Teaching Kids to Read in Chinese If You Don’t Speak it Yourself

Have kids who speak Chinese or are learning Chinese as a second language? If you can’t speak or read Chinese yourself, how are you going to teach them to read in Chinese?

Read below where one mother shares her tips and resources and how she taught her kids to speak Chinese when she can’t even read it herself!

How I Taught My Kids to Read in Chinese even though I Can’t Read it Myself

As a monolingual mother, I had a naïve wish long before my children were born, that I wanted my kids to be able to speak a second language. 

At first, this wish was literally that…. to speak a second language.  Forget the grammar, forget the alphabet, just let them learn to speak a new language. The language we chose was Chinese.

Why is literacy important for being bilingual?

From an early age, my first child attended a preschool where Mandarin was taught, and we chose a primary school for her where it continued to be taught (as a second language, not immersion style or anything fancy). 

This was when I realised that by simply settling for our child to speak Mandarin, we were selling her short.  For, there’s a large body of research suggesting that unless a child is in a truly immersive language environment (i.e. living in China, or communicating in the language > 70% of the time) it’s impossible to be truly bilingual, without also being biliterate. 

That is to say, for any person who is learning a second language, in a household / country where the language isn’t commonly spoken, they really need to learn how to read too, in order to meaningfully progress.

Is literacy necessary for bilingualism?  No, clearly there are many cases of people who are bilingual but not biliterate

There are a vast many people who can speak multiple languages are literate in one or none of these.  However, when you dig into this, most of these people learnt the languages metalinguistically (i.e. unconsciously, such as a young child spoken to by grandparents etc, or through immersion), not through learning it as a second language in a formal classroom setting. 

In a classroom setting, it’s said the literacy is one of the key skills needed to learn, and maintain the language.  If you’re not surrounded by regularly speaking of the language, reading is one of the best available tools to get passive exposure, and also increase vocabulary. 

Many researchers now cite the benefits of ‘extensive reading’ in order to gain fluency in a language. Especially if learning in the classroom / from a textbook, broader reading is key, to consolidating and strengthening the language being taught. 

How did we introduce Chinese literacy into our monoliterate family?

After my epiphany on the need to introduce Chinese literacy to our daughter, we started doing this on the home front. Religiously every day, we would read book together and learn a few new Chinese characters. 

It happened gradually, with 10 – 15 minutes spend per day, and over the course of 1.5 years, she’s progressed enough to read simple chapter books in Chinese. 

The great thing I realised in doing this is that I could do it at the same time with my primary school age child, as with my 2-year-old. 

With Chinese, since it was pictorial, my toddler also started to get the hang of characters, without even knowing how to read in English, or even the alphabet or phonics.  Still today, my younger children have a much better grasp of Chinese (taught purely from home) than they do of English phonics which they learn in school. 

I don’t have experience in teaching any other languages, but I’m sure that it’s constant reading and exposure that helps a child to decode the words/images they’re seeing and get the hang of this concept.

Chinese Reading Resources for Kids

I cannot boast this can be achieved singlehandedly by a mother who knows nothing of the language. Far from it – we relied on excellent resources and tools which exist in the market. 

Also, whilst doing this, my children did have a good working knowledge of basic spoken Chinese, through watching Chinese television, and reading aloud with our Luka Reading Robot

Throughout our journey, we have met many children who come from families where even the parents speak Chinese to the children, and yet the children haven’t been encouraged to read, perhaps because the parents themselves are not biliterate.

If you’re reading this and wondering how to start teaching your kids how to read in Chinese, please do.  It will be a rewarding journey.

Related: Chinese Lessons for Kids

Key tools for Teaching Kids to Read in Chinese:

Find below some of the language resources and tools used to teach our kids to read Chinese characters:

1. Chinese Graded Readers

These are books which systematically introduce new Chinese characters, and sentence structures, with clear and large sized fonts, and picture clues.

There are various sets, some expensive like Sage and Le Le Chinese, and other relatively cheaper like Odonata Readers.  Most of these books will go up to ~500 or ~1000 characters, and are written to include lots of spaced repetition. 

The storylines are a little bland, but the learning is deep. 

For context, at 500 characters, it’s barely enough to read a children’s picture books.  At 1200 characters, some novels will be within reach.  At 2000 characters, a newspaper can be read.

As we learnt, these books can be tough if no adult in the family speaks the language, so it’s important to get the accompanying audio to read along to.  In some cases, this is in the form of a reading pen (eg Le Le), and others it can be through Luka Reading Companion.

2. Chinese Literacy Apps

The top Chinese learning apps here are iHuman and Maomi Stars. Each has been designed to systematically introduce new characters, through gamification and visualisation. 

These apps include writing, speaking, and reading components, as a child progressively adds to their character lists.  They make it very clear what a child has read and knows, and have the added benefit that it contains built-in audio, and a pronunciation checker.  

These Chinese reading apps go up to ~1300 characters, and some of them follow the vocabulary lists from specific Chinese graded readers (eg Maomi Stars contains the Odonata book wordlists). 

Read More: CHINESE LEARNING APPS FOR KIDS

3. Chinese-English Dictionary Pens

Once a child has ‘graduated’ from graded readers, they’ll be in a good position to start reading simple books by themselves.  However, without doubt, there will be unknown new words, or phrases where the characters are used in a new format. 

This is where a dictionary pen such as Youdao comes in handy.  These clever optical scanning pens enable a user to scan any written text, and understand the Chinese pronunciation of the characters, along with its translated English meaning.  It’s a Godsend for any beginner trying to tackle a Chinese text.

Youdau Dictionary Pen Chinese - English

6. Simple Chinese Bridging Books

There are plenty of these to look out for.  One set to recommend in particular are Mandarin Companion Readers.  These are novels which are simplifications of English classics such as The Secret Garden, Emma, Sherlock Holmes, etc, but with a highly restricted wordcount. 

The books come in three different levels, with the easiest using only 150 unique Chinese characters, and the hardest using 450 unique Chinese characters

They come in paperback and ebook form, and are an asset to any learner (child or adult) trying to achieve literacy in Chinese. The storylines are actually interesting, and will keep you turning the pages to read (and learn) more.

Teaching Kids to Read in Chinese

Enjoy the journey to literacy.  Even if you can’t speak or read in Chinese, teach your kids. I would have thought teaching a child to read in a language that you cannot read was impossible, if I hadn’t actually seen it with my own eyes. 

So, here’s my challenge to you – give it a go, and surprise yourself with how adaptable a young child’s brain can be, and how amazing educational resources are these days for kids learning Chinese. You might also learn a few Chinese characters too!

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Author: Emma Lee is a mother of 3 living in Singapore, bringing an engineer’s skillset to her bilingual parenting.  Her website Lahlahbanana has detailed reviews on literary tech gadgets & books to assist children learning Chinese.

Teach Kids to Read Chinese Characters as a non native