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.

Chinese Reading Challenge

Chinese Reading ChallengeIt’s a universally accepted fact that the best way to increase literacy is to have your kids read, read often, and read widely. So, if you want your kids to learn Chinese and also have them literate, that holds equally true for Chinese literacy. It is especially true if the books are non-translated, “indigenous” books.

Reading (in any language, but we are focusing on Chinese here) helps your children internalize Chinese grammar without resorting to dull worksheets or drills, gives them cultural references, and helps them see how idioms apply in every day conversation. If the books are non-translated books (ie: not originally English books translated into Chinese), it has the added benefit of being written specifically for the Chinese/Taiwanese child. Definitely a bonus in terms of language fluidity, rhyming, and playful words being used.

This is even more helpful when your child reads aloud since it also captures the rhythm and musicality of Chinese. Reading aloud helps your kids get used to the flow of speaking Chinese and increase the likelihood of them speaking Chinese with fluidity in every day conversation. Reading the same texts repeatedly will also build confidence and decrease stumbling.

All of these aspects will help your child as they learn Chinese – even if it’s just the speaking part you want to emphasize. (The literacy would just be a bonus.)

Anyhow, even knowing all this stuff about reading and literacy, I still find it hard to read to my children. Mostly because I find it so boring. (I know, I know. I’m a terrible parent. Especially since poor, neglected Glow Worm clearly never gets read to because when someone finally does pay attention to him long enough to read to him, he goes apeshit about books. Like, beyond excited.)

But now that Cookie Monster knows 800-1000 characters and Gamera is probably around 500-600 characters and they are getting better at zhuyin, it’s now easier for me to make them read to me. (I’m totally ballparking their character knowledge here because I am so lazy that the thought of actually quizzing them and having them go through that many character flashcards makes me stabby and want to die.)

However, since I tend to be a little lax lately about their Chinese reading recently, I was so pleased to hear that Cookie Monster finally wants something BIG. He wants to get Minecraft on the PC (thus far, he’s been playing on the xbox) and I guess the PC version has more mods that he sees and covets on YouTube. So, he’s been begging us to get him a computer and the game.

Cookie Monster is six. I know this is just a preview of what is to come. sigh

When I told Cookie Monster I heard he wanted to get a computer to play Minecraft, he was so excited. SO EXCITED. I could tell because he was jumping up and down (and for some reason, shirtless), barely containing his glee, saying, “YEAH YEAH YEAH!”

“Wait a minute, Cookie Monster.” I said. “I haven’t said I would get it for you yet. I need you to do something first before I get it for you.”

“Ok! Ok! I’ll do it! Tell me what it is!”

“Before I buy Minecraft for you, and before you can play it, you will need to earn it,” I explained, totally proud of myself in this awesome, teachable parenting moment.

“What does that mean? What does ‘earn it’ mean? I want to earn it! I don’t understand what you’re saying! Help me!”

There went my proud feelings.

Clearly, we are doing a bang up job as parents.

Also, it was so sad and hilarious I really wish I had the foresight to video the whole thing.

Since I’m never one to waste a chance to weaponize my children’s loves and desires, I am taking advantage of Cookie Monster finally expressing a real BIG desire for something and using it to ramp up him reading Chinese books. He has to read a certain number of Chinese books before I will buy the game for him and then, he will have to read a certain number of chapters/books in order to actually play the game.

And, because I’m loathe to do anything in life without turning it into a blog post for my own benefit, I’m making it a communal thing.

Today’s post officially kicks off the Read 100 Chinese Books Challenge (閱讀100本書).

For the tl;dr crowd, the Read 100 Chinese Books Challenge is a non-competitive way for us parents to support each other and our children on their way to Chinese literacy. Basically, we “pledge” to have our kids read 100 Chinese books of any length or level. We can post updates, check in and encourage each other, recommend books, have bribes prizes, etc.

Oh, and I’m serious about the non-competitive part.

There are no forms, no worksheets, no book reports you have to fill out. (I provide them for you because some folks really like them, but I personally think nothing ruins the joy of reading like pointless busywork.)

There is no verification service.

No grand prize for reading more than 100 books.

In fact, the prize for reading 100 books is, to quote my snarky friend, Not Another DB MBA, “Another 100 books!”

If this is of interest to you, join us on our 閱讀100本書/Read 100 Chinese Books Facebook Group. We’d love to have you. You MUST PM the admin your reason for joining the group. No PM? No admission.

In case a hundred books seems like a lot (and I won’t lie, it is) and you’re not sure you can find one hundred English books, let alone one hundred Chinese books, GuavaRama has a fantastic series of posts all on Chinese books including what kinds of books to buy (categorized at different levels), where to buy them, how to choose books, and where to find them in libraries. Seriously, it’s some quality information. Use it.

Alright, friends and fellow Chinese enthusiasts! For more info, I recommend you head over to our Facebook Group. (FYI: again, please PM the admin your reasons for joining.)

Hope to see you there.