Create a Print-Rich Environment with Labels that Promote Literacy

A print-rich environment can boost literacy, and labeling the home can help 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.

Create a Print-Rich Environment with Labels that Promote Literacy

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This post is part of a series dedicated to teaching kids how to read Chinese, although many principles apply to other languages.

  1. When and How to Introduce Chinese Characters to Kids?
  2. 15 Ways to Encourage Your Child to Read
  3. Memorize Chinese Characters with 5 Key Steps
  4. Create a Print-Rich Environment with Labels that Promote Literacy
  5. How I Taught My Daughter to Read 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Parent

Creating a print-rich environment: What does the ideal classroom or homeschool label look like?

An effective print-rich environment is organized with easy-to-read print. The meaning of the print should also be obvious.

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

Obviously, children can still learn if the aforementioned 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 of children who excel in heavily adorned classrooms.

However, many kids 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 a print-rich environment

If you can write Chinese:

If you cannot write Chinese or don’t have time to write:

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.

Pros and cons of handwriting labels

Benefits

If you have decent Chinese handwriting, writing labels is a great way to model the importance of writing to children.  Writing can increase 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 I have occasionally made mistakes, most of the time, I am copying correctly. Writing helps me practice Chinese characters as an adult learner.

Downsides

If you have messy handwriting or if your child remembers better with consistent type fonts, then typed labels are preferable.

Print-rich environment: Examples of clear labels that promote reading

Since my children are learning Chinese and Korean as minority languages, the primary goal of my home labels is to encourage familiarity and recognition of Chinese and Korean characters.

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!

Chinese labels for learning how to read Chinese - print-rich environment

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.

Take home point: make sure the words are clearly visible with black marker and adequate contrast!

Encourage Korean literacy with labels around the house

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 the child?

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 in your print-rich environment

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.

Labeling maple syrup in Chinese to promote literacy in the minority language

All too often, I see clipart on word labels for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers or other websites.

Images are often unnecessary, redundant, and distracting from the text and physical object.

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 a labeled Post-It note on the correct item!

If kids have fun running around finding the correct object, this interaction can help them remember spoken and written words.

In addition, labels can later be used as:

  • Flashcards for review
  • Other reading games in target language

Related: For more learning ideas with Post-It Notes, please see Bilingual Tic-Tac-Toe as well as Giving Tree Literacy Activity!

6. Create a print-rich environment with 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 once 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 for simplicity.

Now, my daughter can handle multiple characters at once so I can include related words.

Creating a Chinese word wall for a print-rich environment

7. Rotate labels in your print-rich environment

When people have gotten used to seeing something, they might tune it out since it’s no longer fresh and exciting.

Create a Print-Rich Environment with Labels that Promote Literacy

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 the phonetic spelling very small and away from the main text.  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.

Create a Print-Rich Environment with Labels that Promote Literacy

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 not concerned about her being distracted by English.

Organized pantry with labels: Bilingual English and Chinese written on painter's tape with black Sharpie market
Bilingual English and Chinese pantry labels

(a) English & Chinese labels

Above is an example of English and Chinese labels in our kitchen pantry.

As my husband often forgets where things are located throughout the house, from a practical standpoint, we need labels in English for organization.

For consistency, all English pantry labels are written on yellow painter’s tape, while Chinese labels are written on light green painter’s tape.

Tips on labeling effectively to promote literacy in Chinese and Korean

(b) Chinese and Korean labels

This 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 Korean with proper grammar.

Light switch labels in Simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese

(c) Simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese labels

In this 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 children 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.

Simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese labels on lamp

Creating a print-rich environment: 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 at 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 notices them is questionable, so keep in mind size and color when creating labels.

Creating a print-rich environment: Comparison of different labels

Store-bought 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, I bought them because I was not comfortable with writing Chinese.  But my husband did not like the look of these around the house and kept taking them down. They are difficult to remove, and once you take them off, you can’t reuse them.

In hindsight, my Post-It note method has been much more effective because the Chinese characters are the clear focus.

Post-It notes are cheap (we get ours from the Dollar store), and you can repurpose them for learning games as mentioned above.

Daily Noodles Chinese Labels for creating a print-rich environment

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 urges for things other crafty projects!

Has your family tried using labels for creating a print-rich environment?

Do you currently label your home with key words?

If so, have labels helped your children learn new words?

Please share in the comments below!

More advice on raising multilingual children

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One Comment

  1. Hi Betty, my son hasn’t even mastered his ABC. I would also like him to learn Chinese at the same time. Would having both languages in each label be confusing or too overwhelming?

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