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!

Habbi Habbi Bilingual Flashcards & Puzzles: Parent Review

Habbi Habbi produce beautiful multilingual products for littles, which are accessible for non-native speakers and great for learning many languages.   This review is about their flashcards and puzzles in Simplified Chinese Mandarin (though they have them available in other languages like Spanish, Korean, and French).  

Exactly three years ago, I wrote about the Habbi Habbi Reading Wand and Books Sets (gosh times flies when you’re having fun learning Chinese!). Since then, our home collection of Habbi Habbi products has grown from one shelf to two, with the addition of many new titles, along with Habbi Habbi flashcards and puzzles.   This is what I want to tell you more about.

Why do we have so many Habbi Habbi products? Well, language is caught, not taught. Having exposure to rich linguistic inputs and resources from an early age is incredibly important but not easy to achieve.  I am always looking for fun ways to incorporate the language from different angles into our home.  A key need for me (since I don’t speak Chinese) is finding resources, which provide exposure to native speaking but are accessible without having to speak Chinese.  The Habbi Habbi flashcards and puzzles are just that. 

Habbi Habbi products make learning through play possible from a very young age, combining lovely tangible physical products with audio input, without the use of any apps or screen. All of the Habbi Habbi collection, including the Habbi Habbi flashcards and puzzles, are compatible with their same Reading Wand, which also works across the different languages too.

What are the Habbi Habbi flashcards?

Habbi Habbi rainbow vocabulary flash cards
Habbi Habbi Flashcard and Reading Wand

The flashcards come in two sets – (1) home vocabulary, and (2) rainbow vocabulary, each with 50 double-sided cards.  These cards are hands-down the most durable flashcards we’ve ever used (and we’ve used heaps ….).  They’re thick cardboard, Montessori friendly (12 x 9.5cm in size), and constructed from glossy wipe-clean material. 

The Chinese-English version of the cards comes with Simplified Chinese characters (in large and big font), along with Pinyin and English.  When the card is tapped using the Reading Wand, the child can hear the pronunciation of what they have tapped.  The language can be set to 3 options: Bilingual (English + Chinese), Single Language (Chinese only), or English only. 

Yes, flashcards are known to be boring and uninspiring, but I love how these are beautiful and joyful!  The selection of words and pictures used on the cards is also so practical, not at all like those random packs of flashcards you can buy from a stationery store that contain a mishmash of random vocabulary imaginable. The Habbi Habbi flashcards are based on conversation topics we would have with our kids – what objects are in the colours of the rainbow? What are the objects in different rooms of the house?  

Things to like about these bilingual flashcards:

  • Montessori size, and will fit a Montessori tray
  • Sturdy and will hold up with lots of use (usually I wouldn’t let kids free play with most flashcards, but these ones are designed for that)
  • No screen time (but still is fun and interactive)
  • Extension to many games (eg colour groupings, finding objects around the house, etc)
  • Thoughtfully chosen words 

How do we use Habbi Habbi flashcards?

The question is probably more how we don’t use them.  We don’t use them like traditional flashcards for drilling character or word recognition, to enhance memorization.  We use them to play and learn through games.  We use them to put words around the house.  We use them just for fun.

Habbi Habbi flashcards
The Habbi Habbi flashcards match many of their books

Also, since the words on the cards match words used in the Habbi Habbi books – we have played matching games with the books. We have also played colour matching games (because cards are color coded) and ‘odd one out’ games (because cards come in sets / groups). And of course, the best part is that even though as a parent I don’t speak Chinese, we can use the Reading Wand to add in the language element.  Essentially I am the facilitator, and the Reading Wand is the language enabler.  As we now also have the Spanish Habbi Habbi books, I’m planning to repeat the same process for Spanish too! 

What are the Habbi Habbi bilingual puzzles? 

Two sets of Habbi Habbi puzzles in Simplified Chinese

There are two puzzle sets, each made of 56 pieces and 48cm x 37 cm.   The pictures match two of the Habbi Habbi Bilingual Books (Things That Go & Animals Plants and Places), so the images will be familiar.  They’re the perfect size and complexity for ages 3 to 6-ish.  The puzzle pieces can be completed and then tapped with the reading wand, or it can be done simultaneously whilst building the puzzle which is how my kids enjoy playing.  You’ll find in no time that your child can name every element on the puzzle bilingually, with perfect tones, just by mimicking the Reading Wand! 

Things to like about the puzzles:

  • Great way to play and learn
  • Pieces are sturdy and delightful to hold and play with
  • Every inch is tappable and reveals different vocabulary, music, and sounds
  • Puzzles incorporate words, in a look & find format – with words in English and Simplified Chinese of the animals or objects in the puzzle 
  • Vocabulary aligns with Habbi Habbi books
  • Uses the same Reading Wand as the flashcards and bilingual books 

How do we use our bilingual puzzles?

All our Habbi Habbi puzzle boxes sit on the shelf beside our other puzzles and games.  My children can choose when they take these out to play, and quite often they will.  Sometimes my children – on their own accord – will get out their Habbi Habbi books and read them alongside playing with the puzzle.  One of the really clever aspects of these puzzles is when a piece is tapped by the Reading Wand, it can reveal what the puzzle piece belongs to (e.g. an elephant) even though the child may not realise it just by looking at that singular piece. So, in a sense, they are getting hidden clues through the audio component.

Sometimes my kids will race each other between the different puzzles to see who finished first, or they’ll challenge each other to name the animals/objects/transportation before they use the Reading Wand as an adjudicator.  Other times my youngest will hunt for the words in their matching Habbi Habbi books, and get excited when she finds a match.  For example, our puzzles are in Chinese, but we have the books in Spanish too.  So they’ll try to guess the Spanish word for the puzzle pieces and then go to the corresponding Spanish book to check.  

Habbi Habbi bilingual puzzles
Doing puzzles with a language pen is a fun way to learn new vocabulary

Where to buy?

These can be bought directly from the Habbi Habbi website (US based, so postage can be expensive depending on where in the world you’re living), and they sell equally beautiful products in Chinese, Spanish, French, Korean, and Hindi.   For Singapore specifically, the Habbi Habbi Chinese products can be ordered locally from Savvy Mama.   

The puzzles and flashcards would work particularly well for preschoolers and younger language learners, be a beautiful gift, and make a stunning addition to any bilingual nursery.  

Habbi Habbi flashcards Chinese

Happy language learning!

If you’re still reading, you may be interested in other non-screen based Chinese language learning products for children. Other posts on my blog include:

Sometimes we combine our Habbi Habbi flashcards with other sets (as shown above) to make other games.

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes 大侦探福尔摩斯

This is a review of a fun book set of Sherlock Holmes 大侦探福尔摩斯. The series was introduced to me by an amazing bilingual Montessori homeschooling mum of three in Malaysia.  She has wonderful resources, so when she said she had an extra copy of one book that she could mail me, I already knew it was going to be a gem.  She was right.

Key Info

  • Series name: 大侦探福尔摩斯. Sherlock Holmes
  • Author:  厉河 Li he
  • Number of books in set:  63 (so far)
  • Number of lines per page:  14 (with picture on opposite page)
  • Number of pages per book:  124
  • Total length of each book:   ~ 20,000 characters
  • Characters required by child to read it independently:  ~2000
  • Pinyin: No
  • Bilingual: No
  • Available in Singapore NLB: Yes
  • Original language of publication:  Simplified Chinese
  • Audio available:  No
  • Suggested ages:  10+
  • First publication date: 2013

Synopsis of Sherlock Holmes 大侦探福尔摩斯

The name is not that creative. The books are. 大侦探福尔摩斯 adapted by 厉河 is a series of Sherlock Holmes detective books written from the perspective of animals …… it’s pretty much a parallel of Geronimo Stilton in terms of writing style, presentation, and the length of the series. It’s a whole lot less cheesy though.  Imagine Holmes is a detective dog, Watson is a cat, and the Scotland Yard police detectives are a fox and gorilla.  The books are playfully written with specific words standing out in bright fonts and colours.  The books are specifically written for primary (elementary) school-age children by the famous Hong Kong screenwriter Li He.

When this series first came out in Hong Kong (A decade ago), it entered the bestseller lists and became a regular feature in the libraries of primary schools.   Of the set, the first 17 take their stories based on Sherlock Holmes, and the remainder are truly original stories.

What a child will enjoy

  • Fun series for children who like simple adventures and mysteries, with a touch of science
  • Stories have intriguing twists and turns, and move at a good pace
  • Bright illustrations in full-colour
  • Clever concepts – the plot line includes thinking about small scientific experiences and loopholes, which beautifully merge real life knowledge and facts into the stories.

What a parent will enjoy

  • If a child doesn’t like books with a lot of text, this might be the hook for them.  
  • 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)
  • There’s a matching film animation in Mandarin if you really need to coax/reward your child.

Insides of the books

Doesn’t this just remind you of Geronimo Stilton x Zoroli?

Insides of Sherlock Holmes 大侦探福尔摩斯

Where to buy Sherlock Holmes 大侦探福尔摩斯

In Singapore, they’re available at Maha Yuyi bookstore.   They’re also available to borrow from the excellent Singapore NLB.

Globally, they’re available on Taobao.  There are also dozens of second hand copies available, mainly in Hong Kong.  We have the original series, but as is the trend these days, there are also books drawn entirely in manga, if you’re up for some extra cuteness.

Image from Carouselll…. you’ll find plenty like we did!

Other similar books

If your child enjoys mystery books like Butt Detective, Zoroli or the Mandarin Companion’s Sherlock Holmes, then I think they’ll really enjoy this Sherlock Holmes series too.

What makes these stories similar to the Mandarin Companion concept is that they tell classic stories (in this case detective stories) in a length and language that primary school-level students will enjoy. Mandarin Companion is simpler

What makes it similar to Butt Detective is the problem-solving element, except according to my daughter, the plots of Sherlock Holmes are more interesting and use real science.

As for Zoroli series,  the person who translated these books from Japanese is actually the author of the Sherlock Holmes books.   The style, language, and very scientific plot have a myriad of similarities.  In fact, the story goes that in 2009 when author Li He was translating Japanese children’s books into Chinese, he discovered the stories were so interesting and wanted to write his own, and he began with Sherlock Holmes.

A big thank you to Carol Wong from Owlissimo who first shared this great book with us. If any readers have other suggestions similar to Sherlock Holmes I would gladly listen! As you likely know, it gets gradually harder to find books that my tween is keen on reading in a second language, and we’re always looking for new suggestions.

Tips for PSLE Chinese Oral Exams

Acing the PSLE Chinese Oral exams isn’t just a matter of language fluency. This post lists out a few practical tips to prepare wholesomely for your child’s Chinese oral assessments, without trying to sell you a tuition class to solve the problem! How you ever noticed that if you google ‘Tips for PSLE Chinese oral exam’, most of the top posts come from tuition centres selling you their services…..?

Here are my authentic home tips – and no, nothing in this post is sponsored or affiliated!

1) Be Loud, Clear, and Opinionated

To do well in the assessment, your child needs to pronounce words clearly, maintain eye contact with the teacher, and speak louder than usual to show their confidence.    These can be helpful skills for life too.

As a parent, you can help your child to prepare by asking random questions about your child’s day, or how they feel about particular issues in the news.  Try doing it over a meal at the hawker centre, to make sure they can really speak loudly! Better still, see if you can get your child to spark a meaningful conversation with the hawker aunty whilst you rare there.   Nothing like having your child order chicken rice, whilst explaining to the auntie why you don’t need a plastic bag or why she should accept PayNow. 

Another way to develop opinions and confidence is through being involved in debating, acting or hosting courses taught in Chinese.  Plenty of these which exist in person and online.   One which we have particularly enjoyed was through Bilin Academy and collaboration with the Taiwan Association for Sophist.

2) Practice reading every day

This is such a simple thing to do.   Get your child to read out loud to you the books they’re reading or pages from a newspaper/magazine.   The broader the vocabulary the better.  As your child reads, ask them to make sure they’re comprehending what is being read, and taking this into account with their emotions and pauses.

If you’re like me and don’t read Chinese yourself, please don’t let this stop you from listening to your child read.  As long as you have the time, you can sit with your child and ask them to read aloud.  An optical reading pen will help with the pronunciation and meaning of any unfamiliar words or phrases.

There are top-notch, inexpensive tools online like Vitamin M oral practice or Mandarin Bean which provide helpful practice pieces including sample audio recordings.   If you want your child to practice with a native speaker, there is an excellent and value-for-money service called Instant Mandarin, who run a Storybook Curriculum, which involves a child reading aloud to a teacher based in mainland China.  Lessons can be booked and canceled at 3 hours notice, and 25 minutes can cost as little as USD7 if you buy a package.  If you’re signing up for Instant Mandarin, they do have a free trial (they do have a new student referral plan, where you’ll get a free lesson if you come through a referral …… so my little ask if you do sign up, please email their customer support via the email on their website and claim your free lesson and mention me (Emma Lee) as the referrer…..  We literally buy their classes in hundreds, so always welome an extra one!).

If you still really really don’t know where to start, just ask you child to read aloud their 欢乐伙伴 Chinese textbook to you!  This already has a good selection of words and phrases which the examiner will expect your child to know.    

3)  Learn easy-to-remember phrases and idioms

Reading helps with this, or try joining the online Dim Sum Warriors 成语 Chinese Idioms doodle dates, which are held several times a week for 10 minutes, explaining idioms in memorable ways. 

Get your child to watch Chinese news recordings from Youtube or watch online debates.  If your child comes across phrases that resonate, get them to write them down in a notebook for future reference.  It will make revising so much easier!  Google for some of the most common Chinese phrases (or look at this fun Chengyu cartoon dictionary), and try to start putting them into your conversations and writing (practicing for orals can reinforce written composition, and vice versa, which makes a lot of sense).

PSLE Chinese oral exam idioms
Dim Sum Warriors website has a large collection of Chengyu with illustrations to really help you remember the meaning. It’s all free.

4) Watch videos that are similar to those used during the PSLE Chinese Oral assessments

This is imperative as you’re approaching the exam time itself.  It’s important to revise effectively. Make sure your child is familiar with what the exam situation will be like – the video is only 1 minute video.  Teach them how to understand the theme of the video, and have (an opinionated) conversation around it.   Things like key events, the setting, the action/feeling of the characters.  Practicing this structure is essential. 

A tool like Vitamin M provides ten self-guided video questions with model answers on how to ace this aspect.  I’ve written a full blog post about how the self-guided online course from Vitamin M called “Let’s Score! PSLE Chinese Video Oral Practice” module works.

5) Focus on vocabulary which will be relevant

The questions asked in oral examinations tend to be more open-ended, so your child really needs a wide range of vocabulary to express their thoughts and opinions clearly.  

There are some common themes that reverberate throughout the Singapore primary school curriculum (it’s not just constrained to the Chinese language either).  If you’re looking for materials to read or videos to watch, try to consider their relevance with the below themes:

  • Being helpful and considerate (eg helping an elderly auntie, being quiet in the cinema)
  • Family piety (doing housework, visiting a grandparent)
  • Environmental awareness (cleaning the estate, recycling)
  • Being healthy (health foods, exercising, good habits, road safety, having an accident)
  • School issues (bullying, failing an exam, doing a performance)
  • Favourite foods, places, sports or hobbies

Try to prepare vocabulary and ideas for these themes.

6) Have a framework for how to respond to Chinese oral questions

In Singapore, everything is structured, and your child will do better if they can respond using a well structured manner.  If your child is taught a framework at school for orals, then reinforce this with them.  I personally think it’s confusing to try out too many different frameworks. 

If your child isn’t taught a framework in school, or they are given a choice, consider something like PEEL (Point, Explain, Example, Link) or DCFS (Description, Comment, Feeling, Suggestion).  Thinking in this framework, and writing down model answers in this framework can also be helpful for revision.

I’ve seen some useful tips at Eileen Choo’s site.

PSLE Chinese oral exam response structure
The Vitamin M oral materials contain modelled responses which are structured in PEEL format.

7) Prepare early – PSLE Chinese isn’t a subject you can last minute cram in and memorise

The above tips 1 to 6 are really for those who are approaching their PSLE CHinese oral exams.  But you can (and should) start preparing well before Primary 5 or 6.   It doesn’t need to be insane; just a daily habit of building conversational and literacy skills.

Give your child exposure to various mediums where Chinese is used to discuss real-life subjects like local radio, TV and newspapers (Lianhe Zaobao and Shin Min Daily News are great choices). Exposure like this can make a big difference through accumulated passive language learning.  

One current affairs programme my kids like* (*let’s say they tolerate this one more than others) is from Taiwan and available on youtube called 小主播看天下WOW.   ZB schools has great free content for reading simplified news articles especially designed for students (they also have a paid area for oral practice too).

Using an adaptive reading programme like Dudu Town is another way to slowly build up vocabulary and reading skills over time.

Reading materials to practice for PSLE Chinese oral exams
ZB Schools website has regular news and current affairs pieces specifically written for children, with accompanying audio. A lot of it is freely available!

Overview of oral examinations in Singapore primary schools

In Singapore primary school system, the Oral and Listening comprehension assessments typically go together in what is called “Paper 3” and comprise 35% of total year-end marks. 

The oral assessment component is done by way of e-Oral and Video Conversation (看录像会话) assessment for the PSLE.  

In the exam situations, students have ten minutes of preparation time to read the passage (on a computer screen) and watch a one-minute video.  Then in the exam room, they’ll proceed to read the passage out aloud and the examiner will ask guiding questions related to the video.   The intention behind this assessment structure is for language learning to reflect living, everyday context and provide authentic situations for discussion.  

Enjoy the journey

I hope that this post has helped you to put Mandarin into perspective. Most importantly is that your 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. For us, it’s been a joyful experience. I would love to hear what’s been helpful on your journey, or if there are specific books or tips which you would recommend too. If you have reached the end of this, and still wanting to read more, some other posts of mine which you may find relevant include:

Vitamin M: practicing for PSLE Chinese Oral in Singapore

This review is about an online tool from Vitamin M called “Let’s Score! PSLE Chinese Video Oral Practice”. Using this will make home practice for Chinese oral examinations less of a mystery, and more of a specific process to improve outcomes.  Speaking itself is an art, and the Vitamin M Video Oral Practice online course helps to give your child confidence and the right structure to score well.  

Overview of oral examinations in Singapore primary schools

Let’s start with what “Chinese orals” are all about. In Singapore primary school system, the Oral and Listening comprehension assessments typically go together in what is called “Paper 3” and comprise 35% of total year-end marks. 

The oral assessment component is done by way of e-Oral and Video Conversation (看录像会话) assessment for the PSLE.  This means watching a 1-minute video and responding to it.  These videos take some practice to grasp. 

The 1-minute flies by (it will be random footage of a hawker centre, or a car driving on a road, without many words or conversation), and then the student is like a deer-in-headlights needing to express their views and opinions relating to the theme.  The intention behind this is for language learning to reflect living, everyday context and provide authentic situations for discussion.   Of course, it wouldn’t be Singaporean if this wasn’t paired with a very structured answer response method.  

In the exam situations, students have ten minutes to read the passage (on a computer screen) and watch the video.  Then in the exam room, they’ll proceed to read the passage out aloud and the examiner will ask guiding questions related to the video.   The questions tend to be more open-ended, so your child needs a wide range of vocabulary to express their thoughts clearly.   This can be a struggle for many children in Singapore.  

What is Vitamin M PSLE Chinese Video Oral Practice? 一起考好!PSLE 录像口试练习

Vitamin M is founded with the aim to put the fun back into learning Mandarin in a Singapore context.  They provide a variety of innovative online games, tools, courses and classes to motivate children to use and enjoy the Chinese language.  I’ve previously written about their online classes for younger children.  

Specifically, the Let’s Score! PSLE Chinese Video Oral Practice are a set of ten high-quality video oral exam questions, for self-guided learning.  The package is a great set of reference materials for orals to be used at home, including model video response answers.  It’s very possible for a child to go through this by themselves, or it could be more effective if they go through it together with an adult or a home tutor.   

The set consists of ten modules each containing:

  • One video for oral exam questions
  • suggested answer for modelling (also in video form)
  • reading passage with sample teacher’s reading
  • vocabulary practice related to the oral exam question
  • downloadable notes to revise answering techniques (in the popular Description-Comment-Feeling-Suggestion (DCFS) and Point-Explain-Example-Link PEEL formats)

Each of the ten modules would take approximately 1 – 2 hours to go through it thoroughly.    

There is a further feature within the product (which we didn’t use) that allows users to book a one-to-one mock oral session at a discounted price, based on the content in the online materials. We might consider that closer to the time of PSLE starting, so we can get real feedback from teachers who understand how PSLE is scored.  

Vitamin M Chinese oral exam practice

How to use Vitamin M online materials to practice for Chinese orals?

When it comes to revising for exams, orals present a very different can of worms. For written exams, it’s simple to buy a pack of past papers or assessment books and ask the child to practice and compare against the model answer.

Vitamin M makes it possible to practice for orals at home in a structured way.  It also lets them see good phrases, sentence structures, and mannerisms in the sample video answers.   The materials can be used for P4 – to P6.  There is a weighty amount of content in each module.  

We have been using the Vitamin M online materials for about 30 minutes each weekend, doing half a module at a time.  It’s been a helpful process.  We would read the passage and look at the vocabulary.  Then the following week look at the video and go through the model answers.

As a suggestion, I would recommend also trying to practice by recording your child’s attempts (with both video and sound) and reviewing it together with your child.  Talk about how it went, where they did really well, and ways their oral responses can be improved.      

What do we like about Vitamin M PSLE Chinese Video Oral Practice?

  • Modular structure:  it’s bite-size and gives you a schedule to work through.
  • Aligns well with typical PSLE questions:  the video content and passages are designed by a dedicated team familiar with Singapore MOE requirements.
  • Model answers: these are provided in video format, and also with a printout in mindmapping PEEL format which is so helpful for revision.  I appreciate that the video response answers are modeled by children, rather than adults.
  • Cost-effective route for practicing: only $38 for a whole year of access
  • Can be assessed any time:  24/7 and revised as needed.
  • Access to real teachers (in Singapore) for mock session if needed
  • Effective tips: to structure and polish your answers
Vitamin M Chinese oral exam practice

How to prepare for Chinse oral exams if my child is P4 or above?

Practicing effectively for orals at home presents a challenge – it’s not as simple as just creating a home environment where your child can converse and improve their speaking skills or hiring a tutor to converse with.  To make it effective, you’ll need your child to be watching short video content which is like that which is examined, and also be familiar with the typical required structuring for responses of these questions.      That’s why I find the Vitamin M online materials reviewed in this post very useful.

If you need to rope in even more resources beyond the Vitamin M materials, then my suggestion would be to try out the online Vitamin M Chinese Oral Prep Course or their weekly Vitamin M-Star course, which comes with dedicated teachers and the ability for 1-to-1 mock oral sessions (versus just online content package, which is what we have been using).  For more information about Vitamin M live online classes, I have written a separate post.  

Whilst it will take a mind reader to guess what the theme for the oral exam will be, there are some common themes that seem to reverberate throughout the Singapore primary school curriculums (it’s not just constrained to the Chinese language either).  If you’re looking for materials to read or videos to watch, try to consider their relevance with the below themes:

  1. Being helpful and considerate (eg helping an elderly auntie, being quiet in the cinema)
  2. Family piety (doing housework, visiting a grandparent)
  3. Environmental awareness (cleaning the estate, recycling)
  4. Being healthy (health foods, exercising, good habits, road safety)
  5. Favourite foods, places or hobbies

How to prepare for Chinese oral exams if my child is P4 or below?

Chinese isn’t a subject you can last minute cram in and memorise.  It truly is a marathon that needs to be practiced over time.  You can start preparing well before Primary 5 or 6.   Having exposure to various mediums with communication in Chinese such as local radio, newspapers and TV documentaries can make a big difference through accumulated passive language learning.

You can also practice reading aloud every day with your child.  If you’re like me and don’t understand Chinese yourself, please don’t let this stop you from listening to your child read.  As long as you have the time, you can sit with your child and ask them to read aloud.  An optical reading pen will help with the pronunciation and meaning of any unfamiliar words or phrases.

If you are happy with a little screen time, then the below apps/tools could be helpful to encourage active use of Chinese in the house:

The way I look at the orals is they can be free marks in an exam, and shouldn’t take up too much brain capacity or memorization, provided that you’re done all the prework.   Start early and reap the rewards!    

Access to Vitamin M

It is simple to sign up through Vitamin M website (they have many exciting products, not just the online oral materials).

VItamin M are kindly offering  5% off any of Vitamin M products for my blog readers.   You can use the code LAHLAH5 at checkout.

Was this helpful?

I love receiving feedback and also finding out about what your family finds helpful for learning Chinese. Please reach out via my IG or FB feeds.

Please note: Our access to “Let’s Score! PSLE Chinese Video Oral Practice” was given complimentary by Vitamin M for this review. (Thank you Heng and Ying Sheng!).

Parent Review: BrookieKids Chinese Activity Packs

What is BrookieKids?

BrookieKids is a brand new Chinese learning product (app + physical game pack) focused on encouraging kids ages between 2 to 6 to speak Chinese through games.   The intention is to give parents simple tools to bring Chinese alive in the home and everyday life.  It consists of different themed activity packs which unlock a series of voice-interactive stories, to combine with free play.

They’re being officially launched today (28 June). My kiddos were lucky enough for a behind-the-scenes early try-out of one activity pack, thanks to the passionate team behind BrookieKids.

How does the activity work?

Each activity pack contains a number of colourful cardboard cards containing QR codes.  These can be hidden around the house (or used for a memory-matching game, etc) and when a card is found, the QR code can be scanned to reveal an interactive story.  Each object has several different levels to progress through, which become increasingly harder as the game progresses. In total, each activity pack has 15 unique stories.

Who is behind BrookieKids?

BrookieKids is the brainchild of two mothers with a dream to raise bilingual children and create meaningful moments with their children at home.   It was founded in 2021 with support from Enterprise SG Startup Founder grant, NUS Enterprise and NTUitive.

Today they have a four-woman strong team, pooling their broad expertise in teaching, content writing, and technology to create beautiful learning products for preschoolers.    I had to ask the founders what the name BrookieKids refers to.  The answer:  Bilingual Rookies!!  It’s the idea of raising little kiddos on a language adventure.

How we used our activity pack

We were gifted the Hatch Me If You Can activity pack.  It consists of ten egg-shaped cards which need to be “hatched.”  This immediately piqued the children’s curiosity because they’re fans of collecting surprise virtual creatures, as they already use ABC Reading Eggs for phonics.

I hid the coloured eggs around the house, and we used them for a family treasure hunt.  The kids all listened attentively to the stories, to the point they didn’t want to stop playing.  The good part was the different stories and eggs give a natural ‘pause’ for game to be suspended for another day.    The BrookieKids website itself lists a few suggested ways to use the cards, including memory and matching games among other things.

I don’t see BrookieKids are a learning app or learning programme, but more so a type of stand-alone game that comes with an interactive phone component.   I could see this concept working well for outdoors treasure-hunt type activities too, and would look forward to future products which BrookieKids might come up with in this domain!

As BrookieKids leverages the audio and visual from your smart phone, each activity pack is relatively good value-for-money (and good for the environment!) since no additional devices are required to be bought. Currently there are three packs, with many more in the pipeline.

Things a parent will love:

  • It’s not a fully ‘screen-based’ activity, as it has a physical and tangible element for the child
  • Cards are high quality and durable, and come in a box for safekeeping
  • Simple to use right out of the box (open box, download app, and then scan to play)
  • Uses practical daily vocabulary for preschoolers with clearly articulated audio
  • Can be integrated with other routines or daily activities around the house (cleaning, treasure hunt, a daily surprise in the Chinese activity corner, etc)
  • BrookieKids provide FREE outdoor play dates in Singapore open to all families who are interested in learning and practicing Mandarin with their children.
BrookieKids Hatch Me if You can learning pack

Things which could be improved:

  • App interface seems to be hard to close or minimise sometimes (at least on our iphones)
  • The app asks a child questions, to which they respond with the answer verbally and the app takes certain actions depending on what the child has said (eg choosing between one thing or another).  My kids realised at Level 1, since it asks open-ended questions they can say totally incorrect answers and the app still progresses.   This is a deliberate design feature at the earlier levels to cater for kids with lower proficiency, but for my kids it became a competition to say silly things.  Even at the more advanced levels, the stories are relatively easy to get to the end because they’re designed to motivate a child to speak, however without an adult watching, the child could take some liberties, especially if they realise there interaction doesn’t drive much.   The caveat to this is that my kids already have good Mandarin proficency and are willing to play together in Chinese, and this game is designed more for a child who would rely on English.
Brookie Kids app

What my children said:

They all enjoyed it – the app kept their attention and they get through all the stories over a couple of days.  Once my children reached the end of all the levels, the youngest said she would go back and play it alone another time, as the stories are really nice.

They ultimately said it was “average fun” and gave it 7 / 10 stars.  For a game which exposes a young child to about 340 vocabulary words including simple idioms, this is a good score!

Would it work for your family?

I can see BrookieKIds as a helpful tool for parents in learning Mandarin together with their children.  It encourages dialogue, role play, and interactive game play around the house. 

The packs would be really useful for parents who know some Mandarin but don’t use it actively at home, because the activities provide a way to engage positively with the language and show their interest and enthusiasm for Chinese and creating bridges of love to learn together with a child.    Sometimes I meet parents who know Chinese, but because they only ever speak to their children in English, they feel it’s difficult to create opportunities for speaking.  BrookieKids is your opportunity! It would be a thoughtful birthday gift for a friend too.

As a totally non-Chinese speaking parent myself, it was impossible to engage with the activities or understand what was happening, and I wouldn’t be recommending it at all in my situation.  The BrookieKids app instructions and setup are fully in English, but the stories themselves are fully Chinese audio.  Luckily for me, I have two older children in the house who are fluent in Mandarin and they had a great time guiding with my preschooler and using the activity packs together. 

Also note that the child playing the games needs to be able to understand basic spoken Mandarin in order to be able to engage with the stories.  The app is not for a total language beginner as they won’t comprehend the narrative or prompts.

Brookie Kids CHinese activity pack

Where to buy?

BrookieKids products can be bought from their official BrookieKids website and also Shopee.

Current launch price is a modest SGD$15.90 (UP SGD$17.90) with free shipping until 31 July.  Readers of my blog can get enjoy a further 10% discount on all products on their website and Shopee valid until 31 July 2023 using the promo code BROOLAH at checkout. For overseas readers, there is a special international bundle price with shipping included – get all three sets for less than USD$60.  

Note: this is not an affiliate link or sponsored post, however we did receive our activity kit to trial for free. 

GIVEAWAY FOR MY BLOG READERS: I am doing a giveaway valid throughout July for two lucky winners to receive an activity pack from BrookieKids.  To enter, please make a comment below (or alternativity on my IG post) which answers the question:  When is the next BrookieKids playdate?  (answer is on their website). Winners will be determined by lucky draw on 1 August and contacted via email address provided. One winner from the blog, and one from Instagram.

What else is similar to BrookieKids?

BrookieKids is a combination of an app and activity pack which spans LISTENING and SPEAKING.  It makes for an appealing concept for families who try to limit screen time.  I must stress though that BrookieKids isn’t screen free – in fact, the focus of the learning content is all through the screen.

If you like non-screen-based (or low screen) learning technologies, listed below are some other great products I would suggest that make use of audio technologies and visual scanning to bring physical stories/activities to life in Mandarin for home leaning:

Picture below shows us combining the BrookieKids eggs with Habbi Habbi Simplified Chinese flashcards, to create our own extended game grouping objects of different colours.

BrookieKids and Habbi Habbi flash cards

Dou Dou Books: Review of new Chinese levelled readers

What are Dou Dou Chinese Readers?

Dou Dou Books are “first readers” for young children who are just starting to read in Simplified Chinese.  There were meticulously written by an American early childhood education expert, Miss Stella Beaver. Throughout two decades of teaching and researching across top immersion and Montessori schools, she has developed her own books to make learning Chinese fun for a novice reader.

The motivation behind the books was to “reinvent learning” and create an HSK standardised early Chinese reader (meaning they use some of the most common basic words that a learner should know).    

The books are the perfect size for children to read by themselves, and also to pack in handbag and read on the go.  The books contain a certificate at the back where a child can write their name and date to track progress (which I know some families do like).

GIVEAWAY FOR READERS:  For the month of June you can be in with a chance to WIN a set of ten Dou Dou Readers by entering the competition over at my Instagram page.

There are ten books in the first set, each 8 pages long. Together, they cover 33 Simplified Chinese characters The titles in this first set are:

  • 豆豆
  • 你好
  • 不好
  • 小狗
  • 这是
  • 安安
  • 我是
  • 他的

Below is a graphic of how I would place Dou Dou Books compared to popular English series for learning how to read. In my view, they’re essentially a Chinese reading equivalent to the well-known English “Bob Books”, which are known as books that a very young child can read from cover-to-cover totally by themselves. 

Comparison of different leveled readers in Chinese and English

How do Dou Dou Books compare to other Chinese levelled reading systems?

Dou Dou Books is similar to Le Le Chinese Books, because they’re very short books, lovingly illustrated, and consist of just a few words or phrases.  This means they’re designed for a child to read by themselves.  The small short books is like Le Le with a philosophy about whole language learning through stories. It’s different because Dou Dou words are restricted to only 33 characters across ten books, making it considerablty simpler than Le Le. 

Dou Dou Books is similar to both Odonata Books because the stories are connected and build upon one another, and characters are systematically added at each stage. Another similarity is having worksheets and writing books which match the books.  However it’s different because Dou Dou is more repetitive and slow (but really feels like an interesting story book).  So Dou Dou would be better for a younger reader.

Dou Dou Books is similar to Sage 500 because of the simplicity and repetitiveness of the stories, and appropriateness for very very young.  However it’s worlds apart because the stories are actually fun.  Another very obvious difference is the quality of the graphics.   Illustrator Jessie Beaver is currently pursing a degree in animation, and her talent shines through in the ’ cute illustrations of Dou Dou, which took many many months to complete. I honestly feel that if a few more sets of Dou Dou books are written to get it up to 500 characters, it could be a total substitute for Sage 500.

The Dou Dou books would complement any of the above reading systems as additional reading materials.  They wouldn’t replace them however, as Dou Dou Books (at this stage) only cover 30 characters and they’re for very nascent language reading, and the other levelled reading systems mentioned above do go much further (to >1000 characters).    

Below is a video of my five year old reading one of these books.

Pros of Dou Dou Chinese Books

  1. It teaches character learning in a systematic and fun way through reading books (like English Bob Books)
  2. The books are slimline and small, and come in their own cardboard box (also just like the English Bob Books). They’re sturdy and well made.
  3. Cute and clever illustrations
  4. No pinyin or English translations in main story text to strengthen character association (the first page of the book lists out all the new characters contained, with both pinyin pronunciation and English translation)
  5. Audio available through QR code on each book / box – provides very clear pronunciation for each word and phrase
  6. Series of matching activity sheets and flash card – 2 activity sheets per book, including writing, cutting, games, etc, plus writing practice book and 32 character flash cards which match the books, and are a perfect size for little hands.
  7. Wonderful for very young children – If we were to go back in time, Dou Dou readers are certainly books that I would have used with my daughter as first books when she started learning to read (instead of Sage 500).

Below is an example of the words contains in Set 1, Book 1 of Dou Dou Books (the very first book).

The books become progressively harder as the series continues. Below compares Set 1 Book 1 with Set 1 Book 10.

Cons of Dou Dou Chinese Books

Currently there are only 10 very short books in the series, which is nowhere near enough but it’s a great start.   The company aims to put out another 20 books over the coming 18 months, which I look forward to.

If your child can already read ~100 Chinese characters, these all books will be way too easy for them.  In fact, I showed them to my 5-year-old (she’s been reading Chinese since she was 2 years old) and she could read all ten of them in about ten minutes.   She did enjoy though!  

Which Chinese levelled reader is right for me?

Different reading sets have different emphases and curriculum approach. 

Which book to choose also depends on the Chinese reading ability of the parent.    As Dou Dou Books contain a QR code with audio, they will work for non-native reading parents too. Dou Dou is also nice for a homeschool starting out on the reading journey because it has matching worksheet activities making it an encompassing curriculum.

Below is a highly simplified diagram take from an earlier post which has a comparison of Chinese levelled readers for different situations.  As Dou Dou Books first set only covers 33 characters, it wouldn’t replace anything on the below table.  However you could consider it as additional supplementary reading for a child who is doing very first levels of Odonata or Sage 500, or even Le Le. 

Comparisons of the best Simplified Chinese levelled readers

Where to buy?

Online, from the official Dou Dou Books website or Amazon.

What to read AFTER you have finished Dou Dou series?

If your child likes the style of Dou Dou books (short stories they can read by themselves), then Le Le Chinese is by far your best series to continue with.  There are 300 stories in the Le Le readers, and it will take your child up to 1200+ characters over 1 – 2 years of consistent reading.  Le Le are quite an investment, but I do have an exclusive discount code for Le Le Readers which gives you 5% off if you use it (type LAHLAHBANANA on checkout). If your child already know >1000 characters, they can also stat reading simple bridging books too.

Another much cheaper equivalent which has simple stories and slowly introduces a few characters per book is Little Sheep Goes up the Mountain 小羊上山. It’s just the stories are slightly longer and the text is quite small, so not as great for a very young child (but 5 year old + is good). Also, there is no reading pen, so an adult assistance is required for understanding the new characters.

Still looking for more information about injecting Chinese language into your child’s learning?

This entire blog is a passion project focussed on recommending apps and books which are helpful for families embarking on a Chinese learning journey, especially for those from predominantly non-Chinese speaking households.  It’s based on the experience of our family, and our three happy bilingual kids.  If you have found this post helpful, some other earlier posts you might like are:

  1. Luka Reading Companion to narrate Chinese picture books beautifully
  2. Books to read after your child already knows 1000 Chinese characters
  3. Chinese reading dictionary pens to aid in extensive reading for children
  4. Great apps and blogs for families learning Chinese

I would love to hear from you too, especially if you have other great books or tips for learning Chinese as non-native learners. It’s only through meeting other wonderful parents virtually, that this shared language journey becomes a more valuable one! Feel free to reach out via the comments/form on my blog, or else join the conversations on my Instagram @lahlahbanana or Facebook. All comments are 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.