Why Reading is Important for Language Learning

I’ve written many posts on this blog about reading, for two reasons. Firstly, students are often very intimidated by learning to read Chinese characters. Second of all, reading really is the key ingredient in language acquisition. Even in our native language, we start to learn more new vocabulary words through reading than through listening, starting at about fourth grade. So for learners who really want to gain a high level of proficiency in a second language, reading is super important.

Challenges of Learning to Read in Chinese

Teaching reading in Mandarin Chinese is difficult because there are so few appropriate resources out there. What are appropriate resources for reading in Mandarin Chinese? They are materials that only contain words that the students know, and very few others. Often, parents and teachers think it is a good idea to “challenge” students. Perhaps with the belief that students only learn from a difficult task. Years of research in language learning has shown that this is not really the case. In fact, students learn when the language that they are reading is easy to comprehend. Let’s take a look at a sentence that has a few unfamiliar words to illustrate our point:

While she was at the feg jupil, Betsy tribled Dionne to shengin her about the meeting that afternoon. 

There are 19 words in this sentence, and four of them are nonsense words that the reader will not understand. Sure, a reader could use context clues to guess that shengin means something like “ask” and that maybe they work together because they are talking about a meeting. It is hard to guess where they are, maybe a feg jupil is a place of worship, in which case the meeting probably is not about work. What is more important is that reading this sentence is slow and not pleasurable. This means that a reader will likely get bored or frustrated and not want to continue. Learners need lots of input in the target language (in our case, Mandarin Chinese), so quitting after a few sentences is a problem.

What Should Students Read in Chinese?

Learners of Mandarin Chinese should read materials that are written specifically for them, especially at the beginner and intermediate levels. Books and other reading materials written for native speakers usually have too many unfamiliar words and are therefore not appropriate for language learners. In the book Susan You Mafan (Susan 有麻烦), written for Mandarin Chinese language learners, the first chapter only has 19 unique characters. This may sound simple, but it is perfect for learners, it is simple enough for them to follow along and it will encourage them to keep reading.

Reading should be pleasurable if we want students to keep up with it. Simple texts, written with only known words, are the best resources for keeping language learners reading in the target language.

Cover of Susan You Mafan
Cover of Susan You Mafan

More on reading in Chinese:

Beginning Chinese L2 Reading

Reading Resource: Mandarin Companion

Favorite Books for Younger Students

Any suggestions for materials for students learning to read in Chinese? Leave your suggestions in the comments!


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