Comparison of online Chinese language classes for children

This review is a comparison of our experience in taking online Chinese language classes for children, including with LingoAce, LingoBus, Vivaling, Geniebook and more.

As regular readers would be aware, I champion the “no formal tuition” approach outside of school hours, so we only started to look for formal online Chinese language classes when COVID hit Singapore in 2020, and schools closed and the children needed to be able to continue learning their Chinese from a textbook, without anyone in the house understanding the language.  It was eye-opening for us to try out the different options and see how effective screen-based learning can be.  We’re glad we did, because having over 3 consecutive months away from school was a long time to get no Chinese teaching or interaction.

For children who are learning or planning to learn Chinese, we’ve learnt that there are a variety of great online Chinese language classes for children available, which can be highly interactive and helpful in getting regular exposure to more Chinese, and typically much cheaper than in-person classes or tuition centres.  An online class can also be more convenient (flexible timing 24/7, short classes, no transport etc.), and was more appealing to my child than I ever imagined.

What online Chinese language classes for children are available?

Essentially, the whole world is available to you, if your Chinese class is online!  So find the best and the most cost effective way to learn Chinese.

My kids have been learning Chinese online for many years….. since way before COVID came into the picture. They have had already had regular one-on-one weekly chats (15 minutes) with a native speaker in mainland China.  These lessons were set up to be primarily conversational, so the children can tune their hearing to listening over the computer, and also over the telephone.   

When COVID set in, a whole bunch more class providers and competitors appears. So, I looked at trying out some a longer and more formal online Chinese classes for my children. Thankfully most of the online Chinese class providers offered free trials, and we were lucky enough to try out many different options. This post is what we discovered.

I would say different online Chinese classes suit different family needs, and also children’s learning styles. Below is a quick comparison table, with more details expanded below:

Comparison of online Chinese language classes for children
Comparison of online Chinese class platforms

One thing I’ve learnt about online Chinese platforms from mainland China is that you should NOT sign up without a referral link. It seems to be the way for many excellent online services from China, that they operate a quasi pyramid scheme….. so whilst it’s possible for you to sign up without using a referral link, you will probably receive bonus free classes etc if you join through someone else’s link. Sometimes these are quite considerable, for example depending on the promotion period, Lingo Ace and Lingo Bus may give you up to 8 free classes; VIP Peilian gives you 6 free classes, etc etc. Ideally, ask a friend who uses the service to give you their referral link, as it may give your friend a few free classes too. If you don’t know anyone with a link, I have some listed below too from various people we know who use these services.

LingoAce Online Class Review

LIngo Ace online Chinese classes for children

Trial Class Experience: My daughter just loved her trial!  The trial class had two other participants, and the entire 55 minutes was filled with games to write characters and put them into sentences.  The online interface was stunning and visually appealing, with trophies and points being awarded interactively to the children throughout the lesson.   Their curriculum follows the Singapore MOE Higher Chinese approach.

The course is different depending on whether you are in Singapore, China or overseas. The Lingo Ace Singapore course and teaching style is very much suited for children learning in local MOE schools with good Chinese – if you’re not in this system, I would recommend you opt for their ‘International’ course, which might be more suitable for non-Singaporean kids. The style is very much based on the MOE text-books, with lots of games. They also offer a course specifically for Mainland Chinese students following the HSK syllabus.

Class length and schedule: For the Singapore MOE group class option, it’s either 25 or 55 minutes in a group of up to 4. For us, 55 minutes was a long time to be on the screen (the time did fly by!), but after seeing the beaming smiles and hearing her beg to do it again, I was keen to sign up.  We made a valiant effort to sign-up, but learnt that classes must be a minimum of twice a week AND that written homework was compulsory, which was all going to be too much for our timetable.  I must confess, I did even offer to pay full price, and just to let her join only once a week, but the salesperson explained that as the syllabus is strictly followed, that she’d miss out on too much.  I understand that for students outside of Singapore, they are more flexible around this rule. The class schedule is fixed in the same two slots per week, and the class has the same children each week.

For the 1-on-1 class options, there is a bit more flexibility on schedule.

Booking Process: Simple. Just contacted through website, and they followed up with SMS to schedule trial class timing. For actual classes, it can be done through their portal, with selection of preferred teacher. It asked me to select the teacher for the trial class which I feel it might not be necessary.

Software: It was web interface (driven by Classin Software). Simple to login and use. Fast speed, real time talking from teacher and other students, not laggy.

Customer Service: The rep was very keen to follow-up, and had quite a strong “sell” strategy to offer me packages and discounts which were only valid “for today only, sign up now”. I didn’t appreciate this hustling so much, but I few months later he did follow-up again and offered me some more class options. I do feel they really listened, and tried to accomodate my request to only schedule a class once a week, not twice, and find a level which best suited my children.

Final thoughts: This would be a good programme for those looking for something to support and reinforce their child’s learning in the classroom (especially in a Singapore classroom!). It’s essentially just a long online game reiterating the primary school syllabus, including hanyu pinyin, composition writing, oral and even practice exams, etc. But, according to parents who have signed up, also be ready for the additional homework!

Additionally, as the curriculum is quite strong and standalone, the HSK Mainland Chinese course or International stream could be helpful for families who don’t study Chinese in school, but want to keep up learning the language.

Here is a referral link to LingoAce free class trial.

[March 2021 Update: LingoAce has significantly revised and improved their offering, including opening a large physical premise in Singapore. We gave their new online classes a try, and here’s a much more detailed review on how we’ve found LingoAce, including a detailed comparison between their Singapore Bilingual course, and their Advanced course, which we’ve tried]

LingoBus Online Class Review

LIngo Bus online Chinese classes for children

Trial Class Experience: This was strikingly similar in most respects to Lingo Ace in its approach, with a great interface for the child, and an engaging teacher leading the session.  It’s also a game-based, highly interactive learning experience.  The company is based in mainland China, although communicating with them in English wasn’t a problem at all. 

The value-add which Lingo Bus offers over Lingo Ace is the access to offline materials, which also includes potential for printable homework and some really wonderful online stories in their eBook library.  I think this is a wonderful addition to supplement the learning.  They also send an email after EVERY class with written feedback on how the child has done in the lesson. I value this.

Another difference was that not being based in Singapore, it doesn’t follow the local MOE primary school curriculum.  I was specifically looking for assistance to support our homeschool learning.  Moreover, from looking at their lesson materials and branding, I feel this course is really focussed on non-Chinese learning the language, in a fun format (eg lots of songs and simple visual illustrations, which perhaps are not always grammatically correct). It appears focussed on the spoken language, with less emphasis on cultural context and history of the language.

I realised after our first class, that I’d signed up in the “non-native” speakers category (called “Listening and Speaking”), which is why it was at a simpler level. After this, actually LingoBus staff reached out to offer three free trial classes in the “Heritage Chinese” stream (now called “Reading & Writing” stream). This was at a much better level for my daughter, however, it also meant that then all the automated emails I received from LingoBus as the parent were written in Chinese. I guess it’s hard to win!

Class length and schedule: Classes can be booked at any time 24/7 through their portal, and there are no set group of children in each class (so it’s just a random set, at the time you book) and different teachers can be chosen depending on your availability. Class length was a much more palatable 25 minutes, and it can be done once or twice a week (or potentially more, I would guess).  I personally would prefer to have a fixed regular teacher.

Booking process: Their website is very clear and the communications were professional and helpful. It was simple to book our trial classes at times which suited us, and the same can be done for the real classes. We ended up needing two accounts for my daughter, one in the ‘Non-native’ stream and one in the ‘Heritage’ stream. The company sent quite a few emails prior to to classes to remind us to login, and download the app, and to do a trial placement test, etc.

Software: The classes run from an online classroom link from their web portal, but it requires to be configured/downloaded prior to the class. It worked well and provided good interactive experience. Their courseware is sophisticated and well designed; they clearly have some excellent online developers! Their website has a wealth of additional learning resources, like eBooks, flash cards, etc.

Customer service: Their website has some great videos to display how their lessons are structured, and I personally found their salespeople less ‘hustling’ than our Lingo Ace experience.

Final thoughts: My impression is the “non-native” stream is more suitable for new learners, especially children in a zero Mandarin environment. It’s a lot of fun and and not rigorous. The syllabus follows a theme-based approach (eg colours, fruits, animals, greetings, festivals, etc). It’s probably less suited to a true bilingual family. If you look at their Youtube channel, most of the students features are Western families, which I would guess it the target market here. Then, on the “Heritage” stream, it’s really for families where everyone speaks Chinese.

If you do sign up, try to get a referral code from someone else, and there will be plenty of extra classes thrown in (usually something like 5 free classes for every 10 classes you buy). Use this referral link for a free trial. Also, look out for their 11/11 or CNY class package sales, which are said to be at a good discount.

A great thing about Lingo Bus is you can stop and start whenever needed (in case you get unexpected lockdowns and upsets to your usual Chinese learning classes!). One of my daughters really loved this class enough to request to continue, and we’ve now done over 20 paid classes on LingoBus.

Speaking Duck Online Class Review

Speaking Duck online Chinese classes for children

Trial Class Experience: I cannot say much, as we couldn’t get past the software step unfortunately, and then there was no follow-up, so we couldn’t proceed with the trial class.

Class length and schedule: 30 minutes, once a week, which sounds just perfect. Whilst this is Singapore based, they follow the HSK (Chinese Proficiency Test) system, which is very solid.

Booking process: Signing up through the website was simply – just filled out the information, and an email confirmation as sent immediately. The website says for regular classes, it will be a fixed teacher.

Software: It was clunky. We couldn’t manage to download the software and the verification codes. We were using an old laptop, and perhaps it didn’t have all the right versions of software on it, but we were never able to get the video and sound working, so were unable to continue.  There wasn’t any follow-up, so unfortunately we couldn’t proceed with this. However, as I understand it now, they use Zoom as their main platform, so it’s probably improved from our poor experience. Still, Zoom would be simple, but I cannot imagine it could be as interactive as some of the other highly impressive virtual classrooms with experienced from other providers, especially for larger groups of students.

Customer service: Urk, this is a weird one. I’m part of a few online bilingual parenting groups, and several have commented on the ‘interesting’ tactics used by this company. I cannot really comment, except that it was impersonal (all through online messages) and I didn’t feel fully genuine. Also, most of the communications were in Chinese (I guess my Chinese surname could be a factor for this mix up) despite it being a Singapore based company.

Final thoughts: If you can get past the customer service, it might be okay. However, seems a poorer cousin to the other services we tried, and prices are similar. I don’t know anyone who has signed up for this service, so no referral links to offer.

Mandarin Tree Online Class Review 

Mandarin Tree online Chinese classes for children

Trial Class Experience: I hesitated including Mandarin Tree in this list, because it’s not a big online platform like everything else I’ve listed….. it’s totally different. There’s really no comparison, but it’s a special service and deserves to be better known. They’re a small, but passionately run creative based Chinese language school in The Netherlands, run by a Singaporean MOE teacher. The school offer in person classes (if you’re lucky enough to be living in beautiful Haarlem), but importantly for the rest of us they have remote learning. Remote learning has been a part of Mandarin Tree since its inception, and their curriculum, materials and pedagogical methods have been designed with remote learning in mind. They don’t have any free trials (they do provide paid trials), but we were confident to sign up and pay for a full term of classes, having followed their Instagram and FB pages for 1.5 years, and being impressed by their activities and learning methods. My daughter loved her first lesson, and each subsequent lesson.

Class length and schedule: Mandarin Tree works like a real school, with classes at set times, and terms, all shown clearly on their website. The have a preschool course, and 6 levels of Chinese lessons for primary school, taught in 11-week blocks. Classes are 30 to 50 minutes depending on child’s age, with a creative MOE inspired syllabus.

Booking process: Classes are at fixed times, and a Zoom link is sent out weekly with the details of what is required for class, including printouts, or songs to learn, etc. It’s very easy to sign up for a term of classes and connect directly with Karen Laoshi (founder of Mandarin Tree).

Software: The classes run using Zoom, with password protection for safety. It’s also helpful to have a printer, as the classes are highly interactive with a lot of flashcards and craft, which needs to be prepared before the weekly classes. The don’t have all the fancy bells and whistles of other online platforms, but that’s the charm of it.

Customer service: It’s amazing! I mean, you’re in contact with the teachers directly, and they’re highly approachable, so no complaints. The teachers know every student, and everyone is treated like family.

Final thoughts: Mandarin Tree has been excellent for my 3 year old. We have done a term of the parent-child accompanied playgroup classes, and it runs just like a regular in-person playgroup, with song times, circle time, craft time, and opportunity for parents to chat. The only difference is the classmates come from multi countries (Australia, Singapore, Germany, UK). The group classes for older children also look like a great option, and they’re designed and run by Karen Laoshi, who is an Singapore MOE teacher, so you’ll know it’s focussing on the right things.

At Mandarin Tree also draws inspiration from the theory of multiple intelligence, which is why the programmes are taught using methods that span the musical, visual, interpersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalistic, logical, intrapersonal and verbal-linguistic modalities. Karen is a bundle of energy, and we look forward to seeing her smile each week.

You too can follow their Mandarin Tree account on IG or FB and see how much fun Karen Laoshi has with her classes. Also, she’s kindly offered a 10% discount code for my blog readers if they sign up using “LAHLAHBANANA”.

Vivaling Online Class Review

Vivaling online Chinese classes for children

Trial Class Experience: VivaLing has one-on-one classes via Zoom, and group classes for siblings.  Given our previously good experience with weekly conversational classes on Viva Ling, I was keen to see what else they had to offer in terms of more structured group classes. 

We were able to keep the same teacher as our regular one-on-one conversations, and increase the class length and frequency, and tap into the VivaLing syllabus.  They have online flash cards (using Quizlet), and are able to effectively share videos, story books, and an online ‘white board’ for character drawing.   There’s homework too, and the ability to re-watch the class at a later date, or share it with family or friends. 

Class length and schedule: Ranges from 15 minutes to 60 minute options, as many times as preferred during the week. Siblings can also be grouped together. Timing is flexible, and the same teacher can be selected.

Booking Process: Simple, through their online portal. I have found the whole thing is very impersonal (booking, payment, etc), but we have a wonderful teacher and have now been using her for over a year (initially just with conversations, and then during lockdown with more formal classes).

Software: It’s done over Zoom – initially I was sceptical, as to whether their interface for making it engaging, and learning reading / writing could be done effectively via Zoom.  They proved it was possible! The Zoom chat was fully password secured, and Zoom have also recently updated their privacy policies, so I was very comfortable that this method was as safe, if not safer, than the other online class portals. For one-to-one classes, I think Zoom is a good platform. My daughter can set it up independently, and be ready for her class without my involvement!

Customer service: Apart from one initial in-person chat at the start of our Vivaling experience, there has been very little interaction with them. The system is smooth – we book, we do the class, and we get sent a weekly email summary of the class, including learning goals, homework (if any), and a video replay of the class. Top up payment it done via Paypal. We haven’t had any problems that have needed to engage customer service, and they’ve never pushed classes on us or contacted us proactively.

Final thoughts: These classes aren’t cheap, but they’ve been most effective option for us. Being one-on-one, I’m also able to send the teacher in advance the school lessons and ensure she covers this adequately in the approach in terms of stories, flash cards, themes, etc. We’ve now done them for 2 years, and highly enjoy these classes.

It’s also worth noting that Viva Ling provides qualified tutors in many different language, not just Chinese, whereas the other providers listed above are specialists in Chinese language learning.  For Chinese, Vivaling tends to follow the HSK (Chinese Proficiency Test) system for their curriculum.

Since we signed up for these classes and have now paid for them over the last two years, I have our family’s personal referral code for these classes, which I can share if you message me directly. Vivaling doesn’t originate from China, so alas, whilst they offer a free trial, they don’t have all the free classes and discounts which the mainland Chinese platforms tend to offer, and the overall price is somewhat higher (but it hasn’t deterred us! We honestly think VivaLing is well worth the price).

Koala Know Online Class Review

Koala Know online Chinese classes for children
Koala Know:

Trial Class Experience: This is a really interesting option for classes. I wish we’d discovered it earlier during the Circuit Breaker period. Koala Know follows a heuristic contextual teaching model, which is slightly different from all the other classes above which are more theme based. It’s specifically designed for Chinese families outside of China, to learn/retain fluency in speaking and literacy, and understand cultural context.

The unique Koala Know curriculum aims to intentionally “word seeds” which are radicals / characters / parts of characters, and do fun, thematic study of each of these.

The class was not as much “game play” as Lingo Bus or Lingo Ace, and had more of a serious teaching / learning element to it….. although our trial only had my children in it, and I’m told that for a real class there is a lot more interaction between participants and sharing of ideas.

Booking Process: Done through their online website (with options for Chinese or English language interface). Classes do need to be done at a regular time each week, to enable the same group of children to be involved. Timeslots are 24/7. It’s a fixed teacher, and fixed students in the class.

Software: The Koala Know online portal is also highly interactive (like Lingo Ace and Lingo Bus), but with lots of extra features including extra recordings on book reviews, and other themes of interest. I think this is a wonderful way for bilingual children to dig deeper into the language, and explore beyond what they probably have been taught within the traditional classroom. They also organise monthly themed classes, some of which are really good content.

Customer service: I think it depends where you are. In Singapore, there is a head office, so we were lucky to interact directly with the Koala Know rep here, who explained to us the syllabus and helped us to get started. If in Singapore, I’d recommend you book directly through their office here, rather than on the global website. That will ensure your queries get routed to the right place.

Final thoughts: It’s worthy of another blog post, which I hope to get around to soon. This system looks to be an effective and scientific way of learning characters, and really understanding the beauty and cultural context behind them. It also looks at the evolution of the characters, and how they are used in a variety of different context in language and society today. For a young child already with a good spoken understanding of Chinese, this would set them up well to succeed with the language. I was excited to try more of their online Chinese language classes for children.
[update October 2020: we’ve now done 10 Koala Know classes, so my detailed review!]

GenieBook Chinese Online Chinese Languages Classes Review

Genibook online Chinese classes for children

Trial Class Experience: This is more like an AI platform for learning Singapore MOE syllabus, which contains online assessments, and lectures which can be watched live, or replayed at a later time. There’s no speaking from the child, and the only interaction is through answering questions via chat forum to earn points for reards. It follows the Singapore MOE syllabus. A two week trial is possible, which eunabled unlimited classes during that period (for Chinese, Science, Math and English).

Booking Process: No need to book – it’s seminar-style with set 1 hour class times in evening during Singapore weekdays, or daytime on weekends.

Software: Zoom through their website

Customer service:  Via whatsapp

Final thoughts: A lot of thought has gone into building weekly classes and curating sets of questions that mirror the very best of Singaporean test book publishers, and stories/interactive activities following the MOE textbooks. It’s designed for a child who already has a good written and spoken understanding of the language, to a Singapore Primary 2 level (about mainland Chinese grade 1) and is learning the MOE syllabus. For anyone outside of Singapore, I feel GenieBook is unlikely to be the solution for you. 

[Jan 2022: See our detailed review of GenieBook Chinese here]

GoEast Online Chinese Language Classes for Children Review

GOEast online Chinese classes for children

Trial Class Experience: GoEast Mandarin is a renowned Shanghai-based language school founded in 2012, that offers both online and in-class tuition  This is totally different from all the classes mentioned above too. No bells and whistles, no fancy platforms. The trial was simply a Zoom class conducted using PowerPoint slides. It’s a very simple set-up.  In fact, when I first saw it in our trial, I thought….. there’s no way this teacher can engage my child for an hour like that!  But Teacher Jenny 老师 did a phenomenal job.

It helped that before the class, the course consultant had specifically asked what interested my child, and then the Teacher chose the lesson and books to read all related to that (in our case, it was all amount animals). I had shared with the course consultant that I preferred my daughter not to have any English nor Pinyin used in the class, and they were flexible to cater for this.

Booking Process: You can sign up for the trial through the website – but scheduling requires actually talking to staff at GoEast. It’s a personal touch that differentiates their service. Timeslots are only during the day and early evening Shanghai time, so may not suit all geographies.

Software: Zoom. + PowerPoint

Customer service: Every interaction we’ve had with the GoEast team has been stellar.  You can just feel that they are true language lovers, and want to share this love with their students.  The teachers themselves are all university degree holders in Foreign Language studies or Teaching Chinese (actually many are Masters and PhD), and on average have more than 7 years teaching experience.  

Final thoughts: For sure, the standout feature of GoEast are their TEACHERS.  They’re passionate and skilled (with proper university teaching credentials), and a notch above anything we’ve experienced in any other online courses we’ve done (and we’ve done quite a lot).    They have a small and highly qualified team of curriculum developers, language consultants and, of course teachers.

[update GoEast was my middle daughter’s favourite class option, see my detailed review of how the GoEast classes continued]

Some watch outs with online Chinese language classes for children

Language of communications: We soon realised after looking into a few options that timing and payment was by far easier if we engaged through company that had customer-service based in an English speaking country (Singapore, Hong Kong, US, etc), and can avoid inane conversations being translated through WeChat. You’ll see some for some of the larger Chinese-based companies even if they have an English version of their website, it’s likely that all the consultants who call will try to speak Mandarin, and the text messages / emails / class schedules etc will also be in Mandarin. Hence, all the companies listed in this review do have good English communications.

Privacy Laws and Domicile of the businesses: Privacy laws and Child Protection regulations clearly differ by jurisdiction, as does the enforcement of such rules. It’s worth noting you wouldn’t EVER want to agree to T&Cs which you cannot personally read yourself, so be wary if you’re clicking a check box about disclosures and acceptances when you cannot read the accompanying policies. Remember these classes will collect a lot of information about your child (audio, visual, demographic, learning patterns etc) which can all be very valuable in the wrong hands. Ideally choose a company which at least has a sub office or presence in your own country (or state), so they should be more aware with the local requirements.

Platform Used: By nature of these classes being over video, there could be recordings of your child being retained by the company, and it’s worthwhile to think where these might be stored or what they could be used for. Over Zoom or Classin, it’s unlikely to go far and you’ll know whether the class has been recorded. But if it’s on a private app or platform, you cannot be so certain. If in doubt, ask the company about their policies, and perhaps you make a decision not to use them, or keep the camera off. For us, we do not use the real names of our children on online platforms, since even if the teacher isn’t recording it, what if another excited parent on the chat takes a screen shot and shares it on their own IG account?

Computer vs iPad: some of the classes have a much better experience over computer than iPad, so be sure you’re using the medium which works best for that vendor. Additionally, a young child may have difficulty using the touchpad to draw / circle / point click (especially if character writing is involved). We found this can make or break the experience, so don’t let a frustrated child be put off forever just because the touch pad on the laptop was difficult to navigate. Try to get them a good quality mouse / stylus, and practice some basic skills before the class.

The outcome?

Our experience showed that online Chinese language classes for children can be engaging and fun, either 1-to-1 or in a group class, and that there are many highly immersive and well-structured curriculum available, both big and small.  It is something we would certainly consider again, and looks like a great alternative to formal tuition centres.

Ultimately, we ended up signing up for more conversational classes through VivaLing for my elder children, with the same teacher (which we have continued with even after COVID lockdown lifted), because the flexibility to schedule classes whenever we want, and the one-on-one attention was what makes it the most enriching experience for us. 

[Post script: Nov 2021: I have written a two year update on how we have continued with these online Chinese language classes for children.

Post script: May 2022: I f you want to know about newer classes which have recently come to Singapore such as VItamin M or Zhangman kid, see my 2022 blog post about online Chinese classes for children that you may not have heard of (yet)]

If you got to 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:

[Disclaimer: We did most of these online Chinese language classes for children as free trials initially – you can do this too! It’s not a privilege reserved for bloggers. Most online large online Chinese tutoring services will offer a free class (they’re backed by millions of investment dollars, and trying to grow rapidly!). Try to use someone else’s referral code too, to get the most benefit. Vivaling and Mandarin Tree are the two exceptions, who are not based in Mainland China, and they don’t usually offer free trials.]

Reading Pen Review: eTutor Education Star

What is a talking pen for learning Chinese?

Our house has many different reading pens to assist in our Chinese learning journey.  One of those pens is the eTutor Education Star Pen (易笔通), which is what this review is about.  

There are several other online reviews about eTutor Star Chinese pen …… from a quick google search prior to composing this post, it would seem that every other blog post about eTutor Pen was gifted the set from the manufacturers several years ago.  Not us!! We did buy this pen at full price, online in 2020! So no bias here from LahLahBanana! This is a genuine and unaffiliated review.

Each of our family’s reading pens is used for a slightly different purpose, but essentially they will all read Chinese text from children’s books, when pointed at the specific page or character. I’ve put a comparison of how we use all our reading pens for learning Chinese in an earlier post.

The different reading pens assist our children to enjoy Chinese literature independently, and without screen time – and in the absence of a parent who can speak or read Chinese. So why would we buy the eTutor Star when we already have so many other Chinese reading pens? Here goes our explanation….

What is the eTutor Education Star Pen?

This pen is from Singapore, and retails at Popular Bookstore and online through the manufacturer’s website.

The EtutorStar Pen – like all of the reading pens we have – uses a combination of optical recognition technology and speech synthesis, to read traditional written books and magazines. 

eTutor Star pen for learning Chinese

This particular pen is the only one on the market which reads the reads the common children’s Chinese magazines, and also the fortnightly publications which many of the Singaporean primary schools subscribe to.   It can be used with 好朋友 (Hao Peng You), 知识报 (Zhi Shi Bao), 知识画报 (Zhi Shi Hua Bao), 新朋友 (New Friends), 新天地 (New World) and 新列车 (New Express), for all versions published from 2015 onwards. For us, this was the main reason we bought the pen.  I think if you are a parent who grew up in Singapore, chances are these would be familiar names, as perhaps  your parents or school would have subscribed to these magazines too!   

For my daughter, as we’re unable to help her actively with her Chinese reading – we know that in 知识画报 magazine, there are often many words that are difficult to read and hence she would ignore entire sections of the publication.  But with the reading pen, she does read along and go deeper into the magazine, and hopefully it’s not as daunting to open as before. 

Chinese does seem to be a subject that many children have difficulty coping with, and many parents feel ill-equipped to support their children in.  By the time P3 comes along, even children who were coping previously can start to have difficulties as the Chinese characters become harder to read, and more challenging to speak.  The eTutor Star is the only one of our pens which has deep content for children at P3 level and above – I’ve actually even heard of a neighbour who only bought the pen when her child was in PSLE, to help him through the exams! 

The pen can also read some English books and bilingual publications.  A full list is available on their website. This lists includes the ETutor Star voice-enhanced learning series written based on MOE syllabus requirements (covering Oral, Listening Comprehension, Composition, Reading Comprehension).

eTutor Star pen for learning Chinese
好朋友 magazine ….. it looks very similar to the P1 Chinese textbook, right?

Pros of the eTutor Star Pen?

  • Aligns with local Singapore school curriculum: This pen can read many of the MOE magazines which particular schools have on their books lists for primary schools P1 – P6.   In particular for P1/P2, it’s  好朋友  and 新朋友 magazines.  Apparently 80% of Singapore primary schools use these magazines.     It’s also used by several of the large international Chinese bilingual schools in Singapore, including Eton House.
  • Compatible with books for pre-primary all the way through to PSLE: The pen will be able to have years of use, if you keep buying the relevant materials. 
  • Easy to use: the pen is highly sensitive and simple to tape on the printed words, and it will read the whole paragraph.  The audio is high quality and accurate pronunciation, which doesn’t go too fast.

Cons of the eTutor Star Pen?

  • Keeping content up-to-date:  as new magazines are published fortnightly, the content of the magazine has to be downloaded from the website into the pen for it to be able to read it.  It’s not hard, but it’s just an extra thing for a parent to remember, and an extra cable to keep in the cupboard.
  • Many other functions, like voice recording: This could be a pro or a con.  For me, it’s a con, as we got the pen for the children to read independently.  My eldest ends up playing around a lot with the voice recording function….. .  I wish this attribute could be removed!  That said, I’ve heard from a parent of an older child that the audio can be particularly helpful when they are practicing for oral exams, so maybe we’ll end up loving this unique feature.
  • Cannot read individual characters: It cannot read individual characters, and the child doesn’t need to move the pen through each words, so children have to follow with their eyes and read along as the audio file is played.  I find a child can just blur-out and forget to follow along.  This is true for most audio pens, which is why the Le Le Pen (reviewed here) is my preferred one as it can read the individual characters.

How is eTutor Star different to other pens?

ETutor Star is actually very similar to the Pen Pal Whizz in most respects. The difference is that because each pen is made very a different publisher, and thus has different books that it works with. Overall, the range between both of the Singapore manufactured pens (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.

eTutor Star pen box

The eTutor’s main distinction is that 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 my elder child’s studies.

I personally would think that you only really need one of these Singapore-made pens (either Pen Pal Whizz or eTutor), depending on which syllabus of books is most appealing.

I’ve also compared it to our other pens which we have in the table.  You’ll see that the Le Le Chinese Pen and Luka are a totally different ball game, which is why we have all four! I have done a detailed review of our Le Le Chinese Pen here, which is more suitable for younger readers.

Comparison table of Chinese Reading Pens and Robots
Comparison of eTutor Star and other reading pens
Comparison of different reading pens for learning Chinese

Which Chinese Reading Pen is right for me?

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.

ETutor Star is a good choice if you’re in Singapore and looking for something which can follow the local MOE Chinese syllabus through to P6.

Comparison of different Chinese reading pens (including Luka, Penpal, Ciaohu, Le Le, Habbi Habbi)

Refer to my previous posts for more information about our other Chinese reading pens – these include:

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

Other tips for eTutor Star

  • Try to buy eTutor Star when it’s being promoted as on-sale at Popular bookstore.  Sometimes the discounts or book bundles are up to 50% of original price value
  • You can buy full sets of back-dated bundles of magazines (eg from 2017 or 2018) at much reduced prices through the manufacturers website
  • It’s better for older children – whilst the compatible book-list includes toddler friendly texts too, I find the pen is more suited to Kindergarten and older children, as it has some extra functionality which our other pens don’t have (eg voice recording), and the shape of the pen isn’t as simple for a small hand to hold.

Virtual schooling through COVID

[Note -this was written in 2020; as at May 2021 when Singapore has re-entered a phase of Heightened Restrictions and school closures, I’ve written an updated post here with new resources]

In most countries, schools have closed, and the magnanimous task for parents of homeschooling begins. We’ve been doing it for over a month now, and expecting it to continue through until June 2020.

As full time working parents, we needed to rope in some extra ‘support’, especially when it came to Chinese learning. So here are our favourite online platforms for learning from (note – we paid full price for all subscriptions, so no favouritism here!).


Some great online Chinese tutors exist. I’ve done a comparison of the difference classes we have tried here. Since schools closed, we have engaged a teacher for 2 x 25 minute classes each week for each child. They have a virtual chalkboard for sharing writing, reading stories together, etc, and option for homework each week too. If anyone is keen, I am happy to share a referral code to give a free Viva Ling lesson.

In addition, there are two great an iPad app called iHuman and Wukong Literacy which have graded syllabus and games. You can use the first 20 levels for free, which should be enough to get through the next month, otherwise it’s about SG$30/year subscription or about SG$90 for a lifetime subscription. iHuman is a little tricky to download without reading Mandarin.


For the last few years, we have been using ABC Reading Eggs. It can be trialled for free for 2 weeks, otherwise it’s about SG$70/year. The app caters from nursery level pre-readers through to upper primary. It’s also a graded syllabus of levels which get increasingly harder, and includes story writing competitions, comprehension, spelling units, and online books.

At the moment, another great tool is Audible Stories, which has beautifully recorded audio of many classics (and new stuff like Harry Potter!), and has been made available free during Covid.


There are heaps of options here. For my older kids, she is addicted to Matific Galaxy, which covers syllabus from K1 through to P6 in a fully gamified way. It’s simple for parents to get emails on progress, and places where the child has become stuck and needs extra revision.

I have also tried to use Koobits because it aligns with Singapore Primary Maths curriculum from P1 to P6. I really wanted to like it for this reason. It has typical Singapore style maths questions, and students can clock up rewards to get game sessions. Admittedly, the games are pure gaming, rather than maths, which annoys me, and the time limit of 30 minutes per game is quite long for a mother who tries to limit screen time. I find the cost is a little steep too, compared to Matific Galaxy or MathSeeds.

For the younger ones, we use MathSeeds as it teaches core math and problem solving skills in highly interactive lesson format. Unfortunately neither of these services has a free trial, but you could just sign up for a 6 months subscription, which is fairly reasonably priced.


Generally a trip to the park with a ball, kite, or frisbee is enough sport for us. However, if stuck indoors, a good free app is GoNoodle, which engages kids in movement and mindfulness activities. It’s available for free, and there’s plenty of Zumba, Kidsbop, and Yoga to get active with.


Joy Tunes apps are our picks. We use their SimplyPiano and PianoMaestro tools, which have lessons from beginners to experts, and plenty of sheet music for popular songs. It’s a curated series of lessons, and the app can hear the sounds played on your piano (or your singing, your flute, etc) and give you instant feedback. Whilst the lessons are designed for piano, we’ve found it fun to try out with other instruments too with the musical games, and compete as a family for highest points. This also has a free trial for the first few levels. It doesn’t beat having the real piano teacher visit, but it does keep the kids practicing and getting excited about learning.

And after all that, don’t forget that your existing schools or tuition centres may have online classes. So you’ll have plenty of resources at your fingertips from around the world, many of which are available for limited amount of time for free. The trouble might be working out which out to try first!

In terms of a timetable, for us we write down each kids’ subjects on a popsicle stick, and also add one for outside play, and one for family chores. The kids have the freedom to choose their own ‘order’ for doing the tasks, but they must all be finished before 4pm. Between each ‘task’ they must have a ten minute no-device brain break (usually scribbling on chalk board, singing songs, playing with toys).

I can assure that that after a month of home schooling together, you’ll have learnt a lot about yourselves, and children, and no doubt will be closer, stronger and more united. Enjoy the unique opportunity to be at home and learning with your children! It’s once in a lifetime for most.

Le Le Chinese Review: Chinese Reading Pen and Character Learning System

What is Le Le Chinese Reading System and Pen 樂樂文化 ?

Le Le Chinese is a series of highly-engaging picture book graded readers (with versions available in both Simplified and Traditional Chinese), and it has on optional pen which can read the books.  The intention of the books according to their author Cathy Lee 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.  For this reason, the Le Le books need no pinyin, and the child can focus fully on the characters.

The books come in three sets of 100, starting with “Red” set, then “Yellow”, and finally the hardest is “Green”.   Each book is 8 – 10 pages.  My K1 daughter is able to read most of the Red sets by herself, and then just get help with the harder parts.   Likewise my P2 daughter can read most of the yellow set, and uses the pen to fill in the gaps.  Meanwhile my toddler just uses the pen for everything!   Each level introduces a few hundred new characters, which are then repeated in different contexts.  So in total, the full set is 300 books, and cover over 1000 of the most popular Chinese characters.  

It took the author years to write this set, which really is a lot of time to write a few hundred short sentences (especially as she had already written a previous set prior to Le Le, called Greenfields, which is also very popular)!  However, the effort and passion put into these books is evident, and clearly worth it, as it’s culminated in a thoughtful and engaging syllabus. According to the author, the first level (red) was the hardest for her to make due to the limited characters to be used, yet the need to create interesting stories.

Le Le Chinese books
How do we use Le Le Chinese Books and Le Le Reading Pen?

Generally I like to read the books together with the children first – we aim for two books a day.  They’re short stories, usually with a funny ending, so it’s a great use of ten minutes.  I ask the children to read as much as possible without the aid of the pen, and also translate it page-by-page into English for me, so I can join in the giggles.  Through reading these simple books together, I’ve picked up a lot more Chinese that I had expected to.

All of my daughters are able to use the pen independently, so I encourage them to re-read several of the books each day which we’ve already read together as a family.  The pen lets them figure out new words, which means they 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 allows a child to learn characters without the need for Pinyin or Zhuyin, and without the need for a Chinese speaking parent!

When I watch my daughters using it, particularly the younger ones will repeat what the pen is saying, so they’re learning by hearing, and practicing reading and speaking all at once.  The speed of the pen is very slow, especially for the first two sets of books, which is beneficial for young readers who are still getting the hang of new words and tones.

Differences between the three levels of Le Le books
 Red (Beginner)Yellow (Intermediate)Green (Advanced)
Characters~500 charactersAdditional 340 charactersAdditional 230 characters
LayoutEach page has a simple short phrase or wordLonger sentences and phrases with transition words.Longer sentences, and multiple sentences per page.
Length8 pages 8 pages12 pages
Le Le comparison across the three sets
How is Le Le Chinese different from other Chinese reading pens?

I’ve compared Le Le our other pens which we have in the table below. I think you’ll quickly see that Le Le is more comparable to a learning system/ levelled reading curriculum, rather than a reading pen per se. There is huge value in the specially written 300 books which go with the pen.   Which is why we have Le Le Chinese, AND our other pens!

Comparison of Chinese reading pens
Head to Head Comparison of Chinese-English Reading Pens

How is Le Le system different to other graded Chinese reading systems like Sage Formula?

We’ve been lucky enough to borrow a few books from friends, before we settled on buying our own Le Le set.  Several friends highly rated Sage Books (and we too bought this). Others swear by 4, 5 Quick Read System.  Then, the Odonata series seems to be the most accessible to purchase in Singapore (and cheapest), so we looked at that too.  Honestly, they all seemed interesting, but without having any native speaker at home, we really needed audio support along with the books.  So, from the get-go, after a failed start with Sage Books, we were favouring Le Le due to the fact it had the Reading Pen.  We also liked the fact that Le Le has 300 mini books, whereas the other systems had 10 – 40 books, but with more chapters.  I would imagine that as a parent if you can read / speak basic Chinese, and have time to spend teaching the child together, these other systems would be highly accessible and cheaper option for you to consider.

[post script: as at May 2021, Odonata also now has audio through Luka Reading Robot, and we’ve also bought this series since we already had a Luka. It’s probably the most similar set of books we have to Le Le, and it much cheaper].

Pros of Le Le Chinese Books and Reading Pen

  1. It teaches character learning, as it reads each individual character
  2. The books are slimline and small, and come in their own zippable storage bag with handles, which is great for apartment living where we have limited space for a book library!
  3. Clear, slow voice that is easy to understand, with adjustable volume
  4. Books are sturdy and well made
  5. Clear and realistic pencil illustrations
  6. Covers a wide variety of topics which children will enjoy, including realistic and fictional
  7. Most of the books have a fun (or funny) ending  
  8. No pinyin or English translations to distract the focus (although printable English translations are available on their website)
  9. Good customer support, including Facebook support group and discussions

If you want to read in more detail about how this series assisted my struggling 7 year old daughter how to read 1000+ characters within 6 months, please see here.

Le Le Chinese book bags

Cons of Le Le Chinese Books and Reading Pen

No cons! It’s amazing!  The cost might be prohibitive – but it’s an investment which you can probably sell on second-hand and it would retain a lot of its value, given the rarity in Singapore market.  If cost is an issue, consider Odonata Levelled Readers as a more budget option (it doesn’t have the reading pen option though).

Which Chinese levelled reader is right for me?

Good question. Different reading sets have different emphasis and curriculum approach. It also depends on the Chinese reading ability of the parent (as not all books comes with a great reading pen such as Le Le). The Le Le Chinese learning philosophy is one of whole language learning through stories, and Le Le is really a stand out on this front (unless of course you want Pinyin included, and then Greenfield would be your better choice…. it’s actually done by the same author as Le Le).

Below is a highly simplified table where I’d tried to compare different levelled readers for different situations.

Which Chinese reading pen is right for me?

I think the question really should be which curriculum/book is right for our family, rather than the focus on a pen (see my point above). Different reading pens and curriculums suit different learning stages, ages, family situations, and intended learning outcomes. I’ve tried to summarise the world of different pens in the below diagram. Le Le Reading Pen is a superior choice if literacy and ability to read Chinese characters is the intended outcome.

Comparison of Chinese reading pens for children
Comparison of different Chinese reading pens and devices

Refer to my previous posts for more information about Chinese reading pens – these include:

Where to buy Le Le Pen in Singapore?

This pen is from Taiwan, so unlike other locally made pens (eg eTutor Star and Penpal Whizz), it is much much harder so source in Singapore, but truly the benefits are worth it.  You may find a pre-loved set selling on Carousell, otherwise order online from Le Le Chinese Website in Taiwan.  Shipping is not cheap, but for non-Chinese speaking parents, this system has enabled the children to exponentially learn new characters and is like no other which we’ve seen or tried. Occasionally you’ll find a Facebook Group Buy where Singaporean parents combine orders to get a discount, which is a good option if you have time to wait.

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.

What to read AFTER you have finished Le Le series?

Well that’s in a different post. I’ve made a list of bridging books which are great for children who have finished (or are nearing the end) of the Le Le sets.

Activities which go along with Le Le Chinese readers?

The topics covered in Le Le books are so broad, that they can fit in well with themes or other craft activities, making for a holistic learning curriculum. We have done some epic home-made craft based around the Le Le book topics. See my post here for a list of 20 simple preschool craft activities which match the individual Le Le books.

Le Le Chinese also run a lovely Facebook Group discussion for parents using the system, or considering the system, which is a good place to find like-minded parents or learn more about the investment. They run regular 14-Day reading challenges, and also offer some great online craft classes as incentives to keep kids reading. One of the rewards for completing the reading challenge is a one hour free online art / craft class from Language Art Fun, conducted in Mandarin, and they’re truly excellent.

Finally, if you don’t believe my word for it, look at what other bloggers have to say about Le Le, such as Motherly Notes or De Ziremi.

Additional Information

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

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

I would love to hear from you too, especially if you have experience with other Chinese reading pens. It’s only through meeting other wonderful parents virtually, that this shared language journey becomes a more valuable one! Feel free to reach out via the comments/form on my blog, or else join the conversations on my Instagram @lahlahbanana or Facebook. All comments welcomed!

Chinese Reading Pens and Robots for kids

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

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

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

1. Le Le Chinese Reading System and Pen

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

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

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

2. Luka Reading Companion & Luka Hero

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

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

Luka Chinese Reading Robot

3. Habbi Habbi Reading Wand

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

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

4. eTutor Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Pen Pal Whizz

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

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

Which Chinese Reading Pen is right for me?

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

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

Comparison of Chinese Reading Pens

Head-to-Head comparison of Chinese reading pen options

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

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

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

Comparison of Chinese Reading Pens

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

What interesting technologies are helping your children to learn?

Where can I find out more?

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

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

Should I opt for Chinese as my child’s Mother Tongue at primary school?

It’s coming up for primary enrolment in Singapore, and for some mixed-race families, or foreign families, it creates the annual question “Should I enrol my child for Chinese as their Mother Tongue (MT) language”.  As background, in Singapore, each child in a local school needs to study a compulsory mother tongue, which for most is related to their ethnicity –   the Chinese take Mandarin; Malays and Eurasians take Bahasa; and Indians take Tamil or Hindi.  For those who don’t fit into one of those categories (like us!), a MT language must be elected.   

Given the importance of China in the global economy, many parents feel that learning Chinese would be the best use of their child’s time.  Gosh, we thought the same too, especially given the Chinese heritage of our family.  Additionally, our children had been exposed to Mandarin in kindergarten, and we were keen to continue on with this.

We’re glad we’ve gone down that route.  But it’s worth doing it with your eyes wide open.  A few tips:

  1. Don’t feel alone or that the challenge is insurmountable because you don’t speak Chinese

    I’ve noticed that there are many Singaporean Chinese millennials who grew up using mostly English and Singlish, and now are also unable to proficiently teach their children Chinese.  Yes, basic conversation is possible, but it’s hardly fluent nor going to pass Grade 3 Chinese composition.  Conversely, there are other families who have sent their kids to tuition from the moment they start pre-school, and both parents and kids despise the language so much by the time they reach P1, that studying it formally is also difficult.    So, if you’re effectively a non-Chinese speaker, and trying to raise a bilingual children in Singapore, don’t feel like you are that far behind!

  2. Be supportive

    A parents’ attitude is almost everything.   Even if you don’t understand it, at least be there to sit with them as they attempt to read a simple picture book.  Many times I’ve heard parents say in front of their child ‘Chinese is so difficult, I used to flunk it all the time’. ….. this doesn’t feel the right approach to encourage a child to succeed.  Let’s be positive and involved, if we want to create a winning attitude in our children.  We shouldn’t limit our children by our past challenges – little children love to learn and their brains are sponges; they think it’s fun and a natural.  You’ll realise this when you see how fast your child takes up learning Chinese characters.  They’ll leave you for dead!

  3. Be ready to invest time and energy

    Learning Chinese at primary school level is not the same as learning it in pre-school.  It quickly goes from being a fun and immersive approach, into an academic structure with weekly spelling tests, and focus on character writing; and with 30 – 40 in the class, the individual time for learning in school is limited.   This really means you need to be their quarter-back, and support your child’s learning outside of school.

    I find there are lots of similarities, between what a parent who does speak Chinese should do and what a parent who does not speak Chinese should do.  However, the limitation is that if a parent doesn’t speak basic Chinese, they often cannot understand the instruction of the learning materials (eg MOE text-book home activities, or Sage books) nor practice the weekly spelling lists in a traditional way.  I remember madly going through the P1 book list and trying to work out the difference between each of the six mandarin books we’d bought, and which one had to be packed on each different day (thankfully – I realised that on the back cover of the MOE text books in tiny font is an English translation of the title). Read my post here on how we finally managed to understand our P1 text book and thrive in the subject.

    It’s also hard to get access to supporting materials (ordering from Taobao using Google translate is an expensive nightmare!), and even the best Chinese learning apps (eg iHuman, Wukong Literacy, etc) have all the registration and payment pages in Chinese.  So you really do need to put in the extra effort and be a little creative.  But it’s not impossible.

  4. Consider the school choice carefully

    Some primary schools in Singapore teach standard level Chinese, and others offer the option for Higher Chinese.  Some only do Higher Chinese.  This can be the difference between sinking and swimming.  Consider whether the school might have a high percentage of intake who are primarily mandarin speaking at home (is the school associated with a Chinese Clan society? What is the demographic of students?), and also whether the school has a good support network for struggling children.  Some schools will offer remedial support classes, and other schools will expect the parents to pay for this outside of school! I’ve made a more detailed post comparing the number of characters / relative difference between Normal, Higher and Foundation Chinese options.

  5. Set up a formal learning structure if needed

    If you plan to start your child in P1 (aged 7) in local school with learning Chinese as a fresh start, with no prior exposure, it could be quite intimidating.  The homework will be totally in Chinese; the letters to parents from the laoshi may be written only in Chinese with no translation. Finally with my Luka Hero I’ve been able to decipher how to read Chinese handwritten notes! It works equally well (if not better) with our Youdao pen too.

    An older child may feel frustrated if he/she can’t understand what’s going on in the Chinese class, or gets negative feedback from teachers (which can unfortunately happen – I suppose some teachers view having a straggler in the class make a large class size even more unwieldy to teach).  For us, we made a simple change of reading Chinese books for 10 minutes each evening, and it massively boosted reading confidence for my primary schooler. We started off with Le Le graded reader series, which I cannot recommend highly enough, and we use Skritter app for practising the weekly spelling.

    I think it’s very important for all families to expose their Chinese learners to more fun Chinese media outside of school – immerse them in simple Chinese TV, games, and music.  But potentially you may need to consider a more structured program to bring them up to speed with Chinese as their second language.  I would recommend a one-on-one approach with a tutor, given that most of the enrichment centres in Singapore are based around kids being 2 terms ahead of where their class is, rather than coming from a low base! Be sure to read my top tips on how to increase Chinese exposure in the home, for families where Chinese language is not readily spoken.

  6. You cannot have everything!

    By devoting time to Chinese, this might mean less free time and money to spend on other aspects of childhood.  As an example, we spend a lot of time reading Chinese books together in the evening, or doing character writing, so our piano practice takes a backseat.  We also don’t do a lot of afterschool activities, although we did start ballet through a Chinese drama school which was a nice re-enforcing activity.  Our choice of church also was influenced by availability of a Chinese-speaking Sunday school.  It’s really become part of our lifestyle, deliberately.

    It’s been rewarding for us ….. and we now have three children who can all fluently speak and read Chinese, and in fact for my youngest two, their Chinese reading and writing level is ahead of their English one! To find out more about how our family is faring, there’s another post here which may help.

This process of learning Chinese from scratch is certainly not for everybody, and you have to consider carefully whether the commitment and investment is worth it for your family.  So in short, if you’re not up for the hands-on challenge (or reading this blog post in full), I would suggest if you have the choice, just choose to learn Malay! 

If you want to learn the language yourself as an adult beginner, see my previous post on the subject here. I’ve also put loads of tips on how to support your child’s Mandarin mother tongue learning journey on an earlier page.

Enjoy the special opportunity to embrace a new language with your child!

Being an expat at local school in Singapore

The decision to go to local school as an expat in Singapore

Once people get to know our family, they generally end up asking “What it is like as an expat in a local school?” and “Why did you choose a neighbourhood school?”. I can tell it’s a question on people’s minds from the moment they meet us! There aren’t many Singapore expats in local school.

Deciding to send our non-Singaporean child to a local school in Singapore was a deliberate and well-researched choice.  We thought long and hard on whether an international school or local school was best fit for our situation:  we love Singapore, are actively involved in the local community, and knew we’d be here for a long time.  We wanted an environment for stability of learning, empowering self-confidence and humility, and creating lifelong friendships.  Being able to learn a foreign language – in our case we chose Mandarin Chinese – up to level of fluency (or so we thought) was certainly a lure.

Singapore’s education system is taught largely in English, and it is globally known have a strong academic focus.  This was something else which attracted us, but also created a warning light.  My first, and main question, was how pressurised is this system?  I had heard stories from colleagues of children who are up until midnight with homework, and parents who ferry around their children to jam-packed schedules of tuition classes every weekend.  So, I spent a good two years researching this, visiting schools, and talking to anyone I knew in the teaching profession, to determine whether this was an illusory myth, or a hard, brutal fact about the local school system. 

Given that we:
(i) chose to enrol our first daughter, and
(ii) her siblings are following her in the system,

it is hopefully evidence enough to you that our experience (so far) has been a positive and enriching one.   Ultimately, every child is different, and it won’t suit everyone, and there are also limited spaces for non-Singaporean in local schools.  Parents need to make a choice that best suits their child’s temperament and learning needs, and then actively support that decision. 

Has local school life been stressful?

For us, being in a local no-brand neighbourhood school, with little-to-no homework most days, and the school staff actively discouraging external tuition, we’ve largely had a stress-free and joyful experience.  And when I say this, I mean stress free for both child and parent.   I can see it turning out very differently,  depending on school selection and location (for example …. Our neighbours’ son gets on a school bus each morning at 5.55am to go to an elite school on the other side of the island ….. it’s hard for me to envisage a more stressful start to the daily routine as a parent! ). Perhaps more experienced parents will read this and smile, because I don’t yet know what horrors lie in upper primary when the PSLE is upon us…  watch out for an update!

The things which have brought us stress have been surprising – for me, I still find it mentally tough standing at the school gate for pick-up, and being the only ang moh in the crowd, and knowing absolutely everyone remembers me and I don’t recognise anyone!   Or it’s the stress of trying to understand what-on-earth I’m signing when the Mother Tongue teacher asks me to put signature on the school report, fully hand-written Chinese characters, which cannot be translated on Google (that’s when my Youdao dictionary pen has become a saviour, by the way)!

Pros of Singapore local school

  • Focus on academics:  Singapore local education system is known for being extremely rigorous in maths and science, and producing very high scores in the PISA tests (which is the Programme for International Student Assessment, a worldwide study by the OECD, so nothing to laugh at!).  As an engineer myself, I value having a solid early understanding of numbers and science concepts. Surely the system has more rote-learning than an international school equivalent, but I think there’s a place for knowing off by heart your times tables, and getting the traditional ‘3 R’s (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic) down pat.
  • Structured environment:   Yes, it’s highly structured environment, with fixed class scheduling every day, a huge backpack of books and sheets, and no space for non-sense.  For us, I think this structure has helped to cultivate discipline and responsibility in our children: they learn to pack their own books, be on time for class, be a self-directed learner, etc.  And, remember, they are only in school until 1.30pm, so for us, the rest of the afternoon is totally unstructured!
  • Cost:  this is a hard one –  yes it’s a certain benefit, as many expats pour out tens of thousands of dollars a year to enrol their children in international school.   We would have gladly spent the money on the best school solution for our children.  Local schools are  not free either (in 2020 for a foreign student, it’s SG$9000 per year for primary school, and $16800 for secondary school), but they are notably cheaper than the cheapest international school options.  We are well aware that with the money saved from not sending three children to an international school, we can use this for other fulfilling family activities, fun summer camps, holidays, oh and let’s not forget, the investment in learning Chinese!
  • Great facilities– most schools will be equipped with dental surgeries, dance studios, science laboratories, modern sports halls, canteens which look like hawker centres, wonderful technologies, and access to world-class curriculums and programmes.   There’s after school learning support for those who need a little extra help, and some fun after school extra-curricular activities (environmental club, cooking club, robotic clubs, sports and drama) and overseas trips.  There’s not the big grand spacious campus which some of the international schools boast, but it’s way beyond what we would expect if we were back in our home country.

Cons of local Singapore schools

  • Class size:  At P1 & P2 there are 30 in a class.  It’s big, but you’d get that at some government schools in Australia or UK.  At P3 and beyond, it increases to 40!  Overall, I think a child learns better in a smaller environment, so this is a constant bug bear. The teachers have good coping strategies and technologies on how to manage large class sizes, but this comes at the cost of individual attention or creativity.  For example, the “creative writing”, be-it in English or Chinese, is really a highly structured process of rote learning how to make a sample opening paragraph, then template questions to tick off, with a penultimate paragraph, and a conclusion.  It’s a great framework to build upon though! 

    For a family who wants the child to converse more in Chinese, a large class doesn’t allow the direct discourse with a teacher to practice speaking (or hearing) the language.  Another aspect of large classes is that the children in upper primary are streamed by academic ability – to me this makes for better learning, but anther view, is that it is a stress factor and unnecessarily label on a young child.
  • Free play and socialising:  There isn’t a “lunch hour” at local school – timing is generally 7.30am to 1.30pm, with a half hour recess break.  So, there’s a whole aspect of playtime antics and friendship making which I feel is absent from the local school experience.  We consciously make this up outside of school, by maintaining regular playdates with sets of friends, and encouraging bonding with school friends (believe me, this really does take encouragement!).  Thankfully, mine have three siblings to joust with after-school, but I do really feel for the single-children in this respect.
  • Stress:  I put this here, because I bet any reader was expecting to see that.   Singapore Ministry of Education has actively been making changes to make the schooling experience less-stressful, including removing particular assessment and exams.   We haven’t felt the academic pressure (yet……perhaps it’s still coming).  I think this largely depends on the child’s attitude and aptitude, as well as parents’ expectations.  I do feel it’s not conducive to a happy childhood for children to spend most of their free time after school taking private lessons and enrichment classes.  We haven’t done this yet, and I hope never to be in that situation.  From the class Whatsapp chats, I can tell that there are some children who already are experiencing this, and I’m sure it could be stressful.  

    I’ve read some awfully sad articles about the poor mental health of older primary school students and the pressure they feel to achieve well in their PSLE – equally so, I’ve heard such stories at brandname International Schools too.  Particularly for a local Singaporean child, where university places are limited, which means scoring well in O-levels, hence needing to get into a good secondary  school, etc etc, you work backwards, and the pressure to perform well hits at a young age.  I feel as non-Singaporeans, we’re lucky to not have this burden, as there are other channels to get into university, should my kids wish to go down that route.
  • Catering for unique different learning needs:  It’s hard in this environment.  Thankfully I have girls, who are scientifically better suited at a younger age to classroom-based learning.  And, we have no specific learning difficulties to cater for.

How you can find out more about what happens in local schools as a Singapore expat

Open Days: Most schools have open days, so we went to a lot of them to get a sense for the facilities, teaching staff and vibe from the school.  They’re all really different, so it was well worth it.  The other thing I did was to visit the schools around pick-up time, and get a sense for the parent/helper/bus crowd hanging around at the gates, and the looks on the children’s faces as they left the premises. 

Visit the school: I don’t mean contact the school for a viewing, or attempting to go inside it ….. that’s a no no. However, why not walk around the outside of the school, and see what the vibe is like. Do you see any play equipment? A field? Hear sounds of joyful singing? See happy children running around? Visit the school at pick-up time, and just stand in the crowd of parents (and helpers, and grandparents!). See what they’re like, and what the children do as they run out of the school. Do they cross the roads politely? Greet their parents and road traffic assistant with a smile? Are they laden with text books and heavy bags?

Online Resources: The Ministry of Education (MOE) puts a lot of their syllabus online, which gives a great perspective.

Kiasu Parents Forum: I decided not to spend too much time here researching here-say online, because I didn’t want to waste time following threads and googling to find wrong answers written by bias anonymous parents to questions which are best solved in person. But that’s just me! Some people swear by online forums, and if that’s you, you’ll find plenty at Kiasu Parents!  

Singapore Expats in Local Schools Facebook group: a good group to connect to, once you get into a local school as an expat.

How it feels day-to-day in local Singapore school

Our school runs from 7:45 to 1:30pm.  It’s a 3 minute walk from our front door, which enables plenty of time for a good sleep and healthy breakfast beforehand.  Every day we feel grateful that we avoid the 5.55AM school bus!   From Primary 1, the day is fully timetabled and structured, with English, Mother Tongue, Maths, Social Science, PE, etc and corresponding books for each subject.  There’s a 30 minutes recess break, for children to eat at the canteen, play, or borrow books from the library. 

The school year runs from January through to mid-November, with a full month of school holidays in June and 6 weeks at year-end. 

I recall my one lingering concern after enrolling our first daughter, which was would feel like the odd-on-out (I mean, curly brown hair amid a sea of black?).  Well,  thankfully no. I think all kids are naturally colour-blind.  None of them would know the difference.  She’s made good friends,  become a class monitor, and is in a very happy learning environment.  She is proud of how well she is doing, and we are proud too! 

Words of advice as a Singapore expat in local school

Choosing a school: Not all foreigners have the option to choose which school they want to go to – it’s only Singapore Permanent Residents. If this is you, location and logistics is a large part of what I feel makes-or-break the experience.   The ability to walk to school really is a pleasure – it’s avoided the need to research car rental, the cost of taxis, timing of school buses, etc. Given schools starts somewhere between 7.15am to 7.45am, often school buses arrive 6am. We were fortunate enough to be in a position of having the option to go to our closest local school, and it has really worked for us. 

Pressure: Sometimes I wonder whether going to a neighbourhood school as opposed to a brand-name local school perhaps meant less homework and pressure?  Not sure, but we’ve certainly had friends at different schools who have had underwhelming experiences (in so far as being overwhelmed by the entire system).  Whilst Singapore has a motto “Every school a good school” (which I believe!), I have seen there are fundamentally different between approaches to homework and assessment across schools, and my hypothesis is that much of this could be parent cohort-driven too.  It’s probably worth thinking about.

Mother tongue language: All students in Singapore’s local school system need to study a mother-tongue language. This is a great opportunity for a child to become bilingual, but the standards are high, as it’s assumed this language is also spoken at home. To understand whether you should consider choosing Chinese as a mother-tongue, please see my earlier post. Then, if you do choose Chinese, I would recommend that you start as soon as possible to ensure your child has a strong foundation in the language – there are simple things you can do to expose your child to Chinese, even as a non heritage Chinese family.

Ultimately. there is no such thing as a perfect school system, nor perfect solution for parenting.  Much of it is what you make of it.  I’m naturally an optimist, and hope my children will be like that too. I love the quote “If you believe you can, or if you believe you cannot, you are right”. A lot of the journey is the story or perspective you put around it. For us, we do love being part of the Singapore expats in local school tribe.

Is it the best option for learning Mandarin?

If you’re reading this, because you’re interested in your child learning Chinese, and therefore thinking a Singapore local school could be your best option….. I really don’t know if it’s best, as there are also amazing bilingual Chinese international school options available, which are fully immersive! However, I do have a few other blog posts on teaching children Chinese as a non-Chinese literate family, which may be of interest:

  1. Best books for teaching a preschooler how to read Chinese
  2. Is reaching fluency in Chinese a realistic expectation for non Chinese families?
  3. Great books to read to encourage literacy
  4. Surviving Primary 1 Chinese as a clueless parent
  5. Luka Reading Companion

I would love to hear from you!

Part of the joy in blogging, is building up a community of like-minded parents who can support each other. So, I welcome you to comment below, email me, or join in discussions on Facebook or Instagram. Through supporting each other, and sharing tips, the load is lighter!

Singapore expats in local schools