This is a follow up post. As you may recall, I started teaching my daughter characters in July 2017, when she was four. Almost 1.5 years later, she and I are reading bridge books together. We are reading 1st grade level books, and our comprehension level is roughly that of a slightly behind Kindergartner. I have gotten a few questions about how I manage to teach my child while learning Chinese myself, so I decided to write a follow up post. Here, I will tell you what we do on a typical day, some reasons for my choices, as well as how I supplement my own learning. This may not work for everyone, but it’s working for us so far. Lastly, I provide a book list of the most critical books to our reading progress, roughly in order of difficulty.
If you are unfamiliar with my background, please check out my prior post. Member Post: How My Child and I Both Learned Chinese (Melissa C.) In short, I am a non-native, U.S. born person with native-speaking Chinese parents. Prior to having children, I could read practically zero Chinese and did not know zhu yin. I work full time and I have two young children. Here is how I do Chinese with my older daughter, age 5. First, I will give you some high level tips, then give a detailed description of our daily activities, followed by lists of our favorite books. Obviously, I cannot describe EVERY SINGLE thing I do with my daughter related to Chinese here. We do some things on an occasional basis, such as learn songs, poetry, or word searches. Maybe in the future, I will do a follow up post on those occasional activites. But this post is really about what we do—day-in, day-out—to build Chinese literacy. This is the absolute core of our learning strategy.
- Read every single day, no matter how short, no matter how unprepared you are. Read to your child, and have your child practice reading. Both are important. Aim for 25-30 minutes of reading practice, broken into increments if appropriate. Try for a minimum of 5 minutes of reading practice per day.
- Encourage your child to stretch herself or himself. Age 4-7 is a critical time for building good habits.
- Be sensitive to your child. Actively consider whether your reading time is too long or too short, or falls at a time when your child’s attention or energy is not suitable for reading. Learning Chinese is not easy. It requires daily work, which will not always be fun. But neither should it be miserable.
- Be sensitive and aware of yourself. Is your reading time stressing you out? Are you getting upset or short-tempered? Are you getting depressed? Doing something daily that makes you miserable is not a good long-term strategy. Figure out why you are stressed—perhaps your goals are too high, or your expectations are too high. Or perhaps you and your child are doing too much.
- Remember that multiple exposures to Chinese characters will reinforce and allow learning to grow exponentially. Characters for words they already know are learned much faster than wholly unfamiliar words. Therefore, invest significant time in building knowledge of vocabulary. This includes exposure and usage of idioms, harder phrases, specialized and formal vocabulary, and abstract concepts. It’s ok if they don’t get it the first, second, or third time you tell them. All these exposures are adding up in their brain. Have faith. Keep going. Don’t get hung up on what they don’t know or don’t understand.
- Celebrate your child and your own accomplishments. When possible, try to praise them in front of other people. Remember to praise not just what they achieve, but how well they put in the effort. From time to time, celebrate with high fives, a happy dance, a sticker chart, a sticker on their writing, a small gift, or a trip to the ice cream shop. Celebrate yourself, and allow yourself time to relax and recover. As a parent and teacher, your happiness is just as important to this process. Do not allow teaching to make you miserable. If teaching Chinese is making you miserable, change your teaching methods.
- Do not let one bad day or one bad week get you down. You will experience lots of peaks and valleys and lots and lots and lots of plateaus. For weeks at a time, it may seem like your child isn’t progressing at all. Have faith. Keep having them read, keep reading to them. All of these exposures are little investments. Little seeds you are planting in the ground that need to be watered daily, even if you can’t see growth. If your child is practicing reading between 5-30 minutes per day, every day, you will see progress on a quarterly basis. Do not get hung up on the in betweens. They will startle you with growth when it is least expected.
Ok, so that’s my advice. Here’s what we do on a daily basis to build that literacy!
Daily Reading and Supplements
Every day, my oldest daughter reads aloud for 15-25 minutes. She has a short attention span, so we split this up into 10 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes in the evening. This corresponds to roughly 10-12 pages of reading in the morning, 20-24 pages in the evening when I come home from work. We do this without fail. I think since we started learning characters a year and a half ago, we’ve only skipped reading for an entire day once or twice. The consistency helps us. I like routine, because it lets me move forward without having to think too much. We started off around 5 minutes in the morning, and 8-10 minutes in the evening. Basically, I take whatever time I think she will willingly give me, and add 2 minutes. If I think she can comfortably read 10 pages, I will ask her to read 11. I want to push her a little each day, but I don’t want to push too hard or be too inflexible. There are also days I see she is too tired or just not feeling it. On those days, maybe we’ll just read 2-3 pages in the morning, and in the afternoon, I’ll spend half our reading time taking turns reading the text to her.
Last year, we did not have an au pair, so it was 100% me, teaching reading. We had exposure to a native speaker once every two or three weeks, for 1-2 hours at a time. This school year, we have an au pair, who is with my older daughter for one hour after school, before I get home from work.
Last year, without the au pair, I generally chose 8-18 new words from the day’s expected readings. I would show these characters to my daughter before reading, explain any new vocabulary, we would do the day’s readings, and then I would show her the list again, reading each word aloud once.
Currently, my au pair reads a book of my daughter’s choice to her when she comes home from school, before I come home from work. I also pick about 4-8 words or phrases from the reading my daughter is about to do, and ask the au pair to explain those words, use it in a sentence, and have my daughter use a few in a sentence. By the time I come home and sit with my daughter to read, the hardest phrases are already a little familiar to her, so I don’t have to stop every page to explain new words. I sometimes ask her if she remembers what it means, and if not, I give her an explanation. So she has at least three sample sentences of that word in one day.
In the evenings before bedtime, I read a short picture book to her. Sometimes, if we have some time, I read two idiom explanations to her. These can be from a 1st grade textbook, where the phrasing is much more formal than we use at home, or I’ll just remind her of a couple idioms we learned this week. As for the textbook, she probably only understands about half of the formal explanation, so I also explain the idiom meaning in baby language. I certainly don’t do idiom review every night, just when the mood strikes me and she seems amenable.
Until recently, I used to do character flashcards about once every 2-4 weeks. I would pull out 15-25 of the characters we recently encountered in our readings. This was a mix of about 70% words she knew the meanings of, but didn’t know the character, and 30% new words. New words are so so so much harder to remember, so I didn’t want to overwhelm her with 100% new vocab, which would be too hard, but I also wanted to teach her new vocab, so I don’t want it to merely be new characters. I would also throw in a few words that she should vaguely know, just so the stack wasn’t too daunting. In addition, I’d write out an entire idiom on one flash card.
Now, my daughter reads bridge books very comfortably, and her character recognition is quite good, so we very rarely focus on learning characters. About once every 2-4 weeks, I’ll write 10-20 idioms and harder phrases we learned recently on a flashcard.
With the flashcards, the first time I show her, I just ask her to listen. I go through each of the flashcards. I might spread them out and ask her if she knows any by sight. Any she knows from memory, I throw into a used pile. I don’t necessarily go through these everyday. Just when I think she has the extra energy, or when we have extra time. I go through them and ask her what each character/idiom is, and if it’s a new vocab, ask her to use it in a phrase. If she doesn’t know it, I tell her what it is, shuffle back to the back of the deck. Any words she remembers get put in the used pile, so we don’t review those again. Depending on how abstract the new vocab is, it may take 2 days to a week and a half for her to remember the words. If she doesn’t remember, I just put it aside and come back to it after a week or so.
If she doesn’t feel like doing flashcards, I set them aside. We don’t need it. She gets exposure to words everyday. The flashcards are bonus. Plus, I don’t always have time to write the words on cards. As long as we keep up with our daily read alouds, it’s fine.
Some time in the next six months, we will begin transitioning to independent reading, and I will only sit with her and listen to her read aloud once or twice a week. Using this format, I would leave it up to my daughter to ask me questions about words or phrases she doesn’t recognize.
Everyday, my kiddo gets 5-6 words that she has to trace twice and write once, in perfect stroke order. Sometimes she also gets one short sentence she has to trace that reflects words she has already written before.
Everyday, I also write, because I have learned that that is how I can most effectively learn new characters. I have Chinese characters in lots of places—I have a few phrases on post-its tacked onto my monitor at work. I’ve had a few phrases posted for months, and I still can’t remember them because I never write them. I have learned that there is something about the process of writing that helps you remember. When I tried learning Chinese in college and grad school, I copied words like 10-20 times. I thought it would help me remember. My handwriting and stroke order intuition improved, but it didn’t help my character retention. What helps me most is handwriting new words twice, as I encounter them. And 1-2 times a week, I do writing practice, usually while I am waiting for my kids during some extra curricular class. This means, I take a book my kiddo and I are reading and I copy every single word that I don’t know how to write by memory, and write it as fast as I can for a 15-20 minutes period.
For younger children or children having trouble with pencil grip or stamina, have them simply do a few strokes, or you can make puzzles of words that they have to assemble. But for many kinder aged children, tracing large words should be no problem. We like words that are at least 1.5 inches, ideally with each stroke in a different color and the number at the start of each stroke.
Aim for Familiarity, Not Mastery
I have learned over the years that it is more effective for learning characters over the long term if you aim for familiarity rather than mastery. That is, if I write on average 10-30 unique characters a day, over time, I will learn more of those characters than if I just tried to memorize 5 characters a day. If you don’t remember a character, just move on. My goal in my personal writing practice is simply to write as many characters as I possibly can in as short a time as possible. I aim for volume, not perfection.
Some of you might think, I don’t need to write. I can skip it. Ok, skip it. But when I skipped writing, it didn’t matter how many flashcards or quizlets or pages in a book I read. Studies have shown that forcing your brain to process information and writing out digested information is much more conducive to learning than just passively taking in information. For me, speed writing is how I learn. And with characters my daughter has a hard time with, teaching her how to write it also helps her learn it. In my little universe, there is no substitute for writing as a tool for character memorization.
Similarly, I don’t get hung up on words or phrases my daughter forgets or can’t recognize. If we’ve studied something a few days in a row, or we’ve discussed something a few times already, just let it be. If she doesn’t fully comprehend, or if she doesn’t fully remember, it’s ok. She’ll encounter the same word or the same phrase somewhere else.
It’s important to not let learning be dreadful or boring. It’s not going to be super super fun, like having birthday parties every day. But it also shouldn’t be just mind-numbingly awful. If you keep learning this same things without moving on to new material, they won’t necessarily learn it, and they won’t be exposed to new things either. If you keep pressing forward, they’ll see it in another context, and that first initial contact will be triggered in their little brains. They might not remember it the second time, or the third time they see something, but all of those exposures are imprinting it in their little brains. Don’t worry. Think of it as a marathon or a long term investment. If you’re aiming to just get a high character count to brag to your friends, ok, get them to memorize x-amount of characters. But if you want the long term investment of fluency and literacy, don’t sweat the amount of characters they remember. Keep going. It will take longer to learn each new character, but you are also paving the way for learning other characters, and so as you progress, each character will become exponentially easier to learn, if you expose them to many—as opposed to just a few—characters a day. This is why daily reading time is essential.
Adult learning supplementation
Children’s brains are more receptive to language learning than adult brains. So I have to spend 2-4 times the amount of energy to learn what my kiddo learns. After the kids go to bed, I spend 15 minutes pre-reading what my kiddo will read the next day. I also spend 5-10 minutes at lunch reading as well. During the work week, almost any time I have spare time, I spend reviewing. When waiting in line to buy my lunch, I pull out my pleco and review idioms, new vocab, etc. I say phrases out loud. When I am driving to and from work, I listen to Chinese songs, audiobooks, or Chinese soap operas. My husband is already exposed to hours and hours a day of Chinese (of which he does not understand), so any adult TV time, we are watching English content. Out of respect for his boredom (and trust me, listening to a language you don’t understand for hours is really boring), I try to minimize his exposure to Chinese. So when it’s just me and him, there’s no Chinese media. When it’s all of us with the kids, I speak to the kids in Chinese. I also encourage the kids to tell daddy about their day during dinner time, so daddy doesn’t feel excluded. During the week, dinner is very important family time for us.
Reading levels, reading variety
It’s important to vary the difficulty of the material your child is exposed to, as well as the content adult learners are using too. Why? Because bridge books help with new vocab, grammar, complex sentence structure, and phrasing, but sometimes it’s a lot to take in. By alternating with something easy, your child (or you) can focus solely on the characters, or the one or two new words or phrases in the story. This is when your brain focuses on mastery, and not merely familiarity. At the same time, exposing your child (and you) to harder books or more formal content (such as textbooks or science books), introduces them to more formal language (such as “heat rising,” as opposed to merely “getting hotter”), or more technical language (like evaporation, static electricity, words related to astronomy, etc).
When someone first learns a character or phrase, it may take several seconds to recall the character. As the memory becomes stronger, your brain is able to recall this knowledge faster. So, if your child (or you) practices words they already know by reading easier picture books, they are still solidifying their knowledge of characters, vocabulary, and sentence structure, and it will help increase their reading speed and comprehension.
For example, we purchased the LeLe reading system, Chinese Teaching Systems: 樂樂文化 聽讀套書 Le Le Chinese 300 Books, 1000 Characters (Traditional & Simplified) which teaches 800+ words, when my daughter already knew over 1000 characters. She already knew between 80-85% of the words used in those books. But the books are really short, have a clever and sometimes surprising story line, and therefore my daughter really enjoyed reading them on her own. She could read 20 of these short books on a short car trip, and I would just keep feeding them to her in the back and take the ones she read and put them back in the little bag. In about 2-3 weeks, she finished all 300 books—all on her own time, not during our joint read-aloud time. After this period, I noticed a huge uptick in her reading speed, facility, and comfort.
Now when I pick up a familiar picture book, I notice that suddenly I understand more of the words than I did before, I can read faster, and I can focus more on the storyline instead of individual words or phrases. The same goes for my daughter. As her comprehension and memory increases, she has more of a stomach for more complex sentences, because she isn’t getting caught up on the meaning of a single word or phrase. When your brain is understanding all the words, it’s freed up and reading is more enjoyable.
Why am I learning with my daughter?
Honestly, I didn’t think I would still have to work this hard, after a year and a half. I thought if I could get my daughter to around 1000-1500 words, she could read on her own and her learning would be self-perpetuating. I also thought that having an au pair at home meant she could take over 100% of the teaching responsibilities. WRONG. Here’s why my kiddo still needs me:
- My kiddo wants to read with me. I am, afterall her mom. It’s natural that she wants to spend more time with me.
- My daughter is used to my teaching/reading style. We’ve been at this together for a year and a half. I’ve adjusted my methods to push her, but not too hard, and to be sensitive to her. I know when to cut our reading time a little short, or to give her a break by reading a sentence or two or more to her. I know when she is doing well and willing to read just a few more pages more than normal. We have a rhythm that we’ve developed over the past year and a half.
- There is no substitute for parental knowledge, since the au pair isn’t with the child 24/7. During evenings and weekends, if I can’t communicate with my child, she will revert to English. Also, there is so much time not covered by the au pair. As I have learned more idioms and more phrases, I naturally try to incorporate these into our conversations. I have noticed that if I can use an idiom or phrase 3 or 4 times over the course of a month, my daughter will remember it and use it properly in context. But if it’s just relying on reading or time with the au pair, it’s very hard for her to remember.
- We won’t have an au pair forever. In 1-2 years time, both of the kids will be in school, and an au pair won’t make fiscal sense. If in that time, I haven’t reached a competent level of Chinese, I won’t be able to maintain our conversations in Chinese, and kiddo will have no practice or very little exposure to progressively more difficult Chinese. Once her progress slacks, she will revert to English. I saw it with myself growing up, and as a result, my Chinese didn’t advance from age 4 to middle aged adulthood. So if I want my daughter to really have any progress and natural fluency in Chinese, it’s important for me to progress along with my daughter. Of course, I can’t keep this pace forever. I’ve made a lot of professional, financial, and personal sacrifices the past year and a half, and I can’t devote this same level of attention to Chinese for three years, but I do plan to read with her every day at bedtime, and I do plan to continue SOME level of progress.
In some ways, I’ve come further than I envisioned. I didn’t think I would know this many characters at this point in time, but it’s also so so so much harder than I envisioned. I thought if I knew 1000-1500 characters, I could understand a lot of written material and adult conversation. While my comprehension of soap operas has improved, I still don’t understand the customer communications books.com.tw sends me, and I still only understand maybe 40% of the evening news, so I don’t listen much to adult content. Unlike French, where there are so many cognates, especially at the higher level, the hard words in Chinese can’t be guessed. I studied French really really hard for a year and a half and worked in an office job for 2 months and lived with a host family. During that time, I was writing financial reports in French, I could understand the news, I could converse about politics and most topics. After 5 years of studying Chinese and 1.5 years of intensively learning characters, I still can’t talk the least bit about politics. It can sometimes be demoralizing/infuriating. Like sometimes, I just really really hate Chinese. And then I shrug and keep memorizing my idioms and writing my characters. What can you do? If I want my kiddo to learn, I think learning myself is the best way.
This isn’t to say that I sometimes simply don’t have time to prepare anything. When I am preparing for trial or writing a complicated brief, I may have an entire month where I can’t pre-read at all. Still, we do our morning reading time and our afternoon reading time, and that keeps us moving forward, even if it’s at a slower pace than before.
For financial reasons, we did not have an au pair for the 2017-2018 school year (from age 4 to age 5), and both kids attended full time English only daycare. Nevertheless, I was still hyper vigilant about Chinese usage. My daughter always spoke to me in Chinese, spoke to her sister in Chinese, and spoke to herself in Chinese. If I ever heard her speaking to herself in English, I knew it was time to get in some extra Chinese playtime. Soon enough, she was back to speaking only Chinese to me, her sister, and herself, and only speaking English with her father and her classmates. I think it’s important to police these borders. Once kids fall into the habit of speaking in English, because they don’t have the facility in Chinese, they lose that important practice time, and their cognitive habits are all in English. Even with me and my sister, we mainly spoke Chinese at home with our parents and to each other, but since we spoke all abstract and financial terms in English, as we grew older, the ratio of English injected into our conversations increased.
BE SENSITIVE, BUT BEAR IN MIND THAT YOUNG CHILDREN ARE NOT FULLY CAPABLE OF EXPRESSING THEIR FEELINGS
One time, last year, my daughter asked me why she had to read every day. The next day, she started crying, and she said (in Chinese), “I hate Chinese, I don’t want to read Chinese everyday. Do I have to read every day for the rest of my life?” I have to admit, I was pretty heartbroken. Was I being too hard? Was this too boring? Was I going to have to sacrifice a happy childhood or a happy relationship to get her to be literate?
But then, I took a deep breath. I thought that maybe we just needed a break. Maybe the material was too hard. So even though we hadn’t finished our book, I put it aside. I pulled out a ciao hu book intended for 1.5 year olds. It had no zhu yin, and was just about cooking. I printed the new words for her on a sheet, and read them to myself while she was playing with some toys. She got curious and asked me what the words were. I read them to her, and she saw the ciao hu book. We read half the book together. The next day, I re-read her the words on the sheet, and we finished the picture book together. She loved it so much, she kept reading that book on her own, in her spare time. And after that, we went back to the series we had been reading. Happily, with no tears and no complaints. I was fearful we would have to take an indefinite break from reading, or break for a few months. But it turned out, simply reading easier, more engaging content for a few days was all we needed.
This is why it’s important not to freak out if you or your child are having a rough day or week. What she said to me was she hated Chinese. But what she meant was “this book is too hard, and I am getting tired from reading hard material.” So if your child says they hate Chinese, or they hate reading, don’t ignore it, but don’t despair. Try to figure out what is the actual problem. If they need a break, give them an easy day or two where they are just reading a few minutes.
CELEBRATE YOUR CHILD’s (and your own) SUCCESSES
Remember that we are human. We want validation. We want a feeling of accomplishment. When you have finished a book set, or when your child remembers how to write a character, or whatever, make sure to remind them how great it is, how their work is paying off, and how proud you are of them.
DON’T MAKE IT MISERABLE
Remember that learning Chinese will take several years, at a minimum, and that is a long, hard road. It does no one any good if you or your child burns out. Make sure your workload is manageable and will not overwhelm you. Make sure your child is not overwhelmed and does not feel pressure or stress from daily learning time. This is absolutely critical to long term success. If your child only has negative associations with Chinese, not only will this impair Chinese progress, you child will be deeply unhappy. There is no need for this to occur. If something isn’t working, do not keep pressing on in vain. Do not blame your child if it isn’t working. Find a different book, find a different method, find a different time of day.
Lastly, several people have asked about what we do besides Chinese. My daughter attends full-time public school kindergarten; they let out at 4pm, so we have a very narrow window for her to do anything before she gets tired. On a daily basis (including weekends), my 5.5 year old daughter does about 5-8 minutes of math, 8-12 minutes of English reading (after dinner), a few minutes of wheelbarrow races or other relay races, and on very rare good days, a few minutes on how to read music (also after dinner). On weekends, we have 3 activities: swim, ballet, and French. One or two times a week, I also read French books to them.
Here are some of the most valuable or memorable books we have read. This list is by no means exhaustive. We have read other books not on this list. But these books are the ones that most advanced our progress, ranked roughly in order of difficulty. Books with an asterisk are my kid’s favorites.
Greenfield I Can Read Rainbow Series
*Elephant and Piggie
Reading Stories Backpack
*Travelling Penguins, Chickens, Cat Army
*Kinder Collection Bridge Books
Pink Good Character Collection
Blue Good Character Collection
1個變100個, 巧克力貓書店 and others from that series
Little Soldiers 小小兵
*Lele Reading System
Something About Vicky
脫不下來, and all his other books
All the books written by Lai Ma
*Little Fava Bean
3 Mouse Brothers
*Charlie and Lola
*CEO Picture Book Collection
Happy Reading 123
FUN Happy Reading
*Harry the Dog
Magic School 無奇不有
*Little Miss and Mr. Men
Princess in Black
Books that my younger daughter enjoys hearing, age 2-3
Something About Vicky
Ban Ban the Caterpillar
Who pooped on my head?
3 minute bedside stories
Snoring Monster 呼嚕呼嚕獸
皮皮與波西 (Pip and Posy, bilingual books)
Kinder Collection Bridge Books
Mom disappeared 媽媽不見了
Charlie and Lola
Lele Reading System
Travelling Penguins, Chickens, Cat Army
Little Fava Bean
One response to “Member Post: Non-Native Mom’s Second Year Chinese Journey (5.5 Yr Old Reads Beyond Native Level) by Melissa C.”
This is incredible. Thanks for your blog and for all the details–both inspiring and encouraging! Jia You!