Greenfield “I Can Read” Series Review


So. Cookie Monster (6.75) and I have finally made it through the Greenfield I can Read Series and truthfully, I hate them.

I know. I know.

I have totally recommended them to folks and for younger children; perhaps it is actually good for them. I’m sure YMMV depending on how you learn and like to teach as well as how your child learns.

Before I get into why I dislike Greenfield so intensely, let me talk about the good. (Incidentally, to find out more about this series, please check out Guavarama’s most excellent post.)

1) Each set has 12 books, a CD, and a workbook. The books are nice and short and I’m sure if we listened to the CD, they would have been fine. The workbooks, we skipped but again, if we used them, they would have sufficed.

2) The best part of the books is that they are supremely short. There are only 1-2 lines of text for pages 2-8. (So, 7 pages total.) Cookie Monster enjoyed zipping through each book in about 1-2 minutes – especially at the very beginning.

3) They also provide flashcards you can make out of perforated poster paper in the front and back of the books. These flashcards also handily tell you which book and set they’re from and highlight key words and phrases.

4) The pictures are vibrant and colorful. My kids all enjoyed looking at them.

5) The sentences are repetitive in either word usage or sentence structure giving the short stories a good rhythm as well as making it easy to predict what comes next. This was good for fluid reading out loud.

6) The stories were amusing and fun (for the most part) and Cookie Monster chuckled quite a few times at the characters’ antics.

7) The books are good to use as readers to check just how many characters your kids actually know.

8) For the beginning sets, there was usually enough context for Cookie Monster to guess an unknown character. (This, of course, really only works if your child is fluent in Chinese.)

Ok. Now, on with what I did not enjoy and really disliked:

1) Ok. I realize that Greenfield is for Hong Kongers so those folks already know how to read the characters.

However.

really would have appreciated the presence of pinyin.

It wasn’t so bad at first, but by the Purple set, I was looking up a LOT of characters.

2) Guavarama says Greenfield uses the whole language approach so as a result, they do not introduce a new character at a time in each section like Sagebooks does. Instead, they are repeating sentences and grammatical structure to teach a child the way Chinese works.

Unfortunately, this makes it extremely difficult to know what characters are new and being introduced.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to which characters they are introducing. And even though they provide vocabulary flashcards, what’s the point if the flashcards they provide aren’t necessarily the ones you need?

I find the whole thing very disorganized and confusing.

3) Clearly, these readers require Chinese fluency and knowledge of several hundred characters prior to starting.

4) The jump in levels at the very end is too high.

Cookie Monster already knows over 1,000 characters so he easily breezed through the first sets (red, orange, yellow, dark green, light green, and blue). But once he hit the halfway mark in the purple series (the 7th set), he ground to a halt. (Although oddly enough, he was fine with the rainbow series/8th set.)

There were SO MANY characters he didn’t know in the Purple set. I want to say approximately 8-10 characters per book. This is due to the structure of the stories. If sentences are repetitive, only 1-2 words are changed per page.

For example (and I will use English for ease of reading):

a) The dog jumped high.

b) The cat jumped low.

c) The bird jumped far.

Some of the later sentences are obviously more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

5) Although the new characters were not problematic enough for Cookie Monster to find frustrating (he was more amused that I had to look up so many words), I certainly found it annoying and frustrating.

6) cannot overemphasize how disorganized I found the whole methodology and system.

It really, really annoys me.

In fact, it made me long for Sagebooks even more. And it made me realize that a good system for learning Chinese is really hard and tough to come by.

I also want another set of Sagebooks 500 even if Guavarama says it’s unnecessary if the kids know zhuyin and start reading more and more complicated books.

7) A lot of the Traditional characters feel as if they’re one-offs. Either because they’re Hong Kong specific or perhaps more commonly used in Hong Kong, or because I just can’t see the relevance in daily life for knowing these more complex terms. (More than likely as not, it was a user problem and not a book problem.)

8) I really wish I did not purchase the series. Not that I feel as if all our time on it has been wasted – because Cookie Monster did learn a few new characters and built his confidence in reading.

However, the same thing could have easily been accomplished via reading more of his early reader books with zhuyin.

Obviously, YMMV.

I have had friends who went through the series when their children were much younger than Cookie Monster is now and they seemed to like it more than I do. So perhaps, it really is an age-related thing. Or maybe their kids are just better suited for this series – not that Cookie Monster had issues with it. 

Mostly, it was me with the issues. 

Cookie Monster seemed to like the books just fine and he raced through them because he wanted to finish a set a day. Which we did until we hit the Purple series. Then we slowed down a lot and reviewed a lot. So it took two days instead of one to go through. Once we got through it (I made him reread the purple series several times for him to gain mastery), the rainbow series was back to being done in a day. 

Now, because I already own the set, I will still use it with my subsequent kids. In fact, when Gamera finishes Sagebooks in a month or so, I will have her go through Greenfield right away. Maybe I will like it better since she knows fewer characters than Cookie Monster did at the start. 

However, other than using the books as readers, I did not enjoy the experience of these books as a curriculum. And if I knew then what I knew now, I would not have spent the money on these books and instead spent it on a box of books with zhuyin from Taiwan. 

Alright, like all things, my word is just my opinion and certainly not to be taken as gospel. If Greenfield worked for you and you liked it, I am very glad! If not, I commiserate (although, I wouldn’t say they didn’t work – merely not what I expected). 

Have a great weekend!

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!

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!

Guest Post: Greenfield Review

Once my kids are done with the Sagebooks series, I will be having them go through the Greenfield books that I’m still awaiting from Hong Kong. However, instrumental to my deciding to buy them was Guava Rama’s fantastic Review of Greenfield I Can Read Series. She really breaks down the main series, includes pictures, and saves you the trouble of navigating Greenfield’s incredibly slow site. (You can find out more info on the publisher and site info here.)

However, since neither Guava Rama nor I have actually tried the Greenfield books yet, I bring you another guest post by Alex PangAlex 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 since it was such a big hit with many of our members.

Thank you, Alex!

Greenfield I Can Read Series Review by Alex Pang

We have completed the I Can Read series from the Hong Kong publisher Greenfield Education; our experience is summarized below akin to my earlier review of the Sagebooks 500.

Background: My daughter (now five years old) finished the Sagebooks 500 series earlier this summer, after which we started Greenfield’s I Can Read series. I Can Read are leveled readers aimed primarily at Hong Kong kindergarteners ages 3-6 years old. There are a total of eight levels of progressive difficulty divided by color—red, orange, yellow, green, light green, blue, purple, and rainbow. Each level has twelve booklets for a total of 96 “mini-stories.”

Each of these beautifully illustrated mini-stories is eight pages long with only one to two sentences per page. Tear-out flash cards for new characters and words are included in each booklet. Also in the package is a Mandarin/Cantonese CD that reads every story aloud, as well as a workbook with exercises testing reading comprehension from all twelve booklets. By themselves, the series teach a total of 840 characters and 1600 words.

I am assuming that if a HK kindergarten uses the I Can Read series that the 96 booklets are spread out over the three cumulative years of K1, K2, K3 (in the US the equivalent is preschool/preK/K). I will not delve into the philosophy behind I Can Read (whole language approach to learning), as I am using the booklets purely as leveled readers. According to Greenfield’s website, the child should progress to reading illustrated chapter books after completion of I Can Read.

Timeline of study: We started in June after Sagebooks and finished the Greenfield books in mid-September. So that is a lot of Chinese characters in three and a half months. Obviously, reading the Greenfield books has been facilitated by the foundation learned from Sagebooks. At this point, we are simply reading for fluency and comprehension, with no writing practice, structured didactics, or other preparation and integration.

Speed of study: For the first five sets, we read each booklet once daily. Each color level took two weeks to complete (twelve days to read each of twelve booklets, a thirteenth day to read all twelve booklets in one instance, and a fourteenth day to complete the workbook/reading comprehension book).

Reading all the booklets or completing the workbook in one sitting like we did may be too much for some younger children (mine was always complaining about the workbook exercises being too long, but she never whined about reading the twelve booklets together). Despite the large amount of new vocabulary, I think the first five sets were mostly manageable given her existing character/word knowledge. I think that the last three sets (blue, purple, and rainbow) are targeted at the older Hong Kong kindergartener or even primary schooler, and I consider most of the vocabulary in these much more difficult. For example, the last two sets introduce anywhere from eight to twenty-three new characters in each booklet.

In order to promote retention, I “strongly encouraged” my kid to read each booklet several times (to oral fluency) over the next couple of days. We also split the workbook/reading comprehension book over two days because of the more difficult vocabulary.

Retention of characters: I certainly did not expect full retention in such an accelerated time frame. There are approximately 540 new characters in the I Can Read series which are not covered in Sagebooks 500. Broken down by the color levels, the numbers are red 47, orange 66, yellow 23, green 38, light green 36, blue 73, purple 150, and rainbow 107. Of these new characters after Sagebooks, my kid has probably retained at most 150-200. But during our daily readings, I would engage in a constant dialogue with her regarding new characters, words, and character/sentence structure so that there is always more than just “reading.”

Rather than trying to drill every new character she encounters into memory, my goal instead is to encourage and promote reading fluency and ability. Through daily reading she will continue to develop her skill in discerning the meaning of new characters from context and/or radicals and character components.

The good: The I Can Read series have short, whimsical, and humorous stories with detailed, colorful illustrations. These books serve as excellent practice readers after using the Sagebooks 500 as the basic foundation. The majority of the booklets have stories and vocabulary relevant to the daily lives of children (bathtime, bedtime, school, zoo, shopping, playground, fairgrounds, farm, mid-Autumn festival, etc.), which I believe is important to the retention of new characters and words.

The last three sets (blue, purple, and rainbow) contain much harder vocabulary than the first five sets and requires in-depth review unless the child already possesses excellent spoken Chinese, or near-native level oral fluency. Some of the vocabulary from those last sets is probably comparable to 2nd or 3rd grade level for Taiwan textbooks and perhaps 1st or 2nd grade level for China.

The bad: Not necessarily a bad thing, but unlike the Sagebooks 500 there is no pinyin for the traditional character set. Pinyin is available for the simplified character version only. There is no zhuyin version available as this is a Hong Kong publisher. You can always use the included CD to verify pronunciation. Students older than nine years of age may not enjoy these booklets as much and find the stories too simple for their maturity level, but keep in mind that the highest levels cover more complex sentence structure and vocabulary.

Also, I did worry about “character overload” for my kid toward the end of the series as we were pushing a lot of new characters and vocabulary together with each booklet (not sure if this is considered part of the whole language learning style). There is a lot of difficult vocabulary that she will not use for many years and especially with the last several booklets, the stories simply became vocabulary lists that are low yield at her age and not fun to read anymore.

I am imagining characters going in one ear and coming out the other ear. Essentially, the series is best used by families who have at least one fluent parent, but non-fluent families can also teach with this series via the included Cantonese/Mandarin CDs and Pleco at the ready. Or, an older child can probably just listen to the CD and learn the characters (not easy).

The final word: Overall, these booklets encouraged my daughter to read. She enjoyed them because the stories are short, well-illustrated, and funny. Without fail, she flashes a knowing smile or laughs aloud after reading the last page. Most of the series is appropriate for her level, which is to say a child with good spoken Chinese and a strong command of a lot of basic characters. The speed of learning can be adjusted based on the child’s fund of knowledge.

We purchased the entire set knowing that some of the primary levels may be too easy, but these earlier levels still contained characters she did not recognize. I would not recommend using the I Can Read series in lieu of or before the Sagebooks 500 series as the amount of vocabulary is immense and can be overwhelming for someone not previously exposed to basic characters.

Children younger than age of five would not benefit much from this series either as the level of vocabulary is too difficult in the blue, purple, and rainbow booklets. But for parents willing to put in the time and effort, the combination of Sagebooks and Greenfield I Can Read is, IMHO, unparalleled for ease of use and should be considered an excellent alternative curriculum for overseas children.

After completing the two series of books (Sagebooks then Greenfield I Can Read), I am estimating that my kid recognizes a total of 600-750 Chinese characters but in reality she has been exposed to over 1000. She now possesses strong skills in reading and reading comprehension that we can build on during this year in kindergarten. The ultimate, very ambitious goal is for my kid to maintain grade-level reading ability in both Chinese and English through 4th grade.

Thanks again, Alex, for allowing me to post your excellent and in-depth review on my site! Once again, you’ve provided a valuable service to fellow parents (as well as myself for not having to write a post tonight). Happy Reading!

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!)

Sagebooks

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