Sage Books has been our saviour in home teaching my preschoolers (2 and 4 year old) how to read Chinese characters. Sagebooks Basic 500 is the name for a highly prized – and expensive – set of Chinese books to teach young children how to read, and this review tells us why it’s been great for us.
This review covers:
Much like its namesake herb, I think the Sage Formula books are either you love them or hate them. In the same way, the context in which they are used is important – you wouldn’t eat sage after dessert, and you probably wouldn’t read Sagebooks after getting a taste of other more exciting reading literature.
So here’s my review of how we finally made a success of Sage Basic 500 on our third attempt to introduce it into our family. Third time lucky!
What is the Sage 500 Chinese book series?
Sagebooks is a Hong Kong publisher of a well known set of Chinese books designed to help children learn to read. They used to retail through Popular Bookshop in Singapore, which I think is how they became really really popular in this country!
The Sage Basic Formula 500 system has 25 books – 5 levels, with 5 books at each level. The series focuses on the first 500 common characters which children need in order to read children’s books (as opposed to the “easiest” Chinese words to learn). The aim is that after the system is finished, a child can read enough characters that they can start independently reading books.
The books introduce one character in each chapter, and build on each lesson, with repetition of previously learned characters. Being authored by a Montessori teacher I think aids this approach – a hallmark of the Montessori method is the three-period lesson on how you introduce any new concept. In all, it’s been systematically put together, and aims to build a child’s confidence through small successes and accomplishments.
When we tried Sagebooks 500 first and why it didn’t work
I tried Sagebooks 500 first when my eldest was three years old, and she was just beginning to understand English letters. I’d read multiple raving reviews about the Sage system, from Singapore’s Kiasu Parents forum and well known international bloggers (like Mandarin Mama and Guavarama), where parents sprout examples of how their 2 and 3 year olds could read 500 characters, thanks to using Sagebooks 500 for 15 minutes a day. Conversely, I’d seen other reviews that the books were boring; but I knew my daughter had a high threshold for boredom and that aspect wouldn’t be a problem.
So, I dipped my toes in. We bought Book 1 of Set 1 from Popular Bookstore in Singapore (note – they have stopped selling this set now). Before doing so, I browsed the other Chinese learn-to-read books on the shelf, and decided that rightly so, Sage Basic Formula did appear most appropriate for our family, since it had an English translation and pinyin too. I’d learned pinyin and tones previously in a beginner’s Mandarin classes at the Community Club, but that was about the limit of my Chinese.
I brought the book home, and immediately felt stupid. Was I kidding myself to start reading a book in Chinese to my daughter, when I couldn’t speak the language? Yes, I was.
It reminded me of the time I went to Nepal for an engineering project putting in a sanitation system at a school – I came across a whole village of Nepalese children who curiously told me they would help to “paint butterfly” on the walls of the new facility. After they painted it, with no signs of butterflies, I learnt it was something a German volunteer English teacher had taught the class for the word “beautiful”. They kids didn’t even know what a real butterfly was, so the irony was lost!
Second time around with Sagebooks 500
Fast forward three years, and my first daughter was about to graduate from K2, with a swathe of Chinese characters under her belt already. I still loved the concept of Sage, and saw it as something mythical which mummy bloggers often alluded to in how their child grasped the foundations of the language so fast and fluently. I wanted my daughter to love it too.
In essence, I really just needed my daughter to practice reading something for fluency. I knew we had the Sage book hiding in the cupboard. I tried it, and she rolled her eyes and complained. By that stage, Book 1 was too simple.
I simplistically then thought we’d just buy a book from Set 4, and pick up from there. But, when I revealed the new book and she recognised the cover, her eye-rolling started again and she read it the book in a monotonous tone before admitting that “mum, this isn’t fun”. I had to agree with her that the storyline wasn’t at all compelling – heck it’s reading practice not pleasure. But even compared to the other simple English readers we have, it was pretty dry. I didn’t want her to hate the experience of reading in Chinese, so I said we’d use other practice books instead (and thankfully we found Le Le graded readers – see my review of Lele Chinese here – which were much more interesting concept for a 6 year old, and she was reading on her own in no time!).
Why Sagebooks worked the third time around
My middle child, I think, started Sage Basic 500 at the perfect time for her. She was 4 and had been in a Chinese daycare for two years. She can understand spoken Chinese to the same level as her spoken English, can recognise roughly 40 characters, but hadn’t done much reading. She had equally limited reading ability in English, despite knowing and writing her alphabet well. Some children might be at this stage at 2.5 or 3.
When we started the Sage Basic 500 series, she just LOVED the fact that she could pick up Book 1 and read more than half of it independently by herself. Yes, she could finally read whole sentences by herself. She still hasn’t achieved this in English (yet!).
If you want to read in more detail about how this series taught my toddlers how to read Chinese well before they could read English, please see here.
I think this series has worked well this time around for a few reasons:
- My daughter is young enough to feel a sense of accomplishment when she can read a bit by herself – my middle daughter couldn’t read fluently in English when we started, so it was a thrill to be able to read something (as opposed to the experience with I re-attempted Sage with my older child who was bored with the repetition and fairly flat storyline as her Chinese developmental level was behind where her English reading level was)
- We do have a fluent Chinese speaker in the house now (being my elder daughter) – If we don’t know the pronunciation of a new character, my elder daughter can assist, which helps her get involved in the process too. The issue we had introducing the series when my elder daughter was younger, was that I also couldn’t pronounce the characters! Clearly, this would have been an issue initially if there was a mandarin speaking parent in the house.
As an added bonus, now that we’re using it successfully (5 years after we originally dipped our toes in the water), I’m actually learning from it too this time. I know enough pre-school Chinese from previous homework and tingxie, that I’m also starting to recognise and comprehend how the characters string together.
It’s really helpful for me, because the books have the pinyin above the characters, and the English below in small text. My daughter actually asked “Mama, I know it’s English at the bottom but what is the language at the top?”. LOL I’m glad she doesn’t yet know how to read the pinyin, although I do cover it up with our reading strip, so that if when she does “crack the code” it won’t be her crutch.
Will we get through to the end of Series 5, Book 5 (the 25th book…)? Jury’s still out, but I’m hopeful we’re on the right track this time. In the meantime, it’s a much welcomed addition to the third row of our book shelf.
Pros of Sagebooks 500 Chinese
- Simple pictures which assist in decoding the sentence – the pictures in Sage on initial glance were too cartoony for me, but they do relate closely to the sentence, which creates good contextual prompts for new words, and assists the child to recall what the text is likely to be about. (As an aside, the picture style remind me of the 米小圈上学记 Mi Xiao Quan’s School Diary books, which I also thought I wouldn’t like at first glance, but my oldest daughter is addicted to them).
- It introduces common words in literature, not easy words – for example, in other books (and indeed the HSK syllabus) the numbers 1-10 are often introduced first, along with days of the week, and weather. Well, these aren’t actually very useful in reading a typical picture book. In Sagebooks 500, they introduce high frequency words first words like mountain (山), high (高) big, small, up and down, which are likely to be seen more in literature. And, with these collection of characters, you can quickly put a phrase together.
- Intuitively designed for a young mind – it introduces a new character, shows how to draw it, and then repeats it in different sentences. My toddler likes to trace the characters and recognise them in the text; my five year old thinks she is the ants pants because she can read full sentences!
- Availability of other supporting materials – Sagebooks publish a large number of additional reading books, flashcards, comics, games, writing sheets etc with matching characters to the books being studied, so there is a whole ready-made syllabus out there if it’s needed. You can just pay-plug-and-play. Also, may bloggers have developed their own downloadable free resources, given the popularity of the books, and the cost of the proprietary materials. GuavaRama has some wonderful free printables of all the characters in each series, including unique flash card which she sells on Etsy.
Cons of Sage 500 Chinese
- Cost and accessibility – in Singapore, Sagebooks used to retail through Popular Bookstore, which is where we bought our first individual book. Now, it seems the first two series are not stocked there, and availability of the other ones is patchy at best, as they tend to sell them as individual books, rather than as sets of 5. Our series was picked up in Malaysia during a road trip, but I’ve heard it’s hard to find there too. I think the main option now is either to buy it secondhand, or ordering new from HK (which has quite a high shipping fee attached. Really, a set of 25 soft cover books shouldn’t cost someone SG$500k!) For this reason, I think the 4,5 Quick Read series and Odonata are of more accessible cost-wise for many in Singapore, and are very similar assuming a parent in the house can read Chinese.
- Pinyin and English is included – this is a pro and a con. It’s good for me to be able to check my daughter’s reading, but in general I’d rather she focus only on the characters. Also, the English is not a word-for-word literal translation of each sentence. When new characters are introduced, there is no translation. So there’s been a few instances where we’ve needed to call on my older daughter to be the dictionary. What I do really appreciate is that the Chinese characters are in a large font, whilst the Pinyin and English are relatively small.
- Potentially boring for an older child – there is a lack of any developing storyline or plot in Sagebooks 500, so the books are unable to keep the attention of my eldest, especially after reading many more interesting books. So I think the aim would be to get through the set as quickly as possible, before a child entered primary school. You’ll see from my picture below that Book 1 looks almost identical to Book 25! Again, this is where I think Odonata or Le Le would be a better choice if a child is older.
- The text does have some errors: firstly, the English is poorly translated, so it’s best to ignore that. Secondly, some of the Chinese characters where it shows how to draw them are numbered incorrectly, or have odd strokes. I don’t understand enough to Chinese to know if any of the main Chinese book text is also incorrect, but my guess is it wasn’t edited/reviewed too closely.
Making Sagebooks 500 successful
- Make it Sage practice a habit: Consistency in approach is so important. Sometimes life gets in the way and we cannot read our books for a couple of days, but it shows when we pick it up again. We’ve forgotten where we were, and what characters had just been learnt.
I look at the Sagebooks 500 system in the same way as a beginner learning the piano – a few scales and exercises need to be done each day or every second day is needed; unless it’s a habit and done consistency, we’re wasting our time doing it at all. It’s certainly not a “fun” reading experience, in the same way that routine piano exercises aren’t a pleasure either…. but if you slack off with the practice, that’s really the end. So I make sure we limit Sagebooks to no more than 15 minutes (or less if the attention isn’t there), and we finish off with more interesting/fun literature, for the pleasure of reading.
- This doesn’t replace reading for pleasure: These books should not replace regular picture book reading! It would be a shame if they robbed time away from daily reading to go through this series. Try to make it in addition.
- Make a DIY reading strip to cover the English and Pinyin in Sagebooks 500: Reading strips were first developed by reading specialists for children with attention disorders like ADHD, dyslexia, autism, where reading multiple lines of text can be confusing. It was a good hack for Sage too! I made a simple DIY reading strip using a plastic sheet cover and some washi tape, with inspiration from Mama Baby Mandarin. I tried to pick the most plain coloured tape we have – white would have been ideal, but we ended up with mauve. We use it as a bookmark too, to show where we are up to.
Which Chinese Levelled Reader is best for our family?
It depends on family situation, child’s age, parent’s reading ability, and interests….. and of course, budget. I don’t think you need to have everything. Wider reading is good, but it doesn’t mean spending the universe to get it. We’ve been lucky to find many series secondhand in Singapore, and have been able to try out quite a few.
Below is a overly simplified schematic of which readers you might want to be considering, and I’ve got a more detailed comparison post with our favourite 5 graded reader series.
The other readers we have used and would recommend considering (depending on circumstances!) are listed below with links to more detail: