Chinese Reading Pens and Robots for kids

Chinese reading pens have been essential for our non-native family in the journey to learning Chinese. My three daughters each a fluent in Mandarin, despite no parents or grandparents (or any other family member, nanny or au pair!) speaking the language. For me as their monolingual mother, this means I cannot understand the book sthey are reading, their homework, or even help with weekly spelling revision, or even bedtime fun reading.

Reading pens have been a godsend for the kids and for me. Here’s sharing a few tips on how we’ve been surviving, thanks to a few interesting Chinese reading pens and robots, all available in Singapore. Each of Chinese reading pens was purposefully chosen to fulfil a specific role in our house:

  • Le Le Reading Pen – for character learning and literacy (for my preschoolers)
  • Luka Reading Companion – for enjoying picture books from the library together (for whole family)
  • Habbi Habbi Reading Wand – as a durable and really fun pen for my toddler to use on board books (for baby/toddler), with great morals and uplifting content (I just love it when my kids repeat phrases from these books).
  • eTutorStar – for following the MOE Primary curriculum (for my primary schooler)
  • PenPal Whizz – for listening to broader Chinese literature (bought 5+ years ago now, prior to Luka’s arrival on the market!)
  • Youdao Dictionary Pen II – this is really my toy! It’s a Chinese Dictionary Pen which will translate any Chinese text, including whole paragraphs, and neat handwriting. [Update 2021: a better option to Youdao is the iFlyTek Alpha Egg Dictionary Pen which is a child-friendly optical scanning pen and dictionary]

1. Le Le Chinese Reading System and Pen

Le Le Chinese pen is an engaging picture book series of 300 books, which gradually get harder and harder, and by the end of the series it covers the 1000 most popular Chinese characters. The Chinese reading pen included with the set will read the individual characters, to assist a child in learning to read independently. The intention of the books is to “literacy through literature” – which is to say that by reading lots of books, the child will naturally pick up characters.

The highly unique aspect of this pen, is you can point it at any Chinese character, on any page, and it will each individual character. My daughter is able to use the pen independently to figure out new words, which means she doesn’t need to wait for my help to try and look at the character in Google Translate or the dictionary phone app. The concept is it allows a child to learn characters without the need for pinyin or zhuyin. I wrote a more detailed review of how our family uses Lele pen here.

The pen only retails from Taiwan (it sells online), so is much more expensive to source in Singapore than other options listed here, but the benefits are worth it. The unique aspect of this pen, is you can point it at any Chinese character, and it will read the individual character. So, my daughter is able to read most of a book herself, and then just get help with the harder parts. You might find a secondhand version on Carousell, as there is quite a tribe of Singaporean parents who swear by these readers.

2. Luka Reading Companion & Luka Hero

Luka is an amazing robot (not really a pen) which will read almost ANY children’s book. It read over 10,000 titles, which means that if my daughter borrows a book from NLB, she’s generally able to read it at home. This lets her explore new books which her friends are borrowing, which otherwise she’d be unable to read. You can turn the pages, and Luka recognises the specific page, meaning you can start from anywhere, at any time, or skip over bits. We’ve borrowed over 70 books, and all have been readable using Luka.

Look at my detailed review for more on how we use Luka as a reading companion for children’s books, and where to buy it from. I’ve also compared the original Luka versus Luka Hero in a separate post. It’s available locally in Singapore from Luka Reads. Please remember there is a SG$20 discount for readers of my blog if you quote “LahLah20” at checkout from Luka Reads, which is a very kind offer from the team at Luka Reads Singapore.

Luka Chinese Reading Robot

3. Habbi Habbi Reading Wand

Habbi Habbi is great as a “First Reading Pen”, for toddlers / younger children with its hardcover board books and fun durable design. It is bilingual Chinese-English (with a Spanish-English option too). I find the key features are the stunning design, the progressive / thoughtful content, and the play-based nature. The books are designed to enable kids to play and learn at the same time. Kids can tap anywhere and get feedback – because every inch in tappable (the text, illustrations and even the white space).

Habbi Habbi is especially great for less-native families, because it includes both English and pinyin, so it’s more accessible and approachable (especial for those who find Chinese-only resources intimidating). Habbi Habbi book content is also distinguishing – with themes of empathy, diversity, self reliance, global citizenship and more. They have a library of 20 matching board books (and counting!) – available in Simplified Chinese (within pinyin) or Spanish. I’ve written a detailed review here of Habbi Habbi at this link.  You cannot go past Habbi Habbi for a great first start into learning Chinese. And when you kids repeat phrases from these books like “I feel worthy”, “I love my body”, “I admire my mommy. She is capable of anything”, it does tickle your heart.

4. eTutor Star

eTutor Education Star pen is a made-in-Singapore invention, and retails at Popular Bookshops among other places. Some of the international schools here (like Eton House) use this as part of their bilingual curriculums.

eTutor pen is actually very similar to the Pen Pal Whizz in most respects. The difference is that each pen is made by a different publisher, and thus has different books that it works with. Overall, the range between the JLB Penpal Whizz and the eTutor Education Star Pen are very similar, however we’d say the JLB range has higher quality books with better illustrations, which my younger kids prefer. The eTutor on the other hand can read some of the subscription fortnightly magazines which follow the Singapore MOE school syllabus (like “Zhi Shi Hua Bao” 知识画报, and “Hao Peng You” 好朋友 ) which is why we ended up buying it to support our studies. I have written a review of the eTutor Education Star pen at this link.

5. Scanning Dictionary Pens (Youdao Dictionary Pen II or Alpha Egg)

Youdao Smart Pen is a Chinese Dictionary Pen which translates any printed text effortlessly and fluently from Chinese into English and vice versa – and it does it miles better than Google translate or Pleco OCR function. It’s amazing! It will read aloud and translate from Chinese to English, including whole paragraphs. To me, this is the holy grail gadget for translating Chinese-English text! It’s not a child’s toy, but it’s my toy.

I mainly use it to “preread” our Chinese books before my kids read them, or to understand the instructions on our Chinese apps, or the notes to parents at the front of the school text books. But recently I also started letting my elder daughter use it for her wider reading, to fill in the gaps for characters she doesn’t know. It’s been encouraging to see her being able to challenge herself with more difficult books, knowing that there’s a tool to help her understand the new characters.

It retails locally in Singapore from Koala Mandarin in Novena. Full details, including a discount promo code are in my detailed review.

[ Note: As at May 2021, I’ve discovered a better pen to the Youdao, especially for a child! It’s called the iFlyTek Alpha Egg. Read about how iFlyTek compares to Youdao! ]

Youdao Chinese Reading Pen
Youdao Chinese Dictionary Pen effortlessly with translate whole paragraph or individual words from Chinese into English, on ANY text.

6. Pen Pal Whizz

Pen Pal Whizz is another Singapore-designed Chinese reading pen (like the eTutor Star). It can read selected picture books in English and Mandarin. We like it because it’s not too expensive (relatively) and the books are all easy to buy in Singapore. The range includes classic fairytales, Chinese idioms, and many simply primary reading books. (Here is a review I wrote on a compatible comic series which is similar to The Young Scientists series in English, but obviously in Chinese)

We also have the iHuman Levelled Readers and Pen, although this won’t rank in the top 5.

Which Chinese Reading Pen is right for me?

I’ve tried to draw an image of how I see the schema landscape of reading pens fitting together, and try to make it less overwhelming to understand all the options. 

Different Chinese reading pens and curriculums suit different learning stages, ages, family situations, and intended learning outcomes. I’ve put together a diagram showing how we see them all fitting together.

Comparison of Chinese Reading Pens

Head-to-Head comparison of Chinese reading pen options

The image below has a head-to-head comparison of five reading pens.

Comparison of Chinese Reading Pens
Comparison of key aspects of our Chinese reading pens (Luka, Habbi Habbi, Le Le, Penpal Whizz, eTutor)

Note – I’ve not included the Youdao pen or Alpha Egg in the table above, because Chinese dictionary pens are in a different league (more of a translation/dictionary tool than an children’s educational product). Youdao or Alpha Egg are is like your google translate handy pocket-sized pal which will scan and read anything, provided the text/handwriting is less than 1.5cm in height. They retail for significantly less (about $160) and are a worthy addition for any family.

Comparison of Chinese Reading Pens

And that’s what we know about Chinese reading pens and robots in this house. So far, no tuition has been needed (admittedly we’re not doing PSLE yet either!). Whilst it sometimes feels like uphill battle, it’s like climbing to Mt Everest Base Camp: a big task takes preparation and practice, but the sense of achievement is huge and every step changes your view on the world. Moreover, with technology, it’s much easier to achieve.

What interesting technologies are helping your children to learn?

Where can I find out more?

My other more detailed posts on the topics of Chinese reading pens and robots which I’ve written:

I would love to hear from you, especially if you have experience with other similar pen. It’s only through meeting other wonderful parents virtually, that this shared language journey becomes a more valuable one. All comments welcomed!

Book Review:  Sometimes it rains pigs on sunny days

This review looks at a quirky illustrated fiction series written in the 1980s named Sometimes it Rains Pigs On Sunny Days 晴天有时下猪. The series centres around a school boy who discover he has the ability to make true whatever he imagines, so he starts writing “tomorrow’s” journal entries.  The series was originally written in Japanese, and translated fully into Chinese.  Some books, but not all, have been translated into English too (under the name “Tokyo Pig”, or “Fair then Partly Piggy”). 

This is a bridging book at a perfect level for upper primary reading. If you’re struggling to find Simplified Chinese books that your tween likes, I’d suggest trying this one out.

Key Information on 晴天有时下猪

  • Series name: Fair then Partly Piggy / Sometimes it Rains Pigs on Sunny Days
  • Author:  Shiro Yatama 矢玉四郎
  • Number of books in set:  10
  • Number of lines per page:  14 (with picture on opposite page)
  • Number of pages per book:  80
  • Total length of each book:   ~ 4000 characters
  • Characters required by child to read it independently:  ~1500
  • Pinyin: No
  • Bilingual: No
  • Available in Singapore NLB:  Yes
  • Original language of publication:  Japanese
  • Characters:  Simplified Chinese
  • Audio available:  Yes through Luka or Ximalaya
  • Suggested ages:  10+

Background to 晴天有时下猪

These books reach 1 million copies sold in Japan in early 2000.  The author, Shiro Yatama, was born in 1944 Japan and was an engineer turned writer and cartoonist.  This Piggy series is his most famous, and his other well know series is called ‘A Million Hiccups’.  Both have been turned into cartoon television series in Japan.  We just love Japanese translated booked in this house, and this series is no different.

Synopsis of Sometimes It Rains Pigs on Sunny Days

A third-grade school boy called Nori keeps a diary which is private, and he is annoyed when his mum tries to read it, so he fills it with some absurd ideas to annoy her back again.  Nori’s world changes when he doodles in his diary a sky full of pigs, and then it comes true!

The rest of the story revolves around Nori’s adventures with his hand-drawn loyal pet pig, Harebuta (Sunny Pig).   He tells a girl that if she doesn’t wash her hair for ten days, it will turn into tulip flowers, and it does!     Everything else is then history, as Nori uses his overactive imagination to scribble about what the future will hold in a whimsical world that only a child could dream up.

What a child will like about 晴天有时下猪

  • Hilarious and quirky, yet relatable storyline (kids always love ‘dairy style’ books)
  • Enough pictures to keep a child engaged – good set for boys and girls alike. 
  • Light-hearted and approachable format to read (not too daunting or long, and each book could be read in about half an hour if a child if a child was diligent)
Sometimes it rains pigs on sunny days 晴天有时下猪

What a parent will like about 晴天有时下猪

  • Your child will likely want to keep reading the whole 10 in the series to find out how it all ends
  • There’s no pinyin (good to pair read it with an optical reading pen)
  • Text is laid out nicely and well spaced (not microscopic in size)
  • Pictures are uniquely Japanese and cleverly constructed.
  • There’s a matching cartoon if needed to coax/reward your child. The anime series is actually even more punny than the books themselves, and has been dubbed into English.
Sometimes it rains pigs on sunny days 晴天有时下猪

Insides of book: Sometimes It Rains Pigs On Sunny Days

Sometimes it rains pigs on sunny days 晴天有时下猪
Sometimes it rains pigs on sunny days 晴天有时下猪
Sometimes it rains pigs on sunny days 晴天有时下猪
Sometimes it rains pigs on sunny days 晴天有时下猪
Piggy with a chance of rain
Piggy with a chance of rain

Some watchouts and considerations

  • If you intend to read it using Luka, some of the ‘text only’ pages are hard for Luka to identify

Where to buy?

Online has plenty of options if you google 晴天有时下猪. 

Ours came from a favourite book store which has since shut down.  However I’ve seen them also at the physical book store Maya Yuyi in Singapore, along with on Amazon at some ridiculous price, and on Taobao at an inversely ridiculous price.

If my child likes this, what are other similar books in Simplified Chinese?

Some books which my children have enjoyed at a sort-of-similar reading level are:

If you have other suggestions similar to Sometimes it Rains Pigs On Sunny Days I would gladly listen! It gets gradually harder to find books which my tween is keen on reading, and we’re always looking for new suggestions.

Book Review: Squid for Brains Chapter Books

This review looks at the Squid for Brains Readers (also called Mandarin Chapter Books) published by none other than Squid for Brains.  These are different from the Squid for Brains Picture Books which I’ve reviewed earlier, however the Readers are just as zany and unique.

One thing I try really hard to do with this blog is to share content about resources which have been helpful to our family and for which very little information exists; this Squid For Brains series is certainly one of those gems.

Key Information on Squid for Brains Chapter Books

  • Series name: Squid for Brains – Readers
  • Author:  Dr Terry Waltz
  • Number of books in set:  5
  • Number of lines per page:  ~ 20
  • Number of pages per book:  90 – 120
  • Total length of the book:   8000 – 11,000 characters
  • Characters required by child to read it independently:  The easiest book consists of 175 unique characters.  If a child knew ~1000 characters total, there’s a good chance that they’d be able to read nearly everything.
  • Pinyin: Yes, and it’s kept on different page from the characters
  • Bilingual: No
  • Available in Singapore NLB:  No
  • Original language of publication:  Chinese (also available in Spanish)
  • Characters: Traditional and Simplified versions
  • Audio available: No
  • Suggested ages:  10+

Background to Squid for Brains Chapter Books

Squid for Brains is the brainchild of Dr Terry Waltz, a talented translator, interpreter and language educator extraordinaire. The intent of all Dr Waltz’s books is to have readable and accessible content for students learning Chinese as a second language.   The books are cemented in the theory of comprehensible input to gain fluency in a language, and having meaningful literature for beginners (for older children and adults, especially).

Comprehensible input in Chinese is a rare genre – it means purposefully written books for an older learner, that are more interesting and longer than children’s literature, but deliberately simpler in vocabulary.  As a Chinese language teacher of 30+ years, Dr Waltz has written these books for use in her middle school and adult classes and has mastered this type of literature.

Specifically these Chinese Readers focus on high-frequency vocabulary used during year 1 of most American middle school / high school Chinese programs.

Synopsis of Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese Readers

  • Milo:  175 unique characters.  Milo and his friends from the Robotics Club are hoping to take part in a competition, but there is some drama among the cool kids
  • Susan: 207 unique characters, and the first chapter itself only has 23, which means a student in their first month of learning Chinese could attempt it (with quite a lot of help……).  About a crazy teen girl called Susan and what she gets up to.
  • Tom:  369 unique characters.  Tom is a boy struggling with romance, chores and family life.  You’ll be surprised!
  • Kaleo:  375 unique characters. When Kaleo’s parents disappear at the Bermuda Triangle and he moves in with his uncle in Hawaii, an adventure of a lifetime unfolds.
  • Josh:  417 unique characters.  Josh is picked on at school by a bully and busy at the family dairy farm after school.  Drama arises when a new girl joins his school.  (to be honest, the books start getting quite hard by this point). 

What my daughter likes about the series

  • Simpler text with a complex story at an age-appropriate level – reading Peppa Pig in Chinese as a tween/teen isn’t at all interesting, but reading Harry Potter in Chinese is still a long way off.  Squid for Brain Chapter books are a great in-between, on the easier side, but encouraging a child to keep reading for pleasure at an age-appropriate level.  They work well for adults too.
  • Use of translanguing – For names of people, places, foods, tv shows etc some of the books use English interspersed between the characters (eg Cheesy Tuna Surprise, Tennessee Fried Chicken, PowerBall.  This brings the narrative to life more for a beginner.

What a parent will like about Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese Readers

  • No pinyin beside the characters, but there is a glossary at the back and pinyin on the reverse page –  A general pet peeve of mine is any beginner book that contains pinyin above the characters.  Squid for Brains books are free from this.
  • Limited yet relevant character count– you can buy these books with more certainty that your child actually will be able to read them and learn a handful as new characters too.  It will also likely take them quite a way to chew through the books, so it’s like a mini-project for them.
  • Matching syllabus – A teacher or homeschooler would appreciate that are some card games and other teaching resources that coordinate directly with these novels,  to allow vocab practice.  These are also available from Squid for Brains.
Squid for Brains Readers
Pinyin is shown on the reverse page from the Chinese characters
Squid for Brains Readers Glossary
Easy-to-reference glossary at the back of the books

Insides of the Squid For Brains Readers

Squid for Brains Readers
Example page from Susan, one of the easier books in the Squid for Brains Reader series
Squid for Brains Readers
Example page from Susan’, one of the easier books in the Squid for Brains Reader series
Squid for Brains Readers
Example page from Kaleo, one of the most difficult books in the Squid for Brains Reader series
Squid for Brains Readers
Example page from Josh, the most difficult books in the Squid for Brains Reader series

Some watch outs and considerations

  • Variability across the series:  Not all the books are equally funny – in fact, my daughter flat out said some are boring.  Some of the formatting and style differs across books too, as it feels like the individual books have been written over many disparate years (which I think is possible true look at the book imprints …. They differ from 2012 to 2016)
  • Humour is targeted for older readers and has a very American slant: some of the pop culture references and puns are only punny if you’re American and get that type of satire.

Where to buy Squid for Brains Chinese books

I bought ours direct from Squid for Brains website.    There are some copies on Amazon and other online bookstores, but largest variety is at the author’s website herself.

If my child likes this, what are other similar books in Simplified Chinese?

Some books which my children have enjoyed at a sort-of-similar reading level are:

  • Mandarin Companion series (review here) – these books also used the ‘comprehensible input’ pedagogy, and retail classic tales in simple text.  The ‘Breakthrough Level’, starts out with 150 unique characters.  These too would work for teeangers/adults as the storylines are more rewarding, and the themes more grown-up in nature.
  • Zoroli series (review here) –  these are more of early readers mixed with comics.  They’re not written with a limited character count, but on the whole are quite simple.
  • Mi Xiao Quan series (review here)  this is a household name in mainland China, a bit like the equivalent of Diary of Wimpy Kid in English.   Good for a child trying to build up their reading muscles.
  • Chinese Graded Novels: Books for not-quite-beginnersthis post compares four other book series which are written as novels for older beginners to try (not nearly as funny as Squid for Brains, but similar in their length and difficulty level) 

I hope you found this introduction to Squid for Brains Readers helpful. I would also love to know what other books you think are great at this same emergent reader level for older children. Please share any ideas below. I”d love for this page to be a resource to sharing other book at a similar level.

Ting xie word lists and apps for Singapore curriculum

Revising for ting xie using apps

This post has links to all the word lists I have created which align with the MOE Primary Chinese curriculum 欢乐伙伴. They’re ready-made word lists to use with your child to practice ting xie.

Helping children to revise for the weekly Chinese spelling tests is a challenge, especially if you cannot read Chinese. I fully appreciate the difficulty of this. That’s why for our family Skritter is an essential app, which all kids use for both learning and revising their ting xie (听写). I’ve added wordlists that I have made based around the Singapore MOE textbooks into this app to share with you.

I’ve previously written a detailed post about Skritter last year, which is a good place to start if you haven’t heard of Skritter before. If you do know what Skritter is already, continue reading below.

Understanding the Singapore MOE Chinese character lists

The Singapore MOE textbooks (Chinese Language For Primary School Textbook 欢乐伙伴) do contain a character list at the back of each book. These are not words or vocabulary per se, but rather lists of characters divided by chapter. Each chapter roughly takes 2 weeks, (but I’ve been told that some of the brand name schools will rush each chapter in one week, so they’re able to get further ahead).

The characters at the back of the books are divided into tables showing the “must recognise” and “must be able to write”.  But, they’re still not words. They also don’t come with any translation or pinyin, which increases the challenge for non-native Chinese parents.

Let me enlighten you…. there is an easier place to look at the words in the chapters of the book themselves.   In the book text itself within each chapter, you’ll see:  “我会认” which is what students are only required to recognise, readout, and write in hanyu pinyin.   我会写 requires everything in 我会认 but in addition, the child must know how to write the character.

However, these are still not actual WORDS.

Going from character lists to word lists

Some schools (very few in fact) just drill the child on characters. However most schools will expect an understanding of how to use the characters in actual words. It’s these words which will make up the weekly spelling tests The latter is also a sensible approach if you want your child to understand the characters in context and usage, but it creates an even bigger challenge for a parent as these wordlists are not typically supplied from the schools.

I learnt from other parents that the lowest effort approach to finding words is to go through the accompanying workbooks and texts and pull out words / sentences containing the relevant characters. It’s probably simple if you can read the text. Yet it actually requires quite a lot of patience and technical assistance if you’re an illiterate parent like me. Which is why I’m making this post, because in it, I’m sharing the word lists in case it helps you spend more evenings playing with your kids rather the scouring Chinese textbooks and deciphering character.

At the start of each school semester, I upload all the weekly tingxie characters, along with some selected words that these characters are contained within (eg instead of adding just 你, I would add 你好, or instead of 下, maybe 下午). I’ve now collated these from Primary 1 to Primary 5.

Why actual words are important

Chinese words are made up of combinations of characters.  A child could be able to read each individual character but have no idea how they work together. Hence why extensive reading is an important aspect to attaining fluency in a language, especially a non phonetic one. If you start out by focusing on words during tingxie revision, it will mean that your child will learn actual vocabulary, and this in turn will help with reading comprehension too. ,

The real vocabulary lists which you should be studying are not the characters in the back of the textbook BUT the word lists contained within the textbook chapter themselves.  In the in-chapter vocabulary lists, it often highlights words to use for basic level (the grey colour background in the example below), and then the additional vocabulary for higher-performing students (pink colour background).

Is there an easy way to collate out all the words related to the characters from the books? I have never seen one. If you do, let me know.

Ting xie word lists in Skritter

This is the main point for this post. HERE ARE THE TING XIA WORD LISTS!!!!

I’ve put my improvised word lists based around the MOE characters lists into Skritter app, because that’s the app we use. These are the links to the word lists I’ve created. If you set up your own Skritter account, you can add these lists, and start learning. Alternatively, you could export them and add into a different learning app. Skritter does have a 7 day free trial, and no, I have no affiliation with them nor profit/sponsorship from this post 🙂

We’ve tried a few different Chinese writing apps, and if practicing stroke order and writing is what you’re looking for, then Skritter is the for sure the best option here.

Click links below to access:

Textbook 1B – https://app.skritter.com/link/zh/?link=https://skritter.com?deck=5744405660434432&apn=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&ibi=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&isi=1370892114

Textbook 2A – https://app.skritter.com/link/zh/?link=https://skritter.com?deck=4582240709902336&apn=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&ibi=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&isi=1370892114

Textbook 2B –https://app.skritter.com/link/zh/?link=https://skritter.com?deck=4670174333108224&apn=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&ibi=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&isi=1370892114

Textbook 3A –https://app.skritter.com/link/zh/?link=https://skritter.com?deck=5421054731878400&apn=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&ibi=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&isi=1370892114

Textbook 3B – https://app.skritter.com/link/zh/?link=https://skritter.com?deck=5151978648371200&apn=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&ibi=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&isi=1370892114  (missing two weeks)

Textbook 4A –https://app.skritter.com/link/zh/?link=https://skritter.com?deck=6457557074182144&apn=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&ibi=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&isi=1370892114

Textbook 4B –https://app.skritter.com/link/zh/?link=https://skritter.com?deck=4554686713954304&apn=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&ibi=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&isi=1370892114

Textbook 5A –https://app.skritter.com/link/zh/?link=https://skritter.com?deck=6306204269019136&apn=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&ibi=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&isi=1370892114

Textbook 5B –https://app.skritter.com/link/zh/?link=https://skritter.com?deck=6124579556032512&apn=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&ibi=com.inkren.skritter.chinese&isi=1370892114

Practising for ting xie

Frequent practice is always more effective than a last-minute cramming, and Skritter enables this. Skritter will read out the characters/words, demonstrate stroke order, test the child’s understanding of the word, definition and tone, and keep track of progress, including spaced recognition to keep up the repetition beyond just learning for the weekly tests.

The lists can be tailored to learn any or all of writing, reading, definition and tone. Under ‘settings’ you can choose which option for which words. The lists can be done in a ‘Learn’ mode, which shows examples and allows practice, and also in a ‘Test’ mode where the word order is randomised as the results are recorded. Usually I will turn off all the test modes aside from character writing, as I feel that’s the most engaging practice method. For a child who needs assistance with pinyin, it would be helpful to enable the ‘tones’ testing too.

Skritter is in no way fun nor a game. It’s simply an app which provides a stress-free and ordered approach for spaced repetition of wordlists. It provides a great option for non-native families, as the app itself can read out the words and give guidance on stroke order and formation, which is something I don’t have a chance of being able to do for my own children.

Of course, science has shown that even better for memory than an app is old fashioned pencil and paper writing. So once your child has learnt the words, you might ask them to write them out on paper too. We do this by opening the word list on Skritter, and I get Skritter to read out the word, and my child writes it on paper.

A fun way to reinforce the characters is to play games using the characters. Two paid apps I would recommend are iHuman Hong En Chinese (despite not having a Singapore MOE option it’s excellent) and Maomi Stars (which does contain the Singapore MOE curriculum for Primary 1). Another alternative for a non screen-based approach is the Alpha Egg AI writing pen (which uses real pen and paper).

Practising composition writing

Another great way to improve in ting xie is to actually use the words to create your own stories. There seems to be some reluctance – at least in traditional teaching pedagogy in Singapore – to let children start writing their own journals, or composition pieces until about P3. This means in Singapore, a child spends about 2 years (or more) learning how to write characters or words, before they are expected to put a sentence together. In a total contrast, in most English teaching approaches in US / UK / Australia, children are encouraged to write sentences before they can even spell!

My suggestion would be to start using the Chinese words as early as possible! Get your child to write a short comic, or a sentence, or speech bubble using words they’re learning. If they don’t know the words, they can draw a picture, or write an English word in replacement. Really using words and composing pieces will help make ting xie revision even easier.

If you’re in Singapore, you’ll be able to very easily (and cheaply) come by lined books for Chinese composition writing. Most don’t have space for a child to draw pictures and make their writing pretty, which is why I actually went a step further and designed my own journal writing books for my kids (with big squares, with pale yellow dotted guidance grid lines). Yes, I’m a bit nutty when it comes to Chinese learning. As an aside, I’ve now put these Chinese journal book templates up on Amazon (at print cost – Amazon do the printing and binding and will send to you) if you’re looking for something which is a little more appealing for a child. This is my first attempt at doing this, and any feedback is welcomed 🙂

What else?

In case you’re looking for other suggestions for levelling up your child’s Chinese, here are some other earlier posts I have written:

Best Children’s English Composition & Creative Writing Books

Comparison of Books for English Creative Writing and Composition (in an Asian context)

English creative writing in Asia is an area where there is often little focus at school, and also limited environment for fully utilising the language to its full advantage. Where composition writing is done in schools, the model approaches are usually very specific and limited in their genres, and tuition centres thrive on being able to teach children the ‘winning’ approach. However, I’m sure it can be learnt within the home too – and this post reviews three books which are excellent companion texts to encourage English creative writing with your child. Each is good for different reasons, as described in this blog post.  

Supporting a child to improve their writing really can be as simple as giving them good creative writing books, that are accessible and offer words, phrases, ideas or models for a child to create high-quality output.   My kids have benefitted greatly from having all three of the books covered in this review.

High level comparison of the three books is given in the table below.

Descriptosaurus: supporting creative writing

Books for English composition writing in Singapore


Descriptosaurus is a thematic expansion of a dictionary and a thesaurus, designed for a student to be able to expand their vocabulary, and sentence structures.  The book is loosely grouped by settings, characters, and creatures.  Aside from the general Descriptosaurus book,  there are specific theme-based books which can also be bought (such as Ghosts, Fantasy, Adventure, Myths and Legends) for a child who has a particular interest in a particular genre.  The book is helpful for a reluctant writer to understand how words can come together to create beautiful descriptions, yet also wonderful for a passionate writer who needs to add more colour and variety into their pieces.

Table of Contents Descriptosaurus
English composition writing books


  • Hugely comprehensive resource (possibly the ultimate resource for creative story writing)
  • Covers a wide range of genres and scenes, from real life to fantasy
  • Hard copy book which could be used and shared around a classroom
  • The book has been created and refined over a number of years as a result of feedback from children inside and outside the classroom in the United Kingdom
  • Wide appeal and usage from early primary school through to secondary-age writers


  • For an Asian context, the book doesn’t have so many relevant descriptions to appropriately describe foods, weather, Asian facial features, hawker markets, festival, etc.
  • For a Singapore-specific primary school focus, the book doesn’t have the so-called “powerful words” that teachers will be expecting students to contain in their essays, and nor does it contains any references to idioms/metaphor and intended structure for short composition pieces
  • Size and weight of the book is big – the book itself contains a lot of of extra content (eg sample poems, stories, printable grammar pages, punctuation, etc) which are excellent, but perhaps more useful for a teacher or homeschooling parent than for the child themselves.  This prevents the book from being something a child could easily carry around in their backup to/from school or the library etc.
  • This book is intense – no pictures, and lots of word walls.  For a child (or parent) who is still nascent with English, this could be off-putting.
  • The price ….. the basic book is ~USD52  (Kindle versions are a better idea) 

Write Like a Ninja: essential toolkit for young writers

Write Like a NInja cover


Write Like a Ninja is an almost-pocket-sized book, designed to let students turbo-charge their writing with powerful descriptive words and unique vocabulary choices.  The books is essentially a child-friendly thesaurus, with a few grammar tips too.  It contains tonnes of alternative for overused adjectives, and also themed vocabulary wordbanks to describe settings, characters, foods, feelings, and more.   Write Like a Ninja is clever, catchy, super user-friendly and very well priced.   This book has been great in our family for giving to my kids to use as an alternative to a thesaurus and up levelling their writing, especially personal journal writing.

Write like a Ninja contents page
English composition books
English composition books


  • Short and sharp, with all content being relevant and practical for a young writer
  • Clearly set out, and highly approachable for a child, even a child with less confidence in English reading – it’s simple style, design, and layout, with some fun decorations
  • Where explanations are needed, they’re simply and concisely written, with nothing extra that will confuse a child


  • It’s really targeted for a younger learner, or a child who needs to be empowered in their writing
  • For a more confident writer, a thesaurus might be a more helpful text than this book
  • The book mainly has stand-alone words, rather than full phrases or sentences
  • For a Singapore-specific primary school focus, the book doesn’t have the so-called “powerful words” that teachers will be expecting students to contain in their essays

A Way With Words: turn your compositions from good to great

A Way With Words


A Way With Words is a creative writing resource to expand descriptive vocabulary and give structure to writing, especially composition pieces and journaling for primary-age students.  The book is divided into a descriptions of people, places, and actions (including use of metaphors, proverbs and idioms).   A Way with Words is specifically narrow and focused, with an emphasis on real-life examples (not fairy tales, monsters or villains) and culturally relevant to descriptions of scenes in a South East Asian context (eg tropical weather, hawker centres, moral values, etc).  It follows the format recommended for composition pieces in a Singapore MOE and PSLE context, which in itself is very specific and unlike other creative writing approaches.

English compo book
A Way With Words
A Way with Words English Composition book
English composition books


  • Well-designed reference book that can assist you to walk your child through creative writing and journaling
  • Based around the use five-senses, to show how words and phrases can generate images in the mind of readers
  • Aligns with standard approach for Singapore composition writing in schools, yet with a fresh and unconventional perspective.
  • Short, sharp, and contains wordbanks and descriptive words without other waffle or written exercises for a child to complete
  • Provides practical advice on how to plan and structure an English composition piece.
  • Better than most books on the shelves of Popular for composition writing


  • Specifically for composition writing and journal pieces, rather than fantasy / fiction writing (it’s not going to make your child a good storyteller, but might help them attain a higher score in an English exam)
  • Very focused on descriptions for Asian context, so some turns of phrase may not translate well for overseas readers (eg references to hawkers centres, HDB apartments, durians and tropical fruits, etc)
  • Not designed to be fully comprehensive, but contains writing prompts for a child to unleash their own creativity

(DISCLAIMER – I am very good friends with the author of A Way with Words, so more than a little biased here. That said, I’m always looking for great English composition books in a Singapore context, so please drop me a line if you know of others worthy of mentioning here.)

Where to buy the books from

In Singapore, none of these books appear to be available from traditional bookstores. All are available from Amazon, and the links are below (note: these are not affiliate links).

What about other books for composition writing?

This post has been a very rare diversion from my usual focus on encouraging Chinese literacy. I would love to find books which encourage creative writing in Chinese, in an equally approachable and fun manner (note – just like many of the famed books for English creative writing are too convoluted for use in an Asian context, I’ve also found many of the mainland Chinese creative writing books are too advanced for use outside of China). Any suggestions or leads are welcomed in the comments below or via Lah Lah Banana FB or Instagram.

Book Review:  Squid for Brains Picture Books

Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese books are a set of books that I chanced upon randomly, after discovering one lone picture book in book-sharing free library.  My interest was piqued by that one book, yet after googling I could find little about the series, aside from the fact that more similar books existed.  Despite the Squid for Brains facebook page having less likes than even I do, I went against gut feel and ordered a few more books from their website at a whim.  I’m glad I did, and here’s what we discovered.

Note – Squid for Brains have books written in both Simplified and Traditional Chinese, along with matching titles in Spanish.  This post specifically covers the two Squid for Brains Picture Book sets. I have another post covering the Squid for Brains Readers (which are longer and chapter books).

Key Information on Squid for Brains Picture Books

  • Series name: Squid for Brains – PandaRiffic Books and Zhongwen Bu Mafan! Series.
  • Author:  Dr Terry Waltz
  • Number of books in set:  PandaRiffic – 6, and Zhonwhen Bu Mafan – 8
  • Number of lines per page:  Quite varied, but maximum 6
  • Number of pages per book:  30 – 50
  • Total length of the book:  Varies but approx. 1000 – 1500 characters
  • Characters required by child to read it independently: 19 – 100 unique characters (as in, each book only contains that many characters, so if a child knew 500 characters total, there’s a good chance that they’d know nearly everything in the book)
  • Pinyin: Yes, and it’s kept on different page from the characters
  • Bilingual: No
  • Available in Singapore NLB:  No
  • Original language of publication:  Chinese (also available in Spanish)
  • Characters: Traditional and Simplified versions
  • Audio available: No (but works great with Luka Hero Point and Read function)
  • Suggested ages:  Beginner readers of any age

Background to Squid for Brains Picture Books

Squid for Brains is the brainchild of Dr Terry Waltz, a talented translator, interpreter and language extraordinaire. Whilst little exists on the web about these books, I gather that the intent of these books was to have readable and accessible content for students learning Chinese as a second language, building on the theory of comprehensible input to gain fluency in a language.  In Dr Waltz’s case, she says she uses  ‘comprehended input’™  because it’s even more digestible than typical comprehensible input, meaning there is nothing left uncomprehended by the reader.  That’s getting into semantics, but I love her audacity to create meaningful literature for beginners.

Attaining fluency through graded reading books with limited character count is a concept featuring in many of my children’s favourite book series.  Why?  Because these are the books that they can pick up and read, understand, and enjoy, as they’ve been meticulously designed and written to be approachable for a non-native reader, with a limited character range.  I have this ongoing struggle with the children when they finish a series about ‘which book next?’ because comprehensible input in Chinese is a rare genre.  My kids are well beyond Mary & Jane type books, but the gap to reading Harry Potter in Chinese is still a very evident one for my children.   Something like Squid for Brains is a good gap-filler.

The author herself, Dr Waltz, is a Chinese language teacher of 30+ years, and those who have done her online classes (focussed for adults) cannot recommend her enough.

Synopsis of Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese Picture Books

  • Zhongwen Bu Mufan! Series: unpredictable short stories, made from highly limited word count (eg the Guiseppe story contains on 19 unique Chinese characters, to tell a story about a guy who looking for the pizza toppings of his dreams).  English words are used where necessary to get the story across.
  • PandaRiffic Series:  based on traditional folk tales, but with a Panda as the main actor (eg Pandarella, Panda White, Panda Soup, Panda Jack and the Bamboo Stalk, etc).  These books are slightly longer with an increased characters range.
Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese Picture Books

What my daughter likes about the series

  • Very punny:  That’s right.  These are satirical and contain plays-on-words that my kids appreciate, such as the Mal-Wart store, a Cyley Mirus concert, and Bordon Cramsie in the kitchen.  My kids had a good laugh about ‘NiTube’ rather than ‘YouTube’.
  • Simple to read and understand: The books are very much intended for early language learners, and focus on high frequency words.  Some of them follow familiar stories, and others are familiar scenarios.   All of them have a touch of humour.
  • Balance of text and graphics: Large sized and clear text, with bold and silly illustrations.  Some of the illustrations are the type of thing a child could draw using MS Paint, so my kids find even the pictures simple to understand how they were created. 

What a parent will like about Squid for Brains Picture Books

  • No pinyin beside the characters, but there is a glossary at the back:  A general pet peeve of mine is any beginner book that contains pinyin above the characters.  Squid for Brains books are free from this.
  • Has a colour-coded approach for characters and tones, and spaces between words:  this may or may not be relevant, depending on how well your child understands the tonal nature of Mandarin.  For learners from non-native backgrounds, there is a unique TOP (Tonally Orthographic Pinyin) Romanization System designed by Dr Waltz, which colour codes the characters in 4 colours depending on their tone.  Quite fascinating and intuitive approach with some more info on the author’s website here with rationale for the character colour coding.  Additionally, there are inserted spaces between words to make the text more accessible for beginners. 
  • Printed using a hand-writing style font: the font used (in their new edition books) is a proprietary Squid for Brains Chinese handwriting font, which is intended to look more like handwriting, so it’s easier for a beginner to copy versus printed fonts.  I like this concept a lot!  
  • Accompanying teaching guide:  for teachers / home schoolers, you’ll appreciate that  there is an additional teaching guide to which can be purchased, containing classroom-tested activities, digital flipbooks, cartoon strips and tasks, etc.

Insides of the Books

Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese Picture Books Panadarella

Some watchouts and considerations

I really want to love Squid for Brains, but I cannot give it a fully unqualified thumbs up for a few reasons.  This is a bit of an insight into why it’s really hard for small-time writers.  It’s never easy being a self-published author.

Firstly, only half the books I ordered actually arrived.  We’ll blame US Postal service for that.  So that’s a lesson for me that I should pay for proper courier service if it’s offered. Squid for Brains team was very kind in arranging redelivery.

Secondly, of the books that arrived, one of them was in Spanish when I’d ordered Simplified Chinese (thankfully my daughter is learning Spanish too, but it wasn’t what I’d been planning for).  Then, another book had the correct front cover, but inside had contents for a totally different book (it was a great book, but the wrong book).   That’s the printer’s error.  As I understand it, there isn’t much bargaining power when you’re a small business and the printer sees you as a dime a dozen.

Finally, inside one of the books, there were a few small grammatical errors that my daughter picked up (like differing tones of a character).  Again, this seems to be the printer using perhaps a wrong file, and I guess if the printing press cannot actually read the files they’re printing on-demand, this is bound to happen too.  I’d compare this with something like Sage 500 books, which are heralded as being the holy grail for teaching kids to read in Chinese.  Sage 500 books are literally littered with mistakes too, but people never complain about that, do they?

All in all, that sounds like a laundry list of small niggles, but it’s really so you go in eyes wide open.   They’re REALLY great books, although some headwinds with the execution.  I’m glad to be able to support an independent author / illustrator / publisher like Squid for Brains, and hope that others will also find Dr Terry Waltz’s efforts helpful in their own language journeys.  We’re looking forward to reading the Squid for Brains more advanced bridging books next (they look even more intriguing than the picture books).

Where to buy Squid for Brains Chinese books

I bought ours direct from Squid for Brains website.  As mentioned above, there were a few issues with their delivery, but the company was very responsive and apologetic. 

There are some books on Amazon, and I’m guessing lost packages and returns would be much easier through that channel.  However, it’s Amazon making the $$, and I’d rather support a great author directly if I can.

If my child likes this, what are other similar books in Simplified Chinese?

Squid for Brains Simplified Chinese picture books are very accessible for an emergent reader, containing modern stories with a decent – but short –  storyline.  There’s not too much similar which I’ve come across (although happy to be proven wrong on this).

Some books which my children have enjoyed at a sort-of-similar reading level are:

  • Little Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Tales series (review here see part way down post) – short story books for emerging readers about silly little dumplings with a lot of heart.  I think the level of satire is on par with Squid for Brains too.
  • Odonata Graded Learning Short stories: Odonata has graded learning readers (designed for learning 1200 characters), which I’ve reviewed before, but they also have short stories that match these readers.   The first stories all contain less than 100 characters.  They’re very kiddy in story design and pictures, so won’t appeal to older children.
  • Mi Xiao Quan 米小圈上学记一年级 series (review here) – their Grade 1 books contain pinyin above the words, and are a good laugh. However overall sentences/content is harder than what most beginners would be able to manage, let alone length, but these work well for a child who already has a good spoken understanding of Mandarin.
  • Levelled readers for younger children: overall, I’d advocate that if your child knows only a handful of characters, that you should progress systematically through graded readers, and I’ve put a few ideas previously about Chinese levelled readers  (eg Le Le Chinese would be a good pick, or Little Sheep Goes up the Mountain) and read shorter stories with lots of repetition of characters and climb your way up to knowing 1000+ characters.  At that level, many more doors open up!

I hope you found this introduction to Squid for Brain helpful. I would also love to know what other books you think are great at this same novice level. Please share any ideas below.


Christmas gifts for preschoolers 2022…. with a Chinese literacy twist!

It’s my final blog post for the year!  As always, the entire month before Christmas will be dedicated to a social media free Advent period (so please forgive the spelling errors, as this is being hurriedly typed in the few minutes before we jump on a plane).

Given there is still time to buy Christmas presents, this post very quickly lists out some things to consider to put Chinese into the gift list, especially focused for the little ones (kindergarten and preschoolers). If you’re reading my blog, it must mean your family has some remote interest in Chinese. So please consider giving something Chinese to keep languages alive and magical in your family this year end.

Habbi Habbi Bilingual Puzzle

Habbi Habbi design beautiful board books to encourage early literacy, with uplifting and purposeful content.  Our family has both their Chinese and Spanish sets of board books, which I’ve reviewed before.  But new in 2022….. they have introduced BILINGUAL PUZZLES.  These puzzles can work with the same reading wand as their books, which means as the child builds the puzzle, they can get narration of the elements in the puzzles in two languages, and also some other fun sound effects which bring the puzzle to life.  Every part of the puzzle is tappable with the wand.  The puzzles are sturdy and big pieces, delightful to hold, and still a good challenge for a preschoolers.   It’s printed with both Simplified Chinese and English.

Habbi Habbi Bilingual Puzzle

Little Bun Book

Miss Panda Chinese – a superb bilingual blogger – has released a bilingual storybook about feelings called Little Bun.  It’s available on Kindle Unlimited and Amazon, and in hardcopy.  The book is bilingual for young children (target ages 2 to 6), and written in both Simplified Chinese and English with pinyin support.  There is also an online audio reading. What I really like is that it’s a book about feelings, and how to express emotions in words, which can be ever-so-hard in one language, let alone two.  The adorable illustrations are done by Miss Panda’s daughter Emily.

Little Bun Bilingual Chinese book for toddlers

A Very Noisy Christmas – bilingual version

A Very Noisy Christmas is a fun re-telling of the Christmas story for young children written in both Simplified Chinese and  English, with pinyin.  If you read it as planned, your house will be filled with shouting, singing and raucous laughter. It’s a lovely one for a parent to read to a child, and having both languages means parents could take it in turn to alternate between the two.   For parents who cannot read the Chinese, there is a lovely audio recording of the book by Malaysian actor Robin Khor.

Maomi Stars App

Maomi Stars is hands down THE best literacy app for preschoolers.  I’ve reviewed it before too, if you need a reminder of what it’s about.  If you are hunting for a perfect gift for your children or a friend who is on the language journey, consider giving the gifts of learning and getting a Maomi Stars virtual gift card.  It’s not going to clutter their homes, and it’s surely going to be used (especially as their syllabus now includes Singapore MOE wordlist).  There is a Holiday Gift e-card giving a 3-month subscription for $45.95 or 6 months for $75.95, with access for 3 children on the one device.  The app can be modified for Simplified, Traditional, Mandarin and Cantonese.

Maomi Stars app gift voucher

Squid for Brains Books

Squid for Brains have some fun but simple Chinese picture books that you might have a hope of reading and your child understanding, because they’re designed for children from non-Chinese speaking households. That means they focus on more common words a learner would know, and provide good word repetition (but by no means boring). Squid for Brains picture books are easier than the typical books you’ll find on the library shelves. They come in both Simplified and Traditional Scripts.

Squid for Brains

Little Dim Sum Warriors bilingual books

Dim Sum Warriors app and doodle dates are favourites at our place, for combining drawing with Chinese and bringing out a wildly creative side. I’ve reviewed the Dim Sum Warriors flagship product previously, which is why it might be a familar name for you too. Their store is having a Christmas sale using the promo code ‘smartcookie‘ for 10% off. Their Little Dim Sum Warriors bilingual children’s storybooks make great and affordable Christmas gifts – written bilingually with Simplified Chinese and English. Keep a look out at Dim Sum Warriors will also be hosting some free Christmas-themed online doodle dates

Little DIm Sum Warrior storybooks

What are you going to put on the Christmas list to help with Chinese?

Hopefully you have your own wonderful ideas too. For more ideas, check out my post from 2020 on Chinese literacy gifts and book recommendations for Christmas, including for older children. Bridging books are also a great idea for a child with slightly more advanced reading skills.

And in case you were curious – NONE of these links are affiliated (as with my blog philosophy). The best thing in life is to give, and give freely, especially at Christmas.

Blessed Christmas!! 圣诞节快乐

Helping a child to write Chinese characters

Why writing Chinese characters is important

Writing is important for literary in any language (especially non-phonetic ones) as the sequential movement of the fingers and hand hardwires the brain to learn. It’s especially important in learning Chinese, and there are some fun ways to help your children to learn to write Chinese characters.

Whilst it may seem archaic and mundane, writing out Chinese characters by hand has been proven by research to be a key tool in the acquisition of literacy in Chinese. It is possible to learn to read without writing, but at least for languages without alphabets, it’s been shown that to become literate nothing beats handwriting with pen and paper. And, literacy has been shown to be a key aspect in becoming fluent in a language when it’s not learnt via immersion. So, henceforth, learning to write the old-fashioned way is an important aspect of Chinese.

Handwriting s a really important technique for acquiring Chinese as it is comitting to muscle-memory the different components of a character, and being able to associate them to specific character groups (ie radicals) and meanings. Many characters looks ridiculously similar, so it’s only when writing them out to perfection that the differences will jump out. Also more generally, it’s been shown that when something is handwritten, it’s more likely to stay in the brain’s memory longer, which is an important aspect of learning vocabulary. What’s more, for more digital Chinese dictionaries, it’s incredibly convenient and fast to look it up by writing the character out.

However, it can also be very tough for a child to figure out correct stroke order and it is very repetitive in execution. It’s even more challenging if you’re the parent who cannot read Chinese, and you’re trying to oversee a child using pen and paper.   There are all sorts of gadgets and smart apps for learning to READ Chinese characters which I’ve written about on this blog, but there are far less on how to WRITE Chinese characters. There are even less which involve physically holding a pen.

Ideas to help kids write Chinese characters

This post includes a few ideas for encouraging your child to write more in Chinese. It’s things we’ve done in our house, in no particular order. Do forgive the videography! There’s a reason why I don’t usually post videos.

1️⃣ Tracing characters onto magnetic tiles

This is a good way to start, especially if you have some flash cards or early readers with enlarged characters and stroke order. Of course it could be done with tracing paper too, however if you use the tiles it’s also a helpful way to write sentences by arranging a string of tiles together.

If you have the infamous Sagebooks 500 set, the inner square of the larger size magnetic tiles fits exactly over the numbered stroke template page, which is handy too.

2️⃣ Skritter Write Chinese app

Skritter is a great app for spaced repetition of tingxie, for a primary-age child. It’s not fun. It’s not gamified. It’s literally just writing out characters from a user selected list, which is perhaps what some families do on paper, but this is on tablet format. It’s good because it keeps track of the characters, corrects for wrong stroke order, and it uses clever AI to repeat characters where the user is weaker. I’ve reviewed Skritter in detail over here.

3️⃣ Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen

This is a smart digital pen that resembles a conventional pen, and it writes on real paper. If you saw it on our dining room table, you’d be mistaken thinking it’s really just ordinary pen and paper – in fact my husband has used the pen to scribble notes whilst working from home without realising the amazing equipment he was holding. The Alpha Egg AI writing pen is equipped with sensors to detect movement and pen position. When paired with an app via bluetooth, it can give real-time feedback on stroke legnth, order, size. The accompanying books teaches over 800 characters. This method is really standout to me as it’s real pen and paper -and several scientific studies have shows stronger brain activity after writing on paper than on a tablet or smartphone. I have reviewed Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen in more detail in a recent post.

4️⃣ Maomi Stars app

Maomi Stars app is a wonderfully put together app, which encompasses reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in Chinese. It’s ideal for beginners, through to more advanced (syllabus included Singapore MOE Chinese Primary 1 standard). It has short fun games, and is customisable and cute. It works for non native and native speaking families, which options for Simplified Chinese and Traditional, along with Cantonese and Mandarin. One especially great feature is that it contains a plethora of preloaded wordlists including from well known levelled readers (eg Sage, Odonata) so you can use it to mirror you home reading. Every character includes a finger writing component. I’ve reviewed Maomi Stars in detail a few months back, and please not that is has ONLY GOTTEN BETTER since my review!

5️⃣Osmo Masterpiece app

Osmo is a unique piece of kit which aims to create tangible experiences and hands-on learning from an ipad. We use it for math, Englsh and coding, and it’s excellent. It has one app which can be adapted for learning to write Chinese characters, but it’s a little gimmicky. Unless you already have the tool, I wouldn’t be recommending this approach. Basically you can use the Osmo Masterpiece app (which is for teaching your child to draw anything) and instead let you trace Chinese characters. We did this hack from using our Le Le flash cards. You could basically do it with any sheets of printed characters or soft copy, and the app will let you trace it out using physical paper. My kids like to use their washable chalk books rather than paper.

6️⃣ Youdao pocket printer

This one is a hack, for anyone who happens to be lucky enough to own a Youdao pocket printer. It’s a mini inkless printer which connects to your phone and prints out onto receipt-size paper. It has many uses for it, but a good one is template tracing sheets as it’s so cheap and easy. You can literally photograph the character (or graphic) that you want to print out, and then send it to the printer within seconds.

Youdao pocket printer with Chinese character tracing

7️⃣ Magic water writing cloth 水写布

This is a mess-free way to practice more of traditional Chinese calligraphy / brush painting. This magic cloth paper is a bit like a thin picnic mat, and is reusable. The output really looks like real ink too, except without the mess and the smell. It only requires a brush and water. When the water dries, everything is erased (it stays for about 20 minutes though which avoids frustration!). Some even come with 米 grid squares, or even with printed characters for tracing printed on them. This is our magic water writing cloth being used with the flash cards which show stroke order.

Magic water writing cloth

8️⃣ 田英章 writing books

Some bilingual mothers swear by these books saying that 田英章 is THE master in Chinese handwriting & calligraphy, and the reason why their kids write so neatly. It’s basically books which contain tracing paper, and allow you to go over the printed characters. These were recommended to me by an online bookstore called Owlissimo, which used to stock these. They don’t seem to anymore, but they have other great Chinese products.

What else would you suggest to help a child write Chinese?

Once a child has picked up basic writing skills, there are other ways you can continue to engage them in their penmanship, such as with composition pieces, doing calligraphy, or perhaps even writing to a penfriend (my kids have a penfriend that they send snail mail too, and they were highly motivated to improve their own character writing when they saw how difficult ot was to read someone else’s handwriting).

If you have other great ideas for helping children learnig to write, I’m happy to check it out, test them out and add it onto this blog post too.

In case you’re looking for other suggestions for levelling up your child’s Chinese, here are some other posts you may enjoy:

Book Review: 朱尔多日记 Zhu Er’s Diary

This review is of a bridging book set 朱尔多日记 (Zhū ěr’s Diary), which is ideal for middle-to-upper primary school readers. My daughter borrowed it recently from the library.  Until that point, I really thought we’d heard of most of the better known early chapter booksets from mainland China, especially those written in diary format, but apparently not.  朱尔多日记 has been a welcomed discovery.   

Key Information on 朱尔多日记 series

  • Series name: 朱尔多日记 (Zhu Er’s Diary) 
  • Author:  黄宇 (Huang Yu)
  • Number of books in set:  6 (at least?)
  • Number of lines per page:  13
  • Number of pages per book:  133 pages
  • Total length of the book:  18,000 characters
  • Characters required by child to read it independently: 1500+
  • Pinyin: Yes
  • Bilingual: No
  • Available in Singapore NLB: Yes
  • Original language of publication:  Chinese
  • Audio available: no
  • Suggested aged:  9 – 12

Synopsis of 朱尔多日记

Think of the American favorite Diary of a Wimpy Kid…… .  what’s different in 朱尔多日记 is that the main protagonist, Zhu Er, is a schoolboy in Mainland China.    Zhu Er is one mischievous kid, who brings readers on a journey filled with antics, humour, and daily musings in his partially-doodled diary.  In fact some of the book covers in this set are so similar to that of the Chinese version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, that you’d be forgiven for confusing the two. 

The concept is also somewhat similar to the infamous Mi Xiao Quan Diaries 米小圈 , in that the series comprises of several books for every level of school which Zhu Er goes through.  Each book is filled with the joys, jokes and secrets of the schoolyard and his classmates.  It’s funny and grotesque all in one.  The books are more text intense than Mi Xiao Quan, but have pinyin above all characters.

Huang Yu, the author, is a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, with a psychology / counselling background.  You’ll see bits of this shine through in the stories.  The books have sold more than 6 million copies (which probably isn’t a big milestone for China market) and have won several awards.  The same author has written over 100 other books (100 books!!!!!), most of which are built around positive mindset-building stories which children will relate to.

What my daughter likes about the series

  • Not to heavy and not too light:  The books are specifically designed as an early reader / bridging , fairly approachable for a motivated mid-primary schooler to read independently (the pinyin helps)
  • Very relevant and comical for a primary schooler: Er Duo complains in a humourous way about all the things your child probably complains about….. spelling tests, school swimming classes,  school dental clinic,  finding a gift for Mother’s Day, being bullied, and of course homework and more homework.
  • Balance of text and graphics: enough colorful illustrations, full of ideas and fun

What a parent will like about the series

  • Fits Singapore context: Of course this is written in mainland China, but it covers aspects like failing an exam, or having a classroom of 30+ kids, which are common place in Singapore too, and also common reasons for tensions to build up.
  • Has a resilience building mindset: Zhu Er is a kid who seems to get his perspectives right – he loves learning (for the most part) and doesn’t let himself be defined by his grades (and tries to convince his mother of this too)
  • Available to borrow from Singapore NLB

Insides of 朱尔多日记

朱尔多日记 example bridging book Chinese
朱尔多日记 example bridging book Chinese
朱尔多日记 example bridging book Chinese
朱尔多日记 has considerably more text than Mi Xiao Quan diaries

Where to buy it from

We borrowed our books from the library.  Buying it in Singapore I’ve only seen it listed at Maya Yuyi (honestly that’s the best place to buy books for upper primary age kids in Singapore… no one’s paying me to say this either!  If you know a better place with dependable recommendations, please drop me a line).

If my child likes this, what are other similar books in Simplified Chinese?

Some books which my children really enjoyed at a similar reading level and are:

  • Zoroli (review here)
  • Mi Xiao Quan 米小圈上学记一年级 (review here)
  • Detective Pipi 屁屁侦探推理版 (review here)
  • World History Adventure Comics 寻宝记 (review here)
  • Mandarin Companion’s Secret Garden 秘密花园 , and Sixty Year Dream 六十年的梦 among others (review here)

I would love to know what books you think are great at this same level! Please add any ideas below.

If you’re in Singapore, join the conversation with other like-minded parents at the FB Group Ni Hao Singapore Primary School learning, which I host along with a few other Singapore-based bloggers including Ms Claudia Lee Kimura.

Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen:  Parent Review

This post is a review of the Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen (阿尔发蛋AI练习笔) by iFlytek.  This pen is unlike any other I have ever seen:  it’s a smart digital pen for teaching a child how to WRITE Chinese characters using traditional pen and paper.

We were lucky enough to get our hands on an Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen in July 2022 soon after they were launched, and this is a review after a three-month test drive. I’m so excited to share this pen with you.

This post covers:

Why writing Chinese characters is so important

Did you know that physically writing out Chinese characters by hand has been proven to be a key tool in the acquisition of literacy in Chinese?  Whilst it’s possible to learn to read without writing, by far the best way to learn any language (and especially a non-phonetic language) has been shown that nothing beats the old-fashioned way of pen and paper.    

Handwriting is such an important tool – but also very tough for a child to figure out correct stroke order, and repetitive in execution.   There are all sorts of gadgets and smart apps for learning to READ Chinese characters, but Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen is the first pen I’ve ever seen that helps you to WRITE Chinese characters perfectly and keeps a child engaged.

Several scientific studies have shows stronger brain activity after writing on paper than on a tablet or smartphone, and other studies show stronger memory recall when a concept is written down rather than simply listened to.  The spatial and tactile information associated with writing by hand on physical paper has been shown by researchers as what likely leads to improved memory retention.  There’s even new research specifically focused on writing characters (be it Chinese, Japanese, etc) showing that the sequential movement of fingers and hand to form hundreds of complex characters (as opposed to 26 alphabets) activates a neural activity that trains the brain in an array of advanced cognitive abilities needed for many aspects of life. 

Key Features of the Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen

The Alpha Egg AI writing pen is a smart digital pen that resembles a conventional pen, and it writes on real paper.  It is equipped with internal sensors to detect movement and pen position and connects to an app to give real-time feedback. 

The pen really looks, feels, and writes like a normal pen (same size, weight, shape).  Yet with the clever sensors it becomes a real-time writing guide, giving you feedback on how to write characters precisely and perfectly.

It has three key parts:

  1. Writing practice with feedback:  By using the pen with the accompanying workbooks (yes they’re also real paper books) and a phone/ipad, you get a closed-loop system for writing practice.  The app captures the pen movements with real-time synchronisation on screen and gives a score to the user on how well the character has been written.  It scores based on ten key areas of the writing (which are stroke order, number of strokes, size, position, thickness, frame structure, stroke angle, stroke direction, stroke length, and writing speed).
  2. Videos:  The app provides an in-built teaching assistant which can recognize the character being written and with the tap of the app can provide a short video with tips on how to write the character or in some instances, history of the character.   Together, it creates a very comprehensive system and assistant for character writing, which is child-friendly and fun.   
  3. Personalised intervention: The “AI” function of the pen will actually recommend Chinese characters that need intensive training, based on past results, and allow the user to carry out personalized training to master the more troublesome characters, in a blank notebook (although you can actually use it to practice whatever characters you want).
Example of the scoring given from the app

Workbooks: Level 1 – basic pen movements

Workbooks: Level 2 – basic strokes and characters

Workbooks: Level 3 – advanced characters and blank books

Technical Specs

  • Model No: TYWP – W10
  • Charger: Micro USB Charging Port
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth (required)
  • Supports offline usage
  • Battery life: ~5 hours of continuous usage  (it takes ~2 hours to be fully charged)
  • Weight:  17.6g
  • Dimensions:  160mm (length), 10mm (diameter
  • Pen tip: 0.5 mm
  • Ink colour: Black
  • User interface language: Simplified Chinese

The pen comes with 13 workbooks, ranging from introductory pre-character writing through to four levels of characters arranged from easier to advanced, based on writing difficulty.

Alpha Egg AI writing pen
Alpha Egg AI writing pen books

How the Alpha Egg AI writing pen works?

The Alpha Egg AI Pen works by pairing Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Bluetooth technologies. When the pen lid is taken off the pen, it automatically activates Bluetooth, and inside the pen tip is an OCR sensor to identify the workbook being used and handwriting.  It uses the square grid in the workbook with dot matrix recognition to determine pen tip position (1200 dpi high precision, so really pretty good).  This is directly synchronized to the app, and then the actual handwriting is shown on the screen. 

For help in setting up the pen, there is a helpful youtube about the AI Writing Pen with English sub titles.  One tip would be to use a tablet with this pen, rather than a phone screen, as it’s bigger and will better resemble the paper size being used.

The Alpha Egg AI writing pen writes like a normal pen, and links to an app using Bluetooth

How our family is using the Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen

The problem

Nothing beats writing using real pen and paper.  Period. Nevertheless writing characters on physical pen and paper has over the years been a struggle in our house.  It’s not because the children aren’t interested or its time-consuming (although I’ve heard that both are common complaints).  The real reason is that as I don’t know how to write the characters myself, I’m clueless.  I seriously have NO idea, and cannot engage in it at all with the children.  That’s why for revising week tingxie (Chinese spelling words) we rely heavily on the use of Skritter app.  Skritter is a great digital tool for learning characters and practicing them through spaced recognition.  It works for stroke order too, but given Skitter is still screen-based writing with a stylus (or finger) it doesn’t fully mimic actual character writing, nor bring with it the scientific benefits associated with analog-style pen and paper writing.    

The solution

You can imagine how excited I was to discover the Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen.  It does just what the packet says it can do …. Writes characters on real paper, and gives real time feedback!  Another answer to my dreams!!

Literally, all three of my kids are using the pen, but differently. The pen can easily be shared across family members since it comes with a set of writing books that range from pre-character writing (squiggles and shapes) to advanced characters, with a step-by-step guide and tracing squares.   You can even purchase additional books so each child has their own set.  The only hitch in sharing across family members is that there is only one app account for the pen, so the AI recommendations on what to do for additional practice don’t work, however, we don’t use this feature. 

The children really do want to complete an entire page of characters and collect stars, so it’s a positive feedback loop to improve in character writing.   The characters can be selected and completed in any order, so it’s possible to choose characters that match a particular syllabus being studied.  There are also blank square-paper books which pair with the pen too, for unguided practice.

The characters are rated in the app with a score out of 100

Pros of the Alpha Egg Chinese writing pen

  • Real time report on penmanship and handwriting, including feedback and areas for improvement (errors are very clearly explained)
  • Designed for both right-handed and left-handed users
  • Great matching videos so a child can get a refresher on how to write the character
  • The ink in the pen is refillable and the exercise books are replaceable
  • The pen and books can be used in offline mode as well
  • Parental Monitoring via app is available
  • It’s possible to use a lead pencil or an ink tip, depending on what your child is used to
  • The accompanying workbooks are well designed – going from practicing pen control and pre-writing skills, then basic practice of strokes, to basic characters, and finally more advanced aspects


  • Entire system and setup is in Chinese
  • The system relies on Bluetooth – if you avoid this for your child, then do avoid the pen too
  • The 阿尔发蛋AI练习笔 app requires a  a local +86 Chinese mobile to first activate the app  (although this can be avoided through certain resellers – including Sagesaurus in Singapore –  who have preauthorized security codes and One Time Pin provided to you to avoid this inconvenience.   

Is the Alpha Egg writing pen good?

Our family’s verdict is that the pen is excellent!  This product is essentially a smart pen and paper, with a fancy connected technology that gives an incentive for children to use it to get in a habit of writing Chinese characters.  The children feel the pen is comfortable to hold, and the app is simple enough to use and give them the information they are needing.  The feel of the pen is like writing with a gel pen, rather than a ballpoint.  Sometimes there can be a split-second lag between writing on the paper and seeing the image on screen, but that in itself is a good reason for the child to focus on the pen and paper, and only look at the app when they have finished writing a particular line of characters.

I’ m a self-confessed addict when it comes to using technology to help our family learn languages.  That’s why our house is overflowing with gadgets like Luka Reading Robot, Habbi Habbi Reading Wands, Osmo, Youdao Dictionary Pens.   I reckon we’ve seen and tried just about everything that’s out there tech-wise for learning Chinese, Spanish and English.   Which is why  I was blown away when I came across the Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen.  It truly is something BRAND new to the market and has been executed well.

The Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen is an especially great aid for parents who don’t write Chinese, or who don’t have time to review their children’s writing.  When I see pages of beautifully handwritten characters, I know that the app does its job well.

We give the writing pen a thumbs up! Note in the above picture, we’ve selected a specific character (四) without doing the prior characters. This is because this was on the tingxie list!

Where to buy?

In Singapore, Sagesaurus stocks the Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen.  If buying through their website, you can get SGD$10 off Alpha Egg products using promo code lahlah10off. I know they also ship internationally. (and no, no affiliation or commissions are being collected from this blog post ….. just trying to bring you – the reader – great things and help small businesses).

Examples of what you can purchase are below…. the smart pen, writing books (4 different levels, with 13 books in total), and pen refills (either lead pencils or felt tip).

Enjoy the journey

I hope this review has helped you. Most important in the Chinese learning journey is that you create a family and schooling situation where the child loves the language and wants to learn it! I hope that you can achieve that in your family.

If you have reached the end of this, and still wanting to read some more, some other posts of mine which you may find relevant to help your child in learning Chinese:

Book Review: The Power of the Earth

The Science of The Power of the Earth 地球的力量科学绘本 is a book set for children who are nature lovers, geographers and mathematicians.  The set contains ten beautifully written books published in Simplified Chinese which will put a child in awe about the wonders of this world.  We read hundreds of books each year, and I just love it when we come across literary gems – this is certainly one.

Key Information on Power of the Earth series

  • Author/Illustrator:  加古里子 Satoshi Kako 
  • Number of books in set:  10
  • Number of lines per page:   2 – 5
  • Number of pages per book: 25
  • Total length of the book:  ~2300 characters
  • Characters required by child to read it independently: ~1200
  • Pinyin: no
  • Bilingual: no
  • Available in Singapore NLB: no
  • Recommended ages: 5 – 10 years
  • Original language of publication: Japanese
  • Audio available: Yes – through Luka Reading Robot

What the Power of the Earth books are about

This is a non-fiction book set for children, meticulously illustrated and researched, about various natural phenomena of the world (like rivers, rainbows, earthquakes, sunrises, etc).  It’s not an encyclopedia – it’s really short story books, which poses rhetorical questions and gives plenty of facts about each subject, and food for thought.   Questions like how much salt is there in the sea?  How did mountains form in the ocean? Wy does the sun set colour differ on some days? And what are the names of different cloud shapes?

We really love books translated from Japanese in our house – there’s something about the pictures and the stories which are always so unique and endearing, generally with valuable lessons subtly contained. The author of this set. Satoshi Kako, is indeed a master storyteller (and has written many other wonderful books, including another favourite of ours called Mr Crow’s Bakery, which he wrote at the impressive age of 87 years old).   He’s an amazing man, and author.  Kako has a brilliant mind for making important concepts (like economic theory or geography)  enthralling for kids, and is an equally talented illustrator.  He originally worked as a chemist and chemical engineer, before turning to writing books to share his scientific passions with the next generation. 

What my daughter likes about it:

  • The clever illustrations – in particular will appeal to a child who enjoys numbers, math and geography.
  • The questions it asks and answers – a child will feel like they’ve really learnt something they wanted to know
  • The text isn’t too overwhelming – yes this is non-fiction book, but it’s quite short concepts and easy to digest.

For a child, the books try to illustrate principles or ratios using objects and situations they would be familiar with, such as squashing a mattress against a wall to create a mountain, or the relative size of a watermelon and its seeds.

Power of the Earth Book series - Mountains
How mountains are formed
Power of the Earth Book series - Rain
How rain drops are formed

What a parent or teacher would like about the set:

  • Very solid scientific fact and reasoning – in a matter-of-fact and down-to-earth manner, which probably gives answers to questions your kids have asked you before and you tried unsuccessfully to google for!
  • Words used are actually readable for a younger reader – the characters and choice of words are carefully chosen.  You’ll be surprised how much your child can recognize and read on their own.  The books is written in a way that a P2/P3 could self read, and a younger child would also understand.
  • Font size – the typesetting is a good size and clear, and works will with the Alpha Egg pen or Youdao Chinese dictionary pen if needed.
  • Encourages creativity – and appeals to my engineering brain with many of the concepts and corresponding illustrations

If you haven’t read anything from Satoshi Kako, you’re really missing out on a talented picture book writer.  I highly recommend you check out this talented guy.  He was born in 1926, survived through WW2, then graduated from the University of Tokyo with a major in applied chemistry and a doctorate in engineering. While working in chemical companies, he created fairy tales and puppet plays to explain his work to children.  He was a pioneer of science books for children in Japan, and won numerous awards.  The Power of the Earth books were translated from Japanese into Chinese by Guo Yu, a Chinese paleontologist and geosciences scholar.

Kako passed away at the age of 92, and The Power of the Earth series is the last set of books which he oversaw for translation into Chinese before passing away.  His hope was for children to understand and love the earth.

Insides of the book

It was hard to pick which photo to include here – there are SO many stunning pages. Here are just a few.

Power of the Earth Book series - volcanoes
The books remind me of Science Sketch Note type of series
Power of the Earth Book series - space
SO many fun facts about the universe!
Power of the Earth Book series - volcanoes
Power of the Earth Book series - core
Simple and memorable drawings

Titles in 地球的力量科学绘本 Power of the Earth Series

  • 《高山》Tall Mountains
  • 《河流》Rivers
  • 《大海》Seas and Oceans
  • 《雨 雪 雾 云朵》Rain, Snow, Fog, Clouds
  • 《风》Wind
  • 《地震》Earthquake
  • 《火山》Volcano
  • 《朝霞 晚霞 彩虹 极光》Sunrise, Sunset, Rainbow, Aurora
  • 《世界各地》All Around the World
  • 《地球》Earth 

Where to find the series

Our set was bought several years back from My Story Treasury in Singapore.  I checked, and they still sell it.  It’s also selling on JD and Taobao.

 Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it in the local library (although NLB do have several other books by this same author/illustrator).

What level is 地球的力量科学绘本 for?

The Power of the Earth would work for a curious and nature-loving child above 4 to be read by a parent, and even for a non-Chinese speaking family to be narrated as it has full audio recording through Luka.  For a child to read the series independently, I feel about it’s about P2 equivalent in the Singapore school system.

If my child likes this series, what are other similar books in Simplified Chinese?