Our favourite Chinese literacy apps are iHuman Chinese Hong En Literacy (洪恩识字) and Wukong Literacy (悟空数学). Both of iHuman app and Wukong Literacy app are designed for children who have a sound spoken understanding of Mandarin, and are starting to learn characters/words in Simplified Chinese form. These are great apps for learning Chinese characters.
This review compares the key differences between these two apps.
Why are apps helpful in learning Simplified Chinese characters?
Both Wukong Literacy and iHuman Go Play Chinese are games based on vivid imagery, which is helpful for memory retention of characters and radicals. They systematically teach a child character-by-character, with iHuman going up to 1300 characters, and Wukong Literacy getting to beyond 5000 words.
Both apps are fairly similar in their design and games, and each include excellent 2 to 3 minute learning animations showing how the characters are used in words, and supported by graded e-books for the child to read. The apps are suitable from about ages 3 upwards to tweens, although they do require a child to already be familiar with spoken Chinese.
Each of the app content covers 100% of the first-grade Chinese characters of the Mainland Chinese Education curriculum, and more than 80% of the second-grade new characters. Think of these apps as being equivalent to the English learning apps of ABC Reading Eggs or Starfall, but obviously for Mandarin.
Note: The entire installation, payment and set up for Wukong and iHuman apps is in Chinese, so they can be hard for a non-Chinese reader to navigate (although it’s great for encouraging full language immersion!). These post also share some tips and screenshots around how to download and use these apps.
What is Wukong Literacy (悟空识字)?
Wukong Literacy (悟空识字) is a combination of three Chinese literacy learning apps, being:
- Wukong Literacy 悟空识字 (for learning characters)
- Wukong Pinyin 悟空拼音 (for learning Pinyin)
- Wukong Reading (for practicing reading passages)
(note – there is also a Wukong Math package, which we haven’t tried)
This software has been developed by Ningbo Qidian Education Technology Co., Ltd, and first written in 2009. In China, for the last decade it’s maintained a top 10 position in the education app bestseller list. There are more than 30 million registered users.
Wukong is named after Sun Wukong, (aka the Monkey King), who is one of the main characters in the 16th-century Chinese cult novel “Journey to the West”. The app has been thoughtfully designed, and the illustrations and learning modules really bring the Chinese characters and words to life for a primary schooler, as the child completes their quest with the Monkey King.
There are 15 scenes (or levels) with over 100 literacy games, and 1000 learning modules. New words are introduced from animated stories with pictographs, which is a different approach from most other literacy apps. Children learn a new character, and then through a combination of different exercise amd mini games, they use the character in words and sentences.
Best distinguishing aspects of Wukong Literacy
- Child may be already familiar with the Monkey King fables, making it an instant win
- It’s a fun way for your child to systematically learning characters, as it’s visually appealing and makes use of repetition and clever visual cues to reinforce character memorization and context.
- Has some helpful 2 – 3 minute learning animations showing how the character is used in words, and supported by imagery to help remember the radicals.
- Includes a weekly progress update email for parents
- Includes a voice recognition feature to test a child’s pronunciation reading out written passages
- It feels more like a video game than a learning tool for the most part (the screenshots below don’t do justice to the animations which are moving throughout – believe me, when I say the graphics are simply stellar)
- This can be used on a PC too (Windows or Apple)
What is iHuman Hongen Shizi app ?
iHuman app is a combination of five different apps which can be bought/used together, or separately:
- iHuman Hongen Chinese: (aka Hongen Shizi app 洪恩识字) for learning 1300 Simplified Characters. See picture above. This is the app you want to download!!!
- iHuman Pinyin: for learning the Hanyu Pinyin of all 63 elements, through interactive scenarios. This one is okay for a child who needs to learn pinyin.
- iHuman books: for interactive reading practice in Chinese. If you have other books, it’s probably not necessary, as the iHuman Hongen App also comes with a few ebooks too.
- Go Play Chinese or iHuman Chinese: similar to Hongen Shizi 洪恩识字 but designed for English speaking families (i.e it’s not immersive Chinese, as instructions are in English and it’s a littler simpler). I would recommend you don’t need this.
- iHuman Math: we haven’t used this
Below are photos of the other four apps. Please note the first one below here (“iHuman Chinese”) is not the right one. This is not immersive Chinese in the way that the one above Hongen Shizi 洪恩识字 is. It’s a little confusing. To make it even more confusing, on some App stores this english version is sometimes called GoPlay Chinese or GP Chinese. Neither is what you want. You need the tiger one!!!
The iHuman app suite has been created by Beijing Hongen Education Technology Co., Ltd, which has been making educational software for the last thirty years (quite a long time when you think about how long computers have been around for!). There are more than 20 million registered users for iHuman.
Each of the iHuman apps is thoughtfully designed, showcasing gamified learning at its best, in a well polished and researched format. For iHuman Go Play Chinese, each level is divided into 4 units, covering each reading, writing, listening and lots of repetition. It intended to be a comprehensive solution for children’s literacy in Mainland China, designed in consultation with 20,000 different kindergartens and schools.
Best distinguishing aspects of iHuman Hongen
- Appealing design for younger kids (dancing penguins, pooping goats, dogs with stylish hairdos, aliens etc)
- Includes 130 levelled online reader books, which can also be physically bought or printed
- The company actually has an English version of their website
- There is a progress tracker so the child can see how far through the 1300 characters or 63 Pinyin elements they are
- iHuman follows a systematic linear map where each character is learnt, and then child progresses to the next one.
- Not too many distractions or options to choose from, to a child stays focussed
- App is designed to make full use of the a tablet touch screen to allow children to write out the characters and stroke order
There’s a really detailed review of iHuman written by homeschooling mum Jean, at Mandarin Home School which is really helpful to understand full features of iHuman.
Main differences between iHuman Hongen Chinese and Wukong Literacy
|iHuman GoPlay HongEn||Wukong Literacy|
|Can a child skip levels or start at a higher grade?||Yes (under parental controls)||No (although a harder curriculum can be selected)|
|Can I select different word lists?||No||Yes (has several curriculums / textbooks used in mainland China)|
|Can I add in my own words?||No||No|
|Can I have two children on the one account?||Yes||No|
|Can be used from a PC?||No||Yes|
|Does it enable practice of stroke order?||Yes||No|
|Does it enable voice recognition for pronunciation?||No||Yes|
|Does it include an optional Pinyin learning module?||Yes||Yes|
|Is there a version in Traditional Script?||No||No|
|Is there a version in Cantonese?||No||No|
|Number of characters covered?||~1300||~1300 characters; 5000 words|
|Cost to purchase?||~USD 33 per year Or ~USD 90 for lifetime||~USD 33 per 3 years|
|Free trial?||Yes – first 20 characters||Yes – first five days|
|Can I pay using iTunes?||Yes||Yes|
|Is there English customer support?||Yes||No|
|Are there supporting offline materials?||Yes – physical books and worksheets can be bought or printed||No|
Content difference between iHuman Hongen Chinese and Wukong Literacy
Both apps are very similar, covering 1300 characters (Wukong goes a little further), using high quality animation and gamified learning. Key differences:
- Syllabus: iHuman goes character by character. Wukong goes sentence by sentence.
- Stroke order: iHuman shows this, Wukong Literacy doesn’t
- Supporting online content: Wukong has more videos, books to read, and spoken content, which might make it more interesting for older children
- Supporting offline learning: iHuman has worksheets for stroke writing which can be printed out, along with 130 physical graded readers/books which which follow the same curriculum as the app.
- Quizzes: Both apps have testing to ensure a child has consolidated their learning before moving on to a harder level. However, when there a “multiple choice” questions on character recognition, in iHuman the options make the answer quite obvious. On contract, for Wukong Literacy, it shows really similar looking characters which increases the challenge.
- Ability to skip levels: This can be done under the parents portal on iHuman, but not on Wukong. However, is a child is an advanced reader on Wukong, the adult has the option to change the entire syllabus to a harder option, so the child does’nt have to start at zero.
- Maximum characters attainable per day: this can be specified by the parent as anywhere between 3 and 10 characters per day for both apps.
- Time required to meaningfully play: iHuman can be done is very small doses (say 3 minutes to compete one game). Wukong takes longer to complete each ‘game’ so it’s not a quick “10 minutes a day” type of game. Maybe 15 or 20 minutes is required in one session. iHuman also has a ‘time out’ function, where it stops the child every 20 minutes and plays a tune for 120 seconds, to encourage them to take a healthy break from the screen.
Ease of Use: iHuman Hongen versus Wukong Shizi
Both systems are fully written in Chinese, which creates a hurdle for a non-Chinese parent (but not an insurmountable hurdle). Key difference in usability functionality is:
- Content map: iHuman follows a systematic linear map where each character is learnt, and then child progresses to the next one. Wukong Literacy has a few different parts to where the child can play, which makes it more confusing for the adult to assess progress. This could be a pro or con, depending on how you child likes to learn and their language competency.
- Parent updates: Wukong has the option for a weekly email on progress, which iHuman doesn’t really need to cater for this, as everything is easily visible within the app.
- Customer service: iHuman offers some English customer service. Wukong has no English support.
- Sign up and payment: iHuman is slightly easier for a non-Chinese reading parent to navigate, as the interface has less menus.
- Ability to have more than one child on the same account: for iHuman, yes. For Wukong, no.
- Operating system: iHuman is available on iOS and Andriod app. Wukong Literacy is too, but additionally works on Windows PC. This is a great benefit.
Here’s a screen shot comparing the “maps” for iHuman versus Wukong, and you’ll understand the difference in complexity:
Purchasing and Payment: iHuman Hongen versus Wukong Shizi
- Where to download: Both are in the iTunes apps store, which makes it simple for Apple users. On android, it’s a little harder, but not too tough.
For iHuman Hongen Shizi, go to iHuman Chinese website, and click either iTunes or Andriod to download.
For Wukong Literacy, search 悟空识字 (Wukong Shizi) in your app store.
Note: for Android users, you probably won’t find these simply in the app store. You’ll need to likely first need to install 应用宝 (the Chinese playstore equivalent) to download both of them, if they don’t show up in the app store automatically.
- Cost: iHuman is about US$33 for one year. A lifetime subscription is ~US$80. Wukong Literacy is cheaper, with a three-year subscription costing about US$30. There is no lifetime option for Wukong.
- Free trial: yes, both have this, without needing to enter any payment details. iHuman gives a free trial for the first 20 characters, wheras Wukong gives a free trial for the first 5 days.
- Payment methods: all instructions are in Chinese, so recommend you enlist the help of someone who can read Chinese well. Otherwise, have Google Translate handy on your phone. To actually sign-up as a non-Chinese reader is a minefield if you do it on anything other than an iPad or iPhone.
If you have access to the Apple store, you can pay through this, and then set up either a login (account number + password) or bind it with your WeChat account. You don’t need a Chinese mobile number, so just skip that step if it asks you.
If you aren’t on an Apple, and don’t have a Chinese credit card, some readers suggest the solution is to sign up for “Alipay Tourpass” (a payment service intended for tourists to China). We haven’t tried this personally.
Tip for non-Chinese speaking Parents using iHuman Hongen Shizi
As an adult, when you try to download and pay for these apps, it can be a minefield. Also, changing the settings in these apps can be difficult, as you’ll get a screen to verify that you’re a parent. To verify it, you need to read the three Chinese characters, which sound similar in pronunciation to Chinese numerals, and enter the corresponding numbers to unlock the parental settings.
Here’s a “cheat” table for that aspect:
If you want iHuman installation and download instructions in English, including screenshots, I’ve written some more details on a guest post which I wrote for Bilingual Kidspot (another excellent bilingual parenting resource), which can be found here.
Which character learning app suits my child better?
Each app systematically covers 1300 words, focusing on character recognition through play, and it includes test reading, writing and comprehension activities. Neither of them is a curriculum per se, but they are great for reinforcing character learning and give a fun outlet to practising Mandarin.
We used both apps together, essentially as alternative games for the children to play. However if only choosing one, I would recommend the following:
- Wukong Literacy: best suited for above 6 years old, given the game interface is more complicated (ie many different segments to play in, and a lot of choice given to the child). Wukong Literacy also have the option of selecting specific curriculums and wordlists (such as HSK), which might make it a good companion to specific syllabus a primary age child is learning from. Being able to use this on a PC could be helpful too, for families trying to limit tablet time. Wukong also goes deeper in terms of using the characters in wider literature and reading, although the interface feels more like a game than iHuman.
- iHuman Hongen Shizi: for a child anywhere from 4 years old, as simpler interface would be more appropriate for pre-primary (or a child who is not so familiar with apps and games). iHuman also has the Pinyin model, which is great for kindergarten learning, along with character writing modules, which is great for learning stroke order.
In iHuman, it’s also possible to go back and review characters again, which is a nice feature for adult-child learning and revision together. This isn’t possible in Wukong. For some reason, my kids gravitate more towards iHuman.
For a younger child (3 to 7 years old), I would highly recommend Maomi Stars – and this has the added feature of being able to add your own words. Other similar apps available in Mandarin (although for various reasons we feel they’re not quite as good) are Dr. Panda Literacy, Calligraphy Literacy, Cong Meow Literacy.
Are you still reading?
This has been one LONG post. Thanks for sticking with me! If you have any thoughts or suggestions on apps, I’d love to hear from you. I always keen to hear what works for other families. As an adult who speaks no Chinese, I’ve resorted to several smart technologies to enable my kids to become bilingual. Perhaps some of my earlier posts might also be of interest:
- Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Learning system app (another fun app!)
- Top apps, books and gadgets for raising bilingual Chinese-English children
- Youdao dictionary pen : the ability to read and translate anything in Chinese!
- Luka Reading Robot : to read physical picture books to your child in Chinese
- Online Chinese lessons comparison: learn from the best teachers and platforms that China has to offer!