#Authres vs Graded Readers: What to Read in Chinese

What are Graded Readers

For most Americans, the words “graded readers” probably bring the Dick and Jane series to mind. Graded readers, also known as basal readers, use a very controlled set of vocabulary words to tell a story, typically in a series. While many schoolchildren in the US encounter graded readers in English, they are also available in Chinese.

How Graded Readers Work

Graded readers are a great resource for students learning to read in Chinese. Many adult students are highly motivated and want to start reading in Chinese right away. So they pull up an article in the New York Times in Chinese and try to read it. But they have to look up every other word. With copy, paste, and Google Translate, this is not too difficult, but it is not reading. Students just don’t get the fluency that comes with reading. To a fluent reader, graded readers seem really repetitive. It is this repetition however, that helps students learn. This guiding reading about Mid-Autumn Festival is an example of how repetitive a reader should be. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, you can still see that the same characters are repeated over and over again.

Why Use Graded Readers?

In contrast, some adult students really don’t care about learning to read. This is unfortunate because it really limits their ability to learn later on and leads to misunderstandings later on. I recall one person who was fairly fluent in Chinese telling meant that the word for shark was “killer fish.” It’s not. They’re both sha1yu2 in pinyin, but shark is actually 鲨鱼 NOT 杀鱼. With graded readers, students can learn to read in Chinese as they acquire their oral proficiency. This is far less daunting than building a vocabulary in written Chinese much later.

All About Authres

So where does that leave authentic resources? Authentic resources (or #authres on teacher Twitter), are those texts written by native speakers for native speakers. Many teachers love using authres because they give students a glimpse of the target culture(s). The trouble with authres is that they are often too difficult for beginner and intermediate students. Some adults try reading children’s books only to find that they too are filled with words that they don’t know. Furthermore, children’s books often contain low-frequency words. The example below has a lot of high-frequency words like 吃 (eat), but also low-frequency words like 粽子 (a type of food).

Mid-Autumn Festival Song Lyrics Chinese
Dragon Boat Festival Song

Make it Short and Use Pictures

While it is challenging to use authres for beginner and intermediate students, it is worth it for the cultural knowledge. To work around the issue of authres having too many unfamiliar words, I usually use very short texts. This way students don’t get overwhelmed from having too many words. In an hour-long class, we definitely have enough time to go over a few short texts.

photo of Chinese cartoon
This is authres because it is a cartoon by Chinese people for Chinese people. The illustrations aid student comprehension

I also like to make sure that my authres have a strong context. If there are accompanying photos/illustrations it is so much easier for students to figure out the meaning. Remember, students need to connect the words that they see and hear to meaning if they want to acquire language. If they don’t “get” what they are reading, it just will not sink in.

Two is Better Than One

In order to acquire reading proficiency in Chinese, students should use both graded readers and authres. Graded readers help non-native speakers read fluently (without checking the dictionary every other word). Authres give students a view into the target culture and by their very nature, are interesting to students.

Graded Readers in Chinese:

Ignite Chinese

Mandarin Companion

Social Media as Authentic Resources

What Are Authentic Resources?

Authentic resources, as used in language education, are anything from the target language/culture, that is produced for native speakers of that language. TV shows, newspaper articles, novels, billboards, recipes, movies, social media… these are all authentic resources.

Caveats for Authentic Resources

Many teachers are huge fans of authentic resources. Authentic resources prepare students to study or travel abroad in places where the locals speak the target language. They also provide a window into the target culture. There are downsides to authentic resources, however. They are often too advanced for beginner and intermediate students. With the internet, it is not difficult to find authentic resources. It is however, difficult to find appropriate authentic resources that won’t frustrate the students.

If teachers hand out texts or assign listening activities that are too difficult for their students, the result is both a waste of class time and can it potentially de-motivate the students. There are good reasons for seeking out high-quality authentic resources for beginner and intermediate students. To start with, authentic resources let the target culture speak for itself. Students do not need to rely on secondhand information from their teachers. Additionally, using the right authentic resources can help motivate the students. Just as authentic resources can de-motivate students if they are too difficult, they can also get students excited about the target culture if they are at the right level. It is very thrilling for students the first (and second and third) time that they read or hear something meant for native speakers that they can understand.

Choosing the Best Authentic Resources

Authentic resources for beginner and intermediate students need to have short sentences, few words, and preferably a strong visual component. Social media posts can be great authentic materials. The text is generally short, there are usually photos and even emojis can add context clues about the meaning.

Both of the posts below are authentic resources that I would use with beginner and intermediate classes. The text is very short and the words are few. Students will not spend time struggling. They will understand the meaning fairly quickly and then we can move on to having a more involved discussion.

photo of Chinese language social media post
This social media post is an example of authentic resource that is appropriate for beginner students.
photo of Chinese language social media post
This is a social media post that I would use with an intermediate class.

**These posts are from the massively popular Chinese social media platform WeChat

More on why not all authentic resources are right for every language class.

More reading on how to best use authentic resources.

Do you have any authentic resources to recommend to other Mandarin Chinese language learners? Share in the comments!