Learn Mandarin with Chinese Books

Reading to Speak

It is book fair season at the school where Lotus Chinese Learning has after school classes. It is great to see so many students excited about getting books! Today’s post is a roundup of Chinese books that are great options for students who are learning Mandarin Chinese. Reading is so important in language acquisition. There is a great deal of research out there to support the idea that reading in a second language helps students become better speakers.

How Does it Work?

In the early stages of language learning, students benefit from hearing stories. Stories are naturally interesting to students of all ages. Stories also help students pay attention to meaning. Paying attention to meaning is how students learn a new language. Learning grammar rules and studying lists of vocabulary is not a very effective way to learn! As students progress, they can read Chinese books on their own. Doing independent reading helps students acquire vocabulary. With this additional vocabulary, a student can read more and more complex books. Reading creates more reading.

Books for Young Learners

Chinese books that are appropriate for young learners have either lots or repetition, or a familiar story or both! The book  大卫不可以 (No, David!) is great book for young Mandarin learners. It has both lots of repetition (the phrase not okay). It is also very popular in America, so the kids probably already know the story. Similarly, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See works well. It repeats the same couple phrases over and over and it is also an extremely popular children’s book in the US. Hats for Sale (卖帽子) also fits the bill as a popular children’s book. It is also great for children to practice counting.

pages from No David!
Photo from inside pages of Chinese-language version of No David!

Books for Upper Elementary

There is a big jump between listening to a teacher read a story and reading independently. Especially if students only have class once a week, it might take several years before they can read books on their own. Nevertheless, reading is a key part of language learning. It is up to the teacher to make sure that the students read books that are the right level. Students should feel that reading is fun, not frustrating. 

Upper elementary language learners need books that are written for them. Just like young learners, they need lots of repetition. They also need books that don’t require lots of background information that they don’t have. This means that the story of the monkey king might not be a good choice. American students usually do not know that story. I like the book Susan You Mafan for upper elementary students a lot. Part of the reason I like it is because it is about an American girl. The students can more easily identify with the main character. More books like this one are available here.

Cover of Susan You Mafan
Cover of Susan You Mafan

Books for Adults

Are you an adult looking for a book to read to improve your Mandarin Chinese? Use the contact form to get in touch. I will send you a Chinese novella, free of charge!

More posts on reading and Chinese:

Favorite Books for Younger Students

Mandarin Companion Graded Readers

The Curse of Knowledge and Mandarin Learning

What is the curse of knowledge?

Teachers have “the curse of knowledge.” We tend to assume that our students know much more than they actually do. For Mandarin teachers, this means that we assume that our students can understand much more than they really do. The curse of knowledge leads to bad outcomes for the students because teachers do not give them the comprehensible input that they need. Students do best when they understand 100% of the words that their teachers use. The challenge for teachers in a good Mandarin Chinese class is not to have fun games, cool crafts or any other activity to keep students engaged. It is for teachers to speak Mandarin in a way that the students understand.

The Curse of Knowledge and Class Content

I wrote about story listening earlier here and here. Story listening is a language teaching method developed by Professor Beniko Mason, a English professor in Tokyo. In story listening, a teacher tells her students a story using pictures, gestures, and definitions to make sure that students “get it.” Where does the curse of knowledge come in? It means that teachers have to question all of their assumptions about what the students know. For example, when telling the story of Mulan, it is safe to assume that students know the basic plot. It is also safe to assume that students know the name Mulan. When teaching the story of “Butterfly Lovers,” however, teacher should assume that kids do not know the plot. It does not have its own Disney movie :). Telling a story to language learners is not the same as telling it to native speakers. The storyteller must speak more slowly, use shorter sentences, and use only known vocabulary.

Trade the Authentic Materials for Comprehensible Materials

The curse of knowledge makes teachers think that something is easier than it really is. Teachers have to constantly check themselves to make sure they are using language that the students can understand. Even a slight variation can confuse students. Some educators think it is important to “challenge” the students. Many teachers believe that using authentic materials (meant for native speakers) will keep students engaged. In fact, the opposite is true. Authentic materials often use low-frequency words and are simply too difficult for beginners. Students don’t pay attention if they can’t understand. Authentic materials can often make students lose interest.

The curse of knowledge makes teachers think that a children’s book in the target language will be easy for students. They think, “Oh this is for kids. I think it is very easy, so it must be appropriate for kids.” In fact, beginner students need material that is specific for them. The best materials use high-frequency words that the students know, or can easily pick up from a gesture or a drawing. In the beginning, a story for novice students is going to be very different than one for native speakers. If teachers do not highly modify their the story (or reading), it will easily be too hard for the students. If the students are not engaged, they will learn very little.

photo of excerpt from Monkey king book
This book is for language learners. It has a limited vocabulary. It is appropriate for intermediate students.
excerpt from Geronimo Stilton in Chinese
This is a page from Geronimo Stilton in Chinese. It is for native speakers, so will be too difficult for beginner or intermediate students.

Read Chinese at our Little Free Library!

New “Editions”* at Lotus Chinese Learning

Reading is the key to acquiring advanced proficiency in a second language. Reading is the key to becoming a better reader, writer and thinker in a person’s native language as well. I tell my students all the time that they need to read in Chinese if they want to get to the next level. Reading in the language is a part of all my Mandarin classes. In an effort to emphasize the importance of reading (especially the kind of reading that we do for pleasure) I installed a Little Free Library with books in Mandarin Chinese, English and Spanish in front of Lotus Chinese Learning headquarters. They are for students to read, and it is also for the benefit of our neighbors.

Why Read Chinese?

Students learn Mandarin (and any other language) through comprehensible input. This input is even more effective when it is highly compelling to the student. This is an academic way of saying that students get more out of reading when they are interested in the content. Dialogues in traditional textbooks in which Dawei asks Xiao Wang about his family members are not compelling input. This is very boring for students and they do not get much out of it because they don’t care about a stick figure’s family members. If students read extensively in their second language, on a topic of their choice, they will learn the vocabulary and grammar (without explicit instruction in vocabulary and grammar) necessary to reach the next level of language acquisition.

Renowned acquisition researcher Stephen Krashen writes: “Self-selected voluntary reading is often compelling, and studies confirm that it is the primary
source of our reading ability, our ability to write with an acceptable writing style, our
vocabulary, spelling and our ability to understand and use complex grammatical structures … It has also been established that more self-selected reading leads to
more knowledge in a variety of areas, including history, science, and practical matters.”

Reading is that “special sauce” that leads to more advanced language acquisition. With extensive reading, students acquire more complex grammar structures and also more vocabulary words. Inside of every fluent speaker of a second language is a passionate reader in that language.

What is in the LCL Little Free Library?

The Little Free Library at LCL headquarters is stocked with books in Chinese, English and Spanish. Why those three languages? I want my students to be able to freely take books in Chinese to improve their own language, at their own pace. LCL also has many students who speak Spanish as their home language. Literacy in the home language is essential for development in an second language. The library also has English books, because it should also serve the neighborhood at large where most readers are going to want books in English.

Little Free Library (Chinese)
Little Free Library (Spanish)
Inside the Little Free Library
Little Free Library of Lotus Chinese Learning

*I’ve spend too long in China and now I cannot resist a pun 🙂

What should Mandarin Chinese learners read?

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!


What is Pinyin and Do Mandarin Classes Need It?

What is pinyin?

Pinyin is the system of Romanization for Chinese characters. It is the system for learning the pronunciation of Chinese characters. We also use it to type Chinese characters on computers and smartphones. Most of the credit for inventing the system goes to linguist Zhou Youguang.

Hanyu pinyin is not a “middle ground” for non-Chinese to learn the Chinese language without having to learn the characters. School children in China today learn it from early in elementary school. Everyone from office workers to grandparents uses the system to type into their phones and computers. Conveniently for foreign travelers, street signs in China often have both Chinese characters and pinyin.

Pinyin was developed in the 1950s and officially adopted in China in 1979. Taiwan uses a system called zhuyin (better known as bopomofo) to romanize Chinese characters. Lotus Chinese Learning does not use zhuyin to teach Chinese. More information on zhuyin is available from Mandarin Mama.

Do I need to learn pinyin in order to learn Mandarin Chinese?

Pinyin is important for learning Mandarin Chinese. We use it in order to write Chinese on the computer or on our phones. Some Chinese classes are “pen-less,” meaning that students only write with the assistance of technology and do not do any handwriting of characters. I’ve found that students (especially elementary and middle school aged) love to practice writing Chinese characters. So I generally cover handwriting in class. In the 21st century, however, we do most of writing on computers or on our smartphones. This is why pinyin is important for learning Chinese.

screenshot of pinyin input method for typing Chinese characters
Screenshot of me using pinyin to type Chinese on my phone

Further reading:

On writing by hand in Chinese: Mechanics of Chinese Writing

To learn more about Mandarin Chinese classes: Contact Page