A print-rich environment is important for building literacy, and labeling the home can encourage children to associate words with a real 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 part of a series dedicated to 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
- Memorize Chinese Characters with 5 Key Steps
- 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
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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)
- 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. Of course, children can excel in heavily adorned classrooms. But many children struggle with reading 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. Bigger is better for highlighting the target language
Here are examples of various different bottles labeled in simplified Chinese with a black Sharpie marker. Since my family’s main language is English, and everything we own already has factory labels in English, I don’t bother writing the English words. My goal is for my kids to see as much of their minority language as possible. Therefore, I cover up the brand names with a large white sheet of paper and secure it with clear packaging tape. In the image below, you can see that the Chinese characters are more noticeable than the English labels!
2. Use a clean, white background behind the text
White is the best background because it provides the best contrast. However, I don’t want to encourage paper waste, so if you have other paper colors that you need to use, by all means, use them!
While multiple colors can be overstimulating and distracting, a pop of color can be attractive and provoke curiosity. Our largest Post-It notes are orange, which is why I used that color for the recent labels in this post. We have smaller Post-It notes of various colors, but I try to use only 1 color so that my kids are not overstimulated. Some may consider orange too bright and prefer a muted color.
In short, make sure that the words are clearly visible with black marker and adequate contrast!
3. Make sure that the correct object is labeled
This might seem obvious to parents who are doing the labeling, but is the label intuitive? For example, if you put a label 杯子 (bēizi / cup) on a table next to a cup, your child could associate 杯子 with table instead of cup. However, if you put the label directly on the cup, then it is obvious that 杯子 refers to cup.
4. 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.
5. Make labeling an interactive activity!
Involve your child with labeling certain items around the house! 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! They may have fun running around finding the correct object, and this interaction will help them remember the spoken and written words better.
In addition, the labels can later be used as:
- Flashcards for review
- Other reading games in the target language.
6. Create word walls
Occasionally, I create a Post-It note “word walls” in our house when my daughter needs extra review. In addition, visual text cues can be helpful for triggering reminders to speak the target language.
Since my daughter sometimes forgets the Chinese character for “wall”, she asked me to post 墙 / 牆 (qiáng / wall) on the wall. When she first learned to read Chinese a couple years ago, I would have just written 墙 or 牆 for simplicity. Now, my daughter can handle multiple characters at once so I can include related words.
7. Rotate labels
When people have gotten used to seeing something, they might tune it out since it’s no longer fresh and exciting. Since I want my kids to notice what I write, I put up only a few at a time and write more labels later.
8. 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.
8. Include other text only when relevant and not overwhelming
Since my oldest child reads fluently for her age, sometimes I pencil or pen in additional text for reading practice. For example, 抽屉 / 抽屜 (chōutì / drawer) is not frequently encountered in our story books, so my daughter sometimes forgets these characters. Thus, I wanted to make sure that these key characters were large and in charge with my black Sharpie. Then, with a regular pen, I wrote short sentences featuring the key characters in context for reading practice.
What about labels in more than one language?
My daughter is learning to read Chinese, Korean, and English simultaneously. When she was first learning to read, I generally kept each language on separate sheets of paper to minimize distractions during information processing and recall. Now that she has a solid foundation in Chinese, I am less concerned about her being distracted by English.
(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 between the Korean characters. This is not a big deal for my daughter who can read each of these languages, but it is disorganized for a new reader. Ideally, “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 I would like 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.
Comparison of different labels
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 small. In contrast, you can see the Chinese characters from a distance.
This is not to say that small labels are always bad. My daughter thinks they are “cute!” Whether she actually notices them is another question, so keep in mind size and color when creating labels.
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 as mentioned above.
In summary, we have created an effective, print-rich environment with plain white 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!