How to Organize Your Chinese Library

This is part of my series on building A Chinese Library.  I know I haven’t really talked about picture books or other types of books yet, but I recently got to reorganize a library and couldn’t resist taking a few pictures.  I was so giddy that I got to organize a library!

When I ordered a bunch of books for Mandarin Mama‘s Chinese library over the summer, I knew I would be itching to help her organize it.  Because, you know, I have to be able to browse and find books, even at other people’s houses.

Thankfully, she asked me to the minute she returned from Taiwan with her boxes of books.  If a home library collection gets big enough, and the goal is to methodically lead the children to learn to read, it’s a good idea to organize the library.

How We Re-Organized Her Books

Here is her bookshelf before we started.  This is the result of a semester of group ordering several boxes of books.  She completed her library collection, for now, over the summer.  Other than missing some books in Level 4, her library collection puts her up to 4th grade, if not 5th.

Right now, there are 1-3 sets for each reading level.  They can be added to when the child needs more books of that level.  Otherwise, I usually only suggest 1-2 sets per level to friends.  You never quite know how fast they’ll go through a level.


Learning to Read in English is Hard!

fullsizerender-3Thumper, it’s 10:30pm, you need to go to sleep.”

“Oh oh, but this is the exciting part!  Just 5 more minutes!”

Never thought I’d see the day that Thumper is engrossed and binge reading in English.  To me, the road to reading in English was actually way more painful than learning to read in Chinese.  In my faulty mind, I spent maybe 3-4 painful months, max 6, zooming through Sagebooks, learning zhuyin, and then we were off reading.   In the year since then, we went from learning the first 500 characters and not reading to reading without zhuyin (~4th grade).

On the other hand, learning to read in English seemingly took us two years.  Okay, so maybe half of that was only half-ass attempt at teaching phonics.  But still, I definitely feel like the effort has been much, much, much more painful.   Heck, for a period of time, Thumper actually said that she would much rather read in Chinese than English.  I was starting to worry just a little because it seemed her English and Chinese reading level had a 2+ year gap.


We’re done with Sagebooks!

This post was started in May but I didn’t get around to finishing it till now.

Finally finally finally!  We’re (mostly) done with Sagebooks!

It took us a whole school year to finish our Sagebooks.  Astroboy approached Sagebooks at a much different way than Thumper.  Yet at the same time, there were clear patterns on how both kids progressed through the books.

With Thumper, she’d learned at least 200-300 by the end of preschool.  When we started on Sagebooks, she knew the majority of the characters in Set 1-3.  Because she was 7 by then, she picked up the concept of phonetic and semantic components (部件) really quickly.  Combined with a high comprehension skills and a penchant for using illustrations and sentence context as clues, she zoomed through Set 4 and 5 at the rate of about 1 book a day, despite not knowing a lot of characters in those 2 sets.

She basically finished the set in a few months once we set our mind to consistently study it.

In contrast, Astroboy spent all of age 4 on Set 1 book 1 and book 2.   My plan this year was to start in August and finish by March by being consistent about having daily Sagebooks review.

Of course, the children seldom want to go along with my plan.

By December and Set 3, he started dragging his feet.  Despite having Sagebooks on our workplans, he didn’t want to choose to do them and I didn’t push ask him again until April, after we moved.  In the meantime, he had learned zhuyin and for a period of 1-2 months, was reading picture books nightly for about 10-20 minutes.

In April, we restarted again by reviewing the end of Set 3 and starting on Set 4.   I was so surprised when we zoomed through Set 4 fairly easily, and Set 5 just a bit slower.  He basically learned a bunch of new characters through reading picture books and suddenly Set 3 and Set 4 were much easier.

By the end of May, we had kind of finished all 5 sets.  However, back in August, I restarted him on Set 5 book 3-5 because he rushed through the last few sets and couldn’t remember most of the words.

We’ve now moved onto reading the Level 0 Bridging Books and picture books.  I continue to see that he cannot remember many of the characters from set 5, and even some characters from the beginning sets.  However, I’m not too worried.

Some things I learned watching Astroboy work through Sagebooks.

1.  The first 1-1.5 set is the hardest.  

As I mentioned, it took Astroboy a whole year to finish Set 1.  Granted, I didn’t push him and in hindsight I don’t think he was developmentally ready.  But what I did notice was the speed in which he picked up new characters.  The first three books in Set 1 were definitely hard.  We had to constantly review before moving on.  We played Chutes and Ladders, try to write characters with our bottoms, played matching games, etc.

We still played some Chutes and Ladders in the second set, but not as often.  By the third set, we didn’t need to except when he was really having issues with some characters.

It seemed the hardest part for him was getting used to memorizing characters in the first set.  Once he got enough characters in, he was somehow using whatever he learned before to help him memorize new ones.

2.  Knowing zhuyin helps in learning characters

Yes I know, Sagebooks doesn’t have zhuyin.  But zhuyin characters are often Chinese character components.  It helped him, especially in the beginning, to remember some of the characters, like 包 and 麼.

3.  Move on if they consistently can’t remember characters

There were a few characters Astroboy consistently forgot in the first set, because they are abstract concepts, like 來 and 搖.  In the first set, I played games with Astroboy.  But he still forgot them.  With both of us frustrated, I finally had to just move on.

Imagine my surprise that by the end of the second set, he remembered all those characters!

Sagebooks really is designed very well.  They repetition of characters helps ensure he doesn’t forget.  Now, obviously, there are some characters that aren’t repeated often, like 燕.   But I find, for very common characters, I don’t need to be hung up on it and force my kid to remember it before moving on.

If I did that, it would take me way too long to finish the set and likely result in a kid who doesn’t like reading in Chinese, which is the ultimate goal.  I just have to believe he will encounter the frequent characters also through reading and he will remember them again then.

3.  Consistency is KEY.

I can’t emphasize this enough.  The biggest lesson I learned last year is that with any curriculum I want to implement, if I don’t use it consistently, I am basically wasting the times that I did use it.

I was much much better about it this year.  Even if we had doctor’s appointments, even if the kids had spring fever, even if we had extra playdates, I try to squeeze in 5-10 minutes a day to read the books.

For me, this is actually the most important aspect of using Sagebooks.  You can’t slack off.

4.  A break is okay if you substitute with similar activity

I know I just said consistency is key.  But we took a break for 2-3 months because every reading session was met with “I don’t want to.”   Though I forced cajoled him into reading in the beginning, and he would get into it once we started, eventually he dragged his foot and couldn’t pay attention.  Or would ask to skip characters he can recognize.

Since part of reading practice is for reading fluency, I knew we couldn’t keep skipping.  I didn’t want him to learn all the characters but end up hating to read Chinese.  That’s not the end goal.   So we conveniently stopped doing Sagebooks consistently around the holidays and didn’t pick up till we moved.

As I mentioned, he came back to doing Sagebooks with tons of new characters recognized through reading picture books.  It’s a new aha for me.  That you could combine Sagebooks with zhuyin reading.  Even though I think when he reads he likes to read the zhuyin only, he still looks at the characters.

This is definitely another option: introducing zhuyin after Set 2, preferably Set 3, and start reading.

5.  Point out components as you teach

By about set 2, I started teaching components as I introduced the characters.  I didn’t force him to remember them.  I just mentioned it and asked him to repeat once in awhile.  草. 草字頭,早字底.  Reading in the car is a super duper great way to force him to look at the characters carefully, since I’m driving and I really cannot be turning my head around every time he can’t remember a character.

During those times, I would ask him to point out the components to me and I can guess the character for him.  If there was a phonemic and semantic component, I ask him to guess what character it is.  (Honestly, not his favorite thing to do so I didn’t push it every time.)  By the end of set 4, he was starting to pick up on the pattern and started guessing the pronunciation based on the components he saw.

To me, this is the second most important point.  Teaching component is really the natural progression after you’ve learned enough characters (and therefore enough components).  It is what will allow them to start reading without zhuyin eventually.  It’s also a way for them to remember a character or guess its meaning.

6.  Comprehension is super duper important.  i.e. Sagebooks works better for native speakers

Without comprehension, you can’t guess from context.  Astroboy tends to read a sentence through even when he doesn’t understand them.  He doesn’t self correct.  I finally realized, watching him read regular picture books, that his comprehension is really too low.  I see it because for the toddler books, he can guess from context, and predict characters.

In addition, it is so much easier when he has to just learn how to recognize a character instead of learning the meaning of a character at the same time.  Because learning the meaning is so much harder, requires more explanation, and also having him seeing it used in context in daily speech.  That takes so much more time than just whatever the book can provide you.

So what’s after Sage?

We tried the first 3 sets of Greenfield but it really didn’t work for us because it’s too short, compared with the longer picture books he’s been reading.  I think Greenfield is suitable for 3 to 5 year olds or anyone who’s just started reading.  But for Astroboy, the level is too easy.  Since it’s too easy, he doesn’t want to repeat read.  Without repeat reading, he cannot remember the characters.

So now, we’re just trying to slowly level through our books.  I learned from Astroboy that it is okay to continue reading picture books after Sagebooks.  You don’t have to immediately move onto Little Bear or other Bridging Books.  It all depends on the child’s developmental and comprehension level.  Just like in English, picture books are still placed with early chapter books, you can also read long picture books as reading practice.

As I mentioned above, more than anything, the key to leveling up after Sagebooks is consistency in reading.  Astroboy’s reading really improved with the 1-2 months he was reading picture books.  Then we stopped and for a long time he really did not want to read any Level 0 books.  Recently, we started back up with daily guided reading of the Arnold Lobel series.  After about 4-5 days of consistent reading, he was able to read through a 60+ page Level 0 book more smoothly.

I see clearly now that Astroboy is stuck because of his comprehension.  So my plan is to try and consistently read to him daily, and also consistently ask him to read to me daily.  I don’t mind if he doesn’t read until after 7.  I saw with Thumper how fast one can jump through books when the comprehension is high enough.  Otherwise you just spend a lot more time in the same reading level.   I now have to find way more Level 0 and Level 1 books than I did with Thumper.

But, sadly, it is logistically hard to school the two children differently.  By this, I mean, maybe Thumper needs to be going to school and Astroboy can take his Gap Year, upping his comprehension though daily living.  But, I can’t just leave Thumper behind.  So Astroboy gets dragged a long bit and starts earlier on the reading.



GYA16: Getting Lost and Asakusa

Itinerary: Coco Curry, Roppongi Hills, Imperial Palace, Asakusa

Yesterday was Tokyo Disney Sea.

Today was a frustrating day because we don’t have an internal map of Tokyo.  It makes where to go when you get out of the metro very hard.  Does one turn left or right or straight?  Commence 5 minutes of staring at Google Map.

Even though Japan has really good food, the one thing I have not heard them having is good breakfast.  Not that I’ve looked very hard.  So we had 太陽餅 that I picked up from Taipei airport during our flight transfer for breakfast.

Then I attempted to get the kids to homeschool a bit.  Another post on that later.  Finally we headed out the door at 11am.  With kids, this means the first stop is Coco Curry for lunch.  Coco Curry became my favorite restaurant in Japan.  Cheap delicious chain curry, with kids meals that comes with sweets, what’s not to like?

Next stop is Roppongi Hills, where you can find a huge spider sculpture.  We were there for the Ghibli Exibit.   Because I was such a lame late planner, we couldn’t get tickets to the Ghibli Museum. This was the next best thing.  Sadly, being a lame, late planner also means that by the time we got to Roppongi Hills, there was a long long long 2 hour line to get in.

My siblings were all for it.  Till I reminded them we have 2 young children who’s going to constantly whine, “Are we there yet?”

At this point it’s 3pm.  Another 10 minutes of discussing where to go, we finally headed to the Imperial Palace.  By the time we finished getting lost and got to the gate, it was 2 minutes past 4pm, when the palace closed.  The best I can show is a pic of the signage.  

Another 10 minutes of discussion, we decided to hit Asakusa.  Finally!  We are amongst tourists!  A whole street of food for us to gawk over!  There were tons of storefronts selling 人型燒.

Like most other tourists sites we went to, this is what it actually looks like, 人山人海。  Bumping elbows with everyone.

Never been to Asakausa’s Temple at twilight.  It was really lovely.  The temple at sunset is beautiful.  But again, arrived too late and the actual temple was closed.

The kids always love praying and asking for their fortunes.  Much more fun to them than just looking at temples.

Like all travelings I do with the children, after Asakusa was more food.  We had ice cream then went home and made some open.  Even oden looks tastier when cooked in Japan.  I loved our AirBNB, there was a Lawson 100 store (many things for 100 yen) 2 blocks away and a 7-11 a block away.

Of course, when at 7-11, one must check out the strange things they have.  Didn’t try the Basil Seed drink, but the Pomelo flavored soda was my favorite.


Tips & Observations:

  • Next time, I’m going to try and plan out the first 3 days of my trip, with only 1 main activity a day.  It always takes awhile to build up the leg stamina and pushing it too far in the beginning makes for grouchy travelers.
  • Our AirBNB came with Pocket Wifi which made life easier.  I also have T-Mobile, which comes with free International roaming.  Totally saves one the trouble of needing internet connection before you get to any wifi connection.
  • Japan didn’t have as many convenient store as I thought they would.  It’s not ubiquitous like Taipei, where there are usually one every 2-3 blocks, especially around city center.
  • When Airbnb’ing, definitely ask about or see where the closest convenient stores are.  The closer (1-2 blocks away) the better.
  • Serving sizes in Japan are about 2/3 of what is in the US.  Even their coke cans are smaller!   The serving size of Coco Curry in Taipei was bigger than Japan’s.

GYA16: Tokyo Disney Sea

Itinerary: Getting to Japan, Tokyo Disney Sea

Well, 6 months isn’t too too late to be documenting our Japan trip right?

We flew to Japan via Taipei.  The whole flight took 24 hours, with 1am take off, arriving in Taipei at 6am, catching a 10am flight to Tokyo, arriving by 1pm, waiting for siblings, exchanging JR Pass etc, train into Tokyo proper, and finally arriving at our Air BNB at 4pm or so, which was around 1am US time.

All this to save on airfare.  And no, we could not just do a stop over via Japan instead because only Eva and China airlines allow you to change your returning flight at no charge.

The nice thing about such a long flight was, no jet leg!  With the children older than GYA13, it was a very effortless trip.  I’ve learned to not stress out about their lack of sleep or watching so much TV; only insisting that they get some snooze after 4 hours of watching cartoons.   After going to corner grocery store to pick up food, we ate a simple dinner at home and all went to bed by 8pm.  


GYA16: Packing for a World Schooling Trip


We’re off!

Well, by the time this is published we would have been off.  I’ve been madly packing the last few days and thanks to friends and relatives who offer to watch kids and a friend who chatted with me while I packed (I work better when I talk and move hands at the same time.  No FB luring me then!), I was able to get everything packed whole day before we left.

In any case, our itinerary is 3 weeks in Japan, 1 week in Seoul, and 3 months in Taipei.  In July, we did a sample run by going on a camping trip with Fleur for two weeks.  I packed 4 sets of clothing and even that was too much since we did laundry every 2-3 days.

So for this trip, I’m packing ultra light: 1 carry on for our trip to Japan and Korea, 1 carry on full of school supplies and 1 big suitcase full of food and winter clothes in Taipei.  Honestly, winter in Taipei doesn’t really get cold tilll the end of December/January.  And even then it’s equivalent to a balmy day where I live.

What’s in our suitcasees?

  • 3 sets of short sleeves, 2 sets of long sleeves, swimwear, 1 sweater each, rain ponchos
  • Homeschooling material, Montessori math material, towel, advil, thermometer gun
  • Cereal, granola bars, mac and cheese, trail mixes

Okay oaky, there’s really no need to share the contents of my suitcase.  But I felt like there were a few gotchas during our last long term stay and I end up advising friends who travel about it.  I’m a fan of packing light because of my herniated discs.  I’m super afraid of having to maneuver 2 large suitcase, plus carry ons, and children.  Because often I end up carrying everything, including Astroboy.

Since the kids are outgrowing their clothes anyway, I plan to just buy clothes in Japan and Taiwan if we need them.  We’re even forgoing pajamas.  The last time I just bought jackets and rainboots when we needed them in Taipei.

I was ever so glad I brought Trader Joes Mac & Cheese with me in our GYA13 trip.  I know it’s inconceivable to some people, what with all that good food in Taipei and Japan, that we would need to bring food.  But sometimes you feel homesick, and having that Mac & Cheese is like having a little semblance of your life and your routine back in the States with you.

This time around, I’m also brining cereal (it’s $8 otherwise!), some granola bars, and nuts.  Nuts are expensive in Taiwan.

The other thing I’m making sure to bring is children’s advil, and thermometer.  The children inevitably get sick once when we go, and it is not fun trying to convert C to F with a local thermometer 5-6 times a day.  Baba thought I was crazy to bring advil.  “Just get local medication at the pharmacy.”, he says.  Again, not so fun when you’re sick to have to Google search to find out where a pharmacy is, only too look at all the medication and wonder which one you should get.

I’m not a doctor and can’t read those long ingredients list.  Often they’re drugs approved in Asia but not in the US and vice version.  People prescribe drugs differently there.  Best to just pack what I’m familiar with.

Towels are also something I always bring when I live with relatives because they like to use little hand towels after a shower and I’m used to U.S. size towels.  Plus I can bring one and use it on 2 kids.  I know it’s because a big towel doesn’t dry overnight with the humidity.  So this time I also bought some quick drying towels.

Lastly, the homeschooling materials.  I’ve been trying to go electronic as much as possible.  We will be on the road for a month and have limited time daily to homeschool.  Here’s what we’re bringing to homeschool.

When Classical Mama told me how she brought all her homeschooling materials to Taiwan for 2 months a year ago, I thought she was crazy.  Isn’t traveling to see the world?  But here I am, doing the same thing.  I’m finding it’s better for me to homeschool year round, a little bit daily, with periodic 1-2 week of full break, than to take long breaks.  It’s hard to ease the children back when you take 3 months off.

Not everyone of this is going with us to Japan.  Some are going to Taiwan directly.  Fleur’s mom is going to bring the large suitcase for me to Taiwan.  But, other than math, half of the books are in PDF.

Other random things.   We’ll be flying Eva to Taipei, then connecting to Tokyo, 1 week in Tokyo, 2 days in the mountains (Takayama) for onsen, 1 week in Kyoto, 2 days in Hiroshima, 1 week in Kyushu, 1 week in Korea via Jin Air, then Fukuoka to Taipei via Tiger Air.


GYA16: Finding the F.L.O.W. in Life

This is my first official post on our Gap Year Adventure 2016!

It’s T minus 4 till we leave!  Am I even remotely ready?


Just like last time, when I made a packing list at T minus 5, I’ve been procrastinating.  But my procrastination disease is way more advanced this time.  I have not been prepping for weeks, except very lightly.

How have I been procrastinating?  I only bought my airfare 6 weeks before flight and then was madly racing against time to book all Airbnb rooms 3-4 weeks ahead.  All the good recommended Airbnbs and hotels were unavailable.   It was totally stressful.  We don’t have very clear itinerary planned and I’m tired of researching so am going to just wing it when we get there.

Oh well.

On the nights I can’t sleep, worrying about our itinerary, I imagined what our flight to Japan will be like.  To save money, we’re doing a funky route of flying directly to Taipei (13hrs), then connecting to Tokyo (3.5hrs).  Including waiting around, it will take 20 hours total! (more…)

Introduction to Decimal Fractions 小數

As usual, new school year brings a spate of new learning, until we all get tired and drop everything except reading and math memorization.

Last week, I introduced decimal fractions.  This is something that should be introduced in second grade, ending in third.  Though I’ve seen it introduced later in other AMS style albums.

Last year, I was very anxious and worried that I didn’t start on decimals or fractions.  But I’m finding that it was good to wait.  Since Thumper learned her multiplication/division operations last year, it is much easier to introduce decimals and fractions additions this year.

To a certain extent, on paper, decimals are very easy.  All you’re doing is manipulating numbers and learning where to place that little decimal point.  You don’t really have to understand why it works if you don’t really want to.


State of our Chinese before 2016-2017 School Year

Wow, this school year will mark our 4th year homeschooling!


Last Year, Thumper started the school year reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Chinese.  That’s about a 2nd or 3rd grade level, and Level 4 in Chinese reading level.  She spent the rest of the year jumping around, re-reading the Reading 123 series, the Dahl series, starting but unable to finish books like Harry Potter, Little House on the Prairie, picture books, etc.  People remarked that her spoken Chinese improved so I tried not to worry that she is seemingly stuck around the Reading 123 level (Level 2-3).

Because our focus was on learning to read in English, the Chinese reading was just me providing reading time and allowing her to read whatever she wants.  The rest of our Reading 123 and the Reading 456 series came at the end of the school year and she binged read the rest of the Reading 123 series and maybe a book or two of the Reading 456 series before she gave up.


A Summary of Our Last 4 Months

Every week, I think about writing a post on our progress in homeschooling, thoughts on books, and what we’ve been up to.  But nothing gets written because it takes too long.  However, we’re about to embark on a 4 month trip.  I figure I should at least summarize what we’ve been up to and other random thoughts I have before our big trip.

We moved in April and sold our house in June.  Given that I got the idea in my head at the end of February, it was a very quick move.  Thankfully half of my house was already in various plastic boxes due to me kondo’ing the last 3 years.  But the whole thing still took up a lot of my energy and I’m amazed we still managed to homeschool some and attend our co-op during our move.

We’ve downsized from a 00600 sq ft house into a 1000 sq ft apartment.  I don’t think I’m made out to be a home owner, despite loving to garden.  So it’s with a relief that I no longer live in a big house and had to toss/sell various things.   I love our new neighborhood and our new way of life.  We get to walk everywhere.