who left at 6 and probably now read Chinese at high 2nd- low 3rd grade level. My wife completed 4th grade in Taiwan. We have almost always spoken Mandarin to our daughters (ages 4.75, 2.5), and established a general rule that Chinese is the primary language in the house. Despite the “rules”, the girls certainly enjoy plenty of English TV programming and movies.

We chose Mandarin over Cantonese because my wife’s Chinese is much better than mine overall and will eventually take over Chinese teaching duties. My daughter attended English preschool and is finishing pre-K. She is a good Chinese speaker with a decent vocabulary but has no Chinese-speaking playmates aside from her sister (who speaks very well for her age because of the elder child’s proficiency). She has never traveled to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, or China.

Timeline of study: My daughter started with Book 1 of the first set of Sagebooks at age 3 (two months shy of age 4). In total, she needed a little over 11 months to complete the basic 500 characters. This is much quicker than the recommended pace of 18 months from Sagebooks, but it really depends on the family’s background and goals.

Speed of study: approximately 10 minutes per day, more or less. We spent about 20 minutes per day when we first started and I initially tried to push for two new characters daily. That quickly turned into 10 minutes and one character daily in order to maintain her interest in learning Chinese. We also reviewed selected characters from previous lessons in the form of random character quizzing, which basically means that I pointed out a character in the table of contents or a character/word in a sentence and asked her what it was.

If she did not know, I then asked her to read the sentence aloud using context clues for assistance. If she read a particular sentence slowly, I had her read it again until she achieved a decent speed (which I define as the child’s ability to read fast enough to remember the content and context of the entire sentence—this is harder than it sounds when several abstract words are included). For more complex sentences or sentences with vocabulary that she does not use daily, I also make sure she understood what was read by asking her to reiterate in her own words.

Course of study: I am not enrolling my daughter in an immersion elementary nor am I a homeschooler, so I do feel the pressure to accumulate as many Chinese characters and words in her vocabulary as quickly as possible (before full-time English encroachment in kindergarten). I am emphasizing reading speed and fluency while sacrificing writing for a couple of years. However, we still go over stroke order for each new character by “writing” the character with her finger.

Retention of characters: As my 4 year old’s spoken Chinese is already quite strong, learning new characters and words is generally as simple as pairing them to the spoken language she already knows. As stated above, I always try to review characters and words previously learned and incorporate them into daily usage, but it’s a given she will forget many of them. I would hazard that she can easily recognize 400 of the 500 Sagebooks characters. Of the 100 that she has likely forgotten, she can perhaps figure out 50 of them from context.

The good: I know of no other beginning leveled reader set that will enable a child to learn 500 characters this quickly. Through the repeated use of the same characters in subsequent chapters, the child will review previously learned characters while studying new ones. I believe that it was specifically this DAILY review (here is where the parental commitment to teaching Chinese matters) that has allowed her to progress so quickly. The sentences themselves are also presented in a large font and the child can guess the character or word from the illustrations’ context clues.

The bad: The sentences are quite repetitive and can seem boring to some kids but the chapters are very short. There are a number of characters and words describing abstract concepts which my child will rarely use in her daily vocabulary. There are also some characters for which I had to create more original sentences in order for her to better understand the meaning. Some parents may not encounter this problem if their child is older and is more comfortable with abstract ideas. Depending on the child’s baseline spoken fluency, he/she may be able to read a sentence yet be unable to comprehend what was just read.

The final word: While I only spent about 10 minutes per day with her on the books, it was still a drag to teach and review. I also had to “strongly encourage” my daughter to learn. And just because she now recognizes at least 400-500 characters does not mean that she will take the initiative and try to read everything that is written or labeled in Chinese. But that is not the fault of the Sagebooks set. Without them, it would have been an immense struggle for me to figure out which characters and words to teach. I probably would have just given up out of frustration and forced my daughter to attend a weekend Chinese school where she would have progressed at a much slower pace.

Sagebooks ends at 500 characters, so you have to do your research and follow up with reading-level appropriate books. I am planning to continue with Greenfield (HK) books which are simple readers containing one sentence per page. The idea is to keep my daughter’s reading skills at pace so that she can continue to read sentences fluently and quickly, progressing to more sentences per page over a short period of time before eventually reading chapters in another year or so.

Alex also wrote a review on the Greenfield books so I will post his review at a later date. Many fellow parents found his reviews incredibly insightful and helpful so I thought I would include it on my site for posterity.

Thanks again, Alex! (And thanks for letting this week’s post be an easy one for me!)


Now, many of you know that I not only want my kids to be fluent in Mandarin, but I also want them to be literate. (An entirely different endeavor, to be sure!) As someone who is orally fluent, I am pathetic when it comes to literacy. I want my children to avoid that sense of inadequacy entirely. Ideally, they would be able to go from English speaking countries to Chinese speaking countries without any sense of insecurity. (After all, have you ever gone to a foreign country where you look like everyone and can even speak like everyone but can’t read? You feel like an idiot, constantly apologizing. You feel beneath everyone else’s contempt and pity.)

Anyhow, because of this, I am constantly looking for materials to teach my kids how to read (particularly Traditional characters since that’s what I grew up learning and prefer). Thus far, I’ve “cheated” by sending my kids to two Chinese preschools, but since Cookie Monster will be in Kindergarten starting in the fall, and I want to homeschool, I need numerous books to help him learn to read. (He already recognizes over 100-150 characters, so that pleases me. But I know all too well how easy it is to forget!)

As I mentioned in a previous post on Chinese bookstores, 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.

Just from his two Chinese preschools, Cookie Monster already knows 90% of the first set of 100 words. He really loves the fact that he can pick up the books and breeze through the stories. (I’m sure it helps when I gush and exclaim praises and make him show his Ah-Ma and his teachers. Nothing like stoking the fires of wanting to learn!) The books all have pinyin under the characters (Simplified and Traditional) so it helps me, too. I believe the books also come with CDs so if you personally can’t read or pronounce the words, you can listen to the CDs.

We bought the the full set which includes all five reader sets (500 characters, 25 books), Zodiac collection, Treasure Box, Idioms in Comic, Drama in Comic, and Bundle package. I haven’t broken them all out yet because I am lazy, but many of my friends are slowly going through the books (and GuavaRama just finished the whole set with her eldest child).

According to GuavaRama, the curriculum is the reader with accompanying treasure box (but the treasure box only goes up to 4th reader series right now) a comic book. You can get the idioms and zodiac as additional readers.

Some people like the idioms, others don’t. The idioms require that you explain the meaning to the kids in addition to reading them. GuavaRama‘s daughter liked them because she found them funny. But idioms need to be used and you won’t learn much just by reading them. 

GuavaRama didn’t like the Zodiac collection because she didn’t like the illustrations. Plus, they included characters they don’t teach you in the readers. That said, her daughter liked them well enough.

If you want to learn to read, she recommends you get just the basic stuff. If you are looking for additional material to read after you’ve learned your characters, there is a dearth of books, so you get the additional materials because you want your kids to practice reading. GuavaRama and her daughter were able to read regular beginning books with the help of zhuyin after 500 characters.

You can also check out some of their readers and products on their YouTube channel. (Thanks, KF!)

Some folks in the Chinese Facebook Groups combined orders and got discounts – but they really only ship to one address, so keep that in mind. My friend, Fleur, and I combined our order and had them ship from Hong Kong to the Bay Area. Since we were a large group order, we got a discount, but the shipping was close to $75 EACH and took over a month or so. You can pay more for air shipping (~$125 EACH order – depending on weight). If you ever visit HK or Taiwan, you can either pick up from their physical location or ship to Taiwan, which will obviously be cheaper (it takes about two weeks).

Mindful Mandarin Sagebooks flash cards

Mindful Mandarin Sagebooks flash cards

Incidentally, GuavaRama has an AWESOME blog, GuavaRama, where she writes about all her Chinese homeschooling adventures with her adorable children. She has just finished all the Sagebooks with her daughter and has reviewed their progress through the Sagebooks on her site.

I swear, after reading each of her posts, I feel simultaneous envy, inspiration, and despair. How can I ever compare to her awesomeness? Her meticulousness? Her incredible preparation?

Well, I’ll tell you how. I cheat. I buy the amazing materials she creates. TOTALLY WORTH EVERY SINGLE PENNY. In GuavaRama‘s infinite creativity and patience, she has created flash cards for every single word used in the Sagebooks 500 series. On top of that, she has them color-coded to each book set, has the radical of each word highlighted in red, and will even cut and laminate them for you if you prefer she does it for you.

Mindful Mandarin Sagebooks flash cards laminating

Mindful Mandarin Sagebooks flash cards laminating

In my case, since I do so enjoy cutting and laminating because I’ve got problems, GuavaRama just printed out the cards for me on card stock and hand delivered them to me through mutual friends. (It was quite the elaborate mule train.) I’m sure if you pay for shipping, she can harness the power of USPS and get them to you that way.

You can check out her other products on her etsy site, Mindful Mandarin. (She has a really cool game that mimics Chutes & Ladders that kids love to play.) I will be doing a more lengthy review of Mindful Mandarin in the future but until then, I highly recommend her blog since it is SO useful and helpful in my journey to teach my kids Mandarin.

ETA: Some readers have asked about where to buy in Canada or US. You can find them at online bookstores such as China Sprout or Little Monkey and Mouse. (You can usually search for “Sagebooks” or  “Basic Chinese 500.”) However, there is a markup since they would like to make money. If you want to only buy a book or two, then these sites are the way to go.

If you want to buy the entire set (all the books and sets and extras like I did), then it will be cheaper to contact Sagebooks directly. Likely, you can get a discount, and if you get others to order with you, you will get a bigger discount. That usually offsets the shipping – which in the end, is STILL cheaper than buying from the US sites.

SageBooks (思展) – Provides proprietary literacy materials for young readers. Explores the philosophy, history, art, geographic nature and many other interesting facets of China.
Site Language: English, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese
Physical Locations: Hong Kong
Products: Proprietary learning materials, children’s books (learning Chinese and stories), multimedia, ebooks, free learning resources
Product Languages: Traditional, Simplified, English, pinyin

Mindful Mandarin – Provides Traditional Chinese characters learning materials. Many supplement the Sagebooks curriculum and are also Montessori based. (Disclosures: The owner is a friend and I have purchased her products in the past. I was not compensated for this post.)
Site Language: English
Physical Locations: No. Bay Area, CA based.
Products: Proprietary supplemental language learning materials
Product Languages: Traditional, pinyin

Did you know I wrote a book on how to teach your kids Chinese? You can get it on Amazon (affiliate link) and it’s conveniently titled, So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese.

It’s full of practical advice, detailed applications, and heavy amounts of snark. Find most of the answers to your questions about how you can help your kids learn and speak Chinese (as well as read).

Chinese Bookstores

Here are a few more online Chinese bookstores for children:

Chinese Books For Children – I know this site was up at least until 4/16/2015, but for the last two days, I haven’t been able to pull anything up. From the cached search results, it seems a good site for some of the most popular curriculum systems for learning Chinese. That is, if you can pull up anything from the site. Still, I will include them because if they come back up, it will be a great thing!
Site Language: English
Physical Locations: No
Products: Readers, pre-school word books, storybooks, novels for middle school and high school kids, DVDs, CDs
Product Languages: Traditional, Simplified, zhuyin, pinyin – Mom and pop Chinese bookstore, originally started because they were having trouble finding materials to teach their daughter Chinese. Also has a section for free resources (eg: coloring pages, worksheets, etc.). Their blog section also posts some interesting articles. They even have an affiliate program. (The link I included is not an affiliate link.)
Site Language: English
Physical Locations: No
Products: Books, music, songs, stories, Chinese Language Learning videos and software, cultural and educational products
Product Languages: Traditional, Simplified, zhuyin, pinyin, English, bilingual

Ni Hao Books (你好書屋) – Online children’s Chinese bookstore based in the US.
Site Language: English
Physical Locations: No
Products: Books (story, picture, reader, workbooks, textbooks), VCD and DVD videos, flashcards, posters, and other educational materials
Product Languages: Simplified, pinyin, English, bilingual