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!