Reading Chinese, where to start?

Many adult students, when learning reading Chinese, want to start with children’s story books. They believe these books must be written in the simplest language (these books are for children, right?), and would make good reading materials for them. This approach has a problem though, which is that these books are written, precisely, for Chinese children. 

Books for CHINESE children

When Chinese children grab a book and begin the task of learning to read, they are already fluent in speaking Chinese. This is an advantage that a Chinese child of three or four years old has over most Western students, enabling Chinese children to read books with ease even when there are many unknown Chinese characters in the texts. That means the writers don’t have to use the simplest Chinese language to write stories for Chinese children, and they usually don’t. 

I have browsed 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, not the language. 

Books for Chinese CHILDREN

Children’s story books tend to center around a few categories of subjects, which appeal to children. Ancient heroes and villains, tigers, bears, foxes and rabbits routinely make into the stories. The plot is always simple enough for children to follow. The pictures are huge. However, not all adult students 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, they also do so with exaggerated gestures and voices. This is the luxury adult students no longer have.

Learning to read Chinese

Drawing lessons from how children learn to read Chinese, the first and 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 by learning how to speak some Chinese first. This is the reason that two series of Chinese textbooks are used at MSL Master.

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. However, this source of reading materials is not always available to anyone. 

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 have tried two of them, Du Chinese and Decipher. Both of them have lots Chinese reading materials to offer. Students can pick and choose what they feel like reading. None of them is free, except a few articles. 

Other possibilities include using beginner’s Chinese textbooks as reading materials, or reading translated and abbreviated classic stories which students read before in their own languages. 

I must say, for beginner students, the choices of Chinese reading materials are very limited. 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 slowly developing their Chinese reading ability, that is to read materials about China written in their own languages. Doing so will allow students to gain solid knowledge on Chinese culture, which will help them immensely when they gradually expand the scope of their Chinese reading materials. 


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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