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!)