Leveled reading is a literacy strategy that encourages children to read books that match their reading abilities. Also known as graded or guided readers, a leveled book series is organized by difficulty level. Chinese leveled readers begin with simple words and phrases and progress to sentences, paragraphs, and stories.
Over the past few years, my daughter and I have read numerous leveled Chinese books, and I plan to use many of these with my son. Leveled readers have been immensely helpful for teaching us how to read Chinese. Many parents have asked for advice on which books to get, and I think the answer depends on the family’s circumstances. I’ll try to be objective in this overview and point out which aspects reflect our personal experience.
Chinese Leveled Readers for Kids
This article focuses on:
- Benefits of Chinese leveled readers
- Features of Chinese leveled readers
- Table comparison of book-based Chinese leveled readers
- Photo comparison of Chinese leveled readers
- Questions to consider before buying leveled readers
- Our experience – learning Chinese with my daughter
1. Benefits of Chinese leveled readers
Leveled readers are effective in helping children and adults learn to read. The main benefits include:
- Confidence in the ability to read and understand most words on a page
- A gradient which provides a measure of assessing progress
2. Features of Chinese leveled readers
Chinese leveled readers differ from regular picture books, which all children should be enjoying with their parents. Leveled readers are designed specifically to target a goal number of Chinese characters by providing the following features:
- Font: Large and standard KaiTi font for beginner readers; smaller at higher levels
- Layout: Beginner readers should have comfortable spacing between words and sentences on plain white background, separated from images. Complex books will have less images, and sentences may begin in the middle of lines or extend to the next page.
- Length: Single line per page and progressively increase to multiple lines of text per page to prepare a child for early chapter books.
- Vocabulary: High-frequency words and phrases with repetition which progress to sentences with proper Chinese grammar and common idioms. Organized leveled readers generally have a goal of teaching a certain number of Chinese characters.
- Illustrations: Images provide context and can help a child decode and understand new Chinese characters. Advanced books will have less image support and require more decoding from text.
- Content: Beginner books have relatable, common topics with simple plots. Eventually, stories will have plots with a beginning, middle and end and require more interpretation.
- Audio: Some leveled readers include word-for-word, sentence, and/or story narration through mp3, CDs, or reading pen.
3. Table comparison of book-based Chinese leveled readers
Although our family has numerous Chinese leveled reading sets, I will highlight the 5 series that have been most beneficial to our family and others. These book-based series require a range from some Chinese proficiency to native fluency.
Pros and cons are from our perspective as second language learners.
I have excluded other Chinese readers, such as Shapes, Taoshu, Chinese Library Series which lack Chinese character count goals. However, these books have relatively large font and are great for reading practice.
4. Photos of Chinese leveled readers
Here are photos of the aforementioned Chinese leveled readers. With the exception of Le Le Chinese reading pen in traditional Chinese, all of our readers are in simplified Chinese. Please look carefully at the layout, content, illustrations, and other features to see which would best suit your family’s needs.
In these photos, you’ll see that Sagebooks and Greenfield teach children to read sentences, 四五快读 and Odonata teach children to read progressively longer narratives, and Le Le falls between these two groups for final difficulty level.
***Note: detailed reviews of each leveled reading series can be found in this link.
Photos of the first level of each Chinese graded reader
First book of Sagebooks (top) versus Odonata (bottom): Both begin with single characters and end with simple, repetitive phrases. Sagebooks introduces stroke order through a large block font and square grid (my daughter loved tracing these with her index finger). Odonata shows stroke order steps in small font at the bottom of the page. In Sagebooks, Pinyin and English are provided for all characters, while Pinyin is used only for new characters in the Odonata series.
First booklets of Le Le Chinese Series (top) versus Greenfield (bottom): Both have realistic pencil illustrations (slightly more detailed and clear in Greenfield) and introduce several characters per story. Greenfield books include tear-out flashcards.
First and last lessons in 四五快读 Book 1: Several characters are introduced simultaneously with more than one line per page. Sentences overflow into subsequent lines.
Photos of the most advanced level of each Chinese graded reader
Last lesson in the last book of the Sagebooks series: Sagebooks consistently teaches 1 character per lesson with spaced repetition. At the end of the series, the child should know approximately 500 characters and read 1 sentence per page.
Last book of the Le Le Chinese readers (top 2) versus Greenfield (bottom): When a child reaches the green (advanced) level of the Le Le series, he or she should be able to read approximately 1000 characters. Sentences are long and in paragraph form (3-5 lines of text). When a child completes the Greenfield series, he or she will know about 840 characters and comfortably read 2 lines of text per page.
Last book of 四五快读 (top) and Odonata (bottom): 四五快读 teaches 825 characters while Odonata teaches 1200 characters. Both of these books prepare children to read long picture books and early chapter books.
5. Questions to consider before buying leveled readers
- What is your family’s budget?
- Chinese learning is an expensive endeavor; Sagebooks, Le Le, and Greenfield cost several hundred dollars.
- Odonata and 四五快读 are among the least expensive options.
- Who will be reading with the child? What is the fluency level of the caregiver/teacher?
- Sagebooks is helpful for non-fluent families due to the English translations and consistent Pinyin support.
- Le Le’s reading pen is the best audio option and a must-have for non-fluent families.
- Audio options are less important if the parent is fluent and can help the child with any questions.
- Which Chinese language is your child learning?
- Does your family speak Mandarin and/or Cantonese? If both, the Greenfield series would be a fantastic option since narration of both languages are included in the CD.
- Does your family read simplified and/or traditional Chinese? Odonata and 四五快读 are the least expensive options.
- What other books do you have at home?
- Do you have other simple books at home that can provide adequate reading practice? Do you have time or skills to make your own personal books for reading practice? Can you child read any of them independently?
- Consider your current options before investing in more leveled readers.
- Can your child read other languages?
- If your child has learned to read another language, consider their strengths and weaknesses during that process, what types of books they were drawn to, and how much practice they needed before advancing to higher levels.
Please note that it is not necessary to have all of these leveled readers, especially if you are fluent family. As with anything, some children will need more practice than others depending on their speaking fluency, comprehension skills, and caregiver support. No “one-size-fits-all” approach exists.
6. Our experience with Chinese leveled readers
I began to learn Chinese with my daughter when she was 2 years old. By the time she was 3, we progressed to limited spoken proficiency in Mandarin, and she knew approximately 100 Chinese characters. At that time, we began to use Chinese leveled readers to learn Chinese characters. The following is the order in which we used leveled readers. Parentheses indicate my daughter’s age to give context for our timeline, but everybody’s personal timeline will be different. Between these books, we also read various picture books and bridge books.
- 基础汉字 Sagebooks 500 – simplified Chinese with Pinyin (age 3)
- 我自己会读 Greenfield – simplified Chinese with Pinyin (age 3)
- 四五快读 4, 5, Quick Read – simplified Chinese (age 4)
- 学前阅读计划 Odonata – simplified Chinese (age 4)
- 樂樂文化 Le Le Chinese Reading Pen – traditional Chinese (age 5)
For all of the details about how I taught my daughter to read Chinese, please refer to this post: How I Taught My Child 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Speaker. In brief, my daughter had known 100+ Chinese characters prior to starting Sagebooks, and she was therefore very confident about persevering through these books. I’m glad that we started with Sagebooks, because due to my limited proficiency at that time, I needed both the English and Pinyin in order to teach and learn with my daughter. We also appreciated the one lesson per character approach. My daughter enjoyed tracing the stroke order character at the start of the lesson, and she liked checking the table of contents to see how many words she could remember.
Through all of the leveled readers, I continued to teach her characters “outside the book” through various games and activities. With other leveled readers, we started at the beginning of each series, and she enjoyed breezing through familiar characters of the beginner books.
Pros and cons of Pinyin and English for second language learners
With all of these leveled readers, my daughter had learned 1000+ Chinese characters without phonetic support (Pinyin/Zhuyin). On the other hand, I learned to read Pinyin before starting these series.
Pinyin gave me the chance to “read” Chinese characters to my daughter while she memorized each character. The English translations in Sagebooks was a scaffold for understanding the Chinese characters. Unfortunately, because of the presence of Pinyin in Sagebooks and Greenfield, I struggled to memorize Chinese characters while my daughter became hundreds of characters more advanced than me. To quote Mandarin Companion:
The alphabet-loving-eyes are naturally pulled away from the characters towards the pinyin. After all, it’s an order of magnitude easier to read than characters, even if we know the characters! Even if the reader covers up the pinyin, he inevitably uncovers it to “check” or confirm what he read is correct.
By the time we got to 四五快读, my daughter was flying through the first couple of books. Since there is no pinyin in the reading passages in this series, the discrepancy between our reading skills was greatly apparent. My daughter was constantly reminding me about new characters that we looked up in the dictionary.
Currently, she is resistant to learning Pinyin/Zhuyin which is important for facilitating independent reading, but I plan to teach her soon. Those who can read Pinyin/Zhuyin may not need additional leveled readers if the child can read interesting picture books with phonetic support. However, leveled readers are great practice for reading characters without phonetic support.
Access to native Chinese narration is necessary for non-native families like ours. We were grateful for the Greenfield CDs, and listening while reading boosted my daughter’s Chinese oral, auditory, and literary skills. However, the clear winner is the Le Le reading pen. Immediate word-for-word narration is unbeatable in terms of efficiency and efficacy of learning new vocabulary. If we had the Le Le series earlier, I probably would not have purchased the Greenfield set. The reading pen makes it easier to learn the common Chinese characters without the distraction of Pinyin/Zhuyin.
Transition to bridge books
四五快读 and Odonata are the two best options for preparing children for early chapter (bridge) books. Both of their curriculum are fairly comprehensive and inexpensive, and for some families, these are the only leveled readers that are needed. You can purchase the levels separately for your family’s reading needs.
While we loved 四五快读, we could not have started with these books because my Chinese was so poor at that time. This curriculum has no English translations and audio. Many other parents have noted that 四五快读 has too many words per page for new learners. Therefore, this set appears to a useful follow-up to other leveled series. However, due to the low cost, it is worth getting to see if your child is interested these books. Although the books are only available in simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese learners can find a printable translation of some of the 四五快读 lessons in this post.
In hindsight, we probably didn’t need to get the Odonata series since my daughter was reading picture books and bridge books comfortably at the time. However, it was nice to know that my daughter learned almost 1200 characters. In addition, I know many parents prefer this series over Sagebooks and 四五快读 and use this as the sole reading curriculum. Due to the relatively low cost, I think this is an important consideration for families who want to avoid getting multiple leveled readers.
Overall, I’m very grateful for the resources that we have, and the only thing I wish I did differently was introduce each leveled reader back-to-back between ages 3 and 4. During month-long breaks between leveled readers, I felt like I was constantly searching for the right level books for my daughter. She was also very motivated to complete book sets, so our timeline could have been condensed to less than 1.5 years if I had all of these materials from the start.
I also want to point out that if you already have the Greenfield series, you probably don’t need Le Le series unless your child needs more reading practice at that level and vice versa. I ordered the Le Le series because we started to learn traditional Chinese and didn’t have any leveled readers in this script. The reading pen is also extremely helpful for improving our pronunciation, and if this existed years ago, perhaps we would not have needed so many other leveled readers!
Lastly, for families with budget constraints, you may consider buying 四五快读 or Odonata readers which are the least expensive and most comprehensive. If it goes well for your child, perhaps you can save money and not have to buy other readers!
Anticipated teaching plan for my younger child
My son is only 2 years old, but when he’s ready, I plan on teaching him Chinese characters in the same approach as my daughter. I’m very proud of how my daughter learned to read, though of course, every child is different. So far he knows a handful of Chinese characters, but I am currently just reading the Le Le books for fun while he enjoys the illustrations. Time will tell what his course will be like, and I will keep you all posted!
More information about leveled readers
In summary, leveled readers are extremely helpful for building Chinese literacy. Our children’s generation is lucky to have many options for Chinese reading practice! Keep in mind that the optimal set will vary depending on the child and family, and some children will need more reading practice than others. For more information on each leveled reading series and where to buy them, please refer to these detailed reviews.
Feel free to leave a comment with any concerns or thoughts about your family’s language journey, and I’ll try my best to find a solution for you. In the meantime, I hope the following articles can be helpful!
Advice on how to teach kids Chinese
- Tips on creating a Chinese learning environment at home
- Teach Your Child a Second Language at Home with 5 Key Steps
- Raising Multilingual Children as a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned in 2018
- How To Get Your Child To Speak the Minority Language
- Encourage A Child to Love and Speak the Minority Language with 5 Strategies
- How to Find a Foreign Language Teacher for Your Child
- 5 Reasons Books are the Best Gifts for Multilingual Kids
- Teaching kids how to read Chinese