Top Tips for Teaching Chinese from Teacher and Author Cathy Ju Yao

I’m honored to host an interview with Cathy Ju Yao, Chinese teacher and author of Le Le Chinese Readers and Greenfield I Can Read Series! If you are teaching Chinese to children, you will be delighted to know that her story books are available in simplified and traditional Chinese characters. Her books have been an important part of our family’s Chinese learning journey!

Cathy Ju Yao has over 20 years of experience teaching Chinese to children of various language backgrounds. She holds degrees from Taiwan Tunghai University, McMaster University in Canada, and the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

With her extensive experience, she founded Le LE Culture Co. Ltd. She is passionate about sharing effective tips to help children to learn and enjoy Chinese reading!

In this post, she explains her inspiration for creating Chinese leveled readers that can be used to teach Chinese at home or at school.

Try this: 有道 Youdao Dictionary Reading Translation Pen for Chinese-English Learners

Top Tips for Teaching Chinese from Teacher and Author Cathy Ju Yao
Teacher and Author Cathy Ju Yao

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Where are you from and what languages do you speak?

I was born and grew up in Taiwan until I was 23 to go abroad. Mandarin is my mother tongue. I consider English my second language.

When you were teaching Chinese to children, what were the greatest challenges that students experienced?

Thirty years ago, when I first started teaching Chinese to children, I was highly disappointed to find that they were unable to read any story books on their own, even after having spent much time and effort in learning to recognize and write individual Chinese characters.

After learning Chinese at school on a daily basis for about a year, most children are able to achieve the target of recognizing and writing about 200-300 Chinese characters. Despite this, they are not equipped with enough knowledge of Chinese characters. They cannot enjoy reading simple story books on their own.

After much reflection, I came to the conclusion that the method for teaching Chinese so far was not very effective.

For anyone beginning to learn Chinese, an essential first step is separating the ability to recognize and write Chinese.

This doesn’t mean that Chinese character writing is less important. It just implies that writing and practicing to retain characters is very time consuming.

Time spent on writing competes with reading time, interest in learning Chinese characters, as well as a big chunk of their precious “play time.” This is especially true given as they are still developing hand-eye coordination.

I suggest that we instead focus on developing Chinese reading skills to enjoy books. We can leave Chinese character writing practice for a more mature stage.

Greenfield Leveled Readers – available in simplified and traditional Chinese

What inspired you to become a children’s book author?

I’ve always believed in “literacy through literature.” My intention is to help children learn Chinese in a more relaxed, comfortable, and interesting way.

My inspiration to write Chinese beginner picture books came when I was unable to find appropriate story books emphasising reading.

Although there is a huge variety of colourful, local and translated Chinese picture story books on the market, children depended on adults to read them.

Tell us about Greenfield and Le Le Chinese Readers.  What is the goal of each these series?

The goals of Greenfield and Le Le series are more or less the same. The purpose is to attract the child’s attention by looking at relevant colorful illustrations and having proper association with Chinese characters.

However, children tend to memorize the text on each page once they are familiar with “fewer” readers (such as Greenfield series) instead of “reading” the text.

Read this: 5 Basic Tips for Memorizing Chinese Characters

Therefore, I thought more story books will make it difficult to remember each story’s text.

The 300 readers in the Le Le Reading system enabled me to put/apply more individual characters in different contexts to develop reading comprehension and reading skills.

Children can use our audio pen to hear individual characters and the entire text on a given page.

Le Le Chinese Red Level Beginner Readers – Available in Simplified and Traditional Chinese

For parents and teachers who are only able to get one set of Chinese graded readers, which series do you recommend?

Le Le Reading System targets 1000 Chinese characters via 300 booklets versus several hundred characters via less amount of books.

The more Chinese characters children are equipped with, the easier it will be to advance their reading.

In addition, the more books children read, the better they will develop their reading skills.

I have to emphasize that reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game. The more books they read on their own, the more opportunities they contribute to their own literacy development.

What are your top tips for parents who are trying to raise bilingual and multilingual children?

Well, my personal experiences tell me that adults around the children, like parents, grandparents, nannies etc., should stick to one language only when they communicate with the children.

I prefer parents to set the top priority on developing reading ability. Relatively speaking, oral language is not so hard to learn.

Try this: 20+ Ways to Get Your Kids to Speak Chinese

Once you are in the targeted language environment, you will learn it. However, Chinese reading and writing is much harder.

With new technology, writing is becoming easier. Now we can write with a computer via pinyin input (or any other phonetic system) instead of handwriting. Nevertheless, reading is still a very demanding and challenging job.

Children need to devote a long time of nonstop effort (I would say about 10 years minimum) to develop and maintain their literacy. 

To learn more about Le Le Chinese Readers and Greenfield I Can Read Series, please refer to our detailed comparison of popular Chinese graded readers for children.

Many thanks to Cathy Ju Yao for sharing her insights and motivation for teaching Chinese to children!

Where to buy the Le Le Chinese Pen System

Use coupon code CHALKACADEMY (no space) for 5% off your order!

More Tips for Teaching Chinese to Children

What challenges have you faced with teaching your child Chinese? What tips do you have to share?

Comment below this article and share a language teaching tip and/or challenge that you hope to overcome!

Happy learning, friends!

40 Comments

  1. I hope to overcome my own limitations with Chinese on the reading/writing aspects. I am currently gearing up to figure out zhuyin to give my kids a better chance at acquiring the language. Thank you for all the resources on your site!

  2. The challenge for us is my chinese is not fluent and I lack vocabulary. I hope that I can keep up with my daughter’s learning so that I can help support her. Our tip is to start speaking chinese to your child as early as possible and read to them everyday!

  3. Speak with kids in Chinese, Reading with kids Chinese books daily, sick Chinese words around the house! It does help!

  4. In order to overcome challenges of learning Chinese, Here is my practice & tips –

    – Speak and Read Chinese books with kids everyday ( at least 30 mins daily).

    – Instead of letting kids play mindless games, I give my kids about 15 mins daily to use iHuman Chinese learning application.

    – Always creat new Montessori way of teaching every week to make them more fun and excited.

    – Have Chinese Home Library which put books within kids reach so that they can safely select their favourite books anytime.

    Thank you for organising this give away & sharing us with wonderful resources on your page .

    1. Biggest challenge is motivating the children to speak more Chinese at home. They do say it during play but not as much. And the way the words are formed can be complicated for traditional Chinese

  5. My biggest challenge in getting my kids to learn Chinese is my own lack of fluency in Chinese. This year I started to take regular classroom lessons with them on the weekend – they are in senior kindergarten and grade 1… I am in grade 4!

  6. We just relocated to South America…SO I’m not only hoping that my kids won’t forget all of their Chinese that I have painstakingly taught them since their birth (4 kids ages 8, 6, 4, 2)—I’m pushing for vocabulary building and literacy. I need this. My kids need this. I’m so thankful for blogs like yours that have been such amazing resources for second generation Chinese speaking moms like me.

  7. My challenge is being consistent in speaking and also reading Chinese daily to the kids amidst hectic schedules! Chalk academy has been such an inspiration to me! My hubby is the lead preschool guide at actonkl.org (an Acton Academy in Malaysia) and we are drawing much of your montessori resources and experiences all because it aims to be child led. Thanks a millions!! Le le has been on my wish list!

  8. The biggest challenge for me is that while Chinese is one of our home languages (and the first language my children learned as babies) it is very hard to retain as we live in an English dominant environment. I have to actively seek out teaching methods that make using chinese interesting for my kids, as well as effectively uses the time and attention span they have to learn. We also have very different learning goals than what traditional Chinese teaching methods assume. Thanks for this post and the resources!

  9. Our challenge is to find balance for both Chinese learning and storybooks reading together. Ever since we started word recognitions, I feel like we had much less time to read books together. Because I wanted my kids to learn word recognition EVERYDAY to make it a habit. Whenever schedule is tight, we have to sacrifice story reading time. Although learning words is important, I still think reading storybooks is essential for them to enjoy mandarin. Still working on it.

    1. One challenge I am facing stems from the cultural differences when expressing emotions in Chinese vs English. I find it difficult to keep speaking Chinese (Cantonese) to my toddler when talking about feelings or disciplining, especially because phrases like “I’m proud of you” aren’t often said aloud directly in modern day Chinese.

  10. My biggest challenge is a lack of confidence in speaking Chinese which limits my ability and frequency of speaking Chinese with my child. I am trying to learn and study more on my own to gain more confidence and hopefully show my child that it’s okay to be learning and making mistakes along the way.

  11. My challenge to teach my kid Chinese is to build up her vocabulary from 500-1000 words. I am now trying to get some easy books/readers that can help her to be more familiar with these sight words. I hope to have this set because it looks like what I need as a useful tool.

  12. My husband and I speak English to each other (even though we both grew up in Mandarin speaking families), so my biggest challenge in teaching our toddler Chinese is remembering to model Chinese conversations in front of her!

  13. My tip is to require them to watch cartoons in mandarin if they want TV time. That way, it lessens the guilt of putting them in front of a screen and hopefully they’ll get some chinese out of it.

  14. My challenge of teaching my kids Chinese is to keep them interested in learning Chinese. Compare to English, Chinese is way harder to learn to read and once they started reading English, it’s very difficult to push them to read more Chinese. I have tried many different ways to keep her engaged. I am also struggling on how much should I push them. By the end of day, I don’t really want them to hate Chinese…

  15. My challenge is that Cantonese is my native dialect but my son and daughter-in-law would like me to teach my grandson Mandarin. I am practicing my Mandarin tones with help from friends from Taiwan and China and also reading children’s books that I have found on your blog. I’m also trying to listen to the Mandarin Bible on audio with the script in front of me, starting with Genesis. I hope to be able to teach my grandson some simple Bible verses in Mandarin, such as Genesis 1:1, John 1:1 and John 3:16. He’s not yet three so I have a bit of time. I really appreciate all the wonderful resources you have shared with us. Thank you, Betty! Your children are very blessed to have you as their mother and teacher.

    1. Grateful for your kind words, Shan! I’m inspired that you are learning the bible in Mandarin! I hope to be able to read the bible in Chinese someday, or at least a few verses. I hope that you will be able to share your native Cantonese with your grandchildren someday, too! 🙂

  16. Thanks for all your inspiration, Betty. My biggest challenge at home is getting the kids to talk back in Chinese. Lately I’ve found that a combination of lingobus and enforcing speaking during our car rides has been helpful.

  17. The challenge I hope to overcome is finding the time to read Chinese on a daily basis instead of just 3 to 4 times a week. Reading for my kids have definitely helped with character recognition. I hope to find a tutor who can just concentrate on reading Chinese books to my kid or more exposure to audible books, since I am also challenged by the fact that I am a non native speaker.

  18. Althought Mandarin is our mother tongue, my children still face a lot of challenges when learning to recognize and write in Chinese. Thus, I hope they can learn Chinese in a more relaxed and interesting way. Thank you for sharing all the wonderful activities.

  19. I think the biggest tip I have/thing I’ve learned is something is always better than nothing. Don’t abandon things just bc they’re not perfect!

  20. My biggest challenge is relearning Chinese so that I can teach my kids. It’s difficult when my husband isn’t even chinese and I’m a non native speaker.
    I could use all the help I can get.

  21. My main challenges are that I have limited vocabulary in Mandain/ cannot read and that I have 2 minority languages to teach my kids: English and Mandarin. Sometimes these 2 things wear me down, but my tips are 1) any bit of Mandarin you can teach your kids is better than none and 2) keep going even if your kids get mad or throw a tantrum about speaking Chinese. If you don’t let up and are consistent, they will eventually accept it 🙂 My 9 year old has finally started consistently speaking to me in Chinese. I didn’t start speaking to him in Chinese until he was 6 years old, and he refused to speak Chinese for years, but I think he actually likes it now!

    1. I’m so inspired to hear that your 9-year-old is starting to speak Chinese consistently even though he started at 6! Great job persevering through the challenges – I parents of elementary school kids see this note of inspiration!

  22. I find it challenging now that shes started school to spend quality time to read chinese, especially since my vocabulary isn’t that great. It takes more mental energy to get through a book and everyone seems more tired lately.

  23. Tip to get kiddo to speak Chinese….repeat back what they say in Chinese! Other helpful tips include reading in Chinese 20min to them everyday and trying to log 20hours a week of Chinese exposure. My biggest challenge, exactly that, 20hrs a week exposure when my kiddo goes to english speaking preschool and my hubby doesn’t speak much Chinese at all. Will continue to try though!

  24. Great article! And I love reading comments on the tips/challenges other parents have. I feel like I’m in good company in this language learning journey!

    My challenge is in having the resources to set up a Chinese ecosystem. Ms. Yao mentions, “Relatively speaking, oral language is not so hard to learn. Once you are in the targeted language environment, you will learn it. However, Chinese reading and writing is much harder.”. With my limited fluency and resources (Chinese books aren’t cheap!), even oral language is tricky! I’m trying to use technology to help (like iChinese Reader app for reading practice), and Google Lens / Pleco for translation!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and share! I agree with you that speaking is especially challenging for us non-native speakers, especially in an environment where English is so dominant. It’s helpful to know which resources have been most useful for you; I check Pleco and google multiple times each day.

  25. One tip I have is to use and love flashcards, specifically, 3-part cards (Montessori style). Many parents make the assumption that flashcards are boring. Hence they are hesitant to use it. Or when they do use it, they “force” it on their kids. Rather portray it as an enjoyable activity, a challenge that they need to work hard on but something they can achieve. Kids have a sense of satisfaction in what they do. 3-part cards are particularly useful. Kids can match character cards with drawing cards, and do the check themselves with the combo cards. A bonus tip: Make the 3-part cards with your child! Sure, you can spend the money to purchase them, but the process of making them is more fun and easy than you think!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Daisy! I agree with you about the process – making learning materials together helps my kids and I both learn together! Montessori 3-part cards are especially useful since it’s more interactive and self-corrects!

  26. I agree with the author’s view about delaying writing, instead focusing on reading and understanding. That’s what I am doing with my two boys.Lots of stories, interactions in the target language. As much language input as possible from early on. Also integrate the fun and interesting culture elements in everyday life, for example, listening to moon festival legendary stories and making moon cakes.

  27. We homeschool. It feels challenging to integrate learning Chinese with the other activities we have going on. A small thing we started doing is having “tea time” where I try to teach new vocabulary or manners in Chinese. I’m trying to make learning Chinese fun and organic, but also not labor intensive for me.

  28. My Chinese is not as fluent as I would like it to be, so I pre-read books before I read it to my kid, checking out the words that I do not know. I also look for videos or audio recordings of the book, to teach myself. I add post-it notes with big words on it too, to enhance her character recognition. Reading many books is the best way to share a language. I agree too, character recognition first before phonetics.

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