Reading Chinese, where to start?

Many adult Chinese language learners, when learning reading Chinese, want to start with children’s story books. They believe these books must be written in the simplest language, and would make good reading materials for them. 

I see it differently. 

After browsing through countless children’s story books. I find these books are rarely written in the simplest Chinese language. Many times they use big words and are quite liberal in dropping Chinese idioms (成语), which are really hard for Western students.

What really makes a book a children’s book is the simplicity of the story, such as the good guy and the bad guy, or tiger and rabbit. 

For example, the popular children’s series 《喜羊羊》. It is not a starter for Chinese language learners. 

The reason that these Chinese children’s books are not the best starting choice for adult language learners is precisely because that they are written for Chinese children.

Chinese children are fluent Chinese speakers

When Chinese children grab a book and begin the task of learning to read, they are already fluent in speaking Chinese. Their speaking fluency helps them read books with ease even when there are many unknown Chinese characters in the texts. 

This is a huge advantage that a Chinese child of three or four years old has over most Western students. 

That means the writers of children’s books don’t have to use the simplest Chinese language to write stories for Chinese children. And usually they don’t.

Chinese children enjoy children’s stuff

Children’s story books tend to centre around a few categories of subjects, which appeal to children. Ancient heroes and villains, tigers, bears, foxes and rabbits routinely make into the stories. Plots are always simple enough for children to follow. Pictures are huge. 

The stuff that appeals to children may not appeal to adults.

Few adult readers are attracted to reading a few lines per page while knowing the end of the story already. 

Moreover, many children often read with their parents. When they are lost in the story, they can simply ask their parents “what’s going on?”. Not only will their parents explain the story in vivid language, but also do it with exaggerated gestures and voices. 

This is the luxury adult students no longer have.

When to start learning to read Chinese

Although Chinese children’s books are not the best for beginner Chinese language learners, there are lessons we can learn from how Chinese children begin to learn reading Chinese, that they learn to speak before they learn to read. 

Therefore, the most sensible thing for an adult student to do is to learn spoken Chinese before learning to read. Learning to read can be achieved more quickly and more efficiently with some Chinese speaking abilities. 

Chinese reading materials by Chinese language learners

When students are ready to learn how to read Chinese and they need something to read, the most reliable reading materials would be the tailor-made materials which are carefully crafted based on how many Chinese characters and combinations students know. 

It’s like after students have learned some characters and words, a book is handed to them and says “enjoy”!

At MSL Master, we know that, after the Chinese Reading and Writing series, students will know 320 Chinese characters and over 1,200 words. It’ll be great to hand them books written in these characters. It’ll be even better if their stories using these characters are published.

With the Chinese Writing Contest, it is now a reality. 

Check out the Easy-to-Read Chinese Short Stories, Book 1, which includes 17 best entries of Chinese Writing Contest 2021.

Graded readers

The next best thing is the many Chinese reading apps, which grade reading materials according to HSK levels and provide pinyin and English translations when needed. 

I’ve seen quite a few and it’s clear that they’ve put in huge effort in creating these reading materials. 

A simple search will provide lots of choices. Students can pick and choose what they feel like reading.

Non-Chinese materials

For beginner students, it is going to be a long process before they can read more authentic Chinese texts. 

Fortunately, there is something else students can do while developing their Chinese reading ability, that is to read books about China or Chinese language, which are written in their own languages. 

Doing so will allow students to gain solid knowledge on Chinese, which will help them immensely when they gradually expand the scope of their Chinese reading materials.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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