#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

Favorite Books for Kids’ Classes

It is Read a Book Day!

Social media is overrun with lots of unofficial official “days,”  such as #nationalunleadedgasolineday, #nationallichenday, or #nationalrefilltheicecubetrayday. Okay, I made those up. But you get the idea, there are lots of mundane, made-up “days” out there. Today, however, is Read a Book Day (September 6). This is a made-up holiday I can get behind since books are so important to the language learning process. Below are a few of my favorite books for teaching Mandarin Chinese, especially for kids.

No, David!, by David Shannon (大卫,不可以)

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

This book is great for a few reasons. First, is it hugely popular so most kids already know the story. This really helps kids pick up the language if they already know the content. The book is also very repetitive. Repetition really helps language “sink in.” The reader (teacher) says the phrase “不可以” (not okay) on almost every page. By the end of the book, kids in my classes kids are saying 不可以, wagging their fingers, and laughing their heads off at the antics of little David in the story. I also like to use the book for classroom management. It starts a conversation about what is okay (可以) and not okay (不可以) to do in class.

Journey, By Aaron Becker

This is a wordless picture book. I have a few wordless picture books that I use in class, but this one has the most beautiful illustrations. Wordless picture books are great for language classes because the teacher can tailor the content (story) to suit a variety of different levels. It can also be difficult to find books in your target language. Wordless books are a great option because they can be in any language! This book is also great because the main character is a girl. It is mind boggling how few children’s books feature girls as the main character, or at all. Half of my students are girls (no surprise) and I want them to see themselves in our books.

photo of illustration from Journey
Illustration from Journey, a wordless picture book

Go Away, Big Green Monster, By Ed Emberley (走开,绿色大怪物!)

photo of cover of Chinese language version of Go Away Big Green Monster
Cover of 走开,绿色大怪物

This book is great because it covers content that many parents and school administrators expect to see in beginner class: colors and body parts. I like it because it has a monster! Young kids often like books, movies that are just a tiny bit scary to them. They enjoy the feeling of pushing boundaries with things that scare them just a little bit. Kids love going through this book and seeing how the illustrations build up to show the monster’s face. They don’t even notice that they are learning words for colors and body parts!

More on learning Mandarin and books:

Learn Mandarin with Chinese Books

Books for Older Kids

Great (long) article on finding the right reading material in Chinese






Resources Roundup: Intermediate & Above

It has been a few months since the last post on resources for learning Mandarin Chinese outside of class. Today I am including a roundup of resources that would be useful for students who are at least at an intermediate stage of language proficiency. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages provides definitions for the different stages of language proficiency here. Many parents and adult students want to have resources to help them learn Mandarin Chinese outside of class. Since students learn language through comprehensible input, it is important that whatever students listen to or read is at the appropriate level of difficulty. If a student is looking up every other word, the material is definitely too difficult. To facilitate learning, reading and listening should feel fun and enjoyable, not like a struggle.

Mandarin Companion Graded Readers

I have recommended this publishing company’s series of books before. They publish versions on western classics like Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen (and a few Chinese stories!) that use limited vocabulary and simple sentences. They have added more books since I last recommended them. It looks like they are building their catalogue enough so that a variety of students can find a book they’d like to read.

Chinese-language movies on Netflix

Netflix doesn’t have a foreign-language category, but you can search “Chinese” or “Mandarin) and browse Chinese-language movies. I haven’t found any movies that also have Chinese subtitles (like they have in China), but it is perfectly fine to keep the English subtitles on. I recently watched This is Not What I Expected (喜欢你). It is a enjoyable romantic comedy with nothing that is too mature for a tween/teen audience.

Short Stories on Chinese-Stories.com

The website www.chinese-stories.com recently crossed my desk. First, the bad: this website is clunky and really difficult to use. It also falls into the same trap that claims a lot of content producers: their “novice” content is way too difficult for actual novice language learners. On the plus side, the website uses a freemium model, so there are some free readings. The short stories also have an accompanying audio track, so students can listen to the stories as well as read them.

screen grab of chinese stories
If you can get past the clunky website, there are some cute stories with audio narration on www.chinese-stories.com

More roundups on resources for learning Mandarin Chinese:

Resources for When There is no Mandarin Class

Advanced and Intermediate Resources

Have any suggestions for intermediate language learners? Share in the comments!

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

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