Comparison of character lists in Chinese graded readers

This posts compares the character lists between Sage 500 Books, Odonata Readers and Le Le Chinese, including differences and overlap.  Many people ask why we have so many different levelled Chinese readers…… and which is better.   My answer is usually that whilst you certainly don’t need them all, they are each good in very different ways.   This post outlines some of the differences, with a focus on the first characters used within each set. 

This blog builds upon my earlier piece “Is Reaching Chinese Fluency a realistic goal for non-native children”?.   I perhaps should have renamed the previous post “Is Being able to read Chinese necessary for fluency?”.  I think many non-Chinese speaker parents feel that speaking is more important than writing, but I’ve realised this is a trap.

Which books have most frequent repetition of relevant characters for learning Chinese?

It’s easy to buy a set of levelled readers (or download a character list), and use it as an absolute reference.   However, how different are all the lists?  And how useful are they if used in isolation?  If my child has already completed Sage 500, are other levelled readers still helpful?

Below is a head-to-head comparison of three well known Chinese levelled readers.  From this, you’ll see there’s a large difference in the depth they go to (some 500 characters, others 1000+), but also in the frequency of repetition and exposure to the characters provided.  I’ve also compared the three sets just looking at the first 500 characters (or thereabouts) to show this difference exists also at the very initial stages.

Head-to-Head Comparison of books comprising the first 500 characters in graded readers
Head-to-Head Comparison of all books in graded reader series

I wanted to put this here to demonstrate that the sets are all SO different. Sage 500 is the only set which the really truly provides extensive spaced repetition of characters, which could be important if you’re embarking on this journey with really really young children (like a 2 or 3 year old). Conversely, it could be a turnoff for a child older than about 7.

This post is about numbers of characters, but before you get bogged down, I want to put a caveat on this whole post. Literacy is the most important outcome here….. it’s not about how many characters a child does or doesn’t know. It’s about learning to read, and learning to love reading. So whilst I dissect the character lists in this post, please make sure your focus is on choosing the right books for your child to enjoy reading, not simply on ticking the boxes to learn characters (that will surely come later, which is the magic of reading).

Why are Chinese character lists and learning characters important?

Most parents say that learning Chinese characters is one of those headache-inducing things that they have to deal. For us, there’s been no silver bullet or short cut either, it’s all about practice, practice, practice.  But practice doesn’t have to be painful.

By nature of us being based in Singapore, we do have weekly tingxie (Chinese spelling tests) through school, which we take in small chunks, and do it consistently. But most of our learning comes from extensive reading.  I really believe that daily reading, even in preschool years, is very important in laying a firm foundation for literacy.

The key before doing this has been a massive upfront effort to select the right books, with the right level of characters. As a mum who cannot read Chinese, this has involved a lot of research on which books sets to progressively read through (not an easy thing for a parent who cannot read a word!) and also getting the vocabulary . wordlists into a semblance of digital order. This post is about some insights from this exercise in comparing wordlists between series.

What is the overlap between the first 500 characters in each set?

I won’t share the full wordlists here, as the publishers won’t like me for doing that, and more point is not about the individual characters, but the benefits of the series holistically. You’ll see from the below Venn diagram comparing characters between books, that whilst there are many similarities in wordlists, there are enough differences in style and vocabulary, that I do feel it makes sense to double up or triple up, and read the different versions if you have them accessible (and assuming the child enjoys the reading material!). 

Overlap between words existing in Sage, Le Le, and Odonata Chinese graded readers in first 500 characters

Note: Le Le Chinese and Sage 500 come in both Simplified and Traditional Options, but Odonata only have Simplified Chinese.

What is the overlap between the entire sets of each?

Sage 500 stops at 500 words…… but Le Le Chinese and Odonata go on to well above 1000 characters each. So, how do the full sets stack up against each other? There are a lot more similarities than differences.

In fact, there are only 18 words contained in Sage, which aren’t included in either Odonata or Le Le Chinese by the end of the full sets.

Caveat here is that for the first 500 characters, I did this myself.  For the characters beyond 500 for Le Le and Odonata, I outsourced this exercise to my children.

What’s the big difference between the wordlists in Le Le, Odonata and Sage?

A quick scan of what’s similar and different between the wordlists between Sage, Le Le and Odonata gives me some observations (note, this is coming from a parent who doesn’t read Chinese, so this is simply what I’ve learnt from studying the characters lists and reading with my kids)

  • Le Le Red Set: this is specially designed to include language which is most common in children’s picture books.  Specifically in the first set (Red, with  ~500 characters), it doesn’t have any spoken narrative.  Most of the sentences in the first set are barely 5 characters long. The first set contains lots and lots of nouns, and is more scant on use of pronouns (自, 己, 她, 他 etc are NOT in the Red set).   Le Le philosophy is about learning to love literature, so characters are introduced in themes, rather than individually. In fact, the authors really don’t like the concept of compiling and learning character lists from their books, because it takes the joy out of the literature.
  • Odonata: this set is very much based around two school children and their daily activities. The language includes much more more spoken language compared to either of the other sets, and is similar to what teachers would say in a classroom, and dialogue between children. Character are introduced one by one, in an order which makes the story most sensible. Characters include sounds, like animal noises, which are in neither of the other series. As the series progresses, the number of characters per sentence gets much much longer.
  • Sage 500:  This set is written to include the most common 500 characters – I found this set fascinating, because it’s put together in the most scientific method of all the sets.  Whilst I know that the series doesn’t teach the most easy to write characters first, I’m taking a guess that for the entire 500 word selection, it’s introducing characters which are slanted to being easier for a young child to write or recognise (ie less strokes, less complexity) compared to either Le Le or Odonata.  About half the words are in common with Le Le, although it includes some spoken dialogue too, meaning more active verbs and pronouns in the set. There’s a fairly even split of word types (using nouns, verbs, classifiers, conjunction etc in even measure), and the words are introduced thematically, including some common radical themes too, which might only be noticable if you look at the whole 100 characters in each set.  As the series progresses, so too does the grammar complexity, moving from being first person action sentences into questions, and finally more abstract themes.

Images below compare the first book in the first set of these three series (on the left), with the 500th character level book in the same sets (on the right).

What are the unique characters in each set?

I thought you’d ask!  For the first 500 words in each set, there are:

  • 196 characters unique only to Le Le Chinese
  • 124 characters unique only to Odonata
  • 113 characters unique only to Sage (but only 18 unique for the entire series)

In general the most obvious differences I noticed across the full sets for the ‘unique’ words are:

Le Le: many more nouns in the first 500 words than the other sets, and these nouns cover very diverse range of natural world and built environment, including things like exotic animals (eg 豹, 虎, 狐), colours (eg 灰), directions (eg 北), weather, and characteristics (eg 板, 厚, 斑, etc).  Ironically, one of the characters not contained in Le Le Red set is “乐”(Le = happy, as in the name of the Le Le series). This made me laugh!

Odonata: unique words are likely to be less common in literature, but common in dialogue for school children, including colloquialisms and animal noises.  For example, this includes descriptions of situations (迟 late, 娜 graceful, 饱 full up, 乖 well-behaved, 肮 dirty), animal noises (咪 as in a quiet cat “Meow”, 喔 as in a rooster crowing, 嗡 as in the noise a bee makes, 啼 to hoot, etc).  Also some classroom vocabulary (e.g. 戏 drama, 耍 play; 功 achievement, 剪 cut with scissors, 猜 to guess, 擦 to erase, 滑 to slide, 排 a row, 队 a team/ group, 难 to scold) and home situations (食 as in food for animals, 逃 for a pet to run away, 饼 cookie, 敢 to dare, 留 to leave behind, 吹 to blow candles, 弄 to mess around, 赶 to overtake, 吓 to frighten, 齿 tooth, 刷 to brush, 梦 to dream, 喊 to yell, 抬 to carry).

Sage: Sage certainly has more descriptions of relatives (eg 伯, 祖) , seasons (eg 夏, 熱, 夜), and farming related words (鸦, 田,雀, 勞, 汗). The books start out with lots of numbers and verbs and family life situations, which Le Le doesn’t have so much of. By the final set it’s talking about school life and community life, so touches on more characters from both Le Le and Odonata.

Are you saying we should read Sage, Le Le and Odonata?

Not really.  I think each book appeals to different learning styles, but there’s certainly no harm in doing them all, if they’re all of interest.

Firstly,  Sage 500 itself is not a pleasurable read and it’s a slow and steady approach to learn 500 characters (recall the massive amount of spaced recognition it has compared to the other sets….).   So if a child has already completed first levels of Le Le (Red series) or Odonata (Yellow series and Green series), I don’t think it’s a good idea to swap back to Sage 500, unless the child is really struggling.  However, for a child who is currently doing Sage (or even completed it),  I feel like Le Le and Odonata have enough of a storyline to make them interesting reads for a child and could be done concurrently from the from the start to complement Sage, or else after the child ‘graduates’ from Sage.   The characters are also in quite different orders.

The graphic below is an exercise I did with my children….. it shows the first 100 Sage Characters in order (printed from Guavarama) and we’ve coloured in the corresponding characters from Odonata by level.  Yellow is the first set (1 – 103 words); Green is the next level (104 to 216 words); then Blue (217 to 423 words) and finally the first two books in the Odonata Pink set (424 to 515 words).  You’ll see from this, that for the first 100 Sage words, most are covered in the first set (yellow) of Odonata too, but some of them aren’t covered until the final levels (eg 山 which is the very 1st word of Sage is closer to the 500th word in Odonata).

Sage first 100 characters, coloured in with where they appear in the Odonata Chinese graded readers series. Printables from Guarvama.

For me, the key is about reading extensively with books that have enough familiar characters in them to make the reading fun and pleasurable.  Experts say that reading texts where you already know >95% of the words in a text is key to extensive reading, as it lets you enjoy the experience and understand what you’re reading.   Levelled readers are an easy way to achieve this (assuming the child is interested in reading them!), as you’ll know for sure that the language has been specifically constructed with reduced character selection. 

Another great option for older children to read are the Mandarin Companion Levelled Readers which are made up on either 150 or 300 characters, and contain more complex/interesting stories like Secret Garden, Sherlock Holmes and Rip Van Winkle.

I’ve listed a whole lot more bridging books we enjoy for a child who knows 1000+ characters in a separate post.  I think at that point, graded readers have served their purpose, and there are much more interesting books for a child to read independently, if the family has easy access to such resources.

If money wasn’t an option, what would I do?

Good question.  On the assumption that the child already has good spoken understanding of Chinese, here’s what I would do:

  • For a child younger than 5, I would start with Sage 500 using it daily as a learning curriculum together, if I could speak Chinese or had access to a Chinese teacher. In the background, I would let the child use Le Le Red Set for pleasure and for special themed studies.  After finishing Sage 500 (or perhaps just a few books in Sage), I would continue with Le Le Set.  I’d do it in this order, because Sage gives a lot of repetition and starts off with a handful of characters (works well for a 2 or 3 year old), but then the Le Le stories are waaaaay more interesting, good for a short attention spans, and the character depth goes far beyond Sage.  There are many words in Le Le which are not in Sage. Once finished with the full Le Le set, it would be possible for the child to start of Odonata from about the 500 word mark, and enjoy the longer stories, or alternatively, move onto simple bridging books. For sure buy the entire Le Le Set of 300 books! A wonderful investment.
  • For a child older than 5, and a total beginner at reading, I would start with Odonata yellow set (first 100 characters), and perhaps continue to the Odonata green set (to 200 characters).  Then I’d very fast swap to Le Le Chinese (and get all 300 books). If the child wasn’t a total beginner (eg already knows a handful of characters), I’d start out with Le Le. Why this order?  I’d put Odonata first initially, because it systematically introduces characters page by page.  However, from the Odonata Blue series (400 words+) the characters are introduced at quite a pace, with 30 – 40 new characters per book, which becomes a significant effort.  So, I feel it’s much more sensible and enjoyable to get familiar with the vocabulary using the shorter Le Le books, and then consolidate the learning with Odonata at a later time.  Even for my daughter who has fully finished Le Le, she finds reading the upper levels Odonata a challenge (due to length primarily, but also the complexity of new characters). 

Final observation: Odonata is much much cheaper than either Sage or Le Le. Whilst I don’t feel it’s quite as good holistically (especially for a younger child), I do think Odonata has the most vocabulary suitable for composition writing within the Singapore MOE system for P3 onwards. So I would highly recommend this to be part of the mix if studying in Singapore. 

Finally, if cost of readers is an issue, Odonata or the Disney I Can Read series are the cheapest. Both comes with Luka audio option, which makes it easier to grapple for a non-native speaking family than Sage 500. And, if you’re on a really tight budget and can actually read Chinese yourself, actually all you need are any simple texts and just start reading together.

Reinforcing the character learning through apps

This should be the topic for another post.  However, just briefly, in case you’re wanting to know which apps can be used to study these word lists.

For custom wordlists (like home created lists, or the MOE school character lists) I put them into Skritter app, and that’s where we revise them.

For fun, I let the children play either iHuman or Wukong Literacy.  These each go up to 1200+ Simplified Chinese characters, with about 90% in common between the two of them (since both as based on the mainland Chinese Elementary Curriculum).  These apps cover 99.9% of Sage and Le Le word lists.

There’s also the Maomi Stars app which is designed for younger kids, and has Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters.  Maomi have a module (to purchase) which contains Sage and Odonata words, and an option to include your own school wordlists. This is an excellent option to support the graded readers.

Where can I get the character lists from?

I know some of you are going to beg to get the full digital lists of these words, saying you want to make your own flashcards, or load the words into Skritter, etc ….. the books manufacturers don’t want these shared, and I respect that. We did it manually, and it became a family activity (which also explains why there may be some gaps / mistakes in our analysis). But here are some pointers if you’re looking for supporting character materials:

  • Le Le Chinese: Le Le actually provide soft copies of all their characters list to their customers and other free printable. So, make use of this here on the Le Le site.
  • Sage 500: SageBooks Hong Kong has free teaching materials on their website. There are also some amazing mothers who’ve made great materials including character lists to support these books. I’d recommend looking at Mandarin Homeschool and Guavarama (in particular, we like Guavarama’s 100 boards, which are available in Simplified and Traditional to download for free, and I’ve featured pictures later in this post).
  • Odonata Readers: most of the words have good overlap with the early levels of Singapore MOE Primary School Syllabus, which you can find here.

There’s a great post on various character lists and their usefulness from Hacking Chinese which is a helpful read to get perspective. Please don’t put pressure on yourself (or your kids) by thinking that you need to teach your kids XXXX number of characters. Really, the best plan is to enjoy the process, find things to read which bring joy to your children, and trust your children. Then, enjoy the reading together moments and quality time together!

What’s your favourite graded reader?

I would love to hear from you, especially if you have experience with using different graded readers. It’s only through meeting other wonderful parents virtually, that this shared language journey becomes a more valuable one. All comments welcomed! Feel free to also post on my Instagram or Facebook feeds. Or, if you’re in Singapore, join the conversation with other parents at the FB Group Ni Hao Singapore Primary School learning, which I host along with a few other Singapore-based bloggers.

I’ve also written detailed reviews of other graded readers that we’ve tried, and Chinese learning resources, see below:

2 thoughts on “Comparison of character lists in Chinese graded readers

  1. Wow, thanks for this really detailed analysis! My twins are using the Sage 100 series, and it really helps them to feel good about being able to finish reading each chapter, as it is so repetitive.
    For my eldest, we used the Skritter app for a while, but somehow, he got frustrated with the repetition and couldn’t learn well, so I stopped using it with him. Will check out the other resources that you’ve shared. Thank you!

    1. Hi Adeline, it’s lovely to hear from you! I love following what the twins are up to in your blog 🙂 Skritter I not fun at all. I 100% agree with that. The only reason we find it helpful is that for character writing (not necessarily reading), I think there’s no replacement to actually writing them out, and for me, since I don’t read/write Chinese. So I need to outsource the weekly school tingxie practice to Skritter (and for P3 we’ve found it super helpful). But if a child is in flight/fight/freeze mode every time they see Skritter, it definitely isn’t a good learning experience for anyone. If you want fun …… certainly iHuman or Wukong Literacy. They’re really fun!

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