Get your kids reading in Chinese this summer
By Elizabeth Weise
Why you need to turn your house into a Chinese home
Imagine you go to visit the home of a new friend of your child’s. The mom gives you a quick tour of the house while the kids go off to play. It’s a lovely home, warm and inviting. You really like the parents and you’re looking forward to getting to know them better. But as you walk through the house, something seems wrong. You can’t quite put your finger on it until it hits you—there are no books in this house. In fact there’s really nothing printed in the house at all. This family is clearly totally illiterate.
There are no books on the bookshelves, no magazines on the coffee table, no newspapers piled on the dining room table. There are no printed notes stuck to the refrigerator with magnets, no comic books stuffed under the beds, no word games stacked in the corner. The lone bit of print you see is a dictionary sitting forlornly on a shelf and some pages of homework sticking out of a backpack. There aren’t even any read-aloud programs on the computer.
“How,” you think to yourself, “can this child succeed in school when no one in the family reads and there’s absolutely no reinforcement for literacy at home?” You’d feel sorry for those children, knowing they were going to face an uphill battle as they went through school.
That is your house in Chinese.
Think about it: How many Chinese language books do you have in your house, beyond a dictionary? A few picture books people gave you when you first said you were thinking of Mandarin immersion? A book in (insert either ‘simplified’ or ‘traditional’ here) characters, which your school doesn’t use and which your child can’t read, but which they were giving away free at the Chinese New Year’s Parade if you listened to a talk about opening an AT&T account? A copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in Chinese which a co-worker grabbed at the airport in Hong Kong as a gift, but which is about ten years beyond where your child can read? And maybe, if you’re lucky, a few Chinese story books with pinyin that you bought at the annual book fair your PTA puts on?
Educators call your kind of home a ‘print desert’ and that’s exactly what it is, for Chinese. It’s as if your family was illiterate—and you are, in Chinese. Now count up the number of English language books you have in your home? Dozens? Hundreds? When you go to the library, how many books do you bring home in English and how many in Chinese? Is it any wonder your child prefers to read in English? Is there anything for them to read in Chinese at home? This will only get worse at they get better at English and don’t get better at reading Chinese.
This matters, and more than you know. There’s so much evidence that how well students read is based in large part on how much exposure they have to print and how much opportunity they have to interact with print outside of school that it’s got a name: The Matthew Effect.* In the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement study of reading achievement, the number of books at home was the single most powerful predictor of reading achievement in most countries. So when teachers tell you to get library books in Chinese, buy books in Chinese and make sure that your children don’t only see Chinese at school, listen to them!
The more you read, the better your read
Any educator will tell you that the more children read, the better they read. It’s a wonderful, virtuous circle. And it’s not that hard to accomplish, even in Chinese, even at home and even if you don’t read Chinese yourself.
The basic concept is called ‘Voluntary Free Reading,’ championed by Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Southern California. He has spent decades studying how students learn to read. He and others have done extensive research showing that if students are given access to “compelling and comprehensible texts” they’ll boost their reading comprehension.
Note that’s extensive rather than intensive reading. The focus is on getting students to read without a lot of hard work and fuss, so they enjoy it and are encouraged to do more. The books don’t have to be ‘hard.’ In fact they shouldn’t be. Let me say that again:
The books are supposed to be fun, not hard.
The goal is to find books that are slightly below or just at a student’s reading level, to help them cement language structures in their brains and also take in new vocabulary – and have fun, a necessary ingredient!
This approach is widely used in U.S. school in English, because it’s a powerful means of developing a stronger vocabulary and ability to use and understand academic language. There’s no ‘you must read this’ or ‘you must now write a report on this.’ Instead, kids spend 15 or 20 minutes a day in which they do nothing but read. This is enough to really significantly boost students’ scores.
The arrival of graded readers, finally!
Mandarin immersion teachers have talked for years about the need for ‘graded readers.’ Only now are they beginning to become easily available to U.S. parents of Chinese immersion students. They’re meant to be fun, interesting books that are matched pretty closely to the student’s reading ability so they don’t get frustrated. The idea is that the story, not a parent or a teacher standing over them, will pull them through and make them keep reading to the end. Students shouldn’t have to stop and look up words. If they can’t get the gist of the story without looking up a ton of words, the book is too hard. Find something easier.
Leveled readers are the Chinese equivalent of graded readers like the I Can Read series in the United States. I Can Read book tells you the grade a child should be in to be able to read it, the leveled readers often give the number of characters used in the books.
Many that these readers from Singapore and Malaysia, where there are significant numbers of students studying in Chinese who may not speak Chinese at home.
In addition the Brigham Young University Chinese Flagship Center has begun producing books that go along with the Mandarin immersion curriculum used by the Flagship – Chinese Acquisition Pipeline, a consortium of over 30 Mandarin immersion schools nationwide. These books are written specifically for the Mandarin immersion market, thank goodness someone finally is! They come in simplified and traditional versions. The series launched in 2012 and they’re adding to it over time. It’s definitely worth checking back every few months to see what’s been added.
It’s unlikely your child will be able to read their favorite English books in Chinese translations because the Chinese will be beyond them. Better to buy books in Chinese at the appropriate level so they won’t get frustrated and stop reading.
Most of the easiest books will be appropriate for Mandarin immersion students who’ve finished two or three years of school, so for first or second graders depending on whether your program began in Kindergarten or first grade. Don’t push your child to read books that are too hard, they’ll just get frustrated and give up. You want them to see reading in Chinese as something that isn’t too much of a chore and if the book is too hard they will.
For younger students who aren’t yet ready to read but who have had enough immersion to understand spoken Mandarin, another option is to have someone else do the reading. Two web site that make that easy are 5QChannel.com in Taiwan and Childroad.com in the United States. Both offer dozens of books and stories in both simplified and traditional characters. On 5QChannel they are read aloud with animation, on Childroad they’re simply read. Both have relatively simple interfaces with enough English to get you going. If you run into trouble staff at both sites usually reply within 24 hours via email, so don’t give up. 5QChannel offers a special rate for U.S. parents here:
Finding leveled Readers
Many Chinese bookstore site have leveled readers available. However they don’t make it easy for parents who can’t read Chinese to figure out which ones are good and which ones belong together. I’ve come up with a list of the books below that I’ve either seen myself or have been told about. I’m sure there are others and I’d welcome hearing about them.
I’ve tried to give enough information so that parents who don’t read Chinese can easily order these books. Multiple sites stock these readers. If I have a specific link to a given series I’ve included it. I don’t mean to slight the other stores, but if one website has made it especially easy to find a given series, I list the link.
Online bookstores to browse include:
Little Monkey and Mouse
Step-by-Step Chinese Readers
These readers are being produced by the Brigham Young University Chinese Flagship Center. As they say in their promo material: “Most American parents do not speak Chinese—this challenges programs and teachers to find new ways to help parents and guardians support their young learners during the study of Chinese. Step by Step provides a variety of resources to meet this challenge, including full English translations, new word lists with pīnyīn, as well as a robust companion website complete with mp3 audio, flashcards, word lists, and more.”
I can read Rainbow Series
These books come from the Greenfield Education Centre in Hong Kong. They feature four levels of books that gradually become harder. They include audio CDs with the stories read in both Mandarin and Cantonese. They also come in simplified and traditional characters. The simplified editions include pinyin. They’ve been used in immersion schools in Singapore and San Francisco.
Magic Story Box Mandarin Readers
These books come from New Zealand and have six levels, Purple, Blue, Red, Orange, Green, Brown. Each introduces about 100 words and phrases. There are six books in each level, each of which contains a story in Chinese with an English translation and vocabulary list at the back of each book. Pinyin is gradually removed to encourage character recognition skills as the reader progresses through the story.
Reading Program 100 Words
These books come in a set of eight books. Each story is written using the most commonly used Chinese words, starting with a set that only uses the first 100 characters. They are only available in simplified Chinese. The sets are:
Reading Program 100 words
Reading Program 200 words
Reading Program 300 & 400 words
Reading Program 500 – 800 words
Reading Program 900 – 1,200 words
Children’s Grade Reading
Learning Chinese Characters through Literacy
These are from East China Normal University Press. They’re meant for preschoolers in China but work very well for grades two on up in U.S. Mandarin immersion schools. They come in several levels. The first level contains 10 books. It is worth buying them for book number 2 alone, which never fails to make any second grader you give it to read to the very end!
Children’s Rhythm 念儿歌读童谣
Whose Poop? 谁拉的便便?
Little Pumpkin House 南瓜小房子
My Home 我的家
A Button 一颗纽扣
What Should I Do 应该怎么做
Little Frog and Lily Flower小青蛙和荷花
Mr. Mosquito’s Hobby蚊子先生的爱好
Playing Paper Box玩纸箱
The second set includes these books:
Water Will Become Warm水会变暖
The Moustache of Mr Carrot胡萝卜先生的胡子
A Different Friend不一样的朋友
Breath of The Earth地球的呼吸
Who Does Not Sleep In The Night夜里什么人不睡觉
Tree Inside The Bird Nest鸟窝里的树
Let’s Design It我们来设计
White Crane Diary白鹤日记
All By Heart一切有心’
Books at Kindergarten level for students in China
A Different School不一样的学校
What Did You Study Today今天，你在学校学了什么？
A Kid Growing Up Slowly有个小孩一点点长大
My Heart is Bigger Than Sky我要我的心比天空还大
Can I Become a Captain? 我能当上中队长吗？
Disney New Concept Reading Series
Golden Seed Series (Set of 10 books)
These easy-to-read books are from the People’s Post Press in China. There are four series, each which includes ten books based on Disney characters. Level 1 is for students who’ve learned 50 characters, level 2 for 100, level 3 for 200 and level 4 for 500. They are in simplified characters. I haven’t seen the books myself but they seem like they’d be fun.
For older students
To be frank, there isn’t much out there for kids in middle school and up. Pretty much the only two series available right now are the Chinese Breeze series and Chinese Biographies. Both are used by several Mandarin immersion middle schools as reading material.
The Chinese Breeze series is being produced by Peking University Press. There are books at the 300 word level, 500 words and 750 words. The stories are a little dull and don’t necessarily capture the interest of kids, they’re more meant for high school and college students. Still, the come with web sites where the story is read aloud and they’re not to difficult for upper grade immersion students to read.
The Chinese biographies series features four books about Chinese cultural icons that can be read by students who’ve mastered between 350 and 700 characters. They cover basketball player Yao Ming, pianist Lang Lang, clothing designer Vera Wang and pop star Jay Chou.
*It comes from a verse in the Book of Matthew 24:14-30: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Paraphrased, that becomes “The (book) rich get richer and the (book) poor get poorer.” It was coined by education researcher Keith Stanovish in 1990.