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 misses the real issue. 

Regardless what methods students use to learn new Chinese characters, it won’t lead to strong Chinese reading skills. 

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. (Read more here: Learning 2000 Chinese characters is not enough for reading newspapers, and the number of characters is not the problem)

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 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. For example this sentence, “他一学习就头疼”. Recognising the structure “......” is very important to understand the meaning of the sentence.

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. 

    However, wherever lower 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, such as the Chinese Reading and Writing series. This series is for beginner students to learn very limited Chinese characters but to do lots of reading and writing exercises. 

    On top of reading more, read aloud also helps. Reading aloud has tons of benefits. 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 also helpful 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.

  • #3 Write more

    To a great extent, writing helps develop Chinese reading skills, provided the focus is oriented around words, structures, sentences and paragraphs. 

    Writing in complex forms brings something alive in us, especially when we write something important, something that we really mean, or something really fun. Writing with hands means a lot!

    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, back to step #1.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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