Extensive Reading: The secret to learning Chinese

I wrote an article previously, about how to support children learning to Chinese when you can’t rear the language yourself.  It created a lot of questions from readers on how this is possible, and what is the magic.    The original article talks holistically about tips and tricks to include more Chinese into the daily schedule and learning environment.  This article expands on this concept, with a focus primarily on extensive reading.

People often as what we have done, and the simplest answer is “reading extensively in Chinese every night”.  Extensively doesn’t mean endlessly, it just means wide free reading, for pleasure.

Most of my blog posts are reviewing specific books, apps, classes, or products we have used in our Chinese learning journey. This post is none of that – simply an affirmation to the value and simplicity of learning through extensive reading.

Why reading is important for language learning

Initially when we begun the bilingual parenting journey, I thought that prioritising Chinese listening/speaking would be more than enough (and it’s certainly the first and most important step). 

But reading (followed eventually by writing) does need to be in close lockstep to the speaking.   Whilst it’s true that there are people the world over who can fluently speak a language without being literate, you’ll find these people have learnt the spoken language in an immersive environment, usually from a parent, rather than through classroom learning.  If the language is not being learnt via total immersion, it’s very difficult to progress without basic literacy.  Moreover, if it’s learnt in a class with others, there are even more limited opportunities for to one-on-one verbal interactions, which again diminishes the learning. 

That’s exactly why any language school or curriculum worth its salt, regardless of the target language, should tell you that reading is an essential part of second language acquisition.  Don’t overlook it like I did!   Reading gives wider vocabulary, grammar, pictorial clues, and much more individual satisfaction to the language learner.

I also did write an earlier blog piece entitled “Is Reaching Chinese Fluency a realistic goal for non-native children”?.   I perhaps should have renamed the previous post something like “Is being able to read Chinese necessary for fluency?”.  I know many non-Chinese speaking parents feel that in Chinse speaking is more important than writing, but this is a trap.

Is it hard to learn to read Chinese?

Yes and no.  Clearly it’s not that simple, as even those who learn it from young in mainland China will take many years before they can read a simple picture book, let alone a newspaper.

Not all reading is equal. The two main approaches to learning to read are Intensive Reading (精读) and Extensive Reading (泛读). These terms are not unique to Chinese, and are better defined in this Wikipedia article. According to research on learning the English language, both approaches have their benefits – intensive reading is essentially slow, careful reading of a challenging text with many new/unfamiliar words; versus the idea of extensive reading which is pleasurable reading of text which is at the level of the reader, where >98% of words/characters are known, and ideally the subject of the writing is aligned with the reader’s interest.

The idea of “Intensive Reading” is quite incongruous in a Chinese context, given it’s not a phonetic language. The Intensive Reading approach usually revolves around learning of flash cards, in a similar way to English “sight words”. But as the Chinese language doesn’t follow the phonetic grammar rules, it means large amounts of pictorial memorising and rote learning, and limited ability to “sound out” the word.   The Intensive Reading approach for Chinese is perhaps a bit of a scam that some Chinese tutors and teachers have to focus so much on character recognition and make everyone think it’s impossibly difficult to learn to read in Chinese. 

In contrast, “Extensive Reading” seems fairly doable. Find a text with very simple words and read it a few times to learn the vocabulary in a familiar context with hints provided by the pictures in the book, and the surrounding known characters. By way of example, my 2 year old and 4 year old could actually teach themselves to read many basic characters in Chinese before they knew ANY words in English, simply by virtue of it being a pictorial language.  This confidence of “cracking the puzzle” made them want to keep self learning, and thankfully, the journey to reading Chinese has been easier and more fun than we could have imagined.   Additionally, by using texts constructed from limited characters, it can focus their attention on the meaning of the same character in different contexts/combinations, and grammatical structures.

The difference between Intensive versus Extensive Reading is much bigger than I can put across here, and many others have documented this well. It’s the difference between needing to stop every couple of words to ask for help, or look the word up, or simply being able to read and understand what the entire passage on a page means, and deciphering one new word in it. The latter approach means much more pleasure, and much faster reading progress without frequent stopping or needing to memorise handfuls of characters inanely.  

This image is here simply so that non-Chinese readers can understand what simple sentences with picture cues look like and means in Chinese. Personally, I don’t let the children read books with Pinyin above (romanization of Chinese) nor the English translations, as both can become a crutch and also take away from the focus on characters. So we cover these up if reading books like Sage 500, as shown above.

How can extensive reading help?

I can only tell you my testimony (which is in no way unique), of how extensive reading was the magic with all my three kids.  But there is plenty of science behind it, including for Chinese literacy.

A few places to look externally from people who have really researched acquisition of second languages:

  • Jared Turner, the author of Mandarin Companion, has written a great explanation on the value of extensive reading to learn a second language.   Jared researched the benefits of extensive reading, and found demonstrable evidence from academic papers and programmes before becoming fluent in Chinese himself, and then writing wonderful Chinse novels for other beginners on the journey.  He encapsulates the magic very simply when he says that with this approach “he stopped translating in his head, and began to simply understand Chinese”.
  • Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese has written several detail packed posts on the benefits of extensive reading in Chinese, and compares this to other reading approaches. Olle contends that most Chinese learners are going about it the wrong way, and suggests a better way to learn Mandarin.  This ‘wrong way’ approach of focusing intensely on characters and specific learning goals form the textbook is a familiar story for many, unfortunately.
  • Professor Marc Helgesen has a long slide presentation on Extensive Reading in a foreign language.  It’s not specific to Chinese, but it’s a highly visual way to understand the theory about reading a lot of easy, enjoyable books, to learn to love a language.  John Pasden from Sinosplice actually summarises this research on his blog, and affirms it works for Chinese when he repeats the same experiment using Chinese characters.


Will it actually work for my child?

I reiterate, my kids are not geniuses and I am not a tiger mum.  Their Chinese language skills are nothing extraordinary, relative to other children from Chinese households.  However, they love the language and have done so in a non-Chinese literate family space, and without the stress of formal tuition.   Which for me, is affirmation of our approach, and a reason to celebrate. I really don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have three kids who are Chinese bookworms.

Every child has a different learning pace, and comparing your child to the others (even other siblings) is not necessarily helpful.  But, I do think the basics rules of extensive reading will work for most children, you just need to trust your child’s innate ability to learn. 


What to read?

I also recently wrote a post comparing in detail the character lists between three different and highly regarded Chinese graded readers syllabuses, namely Le Le Chinese, Sage Chinese, and Odonata Chinese.  Many readers, when they realised I’d actually written down in alphabetical order all the words contained in these well known series asked me if I would share the individual word lists; some even offered to buy them from me!  I didn’t share them, and actually felt a tinge of sadness that perhaps I had put across the wrong message and my earlier post might have made parents worry about the number of characters their child can recognise. That wasn’t my intention.

I reiterate, I was sharing the comparison of characters not so people would focus on the characters and literally learn them from 1 to 500 (or beyond), but to show that just going through one system from start to finish wasn’t necessarily the be all and end all, and that there is no harm in doing multiple of these readers, if you have access to them. 

The key point I wanted to get across is to read, and re-read.  Not that there is one right book, or one right character set to focus on memorising.  Simply that reading familiar materials, and materials which are of the same complexity over and over is all building up the brain.  So, reading graded readers like Sage and Le Le and Odonata all at once (if that’s what the child enjoys, and you have the budget for it!) is not a bad thing.  Conversely, finishing one graded reading system doesn’t mean you need to go back and start another. 

What a child needs is lots of resources at about their right reading level, meaning they can recognize >95% (ideally >98%) of the characters without assistance, enjoy the topic, and learn the unknown characters/grammar naturally and pleasurably. 

To be able to read, and enjoy reading, is the most important thing.  Character recognition is something which happens naturally along the way.   The more a child reads in any language, the more they will pick up….. if they can build a love of wanting to read first, then the learning step will come naturally.  If the child prefers to read on a totally different topic, there’s nothing wrong with that too.   At least, they are reading, and perhaps their first 500 characters they learn will be very different, because of an interest in that topic.  It’s not the books per se, but the method of reading.  Please don’t focus on the character counting.  That’s not reading.  Do you ever count how many words your child knows when reading English?  Just find books with are a developmentally appropriate age and take a step of faith and READ.

(Side note to astute readers:  character recognition and reading is totally different from character writing, which I feel needs to come MUCH later.  Much like learning to read involves actually reading, I think the only way to learn to write it to practice writing.   We do revise writing characters for tingxie using Skritter, but again, we don’t focus on how many characters we know and which ones.)

But where to start?

Choose anything, really.  If you’re able to read Chinese yourself and want to save some dollars, you’ll be more able to scan any book/series and understand whether is an appropriate level for your learner. 

However, if you’re like me, and can neither speak nor read the language (or like our dear neighbour who can read Chinese fluently but has not time to vet Chinese book!) that  you’ll need the external assistance of some good recommendations to follow.   

Levelled readers (or graded 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 using a specific limited amount of words (or in the case of Mandarin, a certain amount of unique characters) and gets progressively harder, to suit readers at different levels.   My top tips for starting out on the extensive reading journey are below”

Le Le Chinese 樂樂文化

I can attribute a lot to the Le Le Chinese approach.  The cleverly authored Le Le books, combined with the ongoing free literary activities/challenges organised by the passionate team at Le Le has enabled families like ours to fully embrace Chinese literacy! 

Le Le have the analogy that supporting a child in learning to read is not like building lego, brick by brick, and following a set order.  It is more like putting together a puzzle, where there are certain tips and tricks (like find the corner pieces first!), then you work area by area in whatever order you can, and in the end, you have one big work of art.   This approach reiterates the extensive reading approach, and that learning to read is NOT about starting out with individual character recognition.   

Le Le philosophy is about learning to love literature, so characters are introduced in themes, rather than individually.   The books come in three different sets of 100, each set slightly harder and longer than the next, written from a restricted list of characters (the characters selected are the ~1100 most common in children’s picture books) to enable repetition and familiarity for the child.  I’ve written more detail on this Le Le Chinese series at this link.   

Le Le has been especially great for us, because in addition to the methodically written books, it also comes with an optional reading pen, which can read each character individually.  Even if there is a native Chinese reading adult in the house, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have the time or patience to devote to extensive reading with your kiddos.  So I would highly recommend Le Le Chinese books, to anyone interested in a low pressure, low stress way to teach their kids to read in Chinese.  I am not affiliated in any way with Le Le Chinese, and our books were purchases at full price, but I can share a 5% discount code with you, if you enter “LAHLAHBANANA” at checkout from their online store.

Odonata Chinese

Odonata Chinese Readers have a quasi-similar approach to Le Le, but they do build up character by character.  It happens quite fast though, to the point where you’ll be surrounded in characters and joyful stories in no time at all.   The set is very much based around two school children and their daily activities, hence the language includes much more more spoken language.  This series is very affordable, and a great way to find many books which would be at an appropriate level for many different stages of reading abilities.  More reviewed here.

Odonata does not come with a reading pen.  However, it has narration from Luka Reading Robot, and would also work (more clunkily) with Youdao or Alpha Egg, making it also approachable for a non-Chinese speaking family.

I’ve written more detail on Odonata Chinse Readers at this link.   

Mandarin Companion

Mandarin Companion are a great option for older children (older than 8) who already understand good spoken Chinese, and need interesting stories to read to fuel their love of reading.

Mandarin Companion are novels, not picture books, that are made up of either 150 or 300 characters, and contain more complex/interesting stories. For Levels 1 & 2, they take classics from English literature (like The Secret Garden, Sherlock Holmes, or Rip Van Winkle), and cleverly translate them into books with minimal characters, that can be read by a Mandarin beginner. This concept makes it quite appealing for an older learner, who can become a bit bored by the ‘Tom and Jane’ style beginning books, which Odonata is more similar to.

I feel this approach to designing a graded reader is quite a western concept to learning Chinese – in that there are so may simplified classical stories for English learners, and we’ve yet to find many of these in Chinese (apart from Monkey King). That’s why Mandarin Companion are great. This series is designed to combine simplicity of characters with an interesting storyline and a Chinese cultural twist.

I’ve written more detail on these easy to read Mandarin Companion Chinese Novels at this link.   And if these take your fancy, there are other similarly written books called Chinese Graded Novels: Reading practice for not-quite-beginners

Chinese eBooks

If you do not have physical access to the great titles mentioned above, another alternative is eBooks. The Mandarin Companion Readers all come in corresponding eBook format. Additionally, there are several eBook apps which are designed for adaptive extensive reading, and they can actively gauges the child’s reading level using AI and suggest appropriate books for the child. Personally, we prefer physical books, but in many family circumstances it may not be possible, and these are a good alternative.

Bridging Books for more advanced readers

If your child already has about 1000 characters under their belt (I know I said not to count specific characters learnt…. but the books listed above all do come with a number range of how many characters are contained in each level) then maybe you can move on to even broader and more extensive reading. These are sometimes called ‘Bridging Books’, and I’ve made a separate blog post of books to read after ~1000 characters are attained. Of course, these are just books my children have enjoyed. You children will likely have different interests, and that’s great too! .

Have I convinced you to try extensive reading in Chinese? 

Really the best thing to do is enjoy the process, and trust your child’s innate ability to learn through literary immersion. Most of our family’s Chinese learning comes from extensive reading, and we do it daily and consistently.

Don’t focus on teaching the child 500 words; focus on setting up a love of literacy for life. Characters are the bonus gift! I clearly didn’t teach my kids anything about reading in Chinese, as I cannot do it myself. But in enabling them to enjoy the process and get access to wide, and appropriate levelled materials, it’s happened organically and joyfully. Once your child knows 1000+ characters, you can then branch out into more mainstream bridging books, which are readily available online or perhaps in your local library.

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”- Dr. Seuss

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.

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