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Can reading books written in both Chinese characters and pinyin help students develop Chinese reading skills?

Many years ago, when a child turned seven, I bought her some books as a birthday gift. These books were stories of Chinese idioms, written in both Chinese characters and pinyin, accompanied with large and colourful illustrations. This is probably the worst gift I have ever given to anyone. 

My assumption was that, as a seven-year old, she probably had not learned enough Chinese characters, but she could rely on pinyin. The scenario played out in my head was that she read the character line, and when there was an unknown character, she would take a look at the pinyin which was printed on top of that character. I was so wrong.

It was true that she did not know half of the Chinese characters. But she was not very keen in glancing back and forth between those two lines, the line of Chinese characters and the line of pinyin. 

For her, reading stories was supposed to be fun. But there was no fun reading the books that I gave her. 

Many grownups make the same mistake that I made before, wishing young children would benefit from books written in both characters and pinyin. They keep buying these books, disregarding the fact that children are not attracted to these books. 

These books are not beneficial for children. How about adult learners of Chinese? How can these books be used? Are these books good for adult students who want to develop Chinese reading skills?

For Chinese Character recognitions only

One way for adult Chinese language learners to use books with both characters and pinyin is to use them for Chinese character recognitions only. 

They need to use a piece of paper to hide the pinyin when reading. 

They can practice reading characters first to see how many Chinese characters they can recognise, and take a look at the pinyin line for those characters they feel that they almost recognise. 

It is quite cumbersome to read a book like this. It slows down reading and the tory itself becomes unimportant. 

To a certain extent, it works. 

In a book printed with large quantity of Chinese characters, characters appear according to their occurring frequency in the Chinese language. The most frequently used Chinese characters will appear more often than those less frequently used ones. 

Chinese text is treated as a large amount of single character flash cards, as long as manipulating a piece of paper does not become too bothersome, and as long as students recognise those special Chinese characters which have more than one pronunciations.

Reading the pinyin only

Another way to read such books is to read pinyin for stories.

When students have not yet learned enough characters and words, but they’d like to read something for fun, they may resort to books printed with both characters and pinyin.

Unfortunately, that won’t work very well.  

Pinyin’s readability is very low. 

If pinyin is not grouped by words, it is hard for students to pick out words. If pinyin is grouped by words, there are so many words sharing the same pinyin or similar pinyin. To have some fun with it, read Does “shi li” mean “strength” in Chinese?

In the end, it is just pages and pages of pinyin that is hard to decipher.

Developing Chinese reading skills

For developing Chinese reading skills, books with pinyin are not any better than books without pinyin. 

With pinyin, an unknown character remains an unknown character. Pinyin does not tell the meaning of this character. Students still need to look up a dictionary to understand the character or the combination which this character is part of. 

The best way to develop Chinese reading skills is to read for fun. 

Grab a book that looks like a good read, and it does not have too many new characters. For some suggestions on where to find these books, read here Reading Chinese, where to start?