Tag: chinese reading

Mandarin Reading Club

About a month ago, I finally started that book club I’d been wanting to start for over a year.  This is our fifth week and I think I kind of have the format down now.

There are 4 kids in our club, ranging from 5 to 9.  Because of the range of children, my goal wasn’t to have a the children read one book at home and then discuss and analyze in the club, but rather just to foster reading and have the children discuss books with each other.  The idea came to me when I saw how happy Thumper was, discussing, drawing, and giggling with Bebe about Harry Potter.  I realized then just how powerful it is having peers to learn Chinese with.

Here’s what our most recent reading club meeting looked like (more…)

GYA16: A Day with Relatives

Itinerary: Family lunch, visit cousin’s house, Marukame Udon 丸龜製麵

It’s hard to keep up the one blog a day habit when you’re out at 8:45am and back at 10:30pm!

We had a family lunch with my mom’s large family yesterday at Fleur Lis in Hsin Chu.  To make it to our 11:30am lunch, we left the house at 8:45am because we had a 10am train to catch.  But, next time I know I don’t need to leave so early!

First, we got to the bus stop a bit early and had to wait.  Then we go to the Taipei Train Station 30 minutes early and had to wait.  I did not know how convenient it is to transfer to Taiwan Rail (TRA) 台鐵 from the green MRT line.  We basically got out of the MRT ticket gate, walked right across to the TRA ticket gate, and then upstairs to the platform.

Took us all of 5 minutes.


Adding Zhuyin to Ebooks

Please note, I have mostly Mac products so this post is fairly Mac specific.  I’m sure there are PC versions of the same thing but I didn’t look into them.


Last week I had Thumper listen to Harry Potter English audio version and she loved it.  So for the next few days, I had a new obsession: adding zhuyin to Harry Potter Chinese edition.  You can get online Traditional Chinese version of Harry Potter from Haodoo 好讀.

It’s not the official version published by Taiwanese publisher, Crown Books, because they thought the first few books were poorly translated.  From my quick search, it looks like it’s from this website. They fixed up book 1 and changed all the names to traditional Chinese, but not the subsequent books.  This means the subsequent book translations may not be too good.   (It was bad enough that Haodoo 好讀. took down Book 5)

I’m not sure what they used as the “base” book, but from the little I’ve read of Book 1, it seems pretty good.  I read the first few chapters to Thumper awhile back and I remember thinking, “Wow, there are words here can’t even pronounce!  We need a zhuyin edition!”  But this online version seems pretty easy and Thumper is able to read the non-zhuyin version just fine, after not being able to read the paperback version earlier this year.  I will have to wait till I get to Taiwan or back to US to compare it with my paperback copy to see the difference.


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.



Spaced Repetition character learning with Anki

This May, we finished our Sagebooks.  Right after, I got ambitious and wanted to do something similar to Sage for the next 500 characters.  I partly stopped because Thumper went through my first 20 characters way too quickly.  I randomly estimated then that maybe she knew about 600-650 characters, because she whizzed through set 4 and set 5 pretty quickly.  However, summer and life took over and we concentrated on learning zhuyin and getting into reading instead.

Recently, I’ve been getting quite anxious that Thumper’s not formally learning any of the next 700 characters (our goal is 1200 this year) and it’s October already.  We really need to reach this goal this year because I’m not sure my inner anxiety can take another year of her not reading in English.  (On a side note, just met an all english unschooler recently whose 8 year old isn’t reading either.  Made me feel just a tad better there are others out there.)


On the cusp of reading Chinese books

“Mama, I love reading!……when I’m in the mood.”  Thumper said the other day after our visit to the local Chinese Library.

I guess I will take this over the “I don’t want to read” that she’s beens saying the last few years.

The books we haven’t read

As can be guessed from my Chinese library collection, I love reading and I love books.  I started my library when I learned I was pregnant.  Even before Thumper was born, I’d bought the whole 金庸 series, and the whole Harry Potter series in Chinese.  Of course it’s only Murphy’s law (or whatever other universal law regarding parents vs. children) that Thumper has not really liked books since she was born.  Oh sure, we read to her faithfully before Astroboy was born.  But while other parents were telling me how much their kids love flipping through books even when their kids can’t read, mine clamors for me to read to her but doesn’t want to touch a book herself.  I, being the lazy mom I am, read to her semi-reluctantly when she asked and I wasn’t too busy, but I really would much rather that she reads herself.  My mother poopoo’ed me when I told her we were reading to Thumper.  “What?  Why spend time doing that?  We never read to you.”  And look at how I turned out.

Only recently do I had a clearer picture of how I need to approach reading, especially reading as related to learning Chinese.  All thanks to those books I found at the Chinese Library.  My big take away was that I just wasn’t choosing the right level books for her in my strong desire to have her read.

Before I go into the background and details, this is the progression of books I am now going to try and follow for Astroboy, as our curriculum.

  1. Sagebooks
  2. Sagebook readers and readers after every Sagebook book.
  3. Montessori nomenclature cards if I manage to make them.
  4. Stories with 1-2 sentences, large font.
  5. Stories with 3-10 sentences, lots of illustration, large font.
  6. Comprehension level around K, short stories with illustrations.
  7. Comprehension level around 1, longer stories with small illustrations.

Thumper is at #4 right now.  We started last September with her at #1 & #2, and we don’t have #3.  Astroboy is at step #1 and #2.

There are a couple of things that I realized recently.  In a nutshell, just follow the way we learn how to read in English.  It’s kind of how the Montessori reading curriculum runs.

  1. First you learn the phonics, which we don’t do in Chinese.  Instead, we learn “sight words”.
  2. Then you start reading words, matched with pictures.
  3. When you know enough words, you start reading sentences.  One presentation are the command cards.  Basically you read 1 sentence at a time.
  4. Build up to reading more sentences, at this time, you’re reading with illustrations and then gradually phasing those out.

I point out the progression because I added a zhuyin/pinyin component to learning how to read.  And even though I *know* this is how it works, letting them read at N+1 level, I also kept thinking, “Oh! once we learn zhuyin, we can just start reading those elementary books (step 6+)!”  Because that is what it seemed from the Chinese blogs I followed.  The kids seemed to learn their zhuyin first grade and then started reading short books.  And zhuyin is different from phonics.  There is at most 3 sounds for any single character, there are no exceptions and weird combos like English.  It’s much easier to pick up.

Think about English reading.  After you’ve learned your phonics, you’re doing all those little reading of words when you’re doing worksheets on cat/bat/rat.  Eventually you move up to your Bob books (or you do them at the same time) and finally your level readers.

Here is where I hit my head on the table and say, “D’uh.  Why did I keep trying to skip a step?”

Details on how this applied to us

Step 1 & 2, Sage books & Step 3, short sentences.

For learning characters, Thumper actually learned it how I see many young kids (3-6) learn it, you get exposed to various vocabularies as themed work (e.g. learning all the vocals for Moon Festival), so she had a strong base going into Sagebooks.  I think it’s a pretty effective way because you do not limit yourself to simple, fewer stroke, Chinese characters.  I’ve read various studies that say there is no reason to do so.  However, I do see how Astroboy remembers the ones that do have fewer strokes better.

two moons make a friend

My kids definitely learn their characters differently.  In the elementary level, I’ve found with Thumper’s foundation, it’s been really easy to segway into teaching character components as a way for her to remember characters.  So many of them have the one character component that determines the pronunciation of the character.  For the characters that are hard, I make up a story based on the character component.  It works about 80-90% of the time.  It doesn’t work when my story is convoluted and makes her think of another character.  Thumper is the creative, imaginative, things bore me easily type, so these two ways suits her.

For Astroboy, games work.  The best is the slapping card game, and second the Chutes and Ladders game.    Then there is just plain repetition.  He would have a hard time with 3 characters in book 1, by the end of book 2, with the games and just reading those characters, he remembers them.  Tricks like drawing what the charter resembles doesn’t really work.  For example, I tried with 來 by saying it’s two people who are under a tree and saying, come come.  He would half remember the story but not the character the next day.  I know I’m not doing things the way Thumper learned it in school.  Maybe he would remember it more that way.  But at this point I don’t have the resources to do that.

The really great thing about Sagebooks is that it’s got all the components you need for beginner reading.  It has the short sentences, it’s got the illustrations as hints for the words used, and most importantly, it’s fulfills the 5% rule, i.e., each sentence in a page only has 5% or less of unfamiliar characters.


Step 4: Story with short sentences, large font.

For the longest time, I thought I had all the books that we needed to get Thumper to start reading.  But after showing a friend my library one day, I realized that I had a set that was perfect for Thumper’s level.  When I tried it on Thumper, she agreed!   The main feature of the book was that it’s one page of picture and two sentences of text, in big font.  When we counted up the characters she didn’t know, it was less than 5.  (an alternate version of the 5% rule)

I looked for similar books at the Books and Me library and it was similarly a hit.  Thumper took an initiative and pulled out all the books she wanted to read and read them all.  I didn’t have to ask her do it, she didn’t have to bulk and get frustrated after a page like she did with Magic Treehouse or other similar books.

So basically I was asking her to read at a level that was way too high for her.  One important take away for me was that I need to pick my books carefully when reading for fluency.  By this I mean

  1. We’re not reading for pleasure per se.  Reading to practice fluency is different from reading for pleasure.  We’re reading to practice reading so that eventually we can read a book fast.  It’s okay to repeat read.  It’s not important to quiz on reading comprehension.  I got this from a homeschool teacher’s book and it makes so much sense.  She basically said, the child is so busy decoding her words, she doesn’t necessarily have time to remember and reflect on the meaning of the words she’s reading yet.  So she poopoo’ed the reading comprehension questions that come with the reading books like Primary Phonics.  What I do to get around it is to ask Thumper to tell me what the story is about.  She sometimes can do it, and other times can’t.
  2. It’s okay that the book isn’t at her read-to level, i.e. the level of books I read to her.  One reason I picked Magic Treehouse was because I thought at Thumper’s age, she would find those books more interesting to read, and therefore would want to read them.  However, if a book isn’t at the right level, she just gets frustrated.  And yes, secretly the other reason is, hey other 7 year olds are reading those books, why can’t mine?  It’s so hard not to feel like you’re behind other kids, especially when it comes to reading in Chinese, where there is a time limit.  I feel that I have to get it done before the kids eventually learn to read in English.
  3. I need to make sure the fonts are big for Thumper.  Many of the picture books have tiny fonts.  Maybe it’s good for me reading to the kids, not so great for Thumper who then has to read the even tinier zhuyin when she doesn’t recognize a character.
  4. It’s important to choose a book at the right comprehension level.  The writing level needs to be simple.  One reason that Thumper is enjoying her books is because they’re translated books.  The vocabulary are really simple and almost conversational.  Like a story you would tell your children orally.  Not all picture books are created equal.  In my library I try hard to pick books written by Chinese authors because I felt that it’s how you indirectly get the more advanced and poetic Chinese.  Chinese authors just write differently than an English author.  These are great books.  But not so great when you have to read.  So I’m now relegating these to be “read-to” instead.  They often have vocab that Thumper doesn’t know, or words she doesn’t recognize.  Many picture books have words that are not necessarily at the top of the word frequency list.  It’s partly why I was searching for the children’s word frequency list, which takes into account words used in children’s books.
  5. Related to #4 is the number of characters Thumper knows.  It appears that after 350, closer to 400 Sagebook characters, Thumper is finally at a level where she could read these simple 2 sentence per page books.  I tried the Monkey King book with her and noted a difference just reading the same book 2 weeks apart (since we were learning 20 characters a week).  She was hitting so many characters that were covered in the Pink (set 4) series.  And knowing those characters lowered the frustration level so she was willing to read about half a page to a page before she stopped.

And her rate of picking up new characters is phenomenal.  We were doing about 20 characters a week, about 3-4 a day.  But we can now probably do 8-10 characters a day if we want to, partly because she already knows some of the characters in the Red Series.  But since we’re learning by recognizing the phonetic character component, it’s so easy for her to remember new characters.

So for me, 350 characters is the magic number to start reading regular books, with some zhuyin.  I’m sure you can read simple picture books before that, especially if you know your zhuyin well.  However because I don’t want her to rely on zhuyin to read (many adult friends I know can read with zhuyin but forgot their characters), I’m not pushing her to know it too well.  She still gets stuck when she reads because she can’t sound it out right sometimes.  That’s partly the reason it took us so long to start on the more advanced books.   I know it ups my frustration level doing it this way.


Step 5, 6, 7

This is our next step and I’m still searching for the books that fit the bill.  My new criteria is basically

  • big fonts
  • easy language
  • lots of illustrations
  • not too many sentences
  • many pages
slowing moving towards more complex books

It’s really hard because big font takes a lot of books out of running.  We have some books at home that are picture books (small font) that Thumper will pick up and read during our 15 minute quiet reading time.  But they’re always short.  At Thumper’s age, she does better with the English equivalent of Early Reader book series like Little Bear or Frog and Toad.  These are stories that grabs her interest, over many pages, but the language is simple enough.

The other thing I didn’t mention is that, at the same time she’s working towards step 5-7, I’m trying to, as much as I can, to read to her at her grade level.  Right now we’re right at level for 1st grade, though if Magic Treehouse is first grade, Thumper can’t quite understand it completely.  But many of the other books I read, she can comprehend most.   I even read to her a book deemed at 3rd grade reading level last semester and she really enjoyed it.

This is the other revelation that has come to me slowly over the last 2 months.  I keep thinking to myself, what’s the point that she can read if she can’t understand what she’s reading?  And the only way around it is to read to her to increase her vocabulary.  A lot of out Chinese books also have cultural references that she would not get unless someone explains it to her.  I read somewhere recently that your “ear” is about 2 years ahead of your writing level.  So that is why it’s important to be read to.  Having that oral vocabulary makes reading so much easier.

This is why it’s so hard for me to recommend books to others when they ask.  Because my first questions are always their age and their Chinese comprehension level.  The age determines length of book and how interesting a story has got to be.  The comprehension level determines what type of books to recommend.  If you can’t understand Chinese then it’s no good even to read picture books.

If my friend were to ask me again for recommendations for books to buy, I think this time I’m going to say, after asking about child’s age and Chinese level, that they should use the Sagebook readers and textbooks to practice reading, forget about pleasure reading.  While they learn the 350 characters, they can “pleasure” read using Sagebook Treasure boxes and even more importantly, read a lot to their kids.  Then learn zhuyin and once they have enough, start with short sentences and go from there.   As I learned the hard way, it’s important to focus on that foundation of basic characters and comprehension.

If they’re asking because they want to be prepared for the eventual reader…..I do have a list of the books we’re going through right now.  That”ll be next post!


Sagebook Progress Week 5


Things got a little crazy after we started on Sagebooks.  I started researching on teaching stroke orders, character layout, character components, and then started school.  Yikes, it’s already been 5 weeks since we started on Sage.

For Thumper, as we wrote in our January monthly summary, we have spent this week and last week reviewing.  I think we’re losing momentum a bit because of our scheduling issues.  I have not actually had time to review the characters she doesn’t know with her.  She has just been reading the treasure boxes and also this week started on the idioms.  On our work plan, I basically gave her a daily item she needs to do, which is to read Chinese for 10 minutes to me.  She can choose books from the Little Bears series, the idioms, the Sagebook Readers, or the Sagebook Treasure boxes, any of the first 3 levels.

Thumper actually loves the idioms books.  I say so because as a child who does not want to read and seldom repeats work twice, she asked to read the same idioms book (book 3) 2 days in a row both with me and by herself.  Astroboy also wanted me to read it to him.  The books themselves really require an adult to be there to explain the concept to them.  My kids are not going to be able to start making sentences with these idioms without some examples from me.  Unfortunately I’m slightly rusty on them myself and the Sage ones don’t come with examples, so I don’t even know if my examples are proper.  But whatever, she loves the “jokes” part included after each idioms intro, even though that also requires some explaining.

Anyways, yes she doesn’t remember some characters, but I’m still amazed at how she can remember the strange conceptual ones that are not nouns.  There’s nothing to hang these on other than the intro we had 3 at a time, and composing and writing down a sentence.  We didn’t even bother with reading the reader books much this time around as we were jumping around the books in this series since she knew about 60% of them already.   I super envy young kids’ memory ability.

As for Astroboy, we kind of started on book 2 of Blue Series.  I’m kind of neglecting him because of my obsession to create materials for Thumper.  So I think I formally introduced 6 characters total in 2 weeks?  However, seeing his sister reading the Treasure book one day really spurred him on (because she read the whole book).  Just that one day, he wanted to read the WHOLE book.  We spent maybe an hour on it.  I could not dissuade him.  So at least he’s seen all of them.  After about character #10-#12, he started getting confused on all of them.