Learning to Read Mandarin Chinese | A Powerful Strategy for Newbies


Love it or hate it, reading is something you’re going to have to do a lot of if you want to attain a high level of proficiency in a language.

As a newbie, this might seem like a mammoth task, especially when it comes to Mandarin Chinese.

HOW on EARTH am I going to learn how to read all of these characters!?

The good news is, it isn’t as hard as you think.

Really, it isn’t.

I mean, it’s obviously going to take you some time before you can read and understand Tang Dynasty poetry.

However, as a total newbie to Mandarin Chinese, there are a few steps you can take to get yourself reading texts in a much shorter timeframe than you initially thought.

As a total newbie to Mandarin Chinese, your goal is to learn a solid foundation of a few hundred characters and words as quickly as possible in order to read basic texts extensively. This might seem obvious, but extensive reading is the most useful strategy to improve your reading skills. You can start extensive reading with only 100-200 characters and words under your belt.

Let’s jump straight into some actionable steps.

Get Acquainted with Study Apps

Most commonly in the modern age, newbie language learners tend to get started with apps. Apps are easy to use, addictive, free (or very cheap), and are a minimal commitment way to try out a new language.

Although it must be said that are a lot of bad language learning apps out there, some language learning apps are pretty darn good, and there are some excellent ones for learning how to read.

I go into much more detail on the 21 best apps for learning Mandarin here.

In the beginning, it’s important to feed your curiosity and play around with a few learning apps.

But if you feel you’d genuinely like to give this learning Mandarin thing a real shot, you’ve got to get strategic with apps you’re using. Although you can potentially learn a lot from apps alone, I wouldn’t recommend having them as you’re only learning resource.

SRS (Spaced Repetition Software) Flashcard Apps

I’ve recently written an article on why I think flashcard apps aren’t the best study resource for intermediate language learners and above. You can find that article here.

However, for total newbies, when it comes to getting started with basic characters and words, flashcard apps are a good choice.

SRS flashcard apps will help you build a collection of basic characters and words very quickly. They’re not a good long term study strategy in my opinion, but we don’t need to worry about that yet. We’re talking about learning to read simple texts as quickly as possible.

Anki – Probably the most popular and widely used flashcard app out there. There are a lot of customisation options on cards and there are so many beginner learning decks you can download from ankiweb.

Pleco – A superb multi-function app for Mandarin and Japanese learners that is perhaps best known for it’s dictionary. There are many other add-ons and functions in Pleco, one of which being the flashcard function. The Pleco Basic Bundle is $30 and an excellent value purchase which includes the flashcard function.

Pleco Flashcard Function

Hack Chinese – Although not an app (yet), this site is probably the best SRS flashcard service for Mandarin learners. Anki may have a lot of customisation options on cards, but Hack Chinese has a crazy amount of useful study settings. A Hack Chinese subscription is more expensive than both Pleco and Anki, but it’s the cream of the flashcard crop.

Hack Chinese study session

Once you’re set up with your chosen flashcard app, you’ll need to select a good study deck, and your study deck should include language that comes from your textbook.

Textbook Strategy

Before you moan and groan at the very idea of a textbook, understand that textbooks are excellent reading resources for newbie language learners when used in the right way.

I’m not going to encourage reading a beginner level textbook and assuming you’re going to remember everything from flipping through it.

If you want to use textbooks properly, do this:

  • Select a good textbook, obviously – I’ve written an article for good textbooks for newbies which you can find here.
  • Find a corresponding flashcard word list – For example, if you decided to go with the HSK 1 textbook, I would get a flashcard deck that included the HSK 1 word list. Better yet, you can easily make your own tailored HSK word list in apps like Anki and Pleco, adding words to your deck as you move through the chapters of your textbook.
  • Read, listen, and shadow the text repeatedly – Yes, listening and shadowing will improve your reading skills as well. The listening and reading combination is powerful enough, but with shadowing thrown into the mix as well as the repetition, you are much more likely to remember new characters and words and absorb the natural flow of the language.
  • The 7 days rule – Spend 7 days working on one chapter of your textbook. That’s right. One whole week. Read, shadow, listen, and go through the flashcards as many times as you can. Complete the textbook exercises. Ingrain the language into your muscle memory before you move on. Naturally you’ll want to go faster, but if you do, you risk forgetting too much of what you’ve learned.

Graded Readers

Once you’ve acquired around 100-200 characters and words in Mandarin Chinese, you’re already at the level where you can start reading basic graded readers.

This is where you can start reading extensively, and in turn, begin the powerful snowball effect of reading progression.

I’ve made a video going into more detail about Mandarin graded readers which you can find below.

  • Mandarin Companion – Probably the best series to get started with. Books start from breakout level (150 characters) and go up from there.
  • Rainbow Bridge Reader – Loads of starter books for those at a HSK 1 level and up.
  • Chinese Breeze – A broad selection of stories starting at level 1 (300 Chinese words).
  • Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-Stories – Probably best for more advanced beginners. A collection of contemporary Chinese culture stories starting from 500-word vocab level.
  • Terry Waltz Stories – A solid collection of cute, funny little stories for beginner Mandarin learners.
  • Pleco – Remember the Pleco app I mentioned earlier? Inside the Pleco add-ons section you’ll find a huge collection of graded readers (some of which are mentioned above) that you’ll be able to read inside the app.

In fact, Pleco is such a magnificent reading tool for learning Mandarin Chinese I’ve made a dedicated video to it which you can check out below.

Graded Reader Apps

You may have seen at the beginning of this post a selection of recommended apps for newbie learners.

Featured in that list are two magnificent graded reader apps that are so good, I’ve even written a separate article on them which you can find here.

The two apps in question are The Chairman’s Bao and Du Chinese.

Now, why would you want to choose a graded reader app over a good old-fashioned, paper graded reader?

These two graded reader apps are like traditional graded readers on steroids.

There are a number of reasons these apps may be preferable to a graded reader book. I talk about these benefits in more detail in the above article, but below are the broad strokes.

  • With both The Chairman’s Bao and Du Chinese you can get instant definitions for words and characters in all articles
  • Both apps have a button that allows you to alternate between simplified and traditional characters
  • You can toggle pinyin on and off for every article
  • Level appropriate content for every HSK level
  • Audio transcripts for every article
  • Short, digestible reading content

If you prefer reading on your phone, then these two apps are excellent tools for you. Due to their similarities, I’d suggest only subscribing to one of them. By reading the article/watching the video above, you’ll be able to make a more informed choice as to which one is best for you.

Writing

Although learning to write Chinese characters by hand isn’t going to have a big impact on long-form reading skills, it can significantly improve your memorisation of characters and words.

Most foreign learners of Mandarin have one big issue when it comes to handwriting characters…

Learning the Chinese writing system is the most time intensive aspect of learning Mandarin Chinese, yet it provides the least practical reward.

Although myself and many other learners spend minimal time learning to write characters by hand, that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to doing so.

If you’re looking to delve deeper into the Chinese writing system, check out the following articles:

Reading strategy: putting it all together

So you’re starting to learn Mandarin Chinese as a total newbie. You want to learn to read longer, meaningful, interesting texts as quickly as possible. You also want to learn this skill without spending lots of money on a non-existent silver bullet writing strategy.

If the above description fits you rather well, then do the following:

STEP 1: Download and play around with one of the apps recommended in the first section of this post.

I know you don’t want to waste valuable time, but this is potentially a huge step/undertaking in your life. Enjoy getting to know the very basics of Mandarin in a fun and curious manner, and feed your excitement for a while before you get into a solid reading routine.

STEP 2: Purchase a beginner textbook and use an SRS flashcard app to learn new corresponding words and characters.

Adopt the textbook strategy outlined above. Initially, it will feel clunky and a bit headache-inducing to tackle reading and the repetition of language in this manner. However, I promise this an essential habit to form early on and you will thank me later. You can practice handwriting new characters if you feel like it.

STEP 3: When you have 200-300 words under your belt, purchase some graded readers.

Read every single level appropriate graded reader you can find, or as many as you can afford. Consider subscribing to a graded reader app like The Chairman’s Bao or Du Chinese. If you enjoy a particular story, there’s no harm in reading it 3 or 4 times. When it comes to reading, volume is key.

STEP 4: Level up.

Continue working through a textbook series you enjoy. Continue to consume graded readers as you move to higher levels of the language. Diversify learning methods when your instinct is telling you to do so, but remember to keep a regular reading schedule. It will take a long time before you can consume native level reading material, so keep that in mind.

STEP 5: Enjoy the fruits of your labour.

Congratulations, you have learned a few thousand characters and know around 10,000 words. You can now comfortably read some native level books, a list of which can be found here.

Summary

Just like every aspect of learning Mandarin Chinese, learning to read isn’t super complex. However, it does take sustained effort and practice over time to really see results.

Also, keep the following mind:

  • Learning to memorise characters and individual words isn’t the same as reading texts. There will be many times you can understand every word or character in a sentence but you don’t understand the meaning. That’s why context is essential.
  • Reading a lot of ‘easy’ material is better than reading a little bit of texts that are ‘too difficult’. Reading one page of text where you have to look up every other word isn’t reading. Reading a chapter of a graded reader where you understand most words is reading. You’ll get much more out of the latter activity than the former.
  • A text is too difficult if you understand fewer than 90% of the words in it. If this is the case, find easier texts to read or keep studying new words and characters until you can read it. If you try to read texts that are too hard, reading will be mentally draining and unenjoyable, and you won’t get anything from it.

Further Reading

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