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Developing Literacy in Chinese, Part 1

May 12, 2013

Developing Literacy in Chinese, Part 1:

Selecting Reading Materials in Chinese for the Home Library

By Lelan Miller 孟乐岚, founder of Mandarin Matters in Our Schools in Texas (MMOST) and master’s candidate in Chinese Language Pedagogy

This article is the first in a three part series about developing literacy in the Chinese language. While written primarily for non-Chinese parents with children in primary through high school who are in various stages of developing Chinese literacy, this article may benefit administrators, teachers, and other professionals engaged in Chinese language learning in immersion settings.

Non-Chinese families with children from preschool to high school have special challenges in finding appropriate reading materials in Chinese. However, there are far more choices than what was available as recently as ten years ago. These choices can sometimes be confusing for parents and teachers alike who are in the process of selecting and acquiring literacy materials in Chinese. The aim of this article is to guide parents and teachers towards making choices that are appropriate for their children who are progressing towards Chinese literacy.

While more materials for children tend to be available in simplified Chinese, some parents choose to familiarize their children with reading both simplified and traditional characters (though not requiring them to write in both simplified and traditional) for many reasons. Being able to read both scripts considerably widens the range of reading materials available. Many movies are subtitled in traditional characters for distribution in Hong Kong markets as well as many historical writings and place markers in the mainland. Some parents believe that traditional characters contain “more” information that help children decode the meaning of that character and therefore help assist in the reading of simplified characters when encountered in stories, comics, and other reading materials.

Many children’s stories by Western writers are now available in Chinese, but parents and teachers should exercise caution and avoid over-reliance on these materials to encourage reading in Chinese. Translations of stories that are strongly based in western culture and literary traditions may not be ideal for transmitting Chinese culture, values, history, and in many cases, the true nature of Chinese writing itself. For example, Chinese translations of Dr. Seuss stories cannot convey the unique word-play present in the English language and at the same time the Chinese text is used merely as a tool to convey approximate meaning contained in the English text. While those translations may be valuable in spurring interest in reading and introduce new vocabulary, they should be chosen with great care and consideration and balanced with children’s stories that reflect Chinese culture and history and most important, are well written according to standards among the Chinese speaking community.

Choosing materials for a home library should take into consideration stories written by and for Chinese language speakers that use simple language, pictures, repetition, and cultural contexts to assist early literacy readers in understanding.  Comics and picture books with considerable content devoted to culture, history, and information about Chinese speaking people and the countries in which they live are ideal for learners of all ages. The comics and pictures support literacy by providing information on the written content presented in the text. Repetition helps young readers internalize the structure of the language. Two examples taken from the author’s home library shown below illustrate features that parents and teachers should consider.


Example 1. This is from an illustrated comic Journey to the West. Note the simplicity of the language presented and use of illustrations to convey mood and actions. This panel shows the scene where Tang Seng has just rescued the Monkey King from 500 years of captivity under a stone mountain and the Monkey King expresses profound gratitude. Then the Monkey King holds a horse steady and invites the monk to mount the horse to commence their long journey together.






readerExample 2. This is a children’s rhyme for first grade readers. Note the rhyming words at the end of each line and the repetition of certain phrases. Also note the supporting pinyin for new characters only. The pictures support the text by showing a little bear looking for his friend the little horse.





Reading materials for children from preschool to about first or second grade may have both characters and pinyin in order to assist in independent reading. However it is important to recognize that pinyin may be easier for early readers who may prefer to read the pinyin instead of the characters. This may be appropriate for early readers but can and should be phased out after a few years. Some educators avoid pinyin entirely or postpone to later years, which is an understandable decision because children need to learn early on the strategies for looking at and “decoding” characters instead of solely depending on pinyin. Some parents and teachers may choose to apply “white-out” to the pinyin of already mastered characters in order to encourage independence from pinyin in the middle to later stages of Chinese literacy.



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