Review: The Dim Sum Warriors Club

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

What is the Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Club 点心侠 ?

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

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

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

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

Dim Sum Warriors app

What we like?

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

What we don’t like? (or watch outs)

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

Nothing is perfect, so some watch outs for consideration:

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

Unique features of Dim Sum Warriors?

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

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

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

How does Dim Sum Warriors work?

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

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

How is it different from other Chinese apps for kids?

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

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

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

How to become a Dim Sum Warriors Club Member?

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

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

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

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

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

What is Maomi Stars?

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

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

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

What we like?

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

What we didn’t like?  (or watch outs)

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

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

Unique features of Maomi Stars?

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

How Maomi Stars works?

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

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

How is it different from other great Chinese literacy apps?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maomi Stars character writing game

Book Review: Zorori series in Simplified Chinese

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

Key Information on Zorori 怪杰佐罗力 series

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

What the Zorori plot is about

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

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

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

What my daughter likes about Zorori:

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

What a mother would like about the set:

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

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

Insides of the book

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

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

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

Where to find Zorori 怪杰佐罗力 series

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

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

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

What level is it for?

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

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

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

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

I would love to know what books you think are great at this same level! Please add comments below, or through my my Instagram or Facebook feeds. It’s only through meeting other wonderful parents virtually, that this shared language journey becomes a more valuable and fun one.

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

Review: Vitamin M – a fun dose of Chinese online

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

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

What is Vitamin M?


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


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

Class structure

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

Note: Vitamin M also offer 1-to-1 classes for Chinese oral exam practice, along with other self-guided online classes. I’ve reviewed their online PSLE Oral Exam Prep Course in a separate post.


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

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

Why we like it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Vitamin M best suited for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Graded Novels: Books for not-quite-beginners

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

What are graded novels or graded readers?

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

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

A graded reading book is good, if:

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

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

How do graded novels in Chinese compare?

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

Graded readers covered in this post:

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

Mandarin Companion Chinese Graded Readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series 汉语凤

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

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

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

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

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

Sinolingua Rainbow Bridge Graded Chinese Readers

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

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

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

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

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

Graded Readers for Chinese Language Learners  (Gaoxiao Zhuti Chuban)

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

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

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

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

Favourite titles in series (so far): Hua Mulan

Squid for Brains Readers

  • Books in set: 5
  • Length: 8,000 to 11,000 characters
  • Country of publication: USA
  • Author: Dr Terry Waltz
  • Publisher: Squid for Brains
  • Difficulty: The five books get progressively harder.  The easiest book consists of 175 unique characters.  If a child knew ~1000 characters total, there’s a good chance that they’d be able to read nearly everything.
  • Languages: Simplified Chinese
  • Audio option: no
  • eBook: no

Overview: The target audience is for learners of Chinese as a second language.   These Chinese Readers focus on high-frequency vocabulary used during year 1 of most American middle school / high school Chinese programs. They’re written with a great sense of humour and a lot of pop culture references.

A mum’s view:  These are simple text yet complex stories at an age-appropriate level for 10 years+. Good for a reluctant reader. Because they have a highly limited character set, you can buy these books with more certainty that your child actually will be able to read them and learn a handful as new characters too.  It will also likely take them quite a way to chew through the books as they’re long, so it’s like a mini-project for them.

My child’s view:  A great in-between before getting onto real fiction novels, on the easier side, but encouraging to keep reading for pleasure (way easier than Dogman, Dork Diaries or Harry Potter!). Enjoys it because it has “punny” names of people, places, foods, tv shows etc and some of the books use English interspersed between the characters (eg Cheesy Tuna Surprise, Tennessee Fried Chicken, PowerBall).  This brings the narrative to life more for a beginner.

Favourite titles in series (so far): Susan

I’ve written a separate detailed blog post of Squid for Brain chapter books here.

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

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

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

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

Youdao Dictionary Pen 3 Review

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

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

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

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

What is the Youdao Dictionary Pen 3?

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

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

What’s in the box?

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

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

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

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

Technical Specifications of Youdao 3.0

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

Weight: 0.4lbs

Screen: 2.97-inch color full colour LCD screen

Voice Mode: Real voice (English or American options)

Key Features of the Youdao Dictionary Pen 3.0

The best features of the pen are:

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

Photographs from using the pen on Spanish books

Photographs from using the pen on Chinese books

Key differences between Youdao 3.0 and earlier models

Overall, the most obvious differences are:

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

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

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

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

Main versions of Youdao pen

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

The main Youdao pen versions in the market are:

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

Guide to the model names:

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

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

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

Cons of all 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pens

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

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

Where to buy Youdao Dictionary Pens in Singapore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAQs on 有道 Youdao Dictionary Pens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison again other Chinese Reading Pens

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

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

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

Review: Youdao Pocket Printer for Chinese home learning

The Youdao Pocket Printer is one super cute little thermal printer, which is ink-less and wireless, and connects to your phone. You can print notes, photos, flashcards, invitations, and much more all from your iOS or Android device.  And the reason it features on my blog is it has a full Simplified Chinese character range too, including some nifty applications for learning Chinese.

The printer was recently gifted to me from Youdao, with no compensation nor obligation to write a review or blog post.   As readers of this blog will know, this blog runs on a non-profit, no-affiliation, sponsorship or commission basis.  But as a ONE-OFF this post contains a time-limited affiliate link, which will give you a 20% discount on Youdao products and also donate 10% to a charity supporting the humanitarian situation in Ukraine.  I feel it’s a worthy cause, and no, I haven’t been paid to say this either.

What is a thermal printer?

It’s a tiny little printer that uses a small roll of paper (think of a shopping docket), and a phone app to send signals to the printer via Bluetooth.

You don’t need any ink for these printers, which is fascinating.  Thermal printing uses special paper (thermochromic paper) which goes through a thermal print head to create a digital image.  It means that you don’t need to worry about ink refills or mess when changing cartridges.  All you need is a roll of thermal paper!

There are a few brands out there.  I like Youdao because the app also allows for Chinese characters and has some interesting functions which link back into Youdao’s dictionary among other things.

What’s in the box?

The printer – it’s about the size of a clam-shell flip phone.  The printer comes with the paper already loaded and the printer partially charged. 

USB c-charger

English instruction manual

It’s so simple. Just open the box and go.   You’ll need a smartphone to link the printer to the Youdao Pocket Printer app (download this first). It can be set up within a few seconds.

The system language default is English, but it can be changed to Chinese.

Youdao Pocket Printer

Why would you use it?

These are some of the things we have used this black and white printer for…..

Flashcards and vocabulary:    The printer can also be connected to the Youdao Dictionary APP to print out words and definitions and add pictures.   Personally, an improvement I’d like to see Youdao make is to add a set of preexisting flashcards directly into the app, rather than just the template.

Character writing practice: You can print out practice handwriting sheets for pinyin – you can do this from pre-existing pictures (or use your phone to photograph from a textbook). 

Printing out lists or information for the kids:  My kids do a LOT of online classes, and usually, I get emailed the Zoom details for these.  Instead of having to write these out, I can simply print out the details direct from my email for the kids to use.

Birthdays:  Firstly, you can print the birthday invitation this way.  Secondly, it can do cute black & white photos at the party – it’s not a polaroid camera, but it’s cheaper! Don’t expect anything too fancy – it’s 200-dpi resolution and grayscale, but still a fun gimmick.   Finally, if you want to chew through the thermal paper, it’s simple to print a long banner to decorate the party room. 

Shopping lists or to-do lists for the kids:  there’s a template for this, and drafts can be saved, so you can add to it during the week and then pass to your husband 😉  You can also save past lists or designs to print out again, so something I use this for is printing a list each week for the kids of things to work on. 

Scanning text: It has a clever OCR technology that can pick up printed text (eg from a book or song lyrics) and place it into the app.  So it’s possible to print out a memory verse or moxie passage and pass it to the child to revise.  It’s a perfect size for sticking into the school diary too. 

Business functions:  we haven’t done this, but you could easily print receipts, QR codes, barcodes, business addresses etc using the printer too. 


  1. Lots of existing templates and filters: enabling you to easily design fun and creative notes, photos, labels, banners, etc Notably, this also includes specific designs for Chinese flashcards.
  2. Includes a text scanning and extraction feature: can scan English or Chinese text (eg a phrase from a book) and print out the selection
  3. Ability to print from web pages or photos – so simple and this includes the ability to link into the Youdao dictionary app too, and print definitions of Chinese words, etc.
  4. Portable:  it’s 7.5xm x 7.5xm x 3.0 cm, and study – nothing loose or too technical. 
  5. Low cost: the refills of paper are ~US2.00 per roll (or less).
  6. Different colors of paper, including adhesive stickers:  paper refills come in pastel yellow, pink and blue, as well as white, and include adhesive paper for labels/nametags too


  • Quality of photo printing:  is not ideal, but for simple black and white, it’s very clear. 
  • Longevity of the printouts:  You know how a shopping docket fades?  This will too, and it depends on the quality of the thermal paper you buy.  The basic paper will fade in 3 months at normal temperatures.   Apparently, the retention time can be 20+ years with the fancier paper (if I were to test this fact, the blog post wouldn’t come for a few more decades). 
  • Availability of the app:  The printer won’t work without the app.  The app is not available in all geographies, so check it’s available in your app store before purchasing the printer!
  • Sensitivity to heat:  Heat exposure damages thermal paper permanently – so don’t leave your printer or the rolls of paper in direct sunlight or heat from the kitchen area, etc.

Where to buy the Youdao Pocket Printer?

The Youdao pocket printer is widely available on Amazon and Shopee. 

If you buy from the official Youdao store and Amazon you can receive a 20% discount with  LAHLAHYD20 coupon code. It will also generate 10% donation to a charity that can provide support to the Ukraine, which will be donated at the end of May (when this coupon code will be removed). 

If you are buying this printer, do also check out Youdao’s other clever home stationery solutions too (you think I’m joking right??). Their electric eraser is particularly good for Chinese composition corrections, as it lets you erase a specific area with precision and speed. Their electric pencil sharpener is seriously sharp. And their teeny tiny desk vacuum cleaner is an indulgence, but great for encouraging a child to not spread their eraser dust all over the floor (and it comes with Chinese vocab cards on the top, for subliminal learning!). I’d never had dreamed up such inventions, but they’re a hit in our house.

What other gadgets are helpful for learning Chinese?

If you know any, please share! We leverage a lot of gadgets and tech in our quest to be a trilingual family. Other technology which I’ve reviewed previously that you may enjoy for learning Chinese includes:

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

Book Review: Magic Tree House in Simplified Chinese 神奇树屋

Magic Tree House in Simplified Chinese (神奇树屋) is a great book set for a child who has finished with levelled readers and bridging books in Chinese, and is ready for a new challenge.  The reading level (lexile) gradually becomes harder as the series progress. 

Key Information

  • Author:  Mary Pope Osborne
  • Number of books in set:  58, of which first 28 are the remainder are Merlin Missions series.
  • Number of lines per page: 2 – 25
  • Number of pages per book: ~100
  • Total length of the book:  For the first 28, it’s 5000 ~12,000 characters in length, and the 29 – 52 set (Merlion Missions) are about 50~80% longer in length.
  • Characters required by child to read it independently: 1500+ (with a dictionary or reading pen to translate scientific terms)
  • Pinyin: No
  • Bilingual: some versions
  • Available in Singapore NLB: Yes
  • Original language of publication: English

Synopsis of the Magic Tree House

Put simply, the story is about a brother-sister sibling pair who know the secret location of a treehouse filled with magical books.  They regularly climb up into the house when no one is looking to read.  When they point to the pictures in the books, the sibling duo is magically transported to that place and time in history! On each trip, Jack and Annie have to navigate situations and adventures to gather objects or achieve goals.  They go from space, to the artic, to pyramids, and even a panda reserve in China.

The Magic Treehouse books have literally been around for generations – first written in English in 1992.  They’re universally loved and translated into 35+ languages, including Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Countless kids have discovered a joy of reading through this series – in both English, and also Chinese, as you’ll realise from a quick google search.

A Mum’s View

I really like the set because it blends non-fiction into a fun fiction narrative, and it’s a very different type of vocabulary from other Chinese book sets we have (my kids like it better than Magic Schoolbus too).

Yes, the narrative is simple and pretty flat – it’s not thrilling literature, but what it does is encourage children to do is to read longer books.   If you’re a parent who can read Chinese, you may get bored by how simple this set is ….. I know I found the same with the English version – I felt that it’s not a series to really read aloud, but more to work through together.  I know there are families who do listen to this as an audiobook (there are Mandarin recordings on Ximalaya), but that really would have bored me with the English version.  For Chinese, I love these books because because we don’t have too many chapter books at the right level (most are waaaay to hard), and therefore Magic Treehouse has been great for extensive reading.

If your child has already read this in English, they may be hesitant to read it again in Chinese. I don’t blame them either (unless it’s several years apart).

What’s excellent about Magic Tree House

  • Exciting plot,  clear storyline, and limited characters  – seems to have a magic effect on kids
  • The length of each book – the books can be reads across several days, and the chapters are short enough to read one or two in one sitting. 
  • Grounded in scientific, historical, and geographic facts (mixed with a bit of mythology and fantasy, which can become a bit blurred)
  • Simple introduction to reading novels –  Really nothing complex about it at all, although the complexity does increase as the series progresses.  Don’t be put off by the handful of scientific terms – that’s the only real challenging part, and they’re repeated, and it’s a good way to pick up new, relevant vocabulary.
  • Appealing for both genders – especially great for a child interested in history

What to watch out for

  • Simpleness of narrative  – we have the English set too, and I know from reading this series with my kids how simple the vocabulary and sentence structure is.   It’s nothing particularly special in terms of literature, and it’s not something I encouraged my children to continue reading after they got the hang of reading in English (characters are very shallow and dialogue is flat).  . 
  • The pictures and paper quality – our Simplified Chinese version is all in black and white, and they illustrations are not overly clear; our Bilingual Version is two-tone, with totally different illustrations, and much thicker paper.  I’ve been looking out EVERYWHERE for a full colour copy.  The translated versions have all been drawn by different illustrators depending on the language. I’ve seen gorgeous full colour in the Traditional Chinese version (check out this blog post for photos of the TC full colour version ) but nothing similar in SC.
Magic Treehouse in Simplified Chinese
You can see from the difference in shelf space taken up by the different versions that one has thicker paper than the other!
Magic Treehouse in Simplified Chinese comparison of against English
Narrative is very simple – all sentences grammatically correct, and punctuated etc. Layout between both editions is slightly different.

Book Titles & Versions

Our box set in English has 31 Books.  (all from the original series).  One box set in Simplified Chinese is the same.  In terms of pictures, and layout, they’re identical, just in different languages. This is the same version which can be found in Singapore’s National Library Board (NLB) collection.

Our Bilingual Chinese-English box set is totally different.  Firstly it has 34 books (28 from the original series, 5 books from the Merlin Missions series).  Secondly, it’s laid out with Simplified Chinese at the front, and English at the back.  Thirdly, the Chinese translation is slightly different from the Chinese-only version (it’s probably a bit more thoughtfully done).  Finally, the pictures are totally different!

The first 28 books titles are the same in both our sets.  Then the titles differ – this is because newer simpler stories were subsequently written as books 29 – 31 .   The book “Christmas in Camelot” (Originally book 29) and subsequent now make the first stories in the harder set of Merlin Missions.

Magic Treehouse  bilingual Chinese-English version
 Simplified Chinese Version (published 2019 by Penguin)Bilingual Simplified Chinese Version (published 2006 by Random House)
Book 28High Tide in HawaiiHigh Tide in Hawaii
Book 29A Big Day For BaseballChristmas in Camelot
Book 30Hurricane Heroes in TexasHaunted Castle on Hallow’s Eve
Book 31Warriors in WinterSummer of the Sea Serpent
Book 32Winter of the Ice Wizard
Book 33Carnival at Candlelight
Book 34Season of the Sandstorms

The titles between the translations differ too, as you’ll notice from the photos. The version on the white background is our bilingual set, and the version on the wooden background is the single language version which we borrowed from the library (it’s the same layout as the English version).

Single language versions of Magic Treeh House are laid out identically
The bilingual version is illustrated and laid out differently

What level is it for?

In America, the English version is on booklists at Grade 2. 

In Taiwan, the Traditional Chinese version is on booklists at Grade 3. 

For Magic Tree House in Simplified Chinese in a Singapore context, I’ve never seen this on a reading list.  I would suggest about Grade 4.  My daughter started it in Grade 3, and it was a challenging read – mainly because of the amount of new vocabulary related to science/history, which required looking up the meanings for. 

The stories become increasingly longer and more complex, with less pictures, for example:

  • Book 1 – Dinosaurs Before Dark 66 pages, ~ 150 characters on every second pages; ~5000 characters total
  • Book 28 – High Tide in Hawaii 73 pages ~ 200 characters on most pages = ~ 12,000 characters
  • Book 34 – Season of the Sandstorms  113 pages ~300 characters on two out of every three pages, ~20,000 characters total

Where to get the book from?

Great news – the entire Magic Tree House in Simplified Chinese set is available from Singapore NLB in their Chinese collection (look in the “OSB” section of Junior Chinese Fiction).  Otherwise we couldn’t find a single store on the island which sells it.  Plenty of options from Taobao and JD, and occasionally Lazada.

Magic Tree House in Simplified Chinese 神奇树屋
These are the front covers of our bilingual version – which we managed to pick up a bargain on secondhand. Compares these titles with the first photograph in this post, and you’ll see the book translations are slightly different.

What’s your favourite graded reader?

I would love to know what books you think are great at this same level as Magic Tree House in Simplified Chinese! Please add comments below, or through my my Instagram or Facebook feeds. It’s only through meeting other wonderful parents virtually, that this shared language journey becomes a more valuable one.

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

I’ve also written detailed reviews of other graded readers that we’ve tried, and Chinese learning resources, see below:

Are phonics or pinyin needed to learn Chinese?

This is a topic for much debate – and you can see from the different syllabi used between countries (and schools), that there is no unanimous alignment on this.  However I want to share a few facts and observations, so you can also make a decision on what might be best for your family.  I find this area of linguistics and literacy fascinating. 

What is Hanyu Pinyin?

Hanyu Pinyin (拼音 or often abbreviated to pinyin) is the official romanisation system for Mandarin Chinese, originating from Mainland China.  It’s also officially used in the Singapore education system. The pinyin system was developed in the 1950s by Chinese linguists, and was based on earlier approaches to romanise Chinese words, but which weren’t fully consistent.  In 1958 the Chinese Government published a standard list, which is still used today.

Hanyu (汉语) means “the spoken language of the Han People” and Pinyin (拼音) being “spelling sounds” (essentially, phonics).  It’s a way of using the Roman alphabet to decode Chinese characters.  Every Mandarin syllable can be spelt with one equivalent combination of alphabet letters, with a diacritic above to indicate tone.   The system fits nicely on an A4 page, which is quite an achievement for a language with over 50,000 unique characters. This provides a basis for alphabetic order or words for some modern dictionaries too.

(In a fascinating political backstory, Chairman Mao was actually considering romanising the entire written Chinese system and dropping the characters, but was advised in 1949 by Joseph Stalin that China should maintain their existing writing system.  Still, Mao’s vision kickstarted a committee to reform the Chinese written language, in order to increase literacy rates among adults.  Thus the Standard Chinese Hanyu Pinyin System came about).

Why is Pinyin taught?

Fundamentally, phonics (or letter/symbol–sound relationships) are a key to becoming literate in most languages on Earth. Even languages that are said to be non-phonetic in nature (eg ideographic or logographic scripts), do indeed also use a method of teaching to read and pronounce words by learning the phonic value of characters and groups of characters.   

This is exactly why even for countries like China and Taiwan, where Chinese is the primary language of instruction, they also rely heavily on teaching phonics (or syllabary symbols) in their curriculums.  Phonics are essential to give structure and order to the character set.   

Whilst pinyin has the value of enabling non-Chinese speakers to “read” or pronounce the Chinese language, its main use is actually within China itself, enabling learners there to have a good framework themselves to learn new characters and pronunciation. Other benefits include giving alignment on geographic places and names which need to be translated into English, and the fact pinyin is MUCH easier to type into a computer too. 

Why is there debate about teaching Pinyin?

Firstly, the debate over phonics and Pinyin doesn’t seem to be within China or Taiwan.  These countries use the phonetics as part of their teaching. Moreover, it is the foundation of much of the learning system.  However, ultimately the focus is on a child being able to read/write using only characters, with phonic tools as an aid only.

The debate over pinyin occurs in countries where Chinese is being learnt as a second (or subsequent) language, typically AFTER a child has already learnt to read in English, and is well aware of English phonics. 

There are two fundamental points in the argument against pinyin:

  1. The Chinese pinyin phonics are not a direct translation of English phonics.  Yes, pinyin assigns some letter sounds that are quite different from those of most English speakers.    For example, in English  “c” is pronounced as a “k”, but in pinyin it’s more of a “ts”.  So in the very common Lunar New Year greeting,  “Gong Xi Fa Cai”, the final character is a “tsai” rather than a “chai” or “kai”.  This explains why non-native speakers get it wrong ALL the time. However, I see this in the same way as a child who can read English cannot then go and read a paragraph written in French and expect to get all the pronunciation correct, simply because the alphabet is the same.  One needs to learn the language first. So this issue is not limited to pinyin, but it gets more airtime because obviously there is a credible alternative to not using pinyin, which is to only teach the Chinese characters themselves. 

  2. It can hinder a child from ever learning Chinese characters.  This to me is the MUCH bigger issue.  Children may become reliant on the pinyin and never learn the characters. Indeed, pinyin has became a key tool for many foreigners to learn Mandarin pronunciations, and this may be where it becomes a hindrance or crutch, depending on how and when it is taught. Put simply, you just cannot learn to read Chinese characters in the same way as English is learnt. If pinyin if it’s introduced too early or in a wrong way, it could be replacing this brain connection required for properly learning a logographic language, and also the aural connection to listen out for correct pronunciation. .

In summary, learning to speak Chinese accurately relies on listening, not overlaying a western pronunciation; whilst acquiring literacy requires following symbols and deconstructing a character to derive its meaning, rather than short-circuiting it with pinyin.

A great read on this topic the blog post Pinyin over Characters: The Crippling Crutch, which is written by the authors of some of our favorite Chinese novels called Mandarin Companion which is aimed at removing that crutch and helping a learner to walk by themselves.

Mandarin Companion has a nice approach of placing pinyin in reference notes at the bottom of a page, rather the distract the readers attention using it in the main text.

When should Chinese phonics be taught?

In China and Taiwan, phonics are introduced AFTER a child has started learning to read in Chinese characters, and obviously this is well after they have started speaking and understanding the language. On average in China, a student knows >600 characters before starting to learn pinyin, according to this article.

Outside of these primary Mandarin speaking regions, phonic systems like pinyin are often used at the start of the Chinese language learning process, where a child or adult learner may neither understand the spoken language nor yet be able to read any characters in it.  Ultimately,  non-native Chinese learners will be more familiar with the English alphabet, so pinyin helps makes the learning easier. Perhaps for an adult this is right approach (I’m still not sure) as they’ll already be struggling to learn new words and terms. However, in doing so, many will continue to rely on the pinyin and turn a blind eye to the Chinese characters, especially when pinyin is put in tandem in most textbooks.

In Singapore, Hanyu Pinyin is officially introduced only at Primary 1 – this is deliberate in order for children to learn some spoken Chinese (and ideally character exposure) prior to introducing phonics, much like the systems in China and Taiwan. From my understanding of the Singapore MOE Chinese curriculum (revised in 2015), local kindergartens are not actually allowed to teach pinyin.

This approach aligns with credible research showing that children who don’t start pinyin until their literacy already exceeds 1000 characters are less likely to rely on pinyin as a crutch (see great post here on the topic).

But, who would that stop pinyin being taught early in a kiasu country like Singapore? Many private schools will still teach this in the K1/K2 classes. In many cases, specific pinyin classes are also encouraged by private tuition centres, pandering to parents’ insecurity about wanting their child to have prior knowledge before starting formal primary schooling years.  A pinyin course is a relatively easy thing for a tuition centre to offer because it is only a fixed 35 vowels, 23 consonants, and four tones plus a neutral tone, and ….vrooooom, your child has crammed in the entire knowledge of pinyin. I’m sure some kids really do lap it up and it works.

Whilst debate remains, there is now an emerging body of research showing that if pinyin is introduced simultaneously with a child learning English phonics, this may even create a double confusion – because a child who is still only grasping basic phonics in English, is also using the same letters to do phonics in Chinese, which is every so slightly differently pronounced and used.  Let’s wait and see where jury lands on this.

In concluding, let me reverse this question and ask why don’t more parents in Singapore actually focus to teach their children to read characters prior to starting school? I really don’t have a good answer. But I have a good reason why you should try….. in many respects its EASIER for a young child to pick up characters than phonics, as memorising a character doesn’t require any use of decoding. Case in point: my two year old could recognise about 30 Chinese characters and read simple books much earlier than she could read an English book (because knowing 26 alphabet characters still doesn’t let you read a sentence, unlike Chinese characters.). She got great enjoyment out of the reading, and this positively reinforced her to want to keep reading and learning. She’s now five and and still doesn’t know any pinyin.

Learning characters can be daunting without any omanisation, bur that’s where clever audio tools like Luka and reading pens can help

What alternatives are there to Hanyu Pinyin?

In Taiwan, there is also a phonetic system, called Zhuyin (or BoPoMoFo), which uses a system of symbols rather than the Roman alphabet.  In fact, the system of phonics used is almost the same structure as Hanyu Pinyin, although takes longer to learn as it’s not as simple as using the alphabet, and instead uses symbols which look like pieces of traditional characters.    The use of zhuyin in Taiwan is analogous to the use of Hiragana and Katakana in Japan…. using symbols to turn a logographic written language into a phonetic one.

Many mothers from Taiwan say Zhuyin is essential (see a great recent blog post here from Motherly notes and an older one from Guavarama singing its praises). I personally think the fact that the zhuyin symbols look nothing like the English alphabet is a big plus versus pinyin, as it removes the brain’s association with the Roman alphabet and perceived pronunciation from that perspective.

As within Pinyin in Mainland China, Zhuyin in Taiwan usually isn’t taught first either. I’ve read in a few places there is a rule of thumb to know ~500 Chinese characters before starting zhuyin, which is not overly different from the official Singapore Government approach to learning pinyin either. One key argument for learning zhuyin earlier is it enables a child to start writing earlier, as the symbols are easier than Traditional Chinese characters (this isn’t so much of an issue in Singapore with Simplified Chinese characters however).   

In a Singapore context, I know many families where children have successfully learnt Zhuyin AFTER they’ve nailed Simplified Chinese characters, and it’s been a wonderful benefit to them too. This benefit has mainly been so that a child can read many more of the Taiwanese published novels, and is a good start to learning Traditional Chinese. 

Should we just ignore pinyin?

No, whilst it’s not essential for beginners, it has a good purpose.  Just as phonics are key building blocks to most languages, pinyin is helpful in the process of learning Chinese – but I personally feel that it needs to come later.  If you’re worried about your 4 year old not being taught pinyin in school and looking to pay $$ for a private enrichment class, please do rethink this.

If your child already reads English, they’ll very naturally pick up pinyin down the track by themselves with no effort.  Pinyin certainly is a helpful aid to how to pronounce new words, and enables a child to learn the language by themselves from a textbook or dictionary.  The tone marks too are great visual reminders, since mastering the tones can be tricky for non-native speakers.  Ultimately it also helps greatly in writing on a computer/phone, as majority of Chinese systems and apps use pinyin as input. 

The clear advantages are nicely articulated in this Hands-On Chinese post about how and when to introduce pinyin. What you want to avoid when learning pinyin is using it as a default and becoming dependent on it, and not properly allowing a child to fall in love with Chinese characters themselves. 

How we approached it?

Ultimately, there is still a LOT of debate on this topic, so I wouldn’t stress over what’s right or wrong, provided that learning real Chinese characters (or English literacy) is not being delayed due to introduction of pinyin.

After reading up much on theories on second-language learning, I became convinced that the first step to learning Chinese for my children would be listening and speaking, not reading or writing.  Then, learning real characters would be the next step, rather than learning pinyin (since it’s really only ever supposed to be an intermediate tool or aid).

Therefore, my children did not learn any pinyin prior to learning to read characters in Chinese.  When we started our literacy journey,  I deliberately used a home learning system (in our case, Le Le Chinese Character learning system) which enables a child to effectively self learn first ~1200 characters without any pinyin.  The system also works for parents who cannot read Chinese either, as it comes with a reading pen.  This was our main start to literacy, combined with apps like iHuman, which don’t have pinyin (unless you add-on that module).  I only ever bought or borrowed books without pinyin, and I even designed a little reading ruler to cover up pinyin on books where we really couldn’t avoid it.

Le Le Chinese emphasis is on literacy through stories, WITHOUT pinyin
In books where we couldn’t avoid pinyin, I made a plastic reading ruler to cover it up, using plastic sheet and washi tape.

In P1, the first half of the year (eg Term 1 & 2) in Singapore syllabus is spent learning pinyin.  The laoshi tends to go through this VERY fast, as most children already were taught it in advance.  What this meant is my daughter didn’t score at all well on P1 & P2 spelling tests where pinyin was involved, as she didn’t know it well enough (whereas just about all her classmates already knew it before starting school).  It was actually painful to see her struggle on something so meaningless, and I felt like the teachers were reinforcing learning than teaching at this point, which is an irony in itself.

But, by P3 the tables turned.  At P3 level, the Singapore MOE has a policy to essentially drop pinyin and leave only characters.  For most children, this was a big hurdle, but for us it was time to shine!  Finally my daughter started scoring 100% on weekly tingxie tests.   By that time she was already reading novels in Chinese with no pinyin, although she of course now understands pinyin and can use it to self-learn new vocabulary. 

I think our learning strategy has been vindicated, and certainly, nothing lost (note least the $ potentially spent on classes) from not starting pinyin any earlier.  Another perk is that books without pinyin tend to be cheaper, as the publishers know those with pinyin are focused typically for overseas learners with deeper pockets and less options.

As for Zhuyin …. it still is on our list to consider in future, but then so are many other things!

Online Chinese language courses for kids that you might not have heard of (yet)

This review covers some of the newer online Mandarin classes for kids. There have been SO many new additions in the world of online Chinese learning in the last two years.  A combination of advances in technologies, COVID pivoting people to online learning, and the Government ban on tuition services in mainland China have triggered somewhat of a tsunami of online Chinese classes to choose from. It’s a saturated market, which is perfect for the consumer.

My original review of online Chinese language classes written back in 2020 contained comparisons of Lingo Ace, Lingo Bus, Vivaling, Koala Know, GoEast and Mandarin Tree. They’re all great services, and several of these services my family still use regularly today. You can find my earlier review of online Chinese classes for children here.

Since then, we’ve discovered many more online classes, as I’m sure you have too. Different classes suit different family needs, children’s learning styles, schedules, and importantly budget. This post outlines some of the newer courses we’ve discovered and tried (or tried to try).  I know from observing my kids that there is certainly no one-size-fits-all.

Below is a quick comparison table of the new entrants for Mandarin Classes online, with more details expanded below.  Some of these are small vendors, and others are massive venture fund-backed technopreneurs. Take your pick!

Mandarin class online comparison
Online Chinse classes

Each of them has a free trial option, in case you’re tempted.

Vitamin M

Vitamin M Mandarin class online
Vitamin M Chinese

Trial Class Experience: It was interactive and fun, and left my daughter begging me to officially sign up!   Vitamin M is novel concept blending bite-sized video content and interactive modules with a weekly 60-minute immersion group class.   The course follows the Singapore MOE curriculum, with Singapore-based content, primarily focused on orals and conversation.   It’s possible to get a free trial of both their online content and the group classes. 

Class length and schedule 60-minute group class (6 max in class) at set times run weekly.  In between, there are online activities with mysteries to solve and word games, etc, again mainly focusing on spoken content.  It includes doing practice oral reading, which is uploaded for the class coach  to provide feedback.  The whole syllabus has been put together really nicely. In addition, the child can earn points by completing classes and exercises, and exchange these in an online store for plushies, erasers and cute stationery. A winner with the target tween audience!

Booking process:  Signing up is very simple – choose a package from their website (all in English).  Classes are at set time once a week.  Cost is SG $150-$180 per month for all content and classes (each month consist of 8 videos, 4 small group classes, and adhoc digital content).

Software: Zoom (for live classes) and ClassPoint (interactive online tool uses to add fun engagement/quizzes into the Zoom lessons)

Customer Service: Excellent.  All Singapore-based, and you’ll be in whatsapp contact with them; it’s also possible to talk directly to the coach (in English or Chinese) after the weekly classes.

Final thoughts:  This is a very new concept, and content is currently designed for P4 students though they’re not strict about age criteria (It’s planned to expand to P3 and P5 in 2023).   The teachers largely come from drama, radio and film backgrounds, and have a collective aim to bring the language to life.   All the content is created with a ‘story universe’ in mind, so there are familiar actors etc throughout the activities, videos, challenges.    It’s a lovely option for a child who wants to engage more with the spoken language in a variety of contexts and no doubt you’ll find a deeper joy in the Singapore MOE syllabus.  We’ve used Vitamin M for nearly three months, and literally there were tears on the one single weekend when we needed to miss class (thankfully there was a recording we could watch to catch up).

Best for:  a P3 to P5 student who wants to use the language more actively outside of school and outside of a classroom

Zhangmen Kid

Zhangman Kid Mandarin class online
Zhangmen Kid

Trial Class Experience:   Previously we’ve tried Zhangmen for Math in Mandarin.  Recently they’ve launched an online 1-to-1 Chinese course, conducted in either Mandarin or Cantonese, either in immersion-style or bilingually with English.  Quite a lot of options to consider!

Class length and schedule : 50 minutes, with availability almost 24/7.

Booking process:   Can be arranged online or via phone call.  Their staff appear to all communicate with a reasonable level of English.  Classes can be taken on an adhoc schedule, and don’t require fixed time slots.  Cost is about US18 per 50-minute class.

Software:  All through their website (no downloads required)

Customer Service:  Staff all in mainland China and able to communicate with course consultant via email, phone, wechat and whatsapp. I get the feeling they’re trying to do better do attract non-Chinese speaking parents, but it’s still very much a mainland Chinese offering.

Final thoughts:  Credits can be shared between their math classes and languages classes, giving parents some flexibility.  Zhangmen is one of the big providers in China which was hit hard by the ban on tuition classes in mainland China, so they’re now actively expanding to new shores, including Singapore.  A great aspect of Zhangmen is it covers kids from all ages including secondary school levels too, which is relatively rare for the online providers; as it follows the Mainland China curriculum, it’s rigorous and goes well beyond Singapore MOE levels.

Best for:  a family looking for rigorous 1-to-1 tuition for their child at any level


Wukong Mandarin class online
Wukong Chinese class

Trial Class Experience:  My daughter enjoyed the 1-on-1 session, working essentially through a Chinese textbook.  You can choose either a native speaker course or learning as a second language (the same distinction that Lingo Bus and Lingo Ace have in their courses too).  The graphics and animation were not as packed as Lingo Ace or Lingo Bus, and it’s less interactive (more like chat with some supporting PowerPoint slides, rather than interactive games and videos).

Class length and schedule:  50 minutes, with availability through the Chinese time zone.

Booking process:    Trial can be set at any time.  The usual class schedule is set at a regular time each week (but you can cancel with a few hours notice and no penalty).  This means you won’t have the problem of forgetting to book class, and the child can develop a good routine. 

Software:  Classin app

Customer Service:   Setting up the trial was a bit frustrating, not only because their website is all written in Chinese. Wukong seems binary in having classes for either native Chinese kids (where all communication is in Chinese, including with the parent) or for learning Chinese as a second language (where teacher speak some English).  My kids were hard for them to place in the system because their Chinese is near-native, but I was unable to talk to the Chinese-speaking course consultants, so we were in an inane loop of being called up by people I couldn’t communicate with to schedule the class.  We did eventually get it sorted, and I appreciate the patience that their customer service team did have. 

Final thoughts:  Classes are about US10 – USD15 per 50-minute class, so one of the most affordable options out there (if you buy a big package, and don’t mind hour long classes). The course feels more customizable than something like a LingoAce class, for example it’s possible at Kindergarten level to focus on 汉字 and remove HYPY.  Also, I feel the class goes at the child’s case (for my daughter, she went off on many tangents) rather than needing to push through to get to the end of the set lesson in the allocated time.  Another plus is that is comes with an option for physical homework too.  It’s really a whole course in itself, so it’s worth considering for a homeschooling option.

Best for:  budget conscious family looking for all-in-one course options to learn Mandarin

Instant Mandarin

Instant Mandatin Mandarin class online
Instant Mandarin

Trial Class Experience:   1-on-1 sessions are available on a variety of topics, from children through to adult levels.  For the trial class, the teacher will observe and give an expected grading for the child and recommend which course they should be placed in.   Follow-on classes for children include vocabulary classes, YCT classes, and a new story reading class (which is the key reason we signed up).  They also provide adult classes too, which is tempting for me.

Class length and schedule:   25 minutes, and can be booked 24/7, as often as you want (how they manage this with only a handful of teachers, I’m not sure, but they do!).

Booking process:    The trial booking is simple –  sign up from the website, and a English speaking sales consultant emails/calls, to set up a trial and answer any questions about the course.  After the trial, lessons can be booked directly through the website, and adhoc timing and at short notice, essentially 24/7.

Software:  ‘Cloud Class’ (free online classroom software); it doesn’t require any download for a PC, but there is an app if used on a phone/tablet device. 

Customer Service:  Charming and very helpful! Customer service is helmed by Adam, who you will realise is also is the guy who has recorded all the videos on their website too. 

Final thoughts:   Classes are about US8 – USD12 per 25-minute class.  From our observation (so far), it’s less immersive with a less structured curriculum than other online classes.   The platform also doesn’t have all the eBook, homework, supporting materials that other more expensive classes are offering (which for our family isn’t much of a loss, as we tend to skip over such things).  I’d think of it a bit like the way we currently use Vivaling, for short doses of Chinese conversations (or book reading) when we have time to fit it in.

Best for:  a child already learning Mandarin at school and looking for additional speaking opportunities (or for their parent, wanting to understand the language more!)


Elite Kid Mandarin class online
EliteKid Chinese

Trial Class Experience:    Group class (max 5 kids), with Singapore-based MOE syllabus, but teachers are live streaming the lessons from China.  I’s say it’s very much like a Lingo Ace class (similar software and curriculum), but in a group setting.  My P1 daughter did the trial, and they were looking at HYPY, which she thought was a little on the easy side (content is synchronized with school terms), but it would be good for a child who needed consolidation of the Singapore MOE curriculum.  It’s essentially making the MOE textbook come alive with fun content, vivid pictures, and interactive games.

Separately, EliteKid run another course called Panda Chinese, which is a non-exam-oriented, and suitable for children who are strong in Chinese and looking for more native level exposure.  We couldn’t trial this, as the timings were too limited. 

Class length and schedule: 45-minute group class one a week.  Available at very limited timings for each year level, mainly in the weekday evening for China/Singapore timezones. Note there is also an option for 1-to-1 class too, at a higher price, but with more flexible timing. 

Booking process:    After the trial, the classes are at a set time weekly.  There is no online portal.  There is a parent chat group for each class via Whatsapp, giving it a feel of a more traditional group class.  Children in the class will also be consistent throughout the term.

Software:  Uses Hschoolin on a browser, or otherwise download 字节云HD app on a tablet/phone.

Customer Service:  Friendly Singapore-based customer service staff who speak English, and communicate via Whatsapp and phone

Final thoughts:  A key distinguisher between this and the similar Lingo Ace / Lingo Bus classes would be the written homework feature (they have hardcopy worksheets delivered to your doorstep), and the Whatsapp communication directly with the teacher.  There’s detailed feedback and marking of homework at every session.  At a price of ~SGD17 per class, it’s much better value than an in-person tuition option. There is currently a 5% discount for readers if you key in LAHLAHBANANA during checkout too (no affiliation or commissions, just sharing a discount for you!).

Best for:  Elite Kid for a child following Singapore MOE syllabus who needs extra group reinforcement, or Panda Chinese to ignite deeper passion in Chinese wants to go beyond Singapore MOE syllabus and textbook learning.


Panda Tree Mandarin class online
PandaTree Chinese

Trial Class Experience:    We discovered Panda Tree initially because we were actually looking for online Spanish classes.  PandaTree offer immersive online classes for both Spanish and Mandarin, in either 1-to-1 or group format.  We haven’t trialed their Mandarin classes, as we already have a bunch of existing classes we like.  However, the structure for both Spanish and Mandarin classes is similar – the child and coach have a chat, play a game, introduce some new words, share short videos and materials, and chat on topics of interest.  It can be tailored to suit your child’s interest and language level, although there is also an underlying structured curriculum that can be followed or adapted.

Class length and schedule:   25 or 50 minutes.

Booking process:    Relatively simple through their website, although a few options to read though and understand with regards to packages and timings. Cheapest option is to choose a monthly subscription, and then select the number of lessons per week that you want to commit to in a month (can be booked 12 weeks in advance), although this is less flexible.

Software:  Classes through a live video platform on their website – no need to download anything.

Customer Service:  All in English, and easy to contact, although it’s essentially designed to be a Self Service Platform.

Final thoughts:   USD 16 – 20 per 25 minute class (1 on 1) or USD10 for group classes.  Credit packages can also be shared between different languages and between siblings which is helpful, and in our case, since all my kids are at a similar level for Spanish, they can be in a group class together as a family (also possible to group 2- 4 friends in a class together).

Best for:  a family with multiple siblings and complete beginners

Other Mandarin classes online?

If you’re tried any of the above Mandarin classes online and want to share your experiences (or referral codes) in the comments below, please do! This blog is here to help and support other families.

If you’ve arrived at the end and are still looking for more classes, perhaps there are other posts on my blog which might help you go down some more rabbit holes to find the ideal class:


This post reflects my own experience and opinions – I’m not affiliated with any of these companies, and nor do I received any discounts or benefits from referring these to you.  Simply sharing so you can also get more ideas on how to teach your children learning Chinese. Whilst each service offer a free trial, as a word of warning, I would NOT recommend doing a trial with every single one of these companies. Your child simply will not appreciate it. and nor will it be beneficial for their learning. I have three children and we’ve trialed these over a 6+ month period for different purposes.