Trying to improve your Chinese reading skills? Focus on words and structures

“I understand all the Chinese characters. But I don’t understand what it means.” Countless learners of Chinese, from beginners to advanced students, have faced this problem when reading Chinese texts. 

For beginner students, it could be a short conversation. For advanced students, it could be a Chinese newspaper article. They seem to recognise all the Chinese characters, just can’t make sense of it. 

What should they do to improve their Chinese reading skills?

There are a few things they can do. The last thing on the to-do-list is to learn more Chinese characters.

Learning more Chinese characters won’t help you improve your Chinese reading skills

A misinformation gets passed around quite a lot, that, when students learned 2000 Chinese characters, they could read Chinese newspapers. This is a false promise, and completely missed the real issue. Misled by this false claim, millions of students spend days and months trying to learn more Chinese characters. 

Using flash cards to learn Chinese characters is quite popular, but it has serious problems. 

Trying hard to learn Chinese characters through radicals is also widespread, but it wastes more time than it saves. 

Another perceived “shortcut” is to learn components first in order to learn new Chinese characters quickly, but the connections between a Chinese character, its components, its pronunciation, and its meaning are not always there. This “shortcut” will turn out to be a dead end.  

In deed, regardless what methods students use to learn new Chinese characters, it won’t lead to strong Chinese reading skills. In fact, it is not how many Chinese characters students have learned. It is rather how many words and structures they have learned and how many Chinese reading exercises they have done. 

Words are the building blocks of Chinese texts

When we read Chinese texts, in order to understand the meaning, we must mentally group characters together and pick out any special Chinese characters, if any, which are there for structural purposes.

For beginner students, as the sentences are mainly short and simple, the trick is primarily to find out which characters should be grouped together. In this article, the example is “小星星期天看小说”. 

For higher level students, the sentences are getting longer and more complex, and very often, some sentence structure is in place. For example this sentence, “他一学习就头疼”. Recognising the structure “一...就...” is very important for us to understand the sentence. This structure connects three words, 他, 学习, 头疼, and makes them a coherent sentence.

Finally, a to-do-list to improve Chinese reading skills

  • #1 Read more

    The only way to improve Chinese reading skills is to read more, and read more level appropriate materials. 

    In this aspect, the world is friendlier to high level students. The materials they can read are everywhere, news papers, magazines, novels, essays. You name it. But everywhere low level students look, they only see tons of Chinese characters they have not learned. For them, the best reading materials are their textbooks, especially the ones having a tight control of the vocabulary used. 

    To use my Chinese Reading and Writing series as an example. The idea of this series is for beginner students to learn very limited Chinese characters but to do lots of reading and writing exercises. The learning path of the series consists of four steps, Awareness, Expansion, Practice, and Consolidation. Of these four steps, only the first step “Awareness” involves learning new Chinese characters. All the rest are on how to use these newly acquired characters, thus, guarantee students that they get sufficient practices.  

    On top of reading more, read aloud when possible. Reading aloud has tons of benefits to reading Chinese. That is when we have to use our voice to manifest what we have been doing in our head. 

  • #2 Listen more

    Listening plays an important role for students to get a good sense of Chinese language rhythm, which helps tremendously when they read. And listening to level appropriate materials is critical. 

    Again, the world is friendlier to high level students who have more options as to what to listen to. It is especially beneficial when there are Chinese subtitles available. They can listen, read and comprehend at the same time. 

    For beginner students, picking up a few words here and there is all they can do in a real world. For them, it is important to listen to something written at their level, so that they can get more familiar with Chinese language. And this familiarity helps them when they read level appropriate Chinese texts.

  • #3 Write more

    To a very great extent, writing helps develop Chinese reading skills, provided the focus is oriented around words, structures, sentences and paragraphs. This kinetic movement, writing in complex forms, brings something alive in us, especially when we write something important, something that we really mean, or something fun. 

    Try not to copy one single Chinese character a thousand times, unless you want to doze off gradually at your desk.

  • #4 Learn more Chinese characters and their associated words or structures

    After you have done plenty of exercises mentioned above, it’s time to learn some new Chinese characters, and very importantly, new combinations or structures which these characters are part of. 

    The next step is, to read more!


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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