Maomi Stars:  review of the best Chinese literacy app for preschoolers

What is Maomi Stars?

Maomi Stars is a Chinese literacy app for children, perhaps an equivalent to the English kindergarten literacy apps like Starfall, ABC Mouse or Reading Eggs.  It’s been meticulously researched, and tested on children, and offers several great advantages over other Chinese learning apps out there.

My kids have road-tested A LOT of Chinese learning apps, believe me.  But there are only a handful that we have kept using consistently over the years and resubscribing to.  Maomi Stars is one of these (…. iHuman, Skritter and Dim Sum Warriors are the others in case you’re wondering).

In short, the Maomi Stars app provides a gamified way for your child to systematically learn and review characters in a fun, welcoming and safe space.

What we like?

  • Very suitable for preschoolers and younger learners:  the app is gamified learning, but age-appropriate for little ones.  I’s not animation-on-steroids, and it’s very easy to navigate around the worlds.  My youngest loved it at 2 years old when she first beta-tested Maomi Stars, and now she’s nearly 5 and still enjoys it. 
  • Wordlists are relevant and customisable:  there are various options for pre-made wordlists for a parent to select from, and the curriculum that are currently available are here.  As my kids are part of the Maomi beta testers programme, we’ve had a sneak preview of other wordlists including from levelled readers that your child may already be learning from including Sagebooks, Odonata and Quickread (四五快读 ).  The team are in the process of expanding curriculum to include Taiwan and Singapore MOE wordlists as well as creating one with words related to Pokemon.  For educators, there is also an advanced option to add a custom word list, in which teachers can use to create their own class codes. 
  • User interface can be in English or Chinese: set the app as you please
  • Language optionality: choice of Simplified or Traditional script, and Cantonese or Mandarin pronunciation, Zhuyin or Pinyin phonics. Brilliant!
  • Safe:  completely free of ads or outside intrusions that can interrupt a child’s learning (have you ever noticed how many education apps have so many more ads that would would?). There’s also a setting for parents to set screen time limit.
  • Okay for complete beginners: as the app has speaking, writing, and English translations, and word lists are arranged by themes, it’s really possible to use this app for a complete beginner to learn vocab (eg numbers, nature, colours, people, etc)

What we didn’t like?  (or watch outs)

The Maomi Stars app has improved a lot since its soft launch in 2020.  At that point, it was somewhat draggy / buggy.  However, with continuous user feedback, I believe the Maomi team have really perfected the app to where it is today, which is a world class app.  Really there are no real downsides, but a few watchouts:

  • Less interesting for older children: this isn’t a grudge, it’s a watch out as to why your child may not like the app. Primary-school age children who are into more complex games would find it simple, as it still feels like a learning game not a video game (an older child would probably like iHuman better).  That said, if the option for doing their school tingxie (spelling) homework is between Maomi Stars or traditional pen and paper, I’m sure many lower primary students will choose the Maomi option too!
  • Pricing: it’s charged per month (can be good or bad), so not a lifetime app or three year option like some others.
  • It’s for supporting human teaching:  While Maomi Stars does provide simple English definitions and images to try to convey meaning of the Chinese words, the images are not available for every word and are not quite as effective as iHuman/Wukong’s animated explainer videos.  So while Maomi Stars is great for practicing and improving retention, it is best used alongside some human teaching.
  • Speaking game:  My kids have a very standard Chinese Beijing accent, and don’t find the speaking game difficult.   However, some younger kids (or those with different accents) may find the speaking game quite difficult to pass.  I think the Maomi team still have some work to do to improve it – but the good news is that you can configure the difficulty level inside player settings and setting it to below 20% will allow kids to pass by saying anything! 

Unique features of Maomi Stars?

  • Voice recognition feature: Incorporates speaking as well as writing/reading.
  • Zhuyin phonetic symbols collection: never seen this before (and it can be applied in both Mandarin and Cantonese).
  • Audio recorded using children’s voices: this makes it most appealing for little listeners.
  • Customisable wordlists: includes ability to change the curriculum so words are easier/harder depending on child  (like, you know how some high-frequency words which are common for reading might be too hard for writing …. You can set the level to only ‘simple stokes’ and avoid those characters).
  • Multiple players: children can share the same account and be on different curriculums (great for families!).
  • Matching physical reading books:  options include several well-known levelled readers which you may already have, or else there is also Maomi Mandarin Rhyme board book series, to reinforce learning on and offscreen.

How Maomi Stars works?

There are seven kitties that will guide the child through different themed worlds of words. 

For each word, there is a writing, recognition and speaking component (same process for each word/character), and the child owns rewards for completing specific steps.  These ‘rewards’ are treats for the kitties, such as food or things for their playroom after a certain number of words have been learnt.

How is it different from other great Chinese literacy apps?

This post wouldn’t be Lah Lah Banana if it didn’t have a geeky comparison table, so here is a quick comparison of three great children’s app for Chinese literacy.

Table comparing three Chinese literacy apps
Comparison of Chinese literacy apps for children

Aside from Maomi, there are really only two other gamified learning apps for Chinese literacy / character learning which I would comfortably recommend. These are iHuman Chinese and Wukong Literacy.  Both are indeed superb apps – and my older kids love them.  These apps are based on vivid imagery and short animated videos too, which are helpful for the memory retention of characters.  In many ways, this is better and beyond what Maomi offers.  However, both of these have some limitations, which Maomi Stars has been purposefully designed to overcome:

  • iHuman and Wukong are not so suitable for younger children (or non-Chinese literate parents) – they are a bit harder to use, and have many options for navigation.
  • iHuman and Wukong are focused on Simplified Chinese / Mandarin – neither have Traditional Chinese options, or Zhuyin, or Cantonese. This is a key differentiator.
  • iHuman word lists do not match readily available physical reading books or graded readers.
  • iHuman and Wukong require a child to be very fluent in understanding spoken Chinese in order to get benefit from the apps, as the focus is on literacy, not vocabulary building per se.

What other technology and apps are great for children learning Chinese?

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on apps, I’d love to hear from you. I am 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:

Maomi Stars character writing game

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: