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!



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