How do you teach young children to read Chinese? Do you use flashcards, books, or worksheets? Sometimes do you feel overwhelmed that don’t know what’s the best way to teach reading in Chinese? There are many ways to teach children to read Chinese. Even as a native speaker, I feel overwhelmed and confused about how to teach my children to read in Chinese without being pushy. I do not think any expert on earth has the exact solution or method for you because every child is unique with different strengths and talents, so the responsibility to know how and when to teach your children belongs to you as the parent. Parents should be the ones who determine when and how to teach their children, so today, I’m going to share how I teach my children to read Chinese. I’m not an expert, so please use my personal experiences and knowledge as a reference for deciding what is best for your child. I hope you find these useful.
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How did I Learn to Read Chinese?
Chinese characters are different than English letters because Chinese characters are used for meaning not pronunciation. You can look at most Chinese characters and guess some its meaning, but you can’t pronounce the characters just by looking at it. You must memorize the pronunciation and meaning of each character individually, so this means you have to drill it repeatedly.
People usually learn to read Chinese by reading the romanization (e.g.: pinyin, zhu yin, bopomofo etc.) first, and then they start reading the characters. However, Chinese speakers do not learn any romanizations to pronounce Chinese characters. Instead, we just memorize the pronunciation when we learn a new character. After we learn the basic Chinese characters from kindergarten, we started to learn more vocabulary words and sentences from our textbooks. The main practice we do is repeatedly write the character over and over.
I remember I had to write 20 new vocabularies 50 times at a time for my 5th-grade Chinese homework every week for the whole year. WOW!! That was the most horrible and stressful year I had. I agree that I can remember the characters better if I practice it, but not THAT much!
So obviously, I learned to read Chinese in a very traditional, and quite painful way.
My Experience of Teaching My Kids to Read Chinese
I always thought I would be like other Hong Kong girls: living and working in Hongo Kong and married to a local guy. I thought I would send my kids to the local school in Hong Kong, and I would hope that they would learn everything on their own, so they could go to the college someday and have a good life. That was my plan! It would be pretty easy to follow what others do, so I wouldn’t even need to think about it.
However, it didn’t turn out that way – it’s even better and more fun. I get to learn how to raise my bilingual family with my husband, and now, I have the opportunity to homeschool my kids in both Cantonese and English. There have been so many ups and downs that I would like to share a couple experiences with you:
- Failure: Yes! All the time. In our first year of homeschooling, my oldest kid (4 years old at that time) only enjoyed learning English because she felt more comfortable and confident with English than Chinese. Whenever I pulled out a Chinese children’s book and invited her to read with me, she would reject me. She would tell me that she didn’t like Chinese. It hurt a lot! I couldn’t believe she had told me that she didn’t like Chinese. But what could I do? In Hong Kong, most 4-year-olds have already learned the basic Chinese characters in school. Even though I was disappointed and felt helpless, I reminded myself I could not compare our situation to others.
- Success: I decided the only thing that I could do was to make learning Chinese fun so that my children wouldn’t lose interest in it. I didn’t push, but I kept trying to find trying to read books in both English and Chinese to them every day. I started making my own Chinese printables with games and hands-on activities for my kids. I even started a Chinese homeschooling approach with my kids. They seemed excited about it and did really well. At first, they still chose to read English books over the Chinese ones, but now, my oldest kid will bring Chinese books to me and ask me to teach her to read it. WOW!!! Can you imagine how shocked I was the first time she did that? At first, I was confused, so I asked her to repeat what she had said, and I heard her say what I had been waiting to hear for a long time: “Please teach me to read Chinese!”
4 Tips for Teaching Young Children to Read Chinese
I know that these are just the first few steps of teaching my children Chinese, but it has been amazing! As you can see, I don’t have a long history of teaching my children to read Chinese, but I still have some tips that I would like to share with you.
Tip #1: No Pressure
Stress is the enemy of getting your kids to willingly learn. The ultimate goal of teaching my kids Chinese is to guide them to have the knowledge of and interest in Chinese so that they will continue to learn Chinese without me. Sometimes this feels like a distant goal, but I know that it will never happen if I put too much pressure on them to do it. Therefore, homeschooling is the perfect way for us because there are no grades to earn or exams to pass. My children can take their time exploring and developing their interest in Chinese.
Tip #2: Level-Appropriate Reading Materials
When we feel that we are useful and amazing, we think we can overcome all the trials in the world. It’s the same for our kids. They need this magic throughout their journey learning Chinese, so level-appropriate, not necessarily age-appropriate reading materials, are very important. All the standardized textbooks for school children are age-appropriate, but not all children have the ability to read or understand the Chinese in these textbooks. When the reading materials are too difficult for learners because they don’t know enough words to understand the content, there will be problems. The learners will get frustrated and discouraged, and eventually they will lose their interest and motivation to learn.
When I decided to homeschool my kids, I tried to find level-appropriate Chinese reading materials for them. Of course, I couldn’t find any because my kids’ Chinese level is not the same as other kids their age, so I have to create a new set of Chinese books for them and others who have just started learning Chinese.
Tip #3: Make Reading Chinese Fun
Your lessons will not go too badly if your kids are having fun learning. Even if you can/can’t read Chinese books to your children, you can still try to incorporate different activities to spice up their Chinese reading studies. For example:
- Make simple finger puppets /paper puppets of the main characters of the book
- Act out the story together
- Make crafts from the story
- Draw/paint pictures of your favorite scene
- Create costumes and dress up for the story time
- Invite your child to use different voices for each character in the story
- Make connections between the story and your child’s life
- Try different genres of books, so your child can have different reading experiences
- Print related-printable, such as coloring pages or worksheets, for your child to work on after reading
Tip #4: Help Our Kids to Create Positive Experiences
Having good memories of positive learning experiences can help get us through the “journey of learning Chinese”. There will always be a lot of ups and downs, and sometimes it may seem like it is full of failure, so having these positive experiences will come in handy to help encourage them to overcome other challenges.
- Provide level-appropriate reading materials, so your child will have fewer obstacles while learning to read Chinese
- Choose reading materials with a topic/theme that your child is familiar
- Make a cozy reading corner with pillows, blanket, Chinese decoration and books
- Know what your child is reading, and even read and learn the book with your child
- Ask questions often about the book that your child is reading, and praise them if they can answer correctly
- Identify the problems your child has while reading in Chinese (e.g. forget the meaning of the characters, didn’t have the common background with the book, couldn’t focus, not interested in the book’s topic, etc.), and try different methods to solve the problem
- Be patient because every child is different.
Do you have anything you would like to add to my lists?
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