The importance of reading for learning Chinese

As parents, we instinctively know the importance of reading in second language acquisition. Unfortunately, it’s also not that simple to get students to read Chinese stories. In this article, we explore the importance of reading, reasons why many children dislike reading Chinese, and reading strategies you can implement immediately.

INCIDENTAL LEARNING FROM READING IS KEY TO GAINING VOCABULARY

Reading is extremely important in learning, and this is backed by research that shows that children can increase their vocabulary substantially through incidental learning, where students encounter new words from reading, even when they do not receive explicit explanation of these new words

When we read and encounter new words, we are able to contextualise and eventually learn these words even without a teacher or consulting a dictionary. In fact, UIUC’s Center for the Study of Reading found “incidental learning from context during free reading is the major mode of vocabulary acquisition during the school years.”

Chinese storybooks is a great way to expose our children to new words and language patterns in a natural and relatable way, rather than only relying on the traditional approach of force-feeding good words (好词佳句).

READING TRIGGERS THE RETRIEVAL EFFECT

While most people assume learning occurs when we study and memorise new content, many studies have shown better results when we are instead tested or are required to “retrieve” the material learnt. In particular, the act of retrieving information from memory helps strengthen the concept or word being retrieved.

💡Pro Tip: the process of reading naturally triggers the retrieval effect as we recall the meanings of the Chinese characters, and serves as vocabulary revision

To many students, vocabulary revision via reading is more organic and pleasurable vs word drills or flash cards, especially if the content is selected correctly (more on this later in the post).

SO WHY DO STUDENTS DISLIKE READING CHINESE?

Despite the benefits of reading, many parents struggle with getting their students to read.

A common story I hear from parents is that they will bring their children to the local library, and tell them to select a few Chinese stories to borrow. Yet half an hour later, their children will report back with a bag full of English stories and zero Chinese storybooks.

ARE ENGLISH BOOKS JUST MORE ENGAGING THAN CHINESE BOOKS?

Yes and no. The problem is there’s often a big gap between what your child finds interesting and what he can read in Chinese.

Most of the Chinese storybooks you buy in Singapore are actually originally meant for much younger children in China since there’s obviously a huge gap between what an 8 year old Singaporean child can read in Chinese vs a child of the same age from China.

If Chinese book you purchased for your 8 year old was originally meant for a preschooler in China, is it surprising if your child finds it boring? Especially when compared to the English books he or she is reading like Geronimo Stilton or even Harry Potter?

The reverse is also true: at 8 years old, my Taiwanese wife was reading Wuxia novels (金庸小说) in Chinese and Three Little Pigs in English. No prizes for guessing which she preferred.

READING IN A SECOND LANGUAGE CAN BE FRUSTRATING

Reading in a second language requires more effort – we are more likely to come across new words or characters we have forgotten.

Earlier, we talked about the usefulness of incidental reading and retrieval effect in strengthening our vocabulary. However, searching through our memory is also tiring – it might be good for you, but it doesn’t mean it is easy.

It’s human nature to avoid hard things – when given a choice, since reading english books are both more enjoyable and less frustrating, is it any surprise that students gravitate away from it?

STRATEGY 1: FIND CONTENT THAT IS ONLY AVAILABLE IN CHINESE

Sometimes, the best way to “force” us to do something is when there’s no alternative. Find books that are genuinely exciting and meaningful to kids that are only available in Chinese. For instance, many of our students enjoy reading Monkey God stories (TMall, Amazon), and since they are not available in English, it’s a great way to get students to read Chinese. For older kids, Chinese Manga is another useful source of unique material and there is plenty of free content on any of the popular Chinese manga websites.

💡Pro Tip: we avoid buying Chinese storybooks from Singapore – buying directly from TMall or other Chinese retailers is both much cheaper and allows for substantially more choice.

It doesn’t have to be only books – any sort of content that is only available in Chinese is a great way to increase exposure. A friend of mine sets the language settings of his Nintendo Switch to Chinese, so if his kids want to play games* like Breath of the Wild, it has to be in Chinese.

Playing games in Chinese forces us to read in Chinese

STRATEGY 2: UTILISE TECHNOLOGY TO MAKE READING EASIER

As we mentioned above, part of the problem is many of the storybooks available in Singapore weren’t written specially for second language learners but for native speakers. One solution is to look for content that is more complex and engaging to kids, but utilise animation and read-aloud to help our children understand the material.

Even if our children don’t fully understand the content initially, the animation and read-aloud help our children comprehend the meaning and support the text. Over time, our children will naturally absorb the words and improve their vocabulary.

KidStartNow has developed over 100 animated books targeting children between 3-8 years old, each with read-aloud, animation and vocabulary quizzes that help students learn through reading. 
Importantly, these stories are written specifically for Singaporean students, and incorporate words taken from the primary school syllabus.

We provide a free 7-day trial, and click here for more information.

Our reading portal combines stories with animaation, read-aloud, and vocabulary quizzes

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