Sagebooks Challenge

I’m so excited!

I finally get to announce that Sagebooks HK and I are working together for the next four months.

If you have been reading me for a long time, you’ll know that I’m a super fan of Sagebooks HK and that I think they are without a doubt, the most effective way to teach Chinese characters for children in Chinese speaking families.

I have dreamed of partnering with them on anything for at least several years. And now, at the start of 2018, my dream has finally come true.

Okokokokokok.

Enough preamble. Here’s what’s coming to Mandarin Mama and the Sagebooks HK Blog.

Sagebooks Challenge

Starting Monday, February 5, 2018, I will be featuring a weekly series called The Sagebooks Challenge.

Every week, I will be chronicling Glow Worm (4) and I going through the Sagebooks HK Basic Chinese 500 series and their Treasure BoxesWe’ll go over our objectives, our challenges, our wins, and pretty much anything I think will be helpful to someone going through Sagebooks for the first time. (This will be my third time through – I’m definitely getting my money’s worth!) I will also include photos and videos for people wanting to check out the sets before they purchase.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sagebooks, it is a series of 5 sets of 5 books that teach your children how to read the top 500 high frequency characters in children’s books. The books come in both Traditional and Simplified characters, with pinyin and an English translation at the bottom. Each chapter builds on the previous chapter so that your child acquires new vocabulary and character knowledge in a trackable, systematic way.

They also have a set of Treasure Boxes of 5 books per set for a total of 25 Treasure Box books which are readers that ONLY contain the characters they have learned up until that point (with maybe an additional new character or two).

Sagebooks Basic Chinese 500 Set and Treasure Boxes

Sagebooks Basic Chinese 500 Set, Treasure Box Sets 1-5, Idioms 1-5, Antonyms 1-2, Bunny Comics

I will be coming back to this post and updating it with links to the ongoing series.

Sagebooks HK Parent Support Group

In partnership with Sagebooks HK, I will be managing the new Sagebooks HK Parent Support Facebook Group. If you are thinking of buying this series or already own the series, join us!

We all know how hard it is to do something alone – let alone the prospect of teaching our children how to read Chinese! Join the group and meet other parents who are teaching their kids Sagebooks Basic Chinese 500 at all different ages and levels.

We just opened up the group and would love to have you!

This group provides a space for you to have accountability, ask and answer questions, exchange ideas, and have partners as you go through the sets. The more your participate, the more you will receive.

Plus, I’ll be doing weekly Facebook Live videos on how to use Sagebooks Basic Chinese 500, the Treasure Boxes, and other special announcements!

One note: Please remember to answer the membership questions. All requests without answers will be deleted.

Sagebooks HK Blog

In addition, every Tuesday morning, I will be on the Sagebooks HK Blog providing a time tested tip from our more seasoned parents as well as a fun and easy activity/game to help your kids remember the characters in a way that doesn’t involve a book or flashcards.

The more ways we can make learning Chinese characters fun, the better!

I am super excited.

In case you can’t tell, I am ecstatic about working with Sagebooks HK. I’m a little bit terrified, too (but don’t tell them that).

I hope you will join me on the Sagebooks Challenge with me and Glow Worm and either follow along with us or, if you’ve already started, to continue ahead of us. Then, check out the Sagebooks HK Blog and finally, tell us what worked, what didn’t, what you need help with at the Sagebooks HK Parent Support Facebook Group.

Have you tried Sagebooks before? Let me know in the comments.

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!