The Advantage of Using Elementary Readers to Learn Chinese

by Keith Hayden

It's been nearly two years since I decided to learn some Mandarin Chinese. My original goal was to be able to impress my wife's family on a trip to Singapore by being able to say a few words and phrases during our visit.

By using a variety of different resources, I quickly and easily met my goal within a few months back in 2018. Yet being the language enthusiast that I am, I was eager to go deeper into studying Chinese. Eventually, that lead me to discover the elementary Chinese readers that I have been using to build my vocabulary and fluency in Mandarin.

If you're currently a beginner to intermediate student of Mandarin perhaps you find yourself in a similar position as I was a few years ago. You want to improve your ability to read, recognize characters, and your fluency, but you're not quite sure how to do it.

If that is you then, read on to discover some of the ways that picking up one of these valuable resources could help your language studies.

Advantages of Using Readers

1. Build vocabulary fast

Unlike much of the native materials that are tailored for kids, good elementary readers contain tons of commonly used vocabulary that any student of Mandarin would want to know.

Many of the stories are designed so that these key words are repeated often, which allows students to learn and recognize characters faster.

Repetition is key when learning a new language and graded readers provide that without you having to reference multiple resources when you study.

2. Spaces in Between Characters Make It Easier to Learn

One of the most difficult aspects of learning a language like Mandarin through reading for beginners, is that it can be impossible to discern when one word or thought ends and another begins.

I had the same struggle when learning to read in Japanese. One of the first questions I asked my Japanese professor in college was "how do you tell the words apart?" Each word appeared to jam into the next, making reading a frustrating slog, that made me almost give up on the language completely.

Some elementary readers remedy this by including spaces in between words.

This may seem like a minor detail, but it makes it easier for beginners to focus on building reading and speaking fluency, rather than being bogged down by confusing sentence structures and mixing up words.

3. Glossaries and Grammar Notes Are Often Included

Anyone who has seriously studied Mandarin knows how much of a hassle it can be to look up words in a dictionary app, online, or offline when you're a beginner.

Should you search by pronunciation? Radical? Assume that it sounds like a similar looking character and skip it altogether? It can be a time consuming process that greatly hampers your ability to build fluency with the language.

With elementary readers the burden of looking up words is softened since many key words and phrases will be included in the book. Save your dictionary app of choice for later when you've beefed up your vocabulary.

4. Interesting Content

Having been a beginner as a language learner with several languages, I speak from experience when I say: most beginner level language learning content is pretty boring.

Many language tools aimed at beginners tend to introduce scenarios and vocabulary in a thematic fashion. Sections like: greetings, shopping, around the house, going to school, and so on, are all typical places that many programs introduce new students to a language.

And I understand why. Thematic blocks can help build confidence and vocabulary in certain common scenarios that will allow language students to communicate in those scenarios. At least that's how it should work in theory.

While this method of organization can be effective, in my opinion it tends not to be very entertaining; therefore, any words or phrases that I learn with them tend not to stick in my mind as easily as they do when I learn using readers.

Interesting and weird scenarios like two kids that think their teacher is from Mars, are much more interesting than listening to a dozen thematically contrived brief conversations about basic greetings or colors.


These are just a few of the reasons why I prefer to use elementary readers right now while learning Mandarin.

Personally, I enjoy the Mandarin Companion graded reader series, because they have readers meant for breakthrough learners (150 or so Chines characters) all the way through to intermediate students. So far I've read two of the stories and have found them to be engaging and fun.

Below are links to the two readers that I have finished so far.

Chinese Readers

In Search of Hua Ma | My Teacher is a Martian [affiliate links]

My wife and I always laugh together when I read the stories out loud and try to translate what I've read. The result has been increased Chinese fluency and more connection with her, which are two reasons why I'm learning the language.

But I'm aware that there are other good ones available that provide all of the advantages that I've described. As I usually tell people who want to learn a language, it's up to you to find the resources that work best for you, and stick with them! This will be easiest way to get the most out of them to meet your unique language learning goals.

I hope that you are able to harness the power of elementary reader in your Chinese learning today!

If you are looking for more best practices in language learning, check out my book The Tower of Babbling. Designed to take language learners from language curious to complete language literacy, I discuss several techniques that you can use at any language learning level.

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About the writer

Keith is a math teacher and language enthusiast who writes in his spare time. He published his first book The Tower of Babbling in 2019, and is currently writing his first fiction novel, Cereus & Limnic. He plans to release in before the end of 2020. Find out more at his website.


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