Getting some reading in while being sick

It has not been a good month.  First I got sick then Astroboy got sick and was feverish for 5 days, then I recaught his cold and was feverish for 7 days, getting worse not better.  I finally went to the doc and got some antibiotics for what turned out to be a sinus infection.   I was feeling so miserable, going to bed at 7 every night for a couple of days, miserable in class, till the antibiotics kicked in.

But what happens the first morning after the antibiotics?  I re-injured my back.  This is the injury that caused me to be in bed for 2-3 weeks the first time two years ago, when I found out I had herniated discs.  Then I re injured it in Taiwan with two kids in tow.  But the super great and cheap healthcare meant I could go see a PT twice a week and I was much better also after 2-3 weeks.

This time no such luck though I at least know what to do at home to take care of the problem.  On top of assignments for my math class due in a week and an all day Saturday class I might have to miss.  Double sigh.

Of course I also feel anxious because it’s meant that we havn’t really had school for weeks.  I feel so bad for Astroboy.   At least for Thumper we do the miminum reading and math when I can convince her. And she’s been super interested in cooking so could help out around the house.

Anyways, this week we’re on the last book in the Sagebook series.   And Thumper picked up the 我愛馬婷 I Love Martine series.  I’m amazed half a year ago she was complaining that the book was too long after reading a paragraph and now she’s willing to read it herself.  I’m guessing I really needed that middle step of large font and small number of sentences.

This morning I’m resting in bed and trying to get the kids to do their daily Chinese at least.  It’s actually kind of nice and relaxing to get work in but not feeling like we’re not getting enough done.  Because at this point something is better than nothing.

Here’s the video of her reading.  Sorry the volume is so low.   I do want to point out that’s she’s not reading super smoothly and I don’t have an idea what she’s saying half the time.  But I’m trying really super super hard to not be the Tiger Mom and correct her and make her feel discouraged.   I read a blog post once about what to do in this instance, when kids are just reading without regard to what they’re reading.    I need to dig the post up and try it.


Chinese books for our beginning reader

As I mentioned in my last post, early this Spring semester, I decided to stop trying to ask Thumper to read the books we have at home (okay, I admit I couldn’t resist a few times) and really focus on reading through Sagebooks.  By mid-March, we hit around 350 characters.  By this I really mean we were at the 3rd book of the Pink Series (4th series) in Sagebooks.  She knew maybe 25-50 more of the words in the rest of the series.

It seems at this point, everyone around me was focused on reading and asking about books for beginning readers.  I was a bit bewildered because it seemed to me any short simple books ought to work but yet none has.  Someone suggested the Elephant and Piggie Series in Chinese.  And we made the trek to Oakland Asian library.  But alas, even with big fonts, the 2 books we tried had too many vocabulary Thumper did not know (and therefore could not guess) and she got frustrated.  It may be the right level for another child, but not for us.  Honestly it was fine with me.  The text was too short, I didn’t love the illustrations, nor the language used.

I won’t mention the other books we tried (cough, Monkey King, Magic Treehouse).  We’ll just jump forward to what happened AFTER we found the books that fit the criteria I mentioned at the Books and Me Library.  It’s been 2 weeks and I can now state unequivocally Thumper is reading in Chinese.  It’s happening a bit fast and I’m still trying to make sense of it.  One minute we’re on Sagebooks, and the next, we’re reading at beginning first grade level with 小熊貝魯, skipping over the picture books.  At least according to this blog post of her daughter reading at 6.2 yrs.

On a side note, WOW.  It took us so long to learn enough characters to read these book and kids are reading it in first grade in Taiwan?  How long will it take a kid to learn enough characters to actually read a book like this then if they don’t know zhuyin?  I can see how if, by the time you hit 3rd grade, you learn about 500 to read these books, while your English level has advanced to 3rd grade level, why would you read 1st grade level books?

Anyways, here are the books:

~407 characters (week 0-1 1st visit to library)

亮亮的成長 (20 pages)At our first visit to the library, we borrowed this series.  There are 30 books so plenty to choose form.  I think the series is called Something About Vicky in English.  It’s got a variety of stories.  Some about her in school, some about habits like being messy  or bossy, and some about her family.  This is the series that allowed Thumper to start reading.  Since the language is really simple, it has a lot of the characters we’ve studied in Sagebooks.  She maybe did not know just 1-2 characters per page.


斑斑的生活故事/The Caterpillar Family is a very similar series I have at home.  Like Something About Vicky, it’s got just 2-3 sentences per page, big fonts, easy to read with about 20 pages for each book.  They are also just various short stories about the adventure of a caterpillar.  It also just so happens that it’s got a bit more text than the Something About Vicky series.  Honestly the writing isn’t super great.  I got this series from a family that was moving back to Taiwan when Thumper was 1 as part of a big set of books.  I’m glad I have them, I just wouldn’t go out and buy it myself now.

Instead, I would just borrow all of these from the library.  I think they have them at Oakland Asian library too.

I leave a stack of these in a basket in the car for the children to read when they have nothing else to do.


~430 characters (week 1-2, 2nd visit to library)

During our second visit to the library, we read more of the Something About Vicky series and The Catepiller Family series at home as well.


露西兒/Lucille This is part of the Arnold Lobel series.  I HIGHLY recommend this series because it has a built in level progression.  There are 9 books total.  The first 2 are picture books you read to the child.  The third one is those beginner reader books.  I found this out after starting with the 8th book and Thumper hated it. When we visited the library the second time, I picked up this book and she was able to read it.  By this point she’d read through a week of easy books and was getting used to longer books and reading in general and I think that helped as well.  Arnold Lobel books are just silly fun.  This one is about a horse who gets dressed up and people mistaking her as a lady.  Thumper doesn’t love it 150%, but she did enjoy it.


~460 characters (week 2-3)

I’m noticing at the second week that the more we read the more willing Thumper is to read books that don’t really fulfill the 5% rule.  She’s getting more comfortable in using zhuyin.  But I don’t want her to get into that kind of habit.  So i continue to search for appropriate reading level books.



老鼠爸爸說故事 (~60 pages)  After the success of “Lucille”, we went back and borrowed two more books from the series from the library.  You definitely need to follow the order (which is on the bookspine) because the amount of illustration gets less and less and the writing more and more.  This is the 5th book in the series (I forgot to borrow 4th) and after cajoling Thumper to start reading it, she totally got into it.  We’d agreed to just read one chapter but she went off and finished the whole book herself after we came home from our playdate at Mandarin Mama’s house.  There are 6-7 short stories in there and her favorite one, the one that got her giggling to herself as she tried to sleep, was where a mouse runs and runs and his feet got worn out, so he took off his feet and bought himself some new ones!


貓頭鷹在家 (64 pages)

Book #6 was a much easier sell after book #5.   It doesn’t hold her interest like the next book (Magic of cup cakes/杯子蛋糕的魔力) but she did enjoy them.  Lobel’s books are gentle silly books that don’t try to appeal to one sex over the other.  This one has several silly stories of an owl.  One was how he found two “lumps” under his blanket that disappears when he takes the blanket off.  He couldn’t sleep so he ended up sleeping on his rocking chair.  Another was how he tried to be both upstairs and downstairs at the same time and then got so tired he just sat in the middle of the staircase (which is technically both upstairs and downstairs!)  I definitely want to get these books in both Chinese and English.


杯子蛋糕的魔力 (70 pages). We borrowed this from the Books and Me library.  It’s something I would never buy myself because I don’t much like really “girly” books.  But of course my daughter loves these types of books so maybe it’s time to start.  Another book she read in one setting, surprising me because this is the first time she’s read such a long book (60 pages).  When she was reading aloud she read it kind of haltingly.  But apparently not so bad that she doesn’t want to read it.

This is also a series.  The story revolves around a bakery and each book has recipes you can actually try at home.


小熊貝魯 和小蟲達達.  (60 pages)  Thumper insisted on reading this even though I could tell it’s just slightly above what she’s comfortable with in terms of unknown characters.  But the story is interesting and once she started, she finished a book in one setting.  We bought this series a long time ago.  I love the series and recommend it.

The story is the adventures of a bear and the worm he found in his apple orchard one day, who eventually moved in with him.  Silly and gentle story.

On the cusp of reading Chinese books

“Mama, I love reading!……when I’m in the mood.”  Thumper said the other day after our visit to the local Chinese Library.

I guess I will take this over the “I don’t want to read” that she’s beens saying the last few years.

The books we haven’t read

As can be guessed from my Chinese library collection, I love reading and I love books.  I started my library when I learned I was pregnant.  Even before Thumper was born, I’d bought the whole 金庸 series, and the whole Harry Potter series in Chinese.  Of course it’s only Murphy’s law (or whatever other universal law regarding parents vs. children) that Thumper has not really liked books since she was born.  Oh sure, we read to her faithfully before Astroboy was born.  But while other parents were telling me how much their kids love flipping through books even when their kids can’t read, mine clamors for me to read to her but doesn’t want to touch a book herself.  I, being the lazy mom I am, read to her semi-reluctantly when she asked and I wasn’t too busy, but I really would much rather that she reads herself.  My mother poopoo’ed me when I told her we were reading to Thumper.  “What?  Why spend time doing that?  We never read to you.”  And look at how I turned out.

Only recently do I had a clearer picture of how I need to approach reading, especially reading as related to learning Chinese.  All thanks to those books I found at the Chinese Library.  My big take away was that I just wasn’t choosing the right level books for her in my strong desire to have her read.

Before I go into the background and details, this is the progression of books I am now going to try and follow for Astroboy, as our curriculum.

  1. Sagebooks
  2. Sagebook readers and readers after every Sagebook book.
  3. Montessori nomenclature cards if I manage to make them.
  4. Stories with 1-2 sentences, large font.
  5. Stories with 3-10 sentences, lots of illustration, large font.
  6. Comprehension level around K, short stories with illustrations.
  7. Comprehension level around 1, longer stories with small illustrations.

Thumper is at #4 right now.  We started last September with her at #1 & #2, and we don’t have #3.  Astroboy is at step #1 and #2.

There are a couple of things that I realized recently.  In a nutshell, just follow the way we learn how to read in English.  It’s kind of how the Montessori reading curriculum runs.

  1. First you learn the phonics, which we don’t do in Chinese.  Instead, we learn “sight words”.
  2. Then you start reading words, matched with pictures.
  3. When you know enough words, you start reading sentences.  One presentation are the command cards.  Basically you read 1 sentence at a time.
  4. Build up to reading more sentences, at this time, you’re reading with illustrations and then gradually phasing those out.

I point out the progression because I added a zhuyin/pinyin component to learning how to read.  And even though I *know* this is how it works, letting them read at N+1 level, I also kept thinking, “Oh! once we learn zhuyin, we can just start reading those elementary books (step 6+)!”  Because that is what it seemed from the Chinese blogs I followed.  The kids seemed to learn their zhuyin first grade and then started reading short books.  And zhuyin is different from phonics.  There is at most 3 sounds for any single character, there are no exceptions and weird combos like English.  It’s much easier to pick up.

Think about English reading.  After you’ve learned your phonics, you’re doing all those little reading of words when you’re doing worksheets on cat/bat/rat.  Eventually you move up to your Bob books (or you do them at the same time) and finally your level readers.

Here is where I hit my head on the table and say, “D’uh.  Why did I keep trying to skip a step?”

Details on how this applied to us

Step 1 & 2, Sage books & Step 3, short sentences.

For learning characters, Thumper actually learned it how I see many young kids (3-6) learn it, you get exposed to various vocabularies as themed work (e.g. learning all the vocals for Moon Festival), so she had a strong base going into Sagebooks.  I think it’s a pretty effective way because you do not limit yourself to simple, fewer stroke, Chinese characters.  I’ve read various studies that say there is no reason to do so.  However, I do see how Astroboy remembers the ones that do have fewer strokes better.

two moons make a friend

My kids definitely learn their characters differently.  In the elementary level, I’ve found with Thumper’s foundation, it’s been really easy to segway into teaching character components as a way for her to remember characters.  So many of them have the one character component that determines the pronunciation of the character.  For the characters that are hard, I make up a story based on the character component.  It works about 80-90% of the time.  It doesn’t work when my story is convoluted and makes her think of another character.  Thumper is the creative, imaginative, things bore me easily type, so these two ways suits her.

For Astroboy, games work.  The best is the slapping card game, and second the Chutes and Ladders game.    Then there is just plain repetition.  He would have a hard time with 3 characters in book 1, by the end of book 2, with the games and just reading those characters, he remembers them.  Tricks like drawing what the charter resembles doesn’t really work.  For example, I tried with 來 by saying it’s two people who are under a tree and saying, come come.  He would half remember the story but not the character the next day.  I know I’m not doing things the way Thumper learned it in school.  Maybe he would remember it more that way.  But at this point I don’t have the resources to do that.

The really great thing about Sagebooks is that it’s got all the components you need for beginner reading.  It has the short sentences, it’s got the illustrations as hints for the words used, and most importantly, it’s fulfills the 5% rule, i.e., each sentence in a page only has 5% or less of unfamiliar characters.


Step 4: Story with short sentences, large font.

For the longest time, I thought I had all the books that we needed to get Thumper to start reading.  But after showing a friend my library one day, I realized that I had a set that was perfect for Thumper’s level.  When I tried it on Thumper, she agreed!   The main feature of the book was that it’s one page of picture and two sentences of text, in big font.  When we counted up the characters she didn’t know, it was less than 5.  (an alternate version of the 5% rule)

I looked for similar books at the Books and Me library and it was similarly a hit.  Thumper took an initiative and pulled out all the books she wanted to read and read them all.  I didn’t have to ask her do it, she didn’t have to bulk and get frustrated after a page like she did with Magic Treehouse or other similar books.

So basically I was asking her to read at a level that was way too high for her.  One important take away for me was that I need to pick my books carefully when reading for fluency.  By this I mean

  1. We’re not reading for pleasure per se.  Reading to practice fluency is different from reading for pleasure.  We’re reading to practice reading so that eventually we can read a book fast.  It’s okay to repeat read.  It’s not important to quiz on reading comprehension.  I got this from a homeschool teacher’s book and it makes so much sense.  She basically said, the child is so busy decoding her words, she doesn’t necessarily have time to remember and reflect on the meaning of the words she’s reading yet.  So she poopoo’ed the reading comprehension questions that come with the reading books like Primary Phonics.  What I do to get around it is to ask Thumper to tell me what the story is about.  She sometimes can do it, and other times can’t.
  2. It’s okay that the book isn’t at her read-to level, i.e. the level of books I read to her.  One reason I picked Magic Treehouse was because I thought at Thumper’s age, she would find those books more interesting to read, and therefore would want to read them.  However, if a book isn’t at the right level, she just gets frustrated.  And yes, secretly the other reason is, hey other 7 year olds are reading those books, why can’t mine?  It’s so hard not to feel like you’re behind other kids, especially when it comes to reading in Chinese, where there is a time limit.  I feel that I have to get it done before the kids eventually learn to read in English.
  3. I need to make sure the fonts are big for Thumper.  Many of the picture books have tiny fonts.  Maybe it’s good for me reading to the kids, not so great for Thumper who then has to read the even tinier zhuyin when she doesn’t recognize a character.
  4. It’s important to choose a book at the right comprehension level.  The writing level needs to be simple.  One reason that Thumper is enjoying her books is because they’re translated books.  The vocabulary are really simple and almost conversational.  Like a story you would tell your children orally.  Not all picture books are created equal.  In my library I try hard to pick books written by Chinese authors because I felt that it’s how you indirectly get the more advanced and poetic Chinese.  Chinese authors just write differently than an English author.  These are great books.  But not so great when you have to read.  So I’m now relegating these to be “read-to” instead.  They often have vocab that Thumper doesn’t know, or words she doesn’t recognize.  Many picture books have words that are not necessarily at the top of the word frequency list.  It’s partly why I was searching for the children’s word frequency list, which takes into account words used in children’s books.
  5. Related to #4 is the number of characters Thumper knows.  It appears that after 350, closer to 400 Sagebook characters, Thumper is finally at a level where she could read these simple 2 sentence per page books.  I tried the Monkey King book with her and noted a difference just reading the same book 2 weeks apart (since we were learning 20 characters a week).  She was hitting so many characters that were covered in the Pink (set 4) series.  And knowing those characters lowered the frustration level so she was willing to read about half a page to a page before she stopped.

And her rate of picking up new characters is phenomenal.  We were doing about 20 characters a week, about 3-4 a day.  But we can now probably do 8-10 characters a day if we want to, partly because she already knows some of the characters in the Red Series.  But since we’re learning by recognizing the phonetic character component, it’s so easy for her to remember new characters.

So for me, 350 characters is the magic number to start reading regular books, with some zhuyin.  I’m sure you can read simple picture books before that, especially if you know your zhuyin well.  However because I don’t want her to rely on zhuyin to read (many adult friends I know can read with zhuyin but forgot their characters), I’m not pushing her to know it too well.  She still gets stuck when she reads because she can’t sound it out right sometimes.  That’s partly the reason it took us so long to start on the more advanced books.   I know it ups my frustration level doing it this way.


Step 5, 6, 7

This is our next step and I’m still searching for the books that fit the bill.  My new criteria is basically

  • big fonts
  • easy language
  • lots of illustrations
  • not too many sentences
  • many pages

slowing moving towards more complex books

It’s really hard because big font takes a lot of books out of running.  We have some books at home that are picture books (small font) that Thumper will pick up and read during our 15 minute quiet reading time.  But they’re always short.  At Thumper’s age, she does better with the English equivalent of Early Reader book series like Little Bear or Frog and Toad.  These are stories that grabs her interest, over many pages, but the language is simple enough.

The other thing I didn’t mention is that, at the same time she’s working towards step 5-7, I’m trying to, as much as I can, to read to her at her grade level.  Right now we’re right at level for 1st grade, though if Magic Treehouse is first grade, Thumper can’t quite understand it completely.  But many of the other books I read, she can comprehend most.   I even read to her a book deemed at 3rd grade reading level last semester and she really enjoyed it.

This is the other revelation that has come to me slowly over the last 2 months.  I keep thinking to myself, what’s the point that she can read if she can’t understand what she’s reading?  And the only way around it is to read to her to increase her vocabulary.  A lot of out Chinese books also have cultural references that she would not get unless someone explains it to her.  I read somewhere recently that your “ear” is about 2 years ahead of your writing level.  So that is why it’s important to be read to.  Having that oral vocabulary makes reading so much easier.

This is why it’s so hard for me to recommend books to others when they ask.  Because my first questions are always their age and their Chinese comprehension level.  The age determines length of book and how interesting a story has got to be.  The comprehension level determines what type of books to recommend.  If you can’t understand Chinese then it’s no good even to read picture books.

If my friend were to ask me again for recommendations for books to buy, I think this time I’m going to say, after asking about child’s age and Chinese level, that they should use the Sagebook readers and textbooks to practice reading, forget about pleasure reading.  While they learn the 350 characters, they can “pleasure” read using Sagebook Treasure boxes and even more importantly, read a lot to their kids.  Then learn zhuyin and once they have enough, start with short sentences and go from there.   As I learned the hard way, it’s important to focus on that foundation of basic characters and comprehension.

If they’re asking because they want to be prepared for the eventual reader…..I do have a list of the books we’re going through right now.  That”ll be next post!


Squares and Cubes….and lots of beads in general

Age: 4.5 and 7.5

Presentations: Making Geometric Shapes, Association of squaring chains with bead stairs (primary), Concept and notation of squares, Notation of squares layout, Finding the totals of squares, Power scales, Chain of 1000 (just work)

Because I’m in the squaring and cubing section part of the album right now in class, I’ve been giving the kids some presentations in this area recently. Last week, I presented the introduction section of squaring and cubing, which are extensions of the short chain work: Making Geometric Shapes.  This is where we bring out the short bead chains, fold them into different polygons, and introduce the nomenclature.

IMG_5387 You can see typical Thumper reaction here at the face of new materials; she wants to play with it and make a star with the 9 chain instead of a nonagon. IMG_5530 The other thing we did that day was Circumscribing One Figure Around Another.  For this presentation, you show them how to circumscribe one shape inside another and introduce those two vocabularies (circumscribed and inscribed).   Astroboy worked on this again today (Thursday).  IMG_5527 Because he did this after my attempt at giving him the Bead Cabinet presentations that were at the end of my primary album (whereas this activity is in my ELE album), he put all those bead bars around the circumscribed shapes.  And of course he was no where super interested in my presentation.  Though he was game and allowed me to finish my presentation and even helped me count.  (He does love anything that has to do with pretending to be a train and lining things up.) My sister asked me what the point of this work is, circumscribing figures.  I think it’s just a sensorial activity.  Letting kids play with their geometric shapes.  The kids also figured out by playing with it that as the shapes got larger by one unit on each side, the difference in area between shapes got larger.

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More Sagebook Readers for Pink and Blue Series

Ooohoo.  Thumper and Astroboy finished their respective Sage books in March.  Thumper finished Pink Series book 4 and Astroboy the Blue Series book 2.  I racked my brain and made a second book for Astroboy.  If you think about it, it’s actually quite amazing that you can write a whole book with just 20 characters (our first book) or 40 characters (the second book). For Thumper, she wrote her own book because she did not write a sentence for every 3 characters daily like she was supposed to.  I actually like this way even better because she wrote so much it gave me a much better sense of her writing skill.  I then edited the story for her with her help, typed it up, and she’s half way done with illustration.  I would say the point of these books for her is more in practicing writing than reading because at this point learning new words is so easy for her, she gets her practice in just through repeat reading of the Sagebooks.

Thumper’s book IMG_5531

Here’s the complete story.  It’s printed as the back page of the booklet.  I highlighted the new words that she doesn’t know so that I can add zhuyin to them inside the book.  By my count, there are 256 characters total, 114 unique characters, with 10 new characters she doesn’t know.  That’s about 4% of the total, within the limit set for good reading flow when you’re reading for fluency.

IMG_5532 IMG_5536

Here are some sample pages, one with the zhuyin in it.

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