A print-rich environment is important for building literacy, and labeling the home helps to foster association between print and a real life object. If a child can name an object verbally, then they can automatically “read” the word labeled on an object. However, a label’s appearance is paramount to its effectiveness.
Parents and teachers often think that they need to get fancy or cute labels for kids. In reality, simple is best. If the purpose of the label is to teach a child to read, additional colors and designs may compete with the text. In other words, a label with too much information may confuse children.
This post is the second of a 4-part series about teaching kids how to read Chinese, although many principles apply to other languages.
- When and How to Introduce Chinese Characters to Kids?
- 10 Ways to Encourage Your Child to Read
- Create a Print-Rich Environment with Labels that Promote Literacy
- How I Taught My Daughter to Read 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Parent (TBD)
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What does the ideal classroom or homeschool label look like?
An effective print-rich environment is organized with easy-to-read print that is displayed for a purpose. Advice from various organizations, ranging from the American Foundation for the Blind and the website builder Wix, agree on the following points:
- Bigger is usually better (as long as it’s not too big)
- Text color must contrast from the background (dark text with light background or vice versa)
- Avoid decorative fonts
Please note that children can obviously still learn if the aformentioned criteria are not met. My daughter learned the English alphabet at 18 months through colorful blocks, and she can read cartoonish Chinese font that I cannot decipher. You may also know many children who are thriving in their heavily adorned classroom. However, many kids struggle with word recognition and are often distracted and overhwhelmed by the environment. Ultimately, an effective label should require minimal cognitive effort in decoding and remembering the text.
What you need to create labels for literacy
- White paper or Avery address labels
- Large Post-It Note
- Black Sharpie marker
- Painter’s tape &/or clear packaging tape
If you want to create labels to learn a new language but cannot write it, then you will need a printer with black ink. For Chinese, a brush-style font like KaiTi is recommended so that the start and end of each stroke is visible.
Alternatively, you can buy a label maker, such as this one. This can be helpful for creating professional-looking and long-term labels.
However, I highly recommend writing labels if possible so that your children can see you the words form. Writing increases print awareness by showing exactly how the text is created. Although I am familiar with stroke order, I actually cannot write many Chinese characters from memory and frequently refer to my dictionary. While this has inevitably led to human error, most of the time, I am copying correctly. (Hopefully, I did not jinx myself by stating it, but please let me know if you ever see anything so the correct character will be burned into my brain forever!) Writing helps me retain new Chinese characters as an adult learner.
Examples of clear labels that promote reading
1. Labels in one language only
(a) Goal of increasing the target language
Here are examples of various different bottles labeled in simplified Chinese. Since my family’s main language is English, and everything we own already has English labels, I don’t bother writing the English word on items such as these. My goal is for my kids to see as much of their minority language as possible. As you can see, I have covered up the brand of each bottle with a large white sheet of paper and secured it with clear packaging tape. If they wish, they can read “100% pure organic maple syrup” in their native language, English. But Chinese won’t be overlooked here!
(b) Skip the clip art
Since the label is directly on the object, I don’t bother adding an illustration. My kids know that the bottle above contains 枫糖浆 (fēng tángjiāng / maple syrup) simply by looking at the bottle. They distinguish shampoo and conditioner by seeing what comes out of the pump.
All too often, I see clipart on word labels for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers or other websites. Images are often redundant with the concept and unnecessary.
(c) Avoid other text if possible
Many parents like me cannot speak or read Chinese well and rely on phonetic support from Pinyin or Zhuyin. If needed, write it very small, preferably away from the main text. You can use a lighter color so that it’s less prominent from the target word. Keep in mind that many items, such as in the bathroom above, are already covered in plenty of other text.
2. Labels in 2 languages
Some families teach how to read of two languages simultaneously. My preference is to write labels on separate sheets of paper to minimize distractions during information processing and recall. In addition, later the labels can be used as flashcards for review or reading games. You can turn this into a game by calling out the word and then having kids race to put the Post-It note on the correct item! Please see Post-It Note Tic-Tac-Toe as well as Giving Tree Literacy Activity for more fun learning ideas with Post-It Notes!
(a) Chinese and Korean labels
The next example shows bandage labels in Chinese and Korean on opposite sides of a storage bag. The Korean label is suboptimal because of the random English word written in it. This is not a big deal for my daughter who can read each of these languages, but both kids are seeing the languages mixed together in a disorganized way. Preferably, “big bandaids” should be written in correct Korean grammar.
(b) Simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese labels
In the next example, I have labeled light switches in both simplified and traditional Chinese because of my lofty wish for my children to learn both scripts. Since I want to write the Chinese characters as large as possible, there is no room to fit both scripts. However, my kids can infer that they have the same meaning given the identical label position on different light switches.
When space permits, I put two labels beside each other on different Post-It notes, such as with 灯 and 燈 (dēng / lamp) so my children can compare the characters.
How to use color in labels effectively
Excessive color use can be overstimulating and distracting, but a pop of color can be attractive and provoke curiosity. Our largest Post-It notes are orange, which is why we chose that color. We have smaller Post-It notes of various colors, but I used only 1 color so that my kids are not overstimulated. Some may consider orange too bright and prefer a muted color.
(a) Which language stands out?
In the photo below, the Chinese characters on the Post-Its grab your attention. However, did you notice that there are Korean labels on the tissue box and basket? Perhaps not on first glance because the Korean letters are too small. There is so much extra space that could be utilized for print exposure. In contrast, you can see the Chinese characters from a distance.
The smaller labels are okay, however, as my kids might see them when they need to get tissues or napkins. My daughter says she prefers them because they are more “cute.” Everybody will have their preference, but keep in mind size and color when creating labels.
(b) Print-Rich Environment with Word Walls
The following images are examples of “word walls” in our home. I have not created something like this in a while, but lately my kids have been using their minority languages inconsistently. Visual text cues can be helpful for triggering reminders to speak the target language.
Since she sometimes forget the Chinese character for “wall”, she asked me to post these on the wall. When she first learned how to read Chinese a couple years ago, I would have just written 墙 or 牆 for simplicity. Now, she can handle multiple characters at once. Since she usually sees the characters in the context of stories, I added related words to reinforce the 墙 / 牆 (qiáng / wall) characters.
Here are the remaining orange Post-It notes in my house. Since I want my kids to notice what I write, I put up only a few at a time and write more Post-It notes later. Otherwise, they could get used to seeing these and ignore them.
(c) Including other text when relevant
Sometimes I use a pen to write additional text for reading practice. Since 抽屉 / 抽屜 (chōutì / drawer) is not frequently encountered in our story books, my daughter sometimes forgets these characters. Thus, I wanted to make sure that these characters were large and in charge with my black Sharpie. With a regular pen, I wrote short sentences that include the key characters in context for reading practice.
Comparison with a store-bought label
When I first began to learn Chinese with my daughter a few years ago, I purchased several Chinese labels from Amazon (DailyNoodles brand). They are fairly large with Chinese words that stand out with tiny Pinyin letters. My daughter was instantly attracted to the cute, simple pictures. At that time, these were helpful since I was not comfortable with trying to write Chinese. But my husband did not like the look of these around the house and kept taking them down. In hindsight, my Post-It note method has been far more effective because the Chinese character is far more visible, Post-It notes are cheap (we get ours from the Dollar store), and you can repurpose them for learning games.
In summary, we have created an effective, print-rich environment with simple sheets of paper and Post-It notes. Each word is clearly visible, often from a distance. No decorations or illustrations are needed! Save those creative design urges for things other than literacy labels!
Do you currently label your home with key words? If so, has it been helpful for your children? Please share in the comments below!
More advice on raising multilingual children
- Teach Your Child a Second Language at Home with 5 Key Steps
- How To Get Your Child To Speak the Minority Language
- Raising Multilingual Children as a Non-Fluent Parent
- Encourage A Child to Love and Speak the Minority Language with 5 Strategies
- How to Find a Foreign Language Teacher for Your Child
- 10 Ways to Get Your Child to Read Throughout the Day
- 6 Fun Ways to Assess Reading Comprehension With Kids!
Helpful articles about learning Chinese
- How To Learn Chinese as a Busy Parent: 10+ Strategies
- When Should My Child Learn Hanyu Pinyin?
- The Case for Zhuyin (BoPoMoFo) (Mandarin Mama)
- Fun & Educational Chinese Activities – A How-To Guide
- Chinese Writing Worksheets – Simplified and Traditional Chinese
Recommended Bilingual Facebook Parenting Groups
As always, please let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll try my best to answer them! Please leave a note in the comments! Or better yet, it’s helpful to ask parents Facebook support groups:
- Montessori-inspired Kids Learning Chinese and English
- Christian Parents Raising Bilingual Children in English & Chinese
- Raising Bilingual Parents in Chinese & English
You can also follow me on Facebook where I share my latest posts as well as favorite articles about children’s education, Chinese resources, and hands-on activities from other websites! In addition, on Instagram, I share activity highlights and how we integrate Chinese learning in our daily life!
Happy learning, friends!