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Sagebooks 500: Chinese Levelled Reader Review

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:

  1. Overview of Sage Book series
  2. Pros of Sage 500
  3. Cons of Sage 500
  4. Tips on how to make Sage successful

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:

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.

Sage 500 Chinese Book set

Pros of Sagebooks 500 Chinese

Cons of Sage 500 Chinese

Making Sagebooks 500 successful

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:

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