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Reading Pens and Robots for Chinese Learning

[Note – I updated this original post on 3 September 2020 to add in more information]

My three daughters each study Mandarin at school as their “mother tongue”, ironically, since no parents or grandparents can speak Chinese. The children are essentially bilingual, but for me as their monolingual mother, this means I cannot understand the homework, or help with weekly spelling revision, or even bedtime fun reading.

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]

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 reading pen 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.

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. Youdao Dictionary Pen II

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 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 smart 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 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 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.

Head-to-Head comparison of Chinese reading pen options

The image below has a head-to-head comparison of five 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 in the table above, because it’s in a different league (more of a translation/dictionary tool than an children’s educational product). Youdao is like your google translate handy pocket-sized pal which will read anything. It retails in Singapore for S$160, and it will read individual characters on any book, provided the text/handwriting is less than 1.5cm in height.

And that’s what we know about 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 include:

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: 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 hundred 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 test 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?

Review:  Alpha Egg Dictionary Pen T10

This post is a review of iFlyTek Alpha Egg Reading Pen T10 – a handheld multi-language dictionary and translating pen.  It can scan just about any printed text and give an explanation or translation.  The Alpha Egg T10 is designed to be kid-friendly and allows the user to accurately and quickly translate from/to different languages (Chinese, English, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Spanish). 

Previously on this blog I have reviewed the Alpha Egg Q3 and this T10 is the latest iFlyTek Alpha Egg model. It looks and feels quite different to its predecessors. In fact, it’s more similar in look and feel to the Youdao 3.0 pen, which I also reviewed several months back (but, oh, it’s so much better!).

The Alpha Egg T10 Dictionary pen was kindly lent to our family for month by a friend during the June school holidays. Very grateful for the opportunity to try it out. Regular readers would know that our family has a tonne of reading devices for teaching our three kids to read Chinese (since as parents we cannot even speak Chinese), and it was fun to see how the T10 compares to our other gadgets.

This post covers:

What is the iFlyTek Alpha Dictionary Pen T10?

The Alpha Egg Dictionary Pen T10 is a highly advanced dictionary and translating pen, which comes with added built-in educational functions.

The primary use for such a pen is indeed its dictionary function, this clever pen will scan any Chinese written text (from an individual character to a full paragraph, including Hanyu Pinyin and Traditional Chinese), and then have options to:

  • read it out in Chinese
  • read it out in English (in a very fluent and sensible translation)
  • show the pinyin, radicals, and stroke order
  • provide the dictionary definition of individual words in the sentence/paragraph.

If you’ve used Google Translate previously, you’ll know that Google can indeed translate, but often not well enough to be certain 100% of the nitty gritty details.  Using a dictionary pen like Alpha Egg is a much better way to do this.   It not only uses the Oxford Chinese & English Dictionaries (9th Edition) to scan seamlessly and accurately, but it combines this with neural network learning for fluency of translations.  The pen will recognise a range of bold and italic fonts, from newspapers, picture books, through to mobile tablets and devices.

As for the “extra educational functions” beyond just being a dictionary pen, the T10 can be used as a mini AI tutor.  It’s not quite as cute as Luka Reading Robot, but it does have some nice features such as:

  • oral pronunciation practice and grading
  • listening comprehension tools
  • stroke order for all characters
  •  20 key reference books

Key differences between Alpha Egg T10 and previous version (Alpha Egg Q3)

I would make the analogy that if these pens were handphones, it would be like comparing an iPhone Pro Max (the T10) with a Nokia brick (the Q3).   Both options have very different user groups. 

Physically, the T10 with its space-capsule-inspired design has a much bigger screen display (ie more fragile) and a slimmer design that accommodates a USB port.  This means the T10 is more appropriate for older children/adults  For an adult, the T10 is perhaps more comfortable to hold for longer period of time than the Q3, since the Q3 was specifically designed for small hands to grasp the sturdy crayola-like pen barrel.  The T10 has a cooling aluminum alloy outer shell, and the Q3 is plastic-y.

Software-wise, T10 is well advanced.  For basic function of translating, they’re both identical to each other.  But the T10 has a whole host of extra functions.  This is the biggest difference – that the T10 moves beyond basic dictionary functions and passive searching for words/translations, into active teaching (which you may or may not want in your pen!)

Language-wise, The T10 comes in two versions – the standard bilingual version is Chinese/English and the “Pro” version has an impressive 6 languages (Chinese/English/Japanese/Korean/Spanish/Russian).  This is a great features for multilingual families and adult learners too.  The previous Q3 only translates between Chinese and English. 

Pricewise, there’s no comparison.  One is 50% more than the other.  Guess which!

Key features summarised in table below.

Comparison of key features of different iFlyTek Alpha Egg models

What is the use for a Chinese Dictionary Pen?

Honestly, a good dictionary pen is among one of the best resources that your family can have for learning Chinese -it’s great for both parent and child, and for non-Chinese and Chinese speakers. That’s why we have so many in our house already. Dictionary Pens are great because they provide translation, assistance for unknown words, and opportunities to unlock other independent learning opportunities through individual reading and writing.

If you are a parent still trying to use Google Translate on your phone for translating what Chinese characters are, or your child is struggling when reading Chinese passages to understand certain characters/phrases, then this is the gadget is totally for you!  Yo

A dictionary pen is for exactly that…. looking up and translating words. Use cases can include:

  1. To assist my children to read independently:  when reading a book by themselves, the Dictionary Pen helps them to understand particular words or phrases they don’t know.  Rather than needing me to madly look it up for them on Pleco, this pen lets the child do it themselves instantly and effortlessly.  They simply need to scan the text using the pen and they get the pronunciation and explanation to appear (a great help for a busy parent, or a parent who doesn’t read the language). This really encourages the kids with their independent wider reading.   It works great for reading books where the child knows 90 – 95% of the words, and the dictionary pen can fill in the unknown characters (for Chinese, it’s much harder to guess the missing character than in English, when a word can often be deciphered phonetically given the surrounding context).

    For non-Chinese speaking adult to understand printed Chinese: the pen is a good tool for an anyone who doesn’t know the language, but needs to translate a document/word.   Doing this with Google Translate is time-consuming, and still produces a sub optimal result.  Dictionary pens such as iFlyTek Alpha Egg will scan instantly and give translations of whole paragraphs which actually do make sense. 
  2. Finding out more about a particular word / character: from definition, to related words and also stroke order, it’s possible with a few clicks to find out the etymology about a word of interest

How do scanning dictionary pens work?

If you’re reading this and trying to choose an e-dictionary which is Singapore MOE compliant, none of these scanning dictionary pens will fit the bill….. because they’re really just too smart. Their effortless and seamless ability to translate any written text is incomparable to any other e-dictionary.

They work using two main pieces of technology that sets them far and above the standard Chinese e-dictionaries because they contain:

  • Live neural networks for translation: this means they go beyond just a built-in dictionary, and base translations from millions of real-world examples which creates fluent and relevant translations
  • Optical Characters Recognition (OCR): some of you will be familiar with Pleco OCR or Google Photo translate. This gives the ability to scan printed text with high accuracy, and it’s built into the pen itself removing the need to type in text

Menu options on the Alpha Egg T10

The menu of the Alpha Egg T10 has many more options than the Alpha Egg Q3 (which has 3 menu options) and the Youdao 3.0 (which has 4 options). Downside is they’re only navigated in Chinese, so I’ll explain what we worked out here.

The ten functions to choose between are:

  • Word scan and translate: this is the main function – you can scan any text (single word or multiline) and it will read it out aloud and translate the text. If you click the words, on screen, you can explore further to get synonyms, definitions, stroke order, or save the word into your wordbank.
  • Language explanation: this contains a plethora of different reference books, dictionaries etc
  • Listening and speaking practice: this is actually for practicing English speaking primarily! You talk into the pen and get graded on your performance.
  • Composition correction: this is actually for English writing composition, a bit like grammar check on Ms Word. You can actually scan your own hand written composition and get real-time corrections.
  • Word Bank: you can add words/sentence in here for later review, and also download externally.
  • Dictation: Exercises are largely designed to align with Mainland China MOE syllabus.
  • Voice query: This is where you can ask the pen trivia question, or history etc, inlcuding meaning of idioms or ancient poems.
  • Voice translation: much like the word scan and translate, you can also do this with voice input
  • Glossary: Like a thesaurus.
  • Settings: lots if important things in here. Options to choose screen brightness, left or right handed settings, choice of language (English, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish), choice of male or female voice, choice of default dictionaries, downloading latest data etc.
The options under the setting menu of Alpha Egg Dictionary Pen T10

Pros of iFlyTek Alpha Egg Dictionary Pen T10

The really great features of the Alpha Egg pens are:

  1. One-swipe, fast translation: recognises words and sentences automatically, at a speed of about 15 characters per second
  2. User friendly design:  clear voice (both male & female) that are easy to understand, with adjustable volume, comfortable to hold, multidirectional scanning for left or right handers, and very portable.
  3. High quality translation:  the translation is miles better than Google Translate, and noticeably better than Youao too (especially better for idioms or colloquialisms)
  4. Many options on touch screen:  provides Chinese audio, English audio, written English, and Pinyin translations, and also option for voice recording, and translating spoken voice inputs too
  5. Works on nearly all written text less than 1.5cm wide:  Support standard fonts in textbooks, children’s Chinese picture books, newspapers and magazines, restaurant menus, etc. It can read from screens/tablets if set on very bright.  It will even read very neat handwriting(another incentive for a child to write neatly!).
  6. Includes stroke order: the screen will illustrate stroke order
  7. It can read Hanyu Pinyin and recognises Traditional Chinese characters also
  8. Reading speed can be adjusted:  when we first tried out this pen, my daughter’s comment was that is read too fast. Then, we realised there is a ‘slow down’ option, which is a thoughtful feature for a younger user to help them really understand the phrasing/intonation.
  9. Oxford dictionary: contains 9th Edition Oxford dictionary, Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary, and 20 key reference books, which can be used for looking up definitions of words and facts. Searching for any word explanation and translation is a cinch, either with a text scan or voice command. 
  10. Advanced AI voice command: it’s possible to ask the pen trivia questions (like “how many planets are in the solar system?”) and the pen will answer it, with a large library of facts from 20 reference books. This works in Chinese only.
  11. Both horizontal and vertical Chinese text layouts

Cons of iFlyTek Alpha Egg Dictionary Pen T10

There are a few considerations when deciding to buy the T10 pen rather than other translating pen models:

  1. More fragile than the Alpha Egg Q3: the screen is bigger and the barrel size thinner (it looks and feels much more like an oversized Youdao pen than the Alpha Egg Q3)
  2. The operating system language is Chinese:  Instructions and set up are fully in Chinese, as are all menus on the pen itself (it’s reasonably intuitive if you play around for a bit).  In comparison, it’s now possible to get the Youdao pen with English instructions and English operating system. 
  3. It will read only printed text which is less than 1.5 cm wide: this rules out some popular children’s books with oversized fonts, including Sage 500 Books or Elephant & Piggie.
  4. For the “Pro” version: it has 6 languages, but only translates between Chinese and the target language (English/Korean/Russian/Japanese/Spanish).  In comparison, the Youdao Dictionary Pen 3.0 can translate between English-Spanish and Spanish-English, which can be more helpful for non-native Chinese learners.

Technical Specifications

Model: TYP-AIT10 Alpha Egg (by iFlyTek)

Battery:  USB rechargeable; 8 hours of continuous use; charges in about 2 – 3 hours

Weight: 79g

Connectivity: 2.4gHz WiFi (supports offline use too)

Screen: 3.7-inch RGB LCD screen

Voice Mode: Real voice (British accent, Male & Female voices)

Orientation: Left & Right-handed

Languages: Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, English (for standard version).  Additional languages of Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Russian (for pro version).

User interface: Mandarin

Scanning speed: 80 words per minute

How does iFlytek Alpha Egg T10 compare and other Chinese reading pens?

Left: Alpha Egg T10, Middle: Alpha Egg Q3; Right: Youdao 2.0

Alpha Egg T10 takes the excellent translating features of the Alpha Egg Q3, and splices it with the sleek elegance and larger screen of the Youdao.   It feels more sci-fi than the Youdao by nature of its design, and you get a sense that you are holding serious technology in the palm of your hands.

In particular the Alpha Egg T10 improvements versus Youdao Dictionary Pen 3 are:

  • Screen size:  The iFlytek Alpha Egg T10 screen is larger than all its predecessors and competitors that we’ve ever come across (including the Youdao 3.0). 
  • Voice: The pen offers a variety of different voices and genders (sane as the Q3 also). In comparison, Youdao only has a female voice.
  • Translation accuracy:  Alpha Egg T10 and Alpha Egg Q3 perform the same, and this level is slightly better (eg faster and more accurate) than Youdao.  It’s hard for me to always know, as a non-Chinese speaker but this has been corroborated by Chinese speaking friends also.  The Alpha Egg’s translations – especially specific things like idioms or name of Emperors, dynasties, or biblical texts etc etc –  do make more sense than Youdao.
  • Pointing accuracy:  Alpha Egg is more likely to get it right the first time, versus Youdao, when requires multiple attempts to scan the same character. T10 is less fiddly, and easier to swipe at any angle, from either hand.
  • Languages:  the Alpha Egg T10 pro version can translate between Chinese and five languages, being English, Japanese, Korean, Russia and Spanish.  In contrast, the Youdao Dictionary Pen 3 only contains English, Chinese and Spanish.

The two biggest drawbacks of iFlytek Alpha Egg versus Youdao is that it doesn’t have any English operating system, and it is slightly larger to hold.  I have written a more detailed head-to-head comparison between features of the iFlytek Alpha Egg and Youdao in a comparison post here.

Left: Youdao 2.0; Middle: Alpha Egg Q3; Right: Alpha Egg T10

Where to buy?

Our friend who lent us their Alpha Egg T10 bought the pen in Singapore from Sagesaurus which is actually where our Alpha Egg Q3 came from. If buying through their website, you can get SGD$10 off for any of the Alpha Egg pens sold through their site (the Q3, the T10, and the T10 Pro) 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].

What would I buy?

Totally depends on budget and use. The pens are all very similar, so let price be your key guide. Then as a general rule, Alpha Egg translations are better/more accurate than Youdao, so if you can deal with the Chinese operating system, Alpha Egg is the better choice.

  • For a younger child wanting to read independently –> Alpha Egg Q3 (cheaper, easy to hold, less fragile, not many menu options). This is what we have.
  • For a non-Chinese speaking adult –> borrow whatever your child uses! Suggestion would be any Youdao International Version (has English operating system).
  • For an older child or adult with understanding of Chinese –> Alpha Egg T10 (larger screen, many more functions). This is what our friend lent us for this review.
  • For an older child or adult with understanding of Chinese interest in other languages (Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish) –> Alpha Egg T10 Pro (larger screen, many more functions and languages). This is what our friend lent us for this review.
  • For a child learning Chinese and Spanish –> Youdao Dictionary Pen 3.0 (contains both language). This is also what we have.

Enjoy the journey

I hope this review has help 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. For us, it’s been a joyful experience.

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:

Le Le Flash Cards for learning-to-read in Chinese

Le Le Chinese  – a system purposefully designed for learning how to read Chinese characters – have recently added Le Le Character Review Cards 樂樂字詞複習卡 (aka flash cards) to their product range.  This review is focused on what these Le Le flash cards are, and how they can be used for raising children who both love reading and love Chinese. 

Firstly, what is the Le Le Chinese Character Learning System?

Le Le Chinese Learning System really is the ultimate system to self-learn to read Chinese (either Simplified or Traditional scripts) without the need for phonics (zhuyin or pinyin), nor a Chinese-speaking teacher.  For our family, it’s been essential, as we’re teaching the children Chinese, without any parents or grandparents who can speak or read the language. Le Le can also be effective for native speakers too, however, it’s especially great for non-native speakers due to the reading pen accessory.

I’ve written previously about how GREAT the Le Le Chinese Reading Pen and Character Learning System 樂樂文化 is, and why it’s well worth the investment (especially for those in a situation with no adults to teach literacy to the children).  The books are a leveled reading system that teach >1000 characters through simple stories, utilizing lots of repetition and a touch of humour… and importantly NO pinyin.  These short books are meticulously designed to be an interesting read despite the limited character range, with hand-drawn pictures which add to the charm.  The real clincher for our family has been the matching pen which can read character-by-character when pointed at the books, along with whole sentences. 

We have used Le Le System get to reading fluency with both of my elder children, and are now well on the way with my youngest too.  We’ve recommended it to many who have found the same as us.  My kids learnt so much vocabulary effortlessly through these little books. 

There are 300 booklets in total: 100 essential books of 8 pages each, 100 intermediate books of 8 pages each, and 100 advanced books of 12 pages each.  If you are familiar with the famous “Bob Books” for English literacy, the Le Le books are similar in size, shape and concept but for Chinese.  For more information on the Le Le Chinese books and reading pen themselves, please see my previous post.  Whilst the original post is now 2.5 years old,  it’s still all so relevant.

Le Le Chinese Learning System
Le Le readers with the Le Le audio pen

What are the Le Le Flashcards?

The catch phrases of Le Le is “Read more, study less” and also “Literacy through literature”, so the concept of flashcards isn’t an immediate fit when I think about Le Le’s philosophy.  In fact, what stands out with Le Le is that children will learn to read without realizing they are learning.  This is a stark contrast to other well-known reading systems which focus on introducing one character at a time, and may have somewhat stunted storylines because of it.    However, once you see the Le Le Character Review cards, you’ll realise how they can be a good pair with the Le Le books, as they’re especially intended for review AFTER the story has been read.

The cards are designed such that one side has a character, and the opposite side has a simple phrase (consisting of 2 – 3 characters) encompassing that character.  There are no pictures, English translation or phonics. 

There are three different sets of cards, which accompany the vocabulary from the three sets of Le Le Levelled Readers.  Within each set, there are about 12 ‘topics’ of cards, which align with the book themes.  At the bottom of each card, there are some smaller characters as well as a number. This indicates which set and theme it belongs to. They can be directly matched and aligned to the index pages at the back of the individual Le Le books.

Le Le flash cards word list
Le Le flash card topics match the themes of each of the book sets

In general, revising through flash cards works because they can allow a learner to interact with new information in a way that is very tangible, and easier to retain than other methods. It allows fast access to words, which can be recalled, and this then reinforces the neural connection in the brain.  A very targeted set of words can be used with the cards, and easily repeated until the muscle memory sets in. 

How do we use the Le Le Flashcards?

Finding good Chinese flashcards is generally not so easy. I wrote a previous post about different types of Chinese flashcards – from those with only characters, to those fancier ones that contain pictures, definitions, stroke orders, etc.  We mainly use such flashcards in our house for the playing of games (think of snap, memory matching, treasure hunts, etc). We do not use flash cards for rote learning, although I do recognize that many families do have success this way too.   It’s also important to remember that just because a child can read a flashcard, it doesn’t mean they can actually read.

The Le Le cards are unique from any other flashcards we use, because they can be integrated directly into our nightly book reading schedule without feeling like a chore, and are a more like a natural way to learn reading. 

We have kept our Le Le Character Review cards in numerical order on the original keyrings they were designed to be attached to, and we bring them out each time we finish a Le Le book theme (eg animals, the body, school, etc).  My daughters like to flip through them and read them aloud in sequence. I mark with a small post-it any of the cards which the child couldn’t recognize, which is an easier way than somehow trying to mark the Le Le readers themselves. Sometimes we even play a game using our Luka Reading Robot to see if child or machine can say the character/phrase faster.

Le Le flash cards essential set

This Review Card approach works for us, because we go through our Le Le books from 1 to 100 in order, and this allows us to easily pause and review words without repeating entire books at each stage (it’s especially great for my middle daughter who refuses to re-read any book after she’s read it once, even if she didn’t know all the vocabulary). It’s extra nice because the phrases on the reverse side of the cards align exactly with the books.  This consolidates the learning, and lets us focus on the harder phrases, without feeling repetitive.  I have met other parents who go through Le Le system thematically rather than numerically.  The cards are designed to support this too. 

Actually, when you think about the design of the Le Le book themselves, the pages especially in the beginning set are really like flash cards, with a simple noun or verb or short phrase.  So using these cards is an extension of reading the books, but without the context of pictures to assist or prompt the child.  So, it’s a true test of their character recognition.

The Le Le flashcards would also work great in a Leitner box approach.  We don’t use them for this, as we use the MOE school cards for our Leitner box, and keep the Le Le flash cards squarely in the “reading for pleasure” category.  My earlier post about how flashcards can be effective in learning Chinese outlines the Leitner box approach for those who want to know more on this (I realise many do, as it’s one of the highest Googled search phrases on my blog! It tells me there are a lot of REALLY organised an ambitious parents out there).

Example of the “Red / Essential” Le Le flash card sheets

Example of the “Yellow / Intermediate” Le Le flash card sheets

Example of the “Green / Advanced” Le Le flash card sheets

Pros of Le Le Flash Cards

  • Aligned with renowned Le Le syllabus: Directly matches with the Le Le Chinese learning system books
  • Simple to arrange and store:  Can be kept on a key ring, so there is not a huge mess of 1000 flashcards to deal with and sort through
  • Large and clear font
  • No pinyin or English translations to distract the focus

Cons of Le Le Flash Cards

This looks like a long list …… actually the positives really do outweigh the negatives. I just wanted to explain a few things:

  • Cost: They’re expensive – as with anything from Le Le. If you’re constrained for budget, just get books themselves not the cards  The cards a purposefully designed to supplement the books.  If you don’t have the books, then the cards aren’t a good idea.  They’re not designed to be used alone.
  • No reading pen:  This is actually a positive in disguise. The Le Le flash cards are purposefully not readable with the Le Le audio pen, as this aligns with the Le Le philosophy. You read the books first using the pen with audio, and then these cards are for revision.  The design team want the child to go back to the books if they are unsure with any characters. If the cards are readable, it will lose its meaning. [I get the intention here…. it’s about consolidating learning and not making children dependent on the audio pen with the cards, but if you do desperately want audio for the cards, do note the font is too big for an optical scanning pen, so Luka is the only option here]
  • Not pre-made: The come in perforated cardboard sheets which need to be torn off and turned into flashcards – I found the process of doing this therapeutic, but it did take up nearly a week of evenings to complete.
  • You could DIY if desperate:  For a parent with a lot of time, you could actually just get the Le Le word list (available online to those who buy the system) and then enter them yourself into flashcard-making software.  I’ve done this myself a few years ago, and we printed them out onto coloured paper.  It was a HUGE effort, and honestly, the official Le Le cards are much more practically and robustly designed.
  • All printed information is in Chinese: it’s actually all pretty easy to navigate, even for a non-Chinese reader like myself. The Le Le team speak good English if you do need any assistance.
Le Le flash cards instructions manual
This is the message at the front page of the Le Le flash cards, explaining the philosophy on how they should be used

How helpful are flashcards in learning Chinese?

As Chinese is a pictorial language (well technically it’s combination of pictographs, pictophonetic/ phonosemantic, ideograms and other compounds) memorising many thousands of characters is ultimately what is needed to be a successful reader (sorry to say).  With this context, Chinese flashcards can effectively be relevant for a much longer period than English flashcards would typically be used use of flashcards to learn English generally stops at kindergarten level, whereas Chinese flashcards are part of the book lists in Singapore schools for even Primary 1 and 2 students).  However, for beginners, I don’t think rote learning of characters is an especially helpful approach at all. 

My suggestion is that since I assume you’re human and likely only have limited time and budget (and assuming your child already has working basic spoken Chinese vocabulary), then focus first on extensive reading as the goal for literacy. Lots and lots of it. Find books that are age-appropriate and level-appropriate, including something like the Le Le readers themselves. The greatest learning will come from reading, and any flashcards can be a helpful check or tangible reinforcement.  In the case of the Le Le Learning System, the job has already been done for you, with a collection of 300 short books from beginners (~ Kindergarten level) to advanced (~Primary 2 level), and matching flashcards. 

Our honest view

Le Le Chinese Learning System books and pen are hands-down one of the best purchases we have EVER made in our Chinese learning journey … that’s a big call, if you’ve read my blog you’ll see we’ve tried a tonne of things. Going through the Le Le books (now for a third time, with my third child) has been a wonderful introduction to reading, and I’ve enjoyed it every time and learnt a huge amount myself too.

The Le Le Character Review cards have been a nice addition, but I would not say they’re a totally essential part of the suite.  They nicely fill that ‘urge’ to want to use flashcards and be a responsible fully-involved parent on the bilingual learning journey.  The cards are also really easy to throw into a handbag and use on-the-go whilst waiting in a queue or commuting.  If you’re not fully sure, it’s likely best to buy just the first set of Character Review Cards (which contains by far the largest amount of flashcards), and then if you find a good rhythm of using them, consider getting the rest of the sets. 

My other suggestion would be that if you are in any way thinking of making a thousand of your own DIY flashcards to match Le Le Reading System, just save the effort and buy these ready-made ones.  They’re durable and nicely arranged into labeled sets on key rings, and it would be hard to do any better than what Le Le already has designed.

Where can you buy the Le Le Character Review cards?

The Le Le Character Review flash cards are available in Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese.  They can be bought with each level separately or bundled together with all three.  Like all Le Le products, they only retail through the official Le Le Chinese website in Taiwan.

Shipping is not cheap, but for non-Chinese speaking parents, this system can enable children to exponentially learn new characters and it truly is like no other that we’ve seen or tried. For my blog readers, I have a special 5% off discount for Le Le ……. enter code “LAHLAHBANANA” at checkout. This is a really special offer from the team at Le Le, as they don’t usually offer any discounts or sales. I’m so delighted I can share this with you.

Also THERE IS A GIVEAWAY / COMPETITION for astute blog readers who have made it to the end!!!! If you are based in Singapore, this is open to you. Le Le Chinese is kindly sharing a set of books and flashcards for one lucky family! To enter, simply COMMENT below on this post about why Chinese Literacy is important to your family.  Thanks to the team at Le Le Chinese, the winner will receive
 1 x Essential books (100 books) 
1 x Review cards for Essential level 
1 x Audio pen

If the lucky winner already owns Le Le Essential, you can choose the Intermediate level or Advanced level of your choice.  (books+matching level review card). Closing date for submissions is September 15th 2022.

Le Le flash cards
Simple, uncluttered flash cards for effective learning

Other great resources for learning Chinese

If you have arrived at the end and found this helpful, maybe there are some other posts on my blog you might also enjoy. As a parent who doesn’t speak any Chinese, we’ve relied heavily on online tools, clever robots, and recommendations of others in our Chinese learning journey. Some of my earlier posts are:

New Chinese Learning Apps for Kids in 2022

In edu-tech, nothing stays still.  This post is a round up of the new entrants and major upgrades that have happened in the Chinese Learning Apps for Kids space during first half of 2022. 

The exciting part is that there are some small “mumtrepeneur” businesses, along with homegrown Singaporean startups, that are now rivalling the large mainland China technology houses.   Apart from the local context and content, the great thing about apps that come out of Singapore is they have more English interface options, and are way easier to buy through app stores with a non-Chinese credit card.

New Chinese learning apps for preschool children

Prep Junior

Prep Junior app logo for preschool Chinese
Prep Junior is available in the App Store and Google Play

Prep Junior is a great Chinese learning app targeted at preschoolers. It’s been designed by a Singaporean start-up, and proudly supported by the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism.  This app features interactive Chinese stories also with English translation and hanyu pinyin, making it suitable even for parents who do not speak Mandarin.  A great thing about it is the content features Singapore’s local places, food and culture (like laksa, Gardens by the Bay, Changi Jewel, Singapore festivals). 

  • Best ages:  4 – 6
  • Targeted Chinese level:  basic fluency
  • Key uses:  reading, listening, comprehensive input
  • Language: Simplified Chinese
  • Originates from: Singapore

Maomi Stars

Moami Stars app logo chinese for preschool
Maomi Stars is available in the App Store and Google Play

After several rounds of beta testing Maomi Stars officially launched their app this year, and it really became a hit in Taiwan, being the number one downloaded education app from the app store within weeks of launching in first quarter of 2022.  Maomi Stars is a Chinese literacy app for children, equivalent to English kindergarten literacy apps like Starfall, ABC Mouse or Reading Eggs.  It’s been meticulously researched, and tested on children, and contains wordlists from many popular graded readers like Sagebooks, Odonata and 四五快读, along with MOE school curriculums being added. Let your children meet the cute kitty cats and go on a journey together.

  • Best ages:  3 – 8
  • Targeted Chinese level:  beginner to basic fluency
  • Key uses:  vocabulary building, character recognition
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese & Traditional Chinese
  • Originates from: U.S.A

Galaxy Kids 

Galaxy Kids Chinese App logo
Galaxy Kids Chinese is available in the App Store and Google Play

You may have of this highly popular English learning app for preschoolers called Galaxy Kids.  In February 2022 they have launched an equivalent Chinese version.  Through games, stories and songs, it aims to teach the first 1000 characters and basic conversation skills (yes, it makes use of the microphone feature to reocgnise you child’s pronunciation and correct for mistakes).  A nice thing about this app too is they have partnered with Go East, which is an excellent online language school for children, in case you’re also looking for wonderful live 1-to-1 Chinese classes. The app is currently FREE to use for up to 3 activities per day.

  • Best ages:  4 – 6
  • Targeted Chinese level:  beginner
  • Key uses:  comprehensible input, character recognition
  • Language: Simplified Chinese
  • Originates from: Singapore

Gua Gua Long 瓜瓜龙宝妈宝爸群

Gua Gua Long app Chinese for preschoolers
瓜瓜龙 is available in the App Store and Google Play

The Gua Gua Long app has been made by the developers of Tiktok, but the similarities stop there.  Bytedance launched this educational app in China two years ago, and entered Singapore earlier this year with vengeance (presumably in light of the crackdown in China against online tutoring companies).   This app mainly consists of pre-made videos, from art classes to rhymes and book reading, which are divided into topical themes. Sign up and insturctions are fully in Chinese, so best for a literate parent.

  • Best ages:  4 – 8
  • Targeted Chinese level:  intermediate fluency
  • Key uses:  comprehensible input in Chinese, culture
  • Language: Simplified Chinese
  • Originates from: Mainland China

New Chinese Learning apps for primary school age kids

Dim Sum Warriors Club 点心侠

Dim Sum Warriors review
Dim SUm Warriors app is available through App Store and Google Play, but their Club Membership includes an extra online portal

Dim Sum Warriors Club is a somewhat unconventional approach for learning language through creativity, stories, and doodling helmed by a creative husband and wife duo.   Dim Sum Warriors themselves have been around in various forms over the last decade – from graphic novels through to a musical – however the Club concept has just been revamped and launched, including have livestreams most days of the week and increased online content.   A new feature is the livestream nightly 成语 Chinese Idiom Doodle Dates, which follow the Singapore MOE syllabus.   With their new launch in 2022, there’s a special deal that if you’re buy The Dim Sum Warriors Club membership, mention that you were recommended by lahlahbanana and you will receive one print book free! Valid until September 30th 2022.

  • Best ages:  5 – 12
  • Targeted Chinese level:  nascent to intermediate fluency
  • Key uses:  comprehensible input, idioms, literacy
  • Language: Simplified Chinese
  • Originates from: Singapore/Taiwan

Gamistory

Gamistory portal for primary school Chinese
Gamistory is only available through Vitamin M web portal

In June 2022, the creatives from Vitamin M launched Gamistory which is an online portal where storytelling meets gamification to learn Chinese.  The team delivers a new video (3 – 5 minutes) to watch each week, combined with interactive ‘choose your own’ adventure-type stories, and modules to complete. This app complements their highly popular ‘Vitamin Hour’ live classes, although it can also be bought with just the web portal content only. The content covers current affairs and popular culture around South East Asia, including sports, music, foods, attractions, and issues (such as famine, flooding, discrimination, etc), along with mysteries to solve. Free trial content of 1 module is available.

  • Best ages:  9 – 11
  • Targeted Chinese level:  intermediate fluency
  • Key uses:  reading, oral
  • Language: Simplified Chinese
  • Originates from: Singapore

VocabKing by Kids Start Now  

VocabKing is only available through KIds Start Now web portal

Touted as Singapore’s first AI Chinese learning platform, VocabKing aims to help a child to revise their Chinese school work through gameplay.  The main focus is reading Chinese passages and characters, and by answering questions kids can capture fire, water, and pets for a Pokemon-esque type battle.  It’s based from the Singapore MOE syllabus, and parents can add own word to the child’s wordlist.  In that sense, it’s a little bit like Skritter, but gamified. They have a 7 day free trial.

  • Best ages:  4 – 12
  • Targeted Chinese level:  Singapore MOE syllabus
  • Key uses:  vocabulary and character recognition
  • Language: Simplified Chinese
  • Originates from: Singapore

Wukong Literacy (悟空识字)

悟空识字 is available in App Store and Google Play Store

Wukong Literacy app has come leaps in bounds in 2022 and I’ve heard some parents say they prefer this to iHuman, which has long been the most highly regarded literacy app from mainland China.  All the download and signup info is in Chinese… if you make it through that, you’ll love the content.  I reviewed it a few years back, but it’s now had a huge facelift.  The app makes use of the tabelt camera and microphone features in only ways which China would come up with, to create a lot of interactive learning games, including reading, writing and oral.    They have a 7 day free trial.

  • Best ages:  8 – 12
  • Targeted Chinese level:  intermediate fluency
  • Key uses:  character recognition, literacy, sentence structure
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese
  • Originates from: Mainland China

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

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on great apps, I’d love to hear from you. I am always keen to hear what works for other families.    As an adult who speaks no Chinese, I’ve resorted to several smart technologies to enable my kids to become bilingual.  Perhaps some of my earlier posts might also be of interest:

Review: The Dim Sum Warriors Club

Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Club is an unconventional approach for learning language through creativity, stories, and doodling.   During the pandemic last year, I had the opportunity to meet and interview the creator of Dim Sum Warriors 点心侠.   Our family now has all their books, and we’ve been part of the Dim Sum Warriors Club for a year.  This post is what we think about the concept.

What is the Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Club 点心侠 ?

The Dim Sum Warriors Club was officially launched in 2021.  It has four main parts:

  • Bilingual Comic Jams: 45 minutes livestream, three Saturdays per month
  • 成语 Chinese Idiom Doodle Dates: 15 minutes live sessions 4 nights per week
  • Web resources: 100+ draw-along videos, mini-posters, quizzes, vocabulary lists, home study guides
  • Dim Sum Warriors app: combining voiced comics, word recognition and vocabulary-building games, and read-aloud voice evaluation in Mandarin and English

They also have print books sold separately as the Little Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Tales (bilingual stories for young readers).

The system was created by a Singaporean husband-wife team Dr Woo Yen Yen (a tenured professor in education and film-maker) and Colin Goh (illustrator of two New York Times bestselling books and writer of films and a musical ), combining their years of professional expertise with their passion for bilingual parenting.  More about their fascinating backgrounds and family in my interview with DIm Sum Warriors.

Dim Sum Warriors app

What we like?

  • Very suitable for language beginners, younger learners, and language enthusiasts alike:  the app and the livestream content is fully bilingual, so it is very accessible for a parent or child in both Chinese and English.  Even I, a monolingual parent, can appreciate the livestream sessions and learn something new in Chinese and English every time.  I’d liken it to a Disney Pixar movie which appeals to different audiences at very different levels.
  • It’s real people interacting (and these people are incredible): it’s so rare to be able to interact with an author or cartoonist, let alone have access to them each week and put in live requests about what you want them to draw.  This is what my kids look forward to the most.  The very talented “Uncle Colin” can draw the most hilarious things in seconds. 
  • The online sessions are short, sharp and ongoing:  there’s no overload on screen time. In just 15 minutes, an idiom can be learnt, interacted with, and remembered.  It’s possible to get consistent bilingual input and interaction throughout the week with this method.
  • Books form the basis of the app content: the app isn’t about rote learning literacy or watching cartoons.  It’s really about reading real books, and interacting with them.   The system bringing books to life and lets a learner engage/interact with the content.   We actually bought hard copies of the books, so the screen time is a treat. 
  • App language (and books) can be in English or Chinese: set the app as you please.  Choice of Simplified or Traditional script, with Mandarin pronunciation.  Bahasa Indonesia and Vietnamese are on the way as home languages in the app too. 
  • Safe:  the online sessions are conducted through the members-only page on the website, and only the Dim Sum Warrior team is visible on screen …..  no ability for children to have cameras on or voices shared nor recorded.  The requests are sent through a moderated chat, run in English and Simplified Chinese.  It’s also fairly intuitive for a child to login themselves and navigate.
  • Intentional content:  There is great thought put into the curation of content.  Many of the books focus on themes of resilience, inclusiveness, and diversity, whilst the idioms cover a lot of the Singapore MOE Primary syllabus.  I feel I can trust the Dim Sum Warriors team to deliver content which meets both the emotional and educational needs of good responsible multilingual citizens.  The team includes ex MOE teachers, Taiwan school teachers and university professors.
  • Family Sharing:  One account is shared by all three kids, and the whole family can participate in the livestream Jams together.  At times, we’ve even invited neighbours around to join in. 
  • It’s a steal:   Can you believe getting 20 live sessions each month (about 240 in a year), for an annual price of SGD199???

What we don’t like? (or watch outs)

The Dim Sum Warriors Club has been recently relaunched, after going through several stages of development.  If you were one of the early adopters in 2020 to check out the app when it was offered free during COVID, I’d recommend you try it again, as you might be surprised how much it has improved / expanded

Nothing is perfect, so some watch outs for consideration:

  • It’s not fully immersive Chinese:  when I first came across the Dim Sum Warriors Club,  I was initially put off by the fact it is not fully immersive for Chinese.  It actually mixes English and Chinese throughout.  Since I didn’t understand the Chinese myself, I mistakenly didn’t realise how cleverly the English and Chinese dialogues are intertwined, through a pedagogical concept called ‘translanguaging’, which I explored further in my interview with the creators. It’s a very neat concept.
  • Features Singaporean English accents:  certainly, the jury will be split on this aspect.  The app in fact has a range of featured actors and accents, but you’ll notice the very familiar local flavour in the mix.
  • App can be a little draggy: sometimes downloading the stories takes a few minutes (not long, but longer than kids would like it to be). 
  • App itself suited for younger kids:  My preschooler likes the app best, whereas my elder kids get more into the livestreams and would rarely use the app.

Unique features of Dim Sum Warriors?

The whole concept is SO so unique ….. combining physical reading books, with an app that helps the child read the books, and then live interactive weekly sessions. 

In particular, some other unique callouts of this unconventional approach to language acquisition are:

  • Great for food lovers:  Combines Chinese language with all sorts of food creations
  • Helmed by an award-winning cartoonist:  Uncle Colin with no doubt wow your kids when he doodles live
  • Translanguaging and fun play with language:  this goes way beyond the textbook and into a world of literary fun and linguistics.  There are puns, idioms, and etymology.   It gets a bit geeky at times, but it doesn’t feel like learning.
  • Perfect for kids who really love to draw:  in the Bilingual Comic Jams, the child can see step-by-step how to draw fun cartoons, and also submit wacky requests on what they want to learn about.  The photos of what the kids achieve are quite impressive.
  • It’s Laugh-Out-Loud funny:  the team really love to laugh, and learning is more fun that way!
Dim Sum Warriors Club vocab
Throughout the 45 minute livestream, the children can suggest ideas in line with the weekly theme, and Uncle Colin draws them and discusses relevant vocabularly.
Dim Sum Warriors Club Doodle Date
Translanguaging and language fun abounds in the Dim Sum Warriors Livestreams

How does Dim Sum Warriors work?

I’ll just share how we use it, as there will be plenty of permutations of families who use it differently.

  • Little Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Tales:   We bought the physical printed books, although they’ re also available in digital format through the app (there is usually a new title every couple of months that come out on the app first).  These books are also in the Singapore NLB library, and quite a few can be found in the international school libraries too.  The books have short, funny skits about the Bao family, including titles like “Papa, I’m Still Not Sleepy“, “My Way is the Best” and “I’m Very Busy“.  You’d be surprised at how kids connect with these short stories, even those who may not enjoy Chinese language.  Sometimes mine ask to read the same story multiple times in a row.
Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Tales
The Dim Sum Warriors books are bilingual, with Chinese on one side, and English on the other.
  • Bilingual Comic Jams:  these are livestreamed chat-and-draw along events held on Saturday mornings.   We don’t join every weekend, but if we’re home at that time, we’d certainly put the TV on and have it going in the background with at least one child watching, and sometimes all six of us!  The Jams are hosted bilingually, and build confidence in Chinese through creatively playing with the language and making connections across languages.  Often around festival times (CNY, Mid Autumn, Halloween, Christmas etc) the Jam theme is aligned, and we’d make an extra effort to join and get to understand more specific vocabulary for the season.  A favorite one we joined was the International Women’s Day event…. I was very glad for kids to learn this inclusive vocabulary in Mandarin, as it’s not a common feature in the Chinese materials they otherwise watch/read.
  • Chinese Idiom Doodle Dates:  these are held weeknights at 8.30pm which is too late for us to join live, although we’ve made a handful of these during the school holidays.  The rest of the time, we’ll watch the replays.  The time we used this feature the most was actually whilst traveling….. it enabled us to keep up daily exposure to Chinese language throughout the long summer break.
Dim Sum Warriors Club Idiom Doodle Dates
Isn’t this an amazing picture done in 8 minutes? Such a fun way to learn Chinese idioms!
Dim Sum Warriors Club Idiom Nights
  • Dim Sum Warriors App: the app is filled with games that cover both Chinese and English, including activities to listen, read aloud, and even record kids’ own voices in both Chinese and English   It has easy language-toggling and super kid-friendly navigation.  It’s especially appealing to younger kids, giving plenty of aural and oral opportunities.  If you’re concerned about a child’s pronunciation, this is one way to let them practice, as voice recognition can highlight mispronounced words and fluency levels whilst reading the books aloud.

How is it different from other Chinese apps for kids?

In short, I would say it’s peerless.  It’s original.  It’s really hard to compare.

This is neither an app, nor an online class.  It’s a great mix of the two.  Of course, it is possible to just buy the books, or just use the app.  However, the whole Club package, including the livestreams is what makes it so compelling.  It’s incomparable to any app.

In terms of concept, it’s perhaps a bit like Vitamin M, but with a literary/linguistics focus (Vitamin M which I reviewed previously is designed for orals, and comes at a much higher price point).  It’s also a little like the GenieBook Chinese concept of blended online self-learning and livestreams, but without the textbook focus and much much more personal and creative. 

How to become a Dim Sum Warriors Club Member?

For more information, look on the Dim Sum Warriors website.

** SPECIAL DEAL FOR READERS ** If you’re buying The Dim Sum Warriors Club membership , mention that you were recommended by lahlahbanana and you will receive one print book free! Valid until September 30th 2022.

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

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on apps, I’d love to hear from you. I am always keen to hear what works for other families.    As an adult who speaks no Chinese, I’ve resorted to several smart technologies to enable my kids to become bilingual.  Perhaps some of my earlier posts might also be of interest:

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

What is Maomi Stars?

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

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

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

What we like?

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

What we didn’t like?  (or watch outs)

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

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

Unique features of Maomi Stars?

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

How Maomi Stars works?

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

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

How is it different from other great Chinese literacy apps?

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

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

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

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

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

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on apps, I’d love to hear from you. I am always keen to hear what works for other families.    As an adult who speaks no Chinese, I’ve resorted to several smart technologies to enable my kids to become bilingual.  Perhaps some of my earlier posts might also be of interest:

Maomi Stars character writing game

Book Review: Zorori 怪杰佐罗力

Zorori (怪杰佐罗力) stories are vivid, interesting, and hilarious, creating a genre to themselves – part mystery, part comedy, and I wouldn’t know whether to classify them as a novel, graphic novel or even picture book. They’re great Simplified Chinese books for a mid-to-upper primary child who still needs some visuals to stay interested in the reading.

Key Information on Zorori series

  • Author:  Yutaka Hara 
  • Number of books in set:  57
  • Number of lines per page:  3 – 10 (very varied)
  • Number of pages per book: 85
  • Total length of the book:  ¬10,000 characters
  • Characters required by child to read it independently: 1500+
  • Pinyin: Yes (partial)
  • Bilingual: No
  • Available in Singapore NLB: Yes (12 titles)
  • Original language of publication: Japanese
  • Audio available: yes, with Luka

What the Zorori plot is about

Zorori is an eccentric fox whose goal is to be the world’s number one mischief-maker, marry a beautiful princess and make his mother proud.  He’s also a grand inventor and a little clumsy.  Zoroi and his two bandits-in-training (who are twin boars) travel around and do pretty silly/bizarre things together.  

They were first published in the 1980s, so  I’m now meeting parents of primary schoolers who are saying they read these books as a child and LOVED them, so now are introducing them to their own children.  These books were originally written in Japanese (much like many of our favourite Simplified Chinese sets) by author/illustrator Yutaka Hara.  Hara is a storytelling master, having written many popular series such as “Little Ghost”, “Spinach Man”, and “The famous fried chicken primary school”.  For some reason, Zorori series is by far the most well-known in Singapore.  In Japan, Zorori is said to be more famous than Harry Potter.

There are 70 books written in Japanese in this set, of which 57 books have been translated into Simplified Chinese (and still increasing).  It’s updated at a rate of about two books a year.  We’ve read half of them.  My daughter loves leafing through and rereading, which makes it a winning book in at our place. Given the sheer number of stories written, it’s a good indication that they’re not world-class literature, but they are certainly good sellers.

What my daughter likes about it:

  • The humour
  • The graphics
  • The silliness
  • Age appropriate for a ten year old, and not-to-hard vocabulary for a P3/P4
  • Comics, puzzles, and inventions hidden everywhere in the book (which is why she always leafs through it again and again, always finding something new)

What a mother would like about the set:

  • The typesetting is a good size and clear
  • Text and graphics are well-matched, with more text than graphics, mainly in black-and-white, with an occasional splash of colour
  • Encourages independent reading and keeps my daughter entertained
  • Encourages creativity – and appeals to my engineering brain with some of the contraptions and their corresponding illustrations
  • There are a handful of idioms hidden in the mix
  • An element of filial piety entwined (ever so slightly) throughout the stories
  • Not all the text has pinyin (although it does have some, which is still a little niggle)
  • If needed, it is compatible with Luka Reading Robot

Also, note there are some bad jokes (including backside related ones) which aren’t perfectly clean, but not vulgar either. 

Insides of the book

A picture tells 1000 words, and given that Zorori series has great pictures, I’ll just take the easy route and show you. These is the Zorori Simplified Chinese version, and I believe the Traditional Version and Japanese are each the same layout. Quite fun right?

Zorori books in  Simplified Chinese
Zorori books in Simplified Chinese
Zorori Chinese book illustrations
Very technical drawings and contraptions, which I think would particularly appeal to boys
Zorori Simplified Chinese in colour
Each Zoroli book has several pages which are full colour printed
A splash of colour

Zorori Simplified Chinese bridging book
It’s part picture book, and part graphic novel
Zorori puzzle
Every book contains fun puzzles to solve
Zorori book review
Not all the text has pinyin, but most of it does

Where to find Zorori series

The first 12 books in the series of Zorori in Simplified Chinese are available in the Singapore NLB.

All the books are readily available from several stores in Singapore and so easy to find that you won’t need any pointers from me.  Simply google or walk into a good Chinese bookstore!  If you don’t know any good bookstores, my earlier post lists my favourite ten stores Chinese children’s bookstores.

Zorori in the Singapore NLB collection
These are the main Zorori titles availability in the Singapore NLB collection

What level is it for?

It would work for any child above 5, given it has full audio recording through Luka, and also pinyin above most of the words.  For a child to read the series independently, I feel about P3/P4 equivalent in the Singapore school system.

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

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

  • 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 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 comments below, or through my my Instagram or Facebook feeds. It’s only through meeting other wonderful parents virtually, that this shared language journey becomes a more valuable and fun one.

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.

Review: Vitamin M – a fun dose of Chinese online

If you’re looking for a way to support your child’s oral and public speaking skills in Chinese, then Vitamin M might be the online platform for you.  It’s an innovative new concept for learning Chinese targeted at primary school students. Vitamin M blends online modules with weekly live teaching sessions, with an aim to spark joy and motivation in speaking Mandarin.

This review shares what it’s been like for my daughter learning online with Vitamin M for the last five months.

What is Vitamin M?

Concept 

The concept is simple – they have high-quality online interactive modules for kids to play, coupled with a weekly one-hour small group coaching session.  The online content is a combination of short videos and choose-your-own-adventure-style games.  Children use their Chinese skills to solve mysteries and go on a playful journey, which is broadly based on the Singapore MOE syllabus.

Content 

All the content is created with a ‘story universe’ in mind, so there are familiar actors throughout the activities, videos, challenges (a bit like an ongoing soap drama).   The weekly coaching sessions are conducted via Zoom, by fun loving and dramatic teachers, most of whom have serious acting backgrounds and street cred.  The child can earn points by completing classes and exercises, and exchange these in an online store for plushies, erasers and cute stationery. A winner with the target tween audience! 

Class structure

The weekly Vitamin Hours is held at set times each week, with 6 children maximum in a class via Zoom. The children will watch short videos and then share their views on the topics in a highly interactive format. The classes contain interesting games, you’ll need a second device, as most of the class involves quizzes which are facilitated using ClassPoint app concurrently throughout the hour. My daughter gets really competitive and enjoys these games. There’s also a writing component (fairly minima), which is done in a specially provided exercise book from Vitamin M.

Teachers

The teachers largely come from drama, radio and film backgrounds, and have a collective aim to bring the language to life.   To give you an example of this, a few times when we have been eating out as a family at a hawker centre – you know the kind with the TVs on endless loops – and my daughter has suddenly announced “oh, that’s such-and-such from Vitamin M in that show”.   She thinks it’s normal to see the actors pop up around the place.

An example video from the online platform activities in May
An example quiz from the weekly Zoom VItamin Hour

Why we like it?

Vitamin M kindly offered a place to my daughter to join their classes for ten weeks when they were first launching their product.  Despite my initial reluctance to let her join the live classes (I told them that our schedule was already packed and moreover weekends were no-class times for us), I was curious enough to check out their online content with my daughter. She fell in love almost instantly, and when Term 1 started for 2022, I ended up eating my words and we indeed joined their weekly classes.    At the time of writing this review, we’ve used the service for about five months.

A few good reasons why it’s appealing to me and my daughter:

  • Singapore-based content:  the stories, the scenery, the curriculum really resonates and helps to engage the child
  • Fun:  This is not textbook, but real life, and useful applications (like learning about poverty in our neighboring countries, Down Syndrome, or the value of hard work, etc) in a light-hearted manner
  • Engaging:  it’s not simply watching videos, but each of the modules requires active involvement from the child, and is a combination of quizzes, or uploading video clips, commenting on performances or video of other children in the class, etc.
  • Bite-sized content and practical content:  for ongoing learning which appeals to a child’s interest and attention levels. Each week there is generally a short video to watch about a world events/issues (eg poverty, disability awareness, sports like tchoukball) and then an interactive dramatised ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ story video with familiar characters. Plenty of practical phrases to be picked up from this.
  • Excellent customer service: All Singapore-based, and you’ll be in whatsapp contact with them. It’s also possible to talk directly to the coach (in English or Chinese) after the weekly classes, and there is regular feedback and discussion online with the parents.  They also host a few webinars for parents about managing exam stress, or oral exam tips, etc.  Several times when my daughter hadn’t lodged her homework in time, the teachers have gently called to ask me where it’s at and encourage my daughter to complete the projects, which is also appreciated.

My daughter (in fact the whole family) really enjoyed the concept.  During the school holidays, they take a break from regular scheduling and even host some online party hours (Mega Vitamin Hours) with great prizes to be won.  

During the March school holidays my daughter was so keen not to miss the VItamin M party that she took her laptop to a playdate and logged in from her friend’s house.  That’s not the only time we’ve have some drama over missing Vitamin M….. on the single weekend when we needed to miss a class (we went to Sentosa for a day), there were tears (but thankfully there was a recording we could watch to catch up). 

The class includes some writing, and plenty of games, so typically my daughter would use ipad, laptop and writing book during the Vitamin Hour

Who is Vitamin M best suited for?

Vitamin M started in in 2021 and content is currently designed specifically for P4 students though they’re not strict about age criteria.   We do know of P5 students who are currently enrolled in the program, as it’s a great way to brush up on spoken Chinese, and amazing way to get feedback for oral exams. It’s probably most relevant for P4 to P6 level at the moment, however there is a new program targeting lower primary students planned for launch in last quarter of 2022.

I think the Vitamin M model of online education is best suited for a child who needs a fun avenue for learning Chinese, and isn’t interested in cramming or rote-learning, but has a good sense for self-directed learning.   It’s great for a child who who wants to use the language more actively outside of school and outside of a formal classroom.  The child needs to be able to navigate through the online content (which is really enticing) and also attend the weekly online classes, and complete a few home activities (eg videoing themselves reading an oral passage and uploading it).   For a child who is competent in using a computer, this is a great way to direct their energies.

Vitamin M is designed for students studying in Singapore, and whilst it would be appealing globally, it’s worth noting the timing for the weekly Vitamin Hours are set for Singapore timezones.

To find out more or book a free trial, check out the Vitamin M website.

How does Vitamin M compare to other online Chinese classes and learning platforms?

I did a previous post comparing Vitamin M against 7 other online Chinese classes targeted at children which we’ve also tried. Honestly, if you are interested in Vitamin M, just try it out yourself. They usually will give a trial class or a demo, and even some trial access to their online content (which is how my daughter got interested in Vitamin M initially). Sometimes they even offer a free bubble tea with the trial 🙂

There are increasingly more services offering online learning options for Chinese which are specific to the Singapore curriculum. In terms of the blended learning concept between online content and live classes, the most similar education platforms to Vitamin M would be:

  • Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Learning System: targeted much more towards literacy and reading, but similar to Vitamin M in that it’s promoting the joy of the language. Vitamin M do it through drama, and Dim Sum Warriors do it through art and cartoon doodling. Both are a light-hearted and fun approach to using Mandarin. Much like Vitamin M, it has a very sound pedagogy and the team behind the concept are themselves authors, actors and academics specializing in Chinese language.
  • GenieBook Chinese: targeted more at grammar than live speaking when compared to Vitamin M, and GenieBook lacks the small group intimacy as the live classes are more like online lectures/presentations that interactive discussions. It’s more a mass market offering, and a much lower price point.
  • LingoAce: who offer a blended learning program for upper primary students, combining online materials with an actual in-person small group class. This is targeted at mastering oral, composition and comprehension components, and is obviously a much higher price point due to the in-person tuition.

Chinese Graded Novels: Books for not-quite-beginners

Are you looking for easy Chinese novels? Chinese graded novels are a great way for an older child or even an adult learner to read more extensively, without getting out of their depth. This post explores some of the best graded novels and what my children think about them.

What are graded novels or graded readers?

I’ve written previously about the magic of extensive reading in the journey to mastering Mandarin (yes, I do mean speaking the language).  Graded readers are a helpful for extensive reading, as they are specifically designed stories using a set amount of characters, and with helpful annotations so you don’t have to stop every few sentences to look up the meaning of a new word.  

Chinese graded novels are essentially longer versions of graded readers, which are less kiddy.   We’re talking about long stories with plots and complexity, yet limited character range, which makes for great reading practice.  Such books are written with shorter sentences and deliberately accessible language, which is often repeated.  Very importantly, a good graded Chinese reader wouldn’t contain any contain pinyin above the characters.  Some come with full English translations at the back, and others do not. They have a variety of levels, so the concept is to start at a level where you know >95% of the vocabulary to ensure that reading is pleasurable and not a chore.

A graded reading book is good, if:

  • the story is engaging and well written
  • the reading level is appropriate for the reader
  • It is well annotated

In the post below, I hope to show you some really great Chinese graded novels, and some more average ones too (not everything in life can be amazing!).

How do graded novels in Chinese compare?

We have a couple of different sets of graded ChInese reading novels – all have their pros and cons.  This post compares the differences and similarities between four well-known sets.  These sets are each well-written and researched (some better than others), reasonably engaging, and relatively easy to find.  Buying a set of these will stop you from going on a wild goose chase of other less-known books and alternatives.

Graded readers covered in this post:

  1. Mandarin Companion Chinese Graded Readers
  2. Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series
  3. Sinolingua Rainbow Bridge Graded Chinese Readers
  4. Graded Readers for Chinese Language Learners (Gaoxiao Zhuti Chuban)
Comparison of graded Chinese novels
Comparison table of Mandarin Companion, Chinese Breeze, Sinolingua Rainbow Bridge and GZC

Mandarin Companion Chinese Graded Readers

  • Books in set: 17
  • Length: 10,000 – 20,000 word length
  • Country of publication: Shanghai, USA, Australia
  • Authors: Jared Turner and John Pasden
  • Publisher: Mindspark Press
  • Difficulty:  Three levels, going from 150 words to 450 unique words (HSK2 to HSK 4)
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese AND Traditional Chinese versions
  • Audio option: Yes
  • eBook option: Yes

Overview: Purposefully written and meticulously developed books that seek to be fun and accelerate language learning, even for a beginner. Most of their titles are Chinese adaptations of Western novels, like Sherlock Holmes or Jane Austen’s Emma. 

A mum’s view:  Highly engaging and pleasurable; there’s something so wonderfully enticing and encouraging about the ways these stories are written.    There is an English introduction setting the scene, and then subtle footnotes on each page for the harder vocabulary.  It’s very nicely laid out and illustrated in colour.  The characters count is more limited, and book range isn’t as extensive as the other series mentioned here, so they’re really great as a first set of novels.  The most basic level is even easier than something like Odonata or Le Le in terms of characters used.  The stories are different enough from the English original versions that the child certainly doesn’t need to know the title already, and even if they do, they will be surprised with the Chinese localization.  I promise you, even for the most reluctant reader, if they pick one of these, they’ll surely make it to the end, and the sense of satisfaction will be worth it!  

My child’s view:  These are my daughter’s favorites by far of all our readers, and I’ve written a separate detailed blog post review of Mandarin Companion.  They’re basically easy-to-read novels and it’s interesting to see the twist they have from the original western stories.

Favourite titles in series: Emma, The Secret Garden, Country of the Blind

Website of the authors: Mandarin Companion (a great website with lots and lots more on it!)

Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series 汉语凤

Chinese Breeze
  • Books in set: 21
  • Length: 8,000 to 30,000 characters
  • Country of publication: USA
  • Authors: Yuehua Liu, Chengzhi Chu, et al.
  • Publisher: Cheng & Tsui
  • Difficulty: 4 levels, ranging from 300 unique words to 1100 words (HSK 3 to 5)
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese
  • Audio option: Yes
  • eBook option: Yes MP3 or CD

Overview: Original stories from professional authors, purposefully and cleverly written to incorporate HSK vocabulary into interesting stories, covering a wide range of genre including comedy, romance, mystery, non-fiction and more.

A mum’s view: Not super engaging, but very reasonable, and a well thought out layout. Like Mandarin Companion, there is a short outline at the start (in English and Chinese) descirbing the main cast of characters and places.  The vocabulary used sticks more closely to HSK than the Mandarin Companion sets does.  They also cover a really wide variety of genres, including romance, fantasy, and horror.  After we ran out of books in the Mandarin Companion series, this set was a logical one to do next.  Some stories are better than others, so choose titles which you think your kids can relate to.  Also look out for the funny quirks where they are clearly trying to fit HSK vocabulary into a story where it doesn’t exactly fit.

My child’s view:  Not as engaging as Mandarin Companion, but she’ll still happily read them through.

Favourite titles in series: Green Pheonix,  Secrets of a Computer Company

Sinolingua Rainbow Bridge Graded Chinese Readers

Sinolingua
  • Books in set: 40
  • Length: 2,000 to 20,000 characters
  • Country of publication: China
  • Publisher: Sinolingua
  • Difficulty: 7 levels going from 50 to 2500 unique words
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese and English
  • Audio Options: Yes, MP3
  • eBook option: Yes

Overview:  Graded books written around Chinese mythology, legends, folklore, literary classics, and biographies of famous people. They have been designed to provide a collection of reading materials with content aligned to commonly used high-frequency Chinese vocabulary.

A mum’s view:  Each of the books has the Chinese story at the front and a full English translation at the back.  The layout is a bit clunky with the advanced words or complicated phrases explained in the side margins in English, and a large part of each page is taken up by a two-tone picture.  Some of the stories in the lower levels can be a bit awkward due to the highly limited word list, and the English translation is equally clunky.  Then since all the stories are about Chinese legends, the vocabulary tends to be a lot around war, fighting, and army, so not as well-rounded as other series.  There is also short comprehension and vocabulary list at the end too.

My child’s view:   Fun, once you get into them ….. there’s usually a bit of upfront energy because there are names and unfamiliar words at the start.  But then ultimately she enjoys then, and also values having the English translation of the story, to check her understanding.

Favourite titles in series: The Legend of the White Snake, Identifying the Thief by Touching the Bell

Graded Readers for Chinese Language Learners  (Gaoxiao Zhuti Chuban)

Mandarin Graded Readers for Chinese Language
  • Books in set: 50
  • Length: 20,000 to 35,000 characters
  • Country of publication: China
  • Author: Chen Xianchun
  • Publisher: Beijing Language and Culture University Press
  • Difficulty: 3 levels ranging from 500 to 1200 unique characters, however they’re not always common characters
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese
  • Audio option: no (but it might help to listen to some of these stories via Ximalaya to understood)
  • eBook: no

Overview: Abridged versions of historical and contemporary Chinese authors, divided into three subseries of differing complexity being folktales (easiest), literary stories and historical stories (hardest).  These are specifically designed as reading materials for Chinese language learners, including being targeted for lower primary school levels in China.

A mum’s view:  these books are largely kept on the shelf for a later date, due to their length and complexity.  I can see the potential in them though – they’re very similar to a typical novel in length and style.  Some of the stories even go across 2 or 3 books, making them a real feat to get through. I’ve been assured from other mums that they’re extremely well written and captivating, and also try to have faithfulness to the original literature. It would definitely be a great set to work through for out-loud reading with an adult who can read the language, and especially one familar with the original works and history surrounding the writing.

My child’s view:  Too long, and has no context setting in English, so it’s hard to know where the story might be head.

Favourite titles in series (so far): Hua Mulan

What other great but not-so-hard books are out there?

Please tell me if you discover something great! I have a family of bookworms and we’re always looking for great reads to further our Chinese learning.

For younger children, I would recommend shorter Chinese levelled reading picture books, which I’ve covered in an earlier post. Bridging books are another great option for shorter reads.

I hope that this post has been helpful. If you’ve reached the end and are still looking for more, maybe I have written some other posts which might be of interest:

Youdao Dictionary Pen 3 Review

This post is a detailed review of the Youdao Dictionary Pen 3, their latest version, which has three languages in one.

In 2020 I stumbled upon a wonderful gadget to support Chinese reading, which is our original 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pen, that I first reviewed in Spring 2020, and called the ‘Holy Grail’ of reading pens. To this day, we still have that very same pen, and use it regularly. It works just great. We now how a Version 3.0 of the pen in our collection too.

When the Youdao team reached out to me offering for us to try the Youdao Dictionary Pen 3, do you know why I was instantly interested?  Because the latest Youdao Dictionary Pen 3 contains Spanish too, and our family has started learning Spanish (as well as Mandarin). Their email came at a time when I was wracking my brain thinking of how to do something meaningful to raise funds for the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, and this seemed like a great way. So keep reading to find out more on this.

This is not a paid or sponsored review.  However, Youdao did generously give our family the Dictionary Pen to try, and shortly I’ll be hosting a giveaway of some Youdao goodies through my IG, so you can share in their generosity too!

What is the Youdao Dictionary Pen 3?

Like its forerunners, the main purpose of the Youdao Dictionary Pen 3.0 is to translate individual words or entire sentences between languages, and it provides a dictionary feature too.  The difference with Version 3.0 is this pen has three languages in one – Chinese (Simplified & Traditional), Spanish, and English.

Refer to my earlier post for a detailed review of the earlier Youdao pen and how we use it. In short, with a dictionary pen like this, it’s possible to independently read books (in Chinese, Spanish, or English) and get the pronunciation, meaning, or translation of unfamiliar words simply by scanning it with the pen. 

What’s in the box?

There’s a manual (in English) and a USB charging cable.  To first activate the pen you need Wi-Fi, but once activated, you can turn off the Wi-Fi again.

Youdao Dictionary Pen 3 box and pen
Youdao Dictionary Pen 3.0 (International Version)

The design is nice and sleek, not too heavy (though heavier than the Youdao 2.0 version), and perfect to go into a handbag.  It’s sturdy with a glass touch screen.   The screen is very responsive and a pleasure to use.

I feel much more comfortable using a screen protector on the pen and an outer casing to protect it.  Both of these accessories are available for purchase with the Youdao pen.

Technical Specifications of Youdao 3.0

Battery: 1000mAh; USB rechargable;  6 hours of continuous offline use; 4 hours of continuous online use

Weight: 0.4lbs

Screen: 2.97-inch color full colour LCD screen

Voice Mode: Real voice (English or American options)

Key Features of the Youdao Dictionary Pen 3.0

The best features of the pen are:

  • Fast, high quality translation of text:  converts Chinese text into English (both simplified and traditional, although Simplified is best supported), and Spanish text into English, and vice versa.  It will translate entire paragraphs, with a much more accurate/fluent translation than Google Translate or Pleco.  This is achieved because it’s based on massive contents of millions of Chinese phrases, vocabulary, idioms, etc in a neural network (aka machine learning) in a variety of contexts.
  • Translation of text to speech:  turns scanned text (English, Spanish or Chinese) into audio
  • High quality translation:  the translation is miles better than Google Translate.  This as the first thing I noticed, and also the first thing which two of my Chinese speaking friends commented on when I showed them.  It’s based on massive contents of millions of Chinese phrases, vocabulary, idioms, etc to make it as fluent as possible in a variety of contexts.
  • Dictionary definitions in CH, EN, or Spanish:  It gives a definition of the scanned text, and breaks it down into words/phrases, with a definition of each character/word, using the touch screen.  It’s possible to look up words in different dictionary versions and compare them too. The dictionary definitions also include built-in English dictionaries, so you can get the English definitions of English words (a helpful feature for a looking up unknown words).
  • Works on different fonts and handwriting:  the pen will scan correctly on multiple font shapes, including very neat and small handwriting
  • Works in offline mode:  There’s a slight difference in voices used when Wi-Fi is off as it becomes more robotic (I assume the smoother voice is related to engaging AI neural networks).
  • Other user friendly features: Left-handed and right-handed usage modes.  Clear voice that is easy to understand, with adjustable volume. For Chinese, it can show Pinyin.  It can also connect to Bluetooth if you want to hear the audio through a headset or phone instead.

Photographs from using the pen on Spanish books

Photographs from using the pen on Chinese books

Key differences between Youdao 3.0 and earlier models

Overall, the most obvious differences are:

  1. Includes Spanish
  2. The screen is colour and 50% bigger
  3. Single touch translation for Chinese (rather than need to drag over words)
  4. Faster, smoother translation
  5. Ability to create a user wordlist for review

In essence, Version 3.0  Youdao pen comes with some slightly more user-friendly features AND includes a whole new language!

Expanding on the unique features of Youdao 3.0. you’ll find it includes:

  • Single tap feature: with a single tap, the pen will read a group of characters (about 3 or 4). Which makes it quicker than previous versions where it was required to scan over the whole character/word.  For learning Chinese, a specific character can be VERY different from the meaning of the combined characters around it, and a child may not be aware, so I like this feature. This feature doesn’t work for Spanish.
  • Screen size: it’s 50% bigger than the 2.0 screen, and in colour (which correspondingly means the battery life is shorter)
  • Word Book:  Has a feature where upon scanning, the phrase can be easily added into a list on the pen, by clicking a star (a bit like the way you can favourite bookmark a page on Chrome).  Good for reviewing unfamiliar words after reading a passage.  This feature also exists on the 2.0, but with the 3.0 the list can also be converted into flashcards and trivia on the pen, to help make a word really stick into active memory recall.
  • Wi-Fi Connectivity:  simple to search for and join any network, in case you’re studying at Starbucks (or the school library).
  • Language change setting:  easy to toggle between Spanish and Chinese from the menu bar
  • Speaking practice:  There is a pronunciation correction whereby you can record yourself pronouncing a word, and it gives you a rating between 1 and 5 stars.  It works in Chinese, English, and Spanish.  It’s a little gimmicky to me. 
  • Smoothness and speed of translation: it certainly has an edge on 2.0.  It’s not too robotic, but there is no adjustment to change speed of translation if it’s too fast (and it is pretty fast).
  • Double tap for pinyin and stroke order (or conjugations for Spanish): intuitive menu design so that when scanning a Chinese character, you can find out more with a screen click. For Spanish, if you scan a verb, it has the verb conjugation according to pronouns and tenses.
Comparison of Youdao pen boxes
3.0 International Version versus 2.0 Standard Version packaging
Comparison of Youdao pens
3.0 International Version versus 2.0 Standard Version pens

Main versions of Youdao pen

Comparison of Youdao Pen Versions
Youdao Reading Pen 3.0 has Chinese, Spanish, and English

The main Youdao pen versions in the market are:

  • 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pen 2 (Standard Version) [reviewed previously]
  • 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pen 2 (International Version) [reviewed previously]
  • 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pen 2.0 Pro
  • 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pen 3.0 (Standard version)
  • 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pen 3.0 (International version) [THIS REVIEW]
  • 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pen 3.0 Pro
Comparison of Youdao Dictionary Pens

Guide to the model names:

International Versions:  have an English user interface and instructions, and the Standard Versions have Chinese operating interface. The English user manual lets you understand the features of the pen, and also how to troubleshoot when things go wrong.  It’s not very detailed, but it’s enough to understand the basics.

Standard Version: has Chinese interface and appears to have slightly more menu options and functions available than the English version (eg some listening games, phonics learning, textbook narrations, etc)

Pro version:  Much more expensive as it includes Japanese and Korean too (and a bunch of extra dictionary versions)

Cons of all 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pens

This Youdao has many of the same cons as the original 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pen, which I’ve mentioned in my previous review.  Here are the key watchouts:

  • Text size: Only works on text less than 1.3 cm in size (so excludes some children’s picture books and readers).  It’s not a big issue, but something to be mindful of, depending on your intended use for the Youdao. 
  • Voice: Only has a female voice, and I do think it’s helpful to hear a variety of different voices and genders.
  • Translation accuracy: It’s really pretty good. But sometimes the translations can still be incorrect (there is a simple button to report this if you do spot it), or just clunky.  Nevertheless, the translation quality is SO much better than Google Translate or Pleco.
  • Pointing accuracy: sometimes I’ve watched my daughter needing to make multiple attempts to scan the same character. Whilst it’s fast, there still is a bit of a gap (versus other pens we’ve tried), which can become frustrating when repeating something a few times over.
  • Ergonomics: The pen isn’t conducive for small hands, and optical reader can be fragile (not a toddler toy!). I certainly wouldn’t be using this pen with a preschooler (check out Alpha Egg instead for a preschooler).  Remember to buy a protective case when you buy the pen. 
  • Spanish is not as extensive:  Whilst words will translate from Spanish into English definitions quickly, not all words/sentences have spoken audio for pronunciation, and the dictionary appears more limited.  This is certainly a missing feature at the moment.
  • Scans screens, but not consistently:  you need to have the screen brightness turned right up (not night mode) and it works with a few efforts.
  • Pinyin:  doesn’t show pinyin when a sentence is scanned
  • Not really toddler proof or for young kids: If you’re looking for something more suited to a younger audience, check out the Alpha Egg Dictionary Pen, or even Habbi Habbi Reading Wand.

Where to buy Youdao Dictionary Pens in Singapore?

In Singapore, these pens are now plentiful on Lazada and Shopee, and most offer a 1-year local warranty.  My pen came from a local seller called Seagate. If you buy from the official Youdao store and Amazon you can receive a 20% discount with  LAHLAHYD20 coupon code. It will also generate 10% donation to a charity that can provide support to the Ukraine, which will be donated at the end of May 2022 (when this coupon code will be removed).

Do take note of the specific version you are buying though as some will have only a Chinese user interface, and others will offer English. Some versions have written instructions in English, and others will not.

As readers of this blog will know, this blog runs on a non-profit, no-affiliation, sponsorship or commission basis.  But as a ONE-OFF this post contains the above time-limited affiliate link to support the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. This will be removed on May 31st 2022.

If you are buying this pen, do also check out Youdao’s other clever devices for home learning including (all much much cheaper than their dictionary pens!):

  • Pocket Printer: a tiny thermal printer which connects directly to your phone via Bluetooth. Reviewed in my earlier post.
  • Electric Eraser: particularly good for Chinese composition corrections, as it lets you erase a specific area with precision and speed.
  • Electric Pencil Sharpener: it’s seriously sharp
  • Desk Vacuum Cleaner: it’s an indulgence, but great for encouraging a child to not spread their eraser dust all over the floor.

Note regarding the donation to charity: I have chosen a charity which is working directly with Ukraine’s Ministry of Health and other on-the-ground partners to provide urgently needed medical aid, including emergency response packs intended for first responders, oxygen concentrators, critical care medicines, and much more. I haven’t disclosed the name on this blog yet, as I’m waiting for confirmation from the charity’s side that this would be okay. At end of May 2022 when the promo code link expires, I will disclose the total donation $ generated from this link.

FAQs on 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pens

Which option do we prefer?
As we learn Spanish too, the 3.0 naturally is the best choice for our family as it contains both Chinese and Spanish.

Overall for just Chinese, the 2.0 and 3.0 are each great – I would go with the International Version for sure,  as having the English Instructions and the operating interface is a huge plus.

Does it do Traditional Chinese?
Yes, it will scan and translate from TC into English.   It will do vertically oriented text, and it will do right to left scanning.

However, it doesn’t do it in reverse, in that if you scan English, it will only convert it into SC (not TC).  Additionally, it won’t translate Zhuyin, and it gets a bit confused with vertical text if it has Zhuyin directly above it.  It’s really not compatible with this.

Will the software/dictionaries become outdated?
No, the pen connects to wifi to ensure the latest system software updates, including new words, voices, etc are included.  It’s as simple as clicking “Settings-Upgrade” and keeping the pen connected to the wifi during the upgrade (usually it doesn’t need wifi to function)

How long does the battery last?  How long does it take to charge fully?
Our Youdao 2.0 version lasts for about 8 full hours of continuous use (which is a really really long time, as likely a child will use it intermittently through reading …. for us, it lasts about 4 weeks!).  The battery fully charges in 3 hours.

Our Youdao 3.0 lasts for ~6 hours if used continuously, and take less than 3 hours to fully charge.  At about the 6 hour mark, it drops off very fast.

What are the options for pronunciation?
For English, it’s either British or American in a female voice.  You can choose this from  “Settings-Pronunciation” to set the default automatic pronunciation. For Chinese, it’s mainland Chinese in a female voice.

Will Youdao pen work for our family?
We’re a family where no parents speak any Chinese, and yes we use this pen daily – both my daughter, and myself, for different purposes.  SO this pen works great for us.

Then I know of other families in Singapore with many kids (like the Tan Family) who have three children too, and even though the parents do read Chinese, it’s not practical for her to sit with all the children when they’re reading at the same time. I’ve also read various reviews from others who use these pens in different family backgrounds. For example, Sunny from Spots of Sunshine is a fluent speaker, teaching her daughter in Traditional Chinese. Her review shows it’s less valuable in such a circumstance. Then again, Aime from Trilingual Texpats is a Taiwanese-American mother who teaches in Traditional Chinese and really likes the Youdao pen’s functionality.  So as you’ll see, it’s quite family-specific.

Comparison again other Chinese Reading Pens

Different reading pens and curriculums suit different learning stages, ages, family situations, and intended learning outcomes. I’ve tried to summarise this in the below diagram.  As a learning tool, Yaodao Dictionary Pen is definitely for older children and adults, who are already very fluent at both reading and speaking, and wanting to advance their language skills.  (It’s also for English-speaking parents who know nothing of the Chinese language and simply just need ongoing translation to get by!!).

Chinese-English Reading Pen comparison
Comparison of Chinese Reading and Dictionary Pens
Comparison of Chinese reading pens

Do refer to my previous posts for more information about other Chinese reading pens which are more suitable for younger children, especially preschoolers– these include: