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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, but 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. Here is why.

Why 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. 

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)

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

The point is, regardless what methods students use to acquire new Chinese characters, accumulating characters alone won’t lead to strong Chinese reading skills.

The reason is below.

Words are the building blocks of Chinese texts

On the first glance of any Chinese texts, we get the impression that each individual characters are the tiny building blocks, as if understanding each and every one of these tiny blocks, we’d decipher the meaning of the entire block. 

This is not true. 

Characters are building blocks of words, which are the building blocks of Chinese texts. It’s similar to letters are building of words, which are the building blocks of English texts. The same letters can build different words, such as “could” and “cloud” have the exact same letters. That’s part of the fun.

Different from reading English texts which conveniently display all the words, when we read Chinese texts, we must mentally pick out these words. This article (Deconstructing Chinese texts is the key to learn how to read Chinese) gives a detailed explanation for reading this sentence, “小星星期天看小说”.

At the same time, we must also recognise any special character combinations which are there for structural purposes. For example this sentence, “他一学习就头疼”. Recognising the structure “......” is very important to understand the meaning of the sentence.

This is a deconstruction process. 

What we need to do is to train our brain to become really good at it.

Below are four steps students can take to improve their Chinese reading skills.

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. 

    Unfortunately for lower level students, wherever they look, they only see tons of Chinese characters they have not learned. This is where the misconception gets started, that learning more Chinese characters lead to great reading skills. Now we know better.

    For students who just get started with reading Chinese, the trick is to read materials that have a tight control over the vocabulary used. It is the best if the materials use the same characters but shuffle them into different words and combinations in order to create interesting texts, 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. And Easy-to-Read Chinese Short Stories series follows the same concept. 

    On top of reading more, read aloud also helps. 

    It has tons of benefits. That is when we 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. (Learn more here: Controlled exercises - How lower level students develop listening ability)

  • #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! (Learn more here: Do you need to use your hand to write Chinese characters?)

    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.