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:

Mandarin Companion Graded Readers

Is Listening to the Radio Good Input?

A couple questions from adult students inspired this post. It is about comprehensible input, language learning, and where to get comprehensible input in Mandarin Chinese, especially for beginner students.

Q: Is it helpful to listen to a lot of Mandarin, even if you don’t understand it? Should I listen to talk radio in Mandarin as a beginner student?

A: Lots of students think that it might help them learn Mandarin Chinese if they just listen to a lot of the language. They are probably hoping that language learning happens the way it does for Bart Simpson. He is immersed in French in one episode of the Simpsons and then suddenly starts speaking French (he speaks French at about the 2 minute mark). Language learning does not really work this way. Listening to large amounts of language that you do not understand is not effective. Students need to understand what they heard in order to learn a language.

This is what we call comprehensible input, language that students understand. The comprehension hypothesis states that students acquire language when they understand what they hear and read. If students do not understand what they hear and read, they will never get any meaningful language acquisition from it. This is why listening to the radio in Chinese (or a podcast, or a book on tape) as beginner student is not helpful. It will just be blah, blah, blah in the student’s ear. Stephen Krashen is the most famous researcher of comprehensible input. More information on comprehensible input is available on his website.

Q: Okay, so if I need comprehensible input to learn Mandarin, where can I get it?

A: Good comprehensible input can be tough to find! Authentic materials (i.e. readings meant for native speakers) are very trendy in language education right now. They are often too difficult for beginner students, however. They are not comprehensible.

There are several posts on this blog that can point students towards good input in Chinese for beginners. Each individual student will have to poke around and see what works best for his or her level.

YouTube Videos (mostly for kids, but adults can watch too!)

Graded Readers (intermediate and above)

More YouTube

Remember that comprehensible input is relative to the individual. A book that is comprehensible to one student may not work for another. The important thing is to spend time listening and reading language you can understand. Do not waste time listening to language that is too difficult. It is just blah, blah, blah and will not help you learn the language.

photo of adult students in Chinese class
Some Fabulous Adult 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 🙂

Mandarin Classes and Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is Coming!

Chinese New Year (a.k.a the lunar new year) is right around the corner and I am starting to see Chinese New Year activities for Mandarin classes pop up in my Twitter feed. Like many teachers, I think any good Mandarin Chinese class includes culture. When it comes to incorporating lessons about Chinese culture in Mandarin language class, it is a challenge to teach both language and culture effectively.

When I am planning lessons, one of the most important things that I think about is: “how is my lesson built around an outcome that is not language?” Yes, you read that correctly. We learn language by attending to meaning. We do not learn language by memorizing vocabulary and plugging those words into grammar structures that we have learned explicitly. Language acquisition is too complex to be broken down into pages in a textbook. To put it simply, language acquisition comes from learners attempting to comprehend the target language during communication. Simply put a lesson about Chinese New Year can’t just be coloring in a picture of a dragon if the students are going to learn any Chinese.

Stories to Learn For Chinese New Year

So what to do? One option is to build a lesson around a story. The book pictured below,团圆 (A New Year’s Reunion) tells the story of a family’s Chinese New Year. I like it because it talks about not only Chinese New Year, but also how many families in modern China are separated by distance. Often one or both parents works in a different part of the country. The only drawback of using a book like 团圆 is that the language in it is fairly complex. It is not repetitive and it covers a few topics that are not common topics for children. These include going to the barbershop, and painting a door. Basing a lesson around this story would only be suitable for children who are intermediate Mandarin Chinese learners.

A good way to make sure that students are focusing on the meaning of the story during class is to ask them “what do you think will happen next?” This may sound like a fairly complicated question for students. Really the only structure that they need to have acquired is 我觉得 (I think/feel)* and from there describe what they think will happen next.

photo of book cover of A New Year's Reunion
A New Year’s Reunion 团圆 book cover

Tasks for Chinese New Year

For beginner students, an option is to choose one aspect of Chinese New Year and focus on that. For example, 2018 ushers in the year of the dog, so a lesson could be about around dogs. In another post, I wrote about doing a task centered around pets. The students could easily make a poster about how to take care of a dog. Or students and the teacher could create a simple story about a dog, one with short sentences and known vocabulary words that is comprehensible for the students. If this sounds like only a very shallow connection between class content and the festival, it is. But that is okay! If our goal is language learning, this is the kind of compromise that teachers need to make. We have to make compromises to ensure that students are getting enough comprehensible input in Mandarin Chinese so they they can acquire the language.

Teaching Culture On Its Own

What if that is really not enough culture? Is a task enough to give students exposure to Chinese culture? If the answer to these questions is no, then it is fine to take a class or two to talk about Chinese New Year in English. Each program will have to decide for itself what the priorities are. A good option to use for an English-language lesson on Chinese New Year is Grace Lin’s Bringing in the New Year. In the book, the words for family members are in Chinese, so there is at least a little bit of the language in the lesson.

What do you think about incorporating Chinese culture into Mandarin classes? Share your thoughts in the comments.

*I’m borrowing this idea from Terry Waltz’s TPRS with Chinese Characteristics

Learning to Read in Chinese, It is not Memorizing!

Reading is not Memorizing

Learning to read in Chinese is not an exercise in memorizing 3,000-5,000 different characters. Surprisingly to some, learning to read in Chinese is not that different from learning to read in English. In both languages, readers are mapping sounds that they already know to the written word (or character).

But wait! Many adult students say, isn’t it far easier for young children to start reading in Chinese than adults? Not really, children and adults tend to learn Chinese characters the same way. Since children often have more time to spend on Chinese learning, they have an advantage there. It is not a cognitive advantage, however.

So what is going on inside of people’s heads when they start to learn Chinese characters? First impressions of a Chinese character follow a global prior to part principle.* Readers notice the contour of a character and its edges. Many people believe that Chinese is a completely opaque language, and that there is not phonological component to written Chinese. This simply is not true. Eighty to ninety percent (linguists disagree in the exact percentage) of Chinese characters have a phonological component. Phonological awareness is implicated in reading Chinese, just as it is for reading English. There is evidence that the orthography of Chinese characters becomes more important in later reading, but at the beginning, readers are forming more holistic impressions of characters. I am glossing over many details for the sake of brevity, but the takeaway is that speech and sound have a great deal to do with learning to read in Chinese. Chinese reading is not just a visual exercise.

A Proven Approach to Reading in Chinese

In teaching students how to read Chinese, I have borrowed a great deal from Terry Waltz’s cold character reading. Her method involves introducing characters after students have learned the word orally and using lots of repetition. I have been laughed at (in a good-natured sort of way) by adult students who think that I am pulling their leg when I say that they will be reading sentences by the end of their first two-hour class. Without fail, they are reading at the end of the class. We are only reading words that we already know, and there is a great deal of repetition, but students read with a very high level of comprehension and there is no tedious memorizing of Chinese characters. There is much more to cold character reading than what I can cover in a paragraph. If you would like more information, please click around Terry Waltz’s blog, linked to above.

There is some evidence that it is easier to learn Chinese characters which have fewer than six strokes. I think it is more important to focus on learning the most frequently used characters first, rather than just introducing characters based on the number of strokes. For example, 我 (I/me) is a fairly complicated character, but it is one of the most frequently used Chinese characters so students can and will learn it quickly.

Using Text with Pinyin in Chinese Reading

There are many different types of reading resources available for students learning how to read in Chinese. I favor resources that provide pinyin to help students look up unfamiliar words and a glossary. I am reviewing this version of the story of the monkey king below for my intermediate students. This version is great because it has the pinyin on the opposite page and a full glossary in the back. Students can easily check the opposite page for pinyin if they are unsure of how to pronounce a character and easily look up unfamiliar words. They can also read just the characters without referring to the pinyin if they do not need it.

photo of pages of book with Chinese characters on one side and pinyin on the other side
Text with Chinese characters and pinyin

The below image is actually of a text meant for Chinese children. I do not prefer texts that have the pinyin above the characters. Yes, it does provide the same function as having the pinyin on the opposite page which is to provide pronunciation help. With language students, there is a tendency to ignore characters in favor of pinyin if it is right there. Students will generally just read pinyin and ignore characters if they are included together like this. I would rather have students fluently reading characters from the start of their journey learning to read in Chinese (i.e. through cold character reading) than to limp along with mostly pinyin reading.

photo of text with Chinese characters
Poem by Li Bai with pinyin written above the characters

What about Writing in Chinese?

Like reading, writing Chinese characters does not need to include memorization of thousands of characters. Read more about approaches to writing Chinese in another blog post here.

*I am using the research of Hui Li (2015) here, contact me for a full citation.

What are your experiences in learning to read in Chinese or another language? Share in the comments!