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.

15 Tips for Using Sagebooks

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 is part of a mini-series on Sagebooks and might not make as much sense without context. 

So, now that you’ve purchased your Sagebooks set and are ready to go, what now? Well, the books are designed so well that really, you only need to go through the books a chapter at a time.

However, since I’ve gone through the set with Cookie Monster (6) and am halfway through with Gamera (4), I have come up with a few tips that may help.

Here we go:

1) Be fluent in Mandarin. 

I know. I sound like a jerk, but it’s true. So true that I felt it important to reiterate, and if you care about why, follow the link.

Remember, Sagebooks was written for people who speak Chinese and live in a Chinese environment. It was NOT written for people learning Chinese as a second language.

2) Do Sagebooks with other people. 

By that, I don’t mean that you have a Sagebooks class with other kids. (Although, if you want to, that’s great!) I just mean that you each are going through Sagebooks on your own timetable with your own kids in your own home.

Even though mentally I realized that someone else’s child being “ahead of” or “behind” my own children’s progress had no actual effect on Cookie Monster or Gamera’s Chinese character retention, it was still a helpful goad. Use your natural competitive tendencies for good, not evil!

The main reason why it’s helpful, though, is that the kids have a shared experience (and so do you). You have peers you can ask questions or discuss ideas with. Your kids know that they are not the only people in the world learning these books.

You can even record videos of your kids reading excerpts as well as have them see other kids reading excerpts. This way, they can see that there are other kids going through the same thing. (Okokok. Really, just to show off. Who cares if it makes them want to learn?)

Similarly, if you have more than one child going through Sagebooks, it works the same way. Cookie Monster had been a bit lazy with his readings and often bragged that he knew a lot more characters than Gamera. However, when he realized that his little sister was catching up to him (she zoomed through 2 sets very quickly), that knowledge lit a fire under his ass and he scrambled to keep his “lead.”

As long as it doesn’t damage your kids psychologically, I have no problem using good-natured competition to get things done.

3) Be consistent.  

When I first started with Cookie Monster and Gamera, several days (sometimes up to a week) would pass before we would go through the books again. Since I really wanted to make sure they remembered the characters we went over last time, we started books over many a time.

That was incredibly frustrating.

Just avoid that altogether by being consistent. (And by that, it doesn’t have to be every day – but perhaps no more than 1-2 days apart. Especially if you are literally starting from scratch.)

4) Stop immediately if your kid is tired or frustrated. 

Pay attention to both yourself and your child.

It may seem counterintuitive but as soon as you notice either your own or your kid’s impatience or frustration, stop. (Even if it is just slowly creeping upon you.)

Pushing through rarely ends well.

In our house, it usually ends up with me yelling and being super demanding and Cookie Monster wilting and shutting down right before my eyes. It does no one (especially Chinese) any favors to associate learning of any kind with such pain and suffering.

I noticed also that when Cookie Monster is physically or mentally tired, he not only has a hard time remembering new characters, he even has difficulty recalling characters he used to know previously.

Just stop.

Chances are, like Cookie Monster, your kid will remember everything the next day once they’re rested and in a better mood.

5) Spell the character out in zhuyin. 

If your child knows zhuyin, consider spelling trouble characters out in zhuyin. No idea why it helped in some instances, but it almost became a mnemonic device for Cookie Monster.

6) Use context and visual clues. 

If Cookie Monster had trouble with a new character, I would usually flip back to the original instance he learned the character. Something about the combination with the original sentences and illustrations associated with the character would often be enough to jog his memory.

7) Use the Treasure Boxes.

I have heard that some kids find the Treasure Boxes boring and hate them. My kids enjoy them and are excited that they can read a book entirely on their own. This then reinforces the characters they have already learned.

Sometimes, I will go back to the Treasure Boxes instead of reviewing certain readers – both for my sanity and my kid’s.

8) Have your older child help your younger child.

Not only does this make your job easier in the sense that you get to do less work, but your older child will get practice reading and helping someone else with the characters. They say that new skills don’t sink in until you can teach someone else – so this is one way to help the characters go deep.

I’ve used Cookie Monster to help Gamera double check a character when she reaches one she forgot and I’m either driving and can’t see, or doing something else. I’ve even had Cookie Monster quiz Gamera with flashcards.

9) Flashcards can be helpful but not as helpful as reading in context.

A corollary of this would be to remember that even if your child can’t remember when you use flashcards (as is the case with Gamera), that doesn’t mean they don’t know the character. Try to see if your child remembers characters better in context. That certainly held true for Gamera and honestly, I would rather she know a character due to context than be able to rattle off a ton of flashcards.

10) Have your kids read other children’s books in Chinese.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how many words they will know. Again, because Sagebooks is designed to use the 500 most frequently used characters in children’s books, your kids will be able to read many of the characters. Cookie Monster, and even Gamera, can read the majority of children’s picture books because they recognize 90-95% of the characters.

Plus, once your children see that they can use the characters they’ve learned in other contexts (and that they can read a LOT of a book), they get really excited and build confidence because of their increased competence.

For a good list of children’s picture books, I refer you to Guavarama’s excellent post.

11) Comprehension matters.

This should be part and parcel of your Chinese Language Ecosystem (CLE) anyway, so explain what phrases mean (in English if it helps). The more Chinese your children understands, the more quickly they will pick up new characters. Again, I refer you to my previous post on why that is.

12) Encourage younger children to observe you teaching your older children. 

Gamera picked up several characters Cookie Monster couldn’t remember by proximity alone. They retain more than you think.

13) Repetition of trouble characters help. 

However, not just endless drilling. I use a method my piano teacher taught me for passages I couldn’t quite get down.

The purpose of Mrs. Joanne McNeill’s method was to not only build up memory of the part you didn’t know, but to also use muscle memory to bridge between the parts you did know and the parts you didn’t. 

For example, let’s say your child is having trouble remembering 瓜 (gua/melon) in the sentence, “我愛吃西瓜.”

Usually, our instinct would be to just drill 瓜 until we think they’ve got it only to be annoyed that our child still can’t read the sentence and always stops at 西. This is because they haven’t connected the new character with the characters they already know.

So, here is what you can do:

a) Have your child repeat 瓜 a few times.

b) Then have your child repeat 西瓜 a few times.

c) Then have your child repeat 吃西瓜 a few times.

d) Repeat the process by adding the previous character one at a time until they can read the full sentence without stumbling.

It seems so tedious and useless, but it works!

14) Move on. 

Sometimes it just takes time for things to “click.”

I can’t tell you how many times Cookie Monster and I reviewed Book 4.3. I want to say we spent at least a week on it and no matter what I tried, he couldn’t recall the characters. We were both incredibly frustrated.

However, once I “gave up” and just decided to move on, it turns out that in the later readers Cookie Monster actually remembered the characters that he previously had a LOT of trouble with! I have no idea why – and quite frankly, I don’t care. I’m just happy that the characters snuck in.

15) Age matters.

I know as a society, we are often obsessed with “the earlier the better.” After all, isn’t that why we’re teaching our kids Chinese at such a young age? Don’t our brains ossify and become worthless once we hit a certain age? We have to get them while they’re young, right?

Well, that is true to a certain extent. However, sometimes, it’s not a question of innate talent or ability, and more about developmental stage.

Gamera is certainly as smart (and in some areas, smarter) than Cookie Monster. She certainly has an incredibly memory (albeit, different than Cookie Monster’s). And yet, she just doesn’t have the attention span to blaze through a ton of new characters. She wants to tangent and look at the pictures, or play, or tell her own stories.

That’s ok. I’m in no hurry with her. She’s only four.

So, keep your child’s age and developmental stage in mind. Sometimes, if you just wait a few months or years, it will go much easier for you.

Alrighty, folks! A reasonably lengthed post from yours, truly. It might be time to buy a Powerball ticket. (Oh, wait. Someone already won in Chino Hills.) Ah well. Happy Friday, then!

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!