Sagebooks: The Books That Helped My Children Learn to Read Chinese

Sagebooks Chinese leveled readers teaches 500 Chinese characters

Three years ago, despite being illiterate in Chinese, I taught 老大 (lǎodà / oldest child) how to read Chinese. This dream was jump-started with the help of Sagebooks Sage Formula Beginner 500《基础汉字500》.

7-year-old 老大 finished Sagebooks when she was 3 years old and has since become a voracious reader of Chinese chapter books. For the past year, my 4-year-old 老二 (lǎo èr / second child) has been learning Chinese characters with Sagebooks!

Review of Sagebooks Chinese for Kids Beginner 500《基础汉字500》

Review of Sagebooks Chinese for Kids Beginner 500《基础汉字500》

  • ISBN:
    • Simplified Chinese with pinyin and English 基礎漢字500 简体版 – 9789888239726
    • Traditional Chinese with pinyin and English 基礎漢字500 体版 – 9789888239733
  • Author: Lucia L. Lau
  • Publisher: Sagebooks HK

This post was originally written on November 25, 2017 and last updated on November 17, 2020 to reflect new information.

I was gifted a new set of Sagebooks 500 from Sagebooks for providing a testimonial excerpted from my original review. We have not used the new books, and there was no expectation for a new review or social media shares. All opinions here are honest reflections of my family’s personal experience.

Overview of Sage Formula Basic Chinese 500 《基础汉字500》

The Sagebooks curriculum teaches commonly used 500 Chinese characters.  The books are color-coded into 5 sets:

  • Blue = Beginning Reader
  • Green = Budding Reader
  • Orange = Building Reader
  • Pink = Confident Reader
  • Red = Fluent Reader

Each set has 5 books with 20 lessons per book (5 x 5 x 20 = 500 Chinese words).

3-year-old daughter tracing Chinese characters in Sagebooks

When should kids use leveled readers like Sagebooks?

Leveled Readers are books for children who have a good foundation in Chinese speaking and are ready to read Chinese characters.

The age range will vary depending on the child’s spoken fluency, print awareness, and attention span.

Some children, including my own, are ready to read Chinese at age 3. My children knew dozens of Chinese characters before starting Sagebooks and thus felt confident with the initial levels.

Other children will be ready at older ages, and I found the series helpful in my 30s!

For advice on when your child might be ready to read, please refer to “When and How to Teach Chinese Characters to Kids?

Sagebooks are not designed for babies and young toddlers who would benefit from stories with realistic images rather than cartoons.

These books should not replace regular picture books that parents should read everyday with children.

Picture books have an intriguing plot and give parents the chance to model good reading habits. They also expand vocabulary and grammar beyond routine conversation and encourage families to bond over books.

See the “Chinese Books We Love” section of this website for recommended Chinese picture books for kids.

Chinese characters Chinese character 高山, toilet paper rolls on stepstools, DIY mini golf game
Months before my son officially began to read, he learned the first 2 Chinese characters in Sagebooks 高山 through play.

Why do we recommend Sagebooks 500《基础汉字500》?

I was convinced to try Sagebooks after strong recommendations from the Guavarama blog.  Her family used the traditional Chinese version, so I wanted to share my experience using the simplified Chinese version of the books.

Focus on Chinese characters

In contrast to other curricula that first teach radicals or phonics (eg, Pinyin, Zhuyin), this series teaches each character as its own component.

Spaced repetition

  • Each lesson focuses on 1 new Chinese character and begins with an enlarged character showing stroke order.
  • The new character appears several times within a lesson
  • Subsequent lessons build on earlier lessons

Context

Except for the first lesson, new words are always introduced with earlier words so that children are learning how to read phrases and sentences immediately.

Reading each new word multiple times in different contects helps with memorizing Chinese characters.

Chinese characters in large font

The Chinese characters are in large font while the Hanyu Pinyin and English are in small font.

As a result, the characters are the main focus.

However, children or adults who can fluently read English may still find the Pinyin distracting. Covering the supplemental text with paper might be necessary.

Simple illustrations

Cartoons serve as contextual prompts for new words, but their simplicity keeps the focus on the characters.

Initially, the pictures may seem random, but 老大 quickly noticed that the same family, friends, mountain, and animals are present throughout the series.

Also, 老大 noticed that all females have pink ovals on their cheeks while all males have swirls!

Sagebooks audio narration QR code

Mandarin and Cantonese Audio

Sagebooks Chinese Leveled Reading Books for Children

What about Sagebooks Treasure Box Books?

Sagebooks all sells accompanying reading practice books for each level. These are listed on their website as “Treasure Box Set”. Many parents strongly recommend these extra books. For example, my friend Diana mentioned that since she works full time and doesn’t have time to prepare activities, these books were great for her son to review and boost his confidence.

Personally, we decided not to get them due to cost and my first child memorized the characters quickly. For my second child, we have many short Chinese picture books that he can read.

Potential downsides

Cartoon illustrations

I was surprised that the author, a Montessori teacher, chose cartoons for illustrations. Realistic illustrations are more educational and support text better than abstract cartoons. This is especially true for young children.

No plot

The lack of a storyline may be boring. My first kid didn’t mind, but my second child has been less intrigued.

Cost

The full set is very expensive.

Photos inside Sage Formula Basic 500《基础汉字500》

Take a look at the video below to preview the first book (traditional Chinese version).

Here are pictures of the simplified Chinese books we used:

Sagebooks Chinese leveled readers for kids

My family’s experience with Sage Formula Basic 500《基础汉字500》

Read How I Taught My Child 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Speaker for full details and tips on my Chinese teaching methods.

Learning with and teaching 老大

Time period: March 2017-July 2017 with a several week break

老大 knew a little over 100 basic Chinese characters before starting Sagebooks through environmental print and various hands-on activities shared on my blog.

At that time, I could only read Pinyin, so I would read the Pinyin while she memorized the Chinese characters.

We read 1-2x per day for a few minutes before her nap and again at bedtime. At the start of each lesson, we traced the new character with our fingers following stroke order.  Then, we would take turns reading each page.

I’m so glad that we bought the whole set because 老大 was very motivated to progress to “the next color”. She would peek at the pictures and be curious to learn about the next stories.

Everyday, she read the books in the bathroom and car, and we completed the 4th book (pink confident reader) after about 3 months.

However, we had to take a break before the 5th book (red fluent reader) when she hit an anti-reading phase.

During this time, we focused on hands-on Chinese activities to rekindle her interest.  After a few weeks, we got back into our reading groove and finished the last set.

Sagebooks recommends that most children should not rush and would benefit from 1 lesson per day, thereby completing the series within 18 months.

Although my 老大 had finished the series rather fast, she retained almost all characters and continues to read fluently!

Teaching 老二

Time period: November 2019 to present with 6+ month break

When 老二 was 3 years old, he knew about 50 Chinese characters when he seemed ready and showed interest in Sagebooks. However, we took a 6 month break from this series and restarted only recently when he turned 4 years old.

Compared to his sister, he has the benefit of having hundreds more Chinese picture books to choose from at home, so reading Sagebooks has been less exciting. He would much rather read books about cars and animals!

Also, I noticed he was not able to retain words long-term as well as his sister. Waiting a few months made a big difference in maturity, so please don’t feel discouraged if you need to take a break from Sagebooks and try other books!

In contrast to big sister, my son is not interested in tracing the first characters, so sometimes I trace it by myself or we just skip it. Our typical reading sessions run in the following sequence:

  • Flipping through and looking the “big characters” from last few lessons to see which he remembers.
  • When we hit one that he’s not too sure of, we review the chapter.
  • If he knows most words, we keep moving on.

He recently finished orange level 3 Sagebooks, and I’ll update this post if and when we finish the series!

Sagebooks flashcards on Quizlet

Quizlet has online Sagebooks flashcards with traditional Chinese characters and Zhuyin.

Sagebooks Worksheets

Guavarama has many printable supplemental materials for Sagebooks. 

These include a Chinese characters hundred board, heteronym reference sheet, and Skritter characters lists.

Chinese Leveled Readers - Comparison of graded books for kids

How does Sagebooks compare to other beginner readers?

Please see Chinese Leveled Readers: Comparison of Graded Books for Kids for a detailed side-by-side comparison of major Chinese leveled readers.

Where to buy Sagebooks 500《基础汉字500》

You can buy Sagebooks at the following locations:

I have heard other parents share positive experiences of ordering complete Sagebooks sets and supplemental materials directly from Sagebooks.

Parents have also reported good shopping experiences at Seeds HK, but this store only sells traditional Chinese books.

We bought our Sagebooks set elsewhere but won’t recommend that location due to other parents sharing negative shopping experiences.

Does your family or school use Sagebooks?

How was the experience for your family?

Were you able to complete the curriculum, or did you end up using another Chinese leveled reading system?

Please feel free to share in the comments below! We’d love to learn about your experience!

Happy reading, friends!

37 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this review! REALLY helpful. The Sagebooks website doesn’t seem to have a place to enter the Promo Codes – do you know anything about this? I have reached out to Sagebooks directly, but not received a response from them yet. Any tips are greatly appreciated – thanks again!

    1. Hi Becky!! I’m glad you found the review helpful, thank you for reading! Sorry for the confusion – Sagebooks has 2 different websites – one where you can use the code (click on the first “CLICK HERE” link at the end of the post). The code doesn’t work on their regular website. I just edited my post so that hopefully it is more clear!! Please let me know if I can help in any other way! <3

  2. Thank you for posting the review and the promo code for a discount. May I ask what is Sage Formula – TC? Is this the treasure chest? How does it differ from or supplement the Basic Chinese 500 set? Many thanks again!

    1. Hi Janine! TC = traditional Chinese. I think it’s the treasure box set since that’s the only other option on the sale website. I don’t have it since they don’t have ones for simplified Chinese, but Mandarin Mama & GuavaRama have good reviews on the treasure box set. Hope that helps!

  3. Hi Betty, I don’t see the link to the link we can use to input the promo code. Did you take it off this post? Thank you!

  4. Did you end up purchasing the treasure boxes or skipping them since they are in TC? I am currently debating what to do.

    1. At that time, there was an online version of the SC treasure boxes. I only bought the first set. However, we used it only once since I try to minimize screen-time. So I wrote a lot of my own stories to give her reading practice for the early sets. Sometimes it would just be a few lines on our easel for practice with certain words repeated. I heard that they might be coming out with SC treasure boxes soon though.

  5. Wow this is so helpful! thanks for posting such a detailed review and reflection on Sagebooks. I’ve heard many parents talk about Sagebooks on the bilingual FaceBook group but it’s confusing just hearing people talk about it and not having many visuals. Their website isn’t much better. When I’m going to dish out that much money to buy something, I want to know what’s inside. All that to say thank you for taking time posting this!

    1. Hi Sunny! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment! I really appreciate it! I also have found it difficult to shop for most Chinese books since online stores generally show tiny photos for the cover and no photos of the inside! So glad to hear that my photos were helpful, I’ll try to keep sharing more reviews! πŸ™‚

  6. Hi Betty, thank you so much for the review. Your articles really help me a lot, since I am raising a multilingual daughter and I am not fluent in Chinese at all. Just a quick question on sage book, if it says traditional Chinese, does that means cantonese? cause I am currently looking for a book that can taught my daughter Cantonese. Thank you again!

  7. Did the publisher stop publishing these books? Popular does not have any stock and so are other sites. Just wish I could find the books whether they are new or used.

    1. Hi Annette! Thanks for your question. I heard from another parent that Popular in Singapore has stopped carrying Sagebooks, but Sagebooks is still available on their website. I suggest shopping directly from the Sagebooks link listed under “Where to Buy” in the post.

    1. Hi Annette! I asked Gloria’s bookstore and the owner said “I plan to have them pre-ordered in Nov and arrive usa in Dec. If they would like to wait, i could open for back order.” You may want to email the other stores to see when they plan to restock. In the meantime, you may want to check out other Chinese leveled readers which are more readily available. Hope you are able to get the books you need soon!

  8. Thank you for the review! If anyone out there has the Sagebooks 500 SC and are wanting to sell them we are interested in buying!

  9. Thank you for your guidance and for the beautiful flashcards you made, which is exactly what we needed and more suitable for us than the ones from SagebooksHK. We really needed your help!

  10. Thanks for this review (and the one comparing leveled readers). You mentioned your daughter was confident with the initial levels because she knew around 100 characters already – is there a list of the first 100 characters that can help set a child up for success? Either a well-known one or one you used? (I’m looking ahead to next year since we will most likely be moving and may not have access to weekend school. Leveled readers seem like a possibility since we’re big fans of books around here.)

  11. Hi Betty,

    When you used Sagebooks with your daughter, did you move onto the next book only when she had mastered all the characters in the previous book?

    Thanks!

  12. Hi! We are so inspired by all that you are doing, and very much appreciate the detailed review. Do you know if the coupon codes are available? We are wanting to purchase the set of 5 and they sure are pricey! Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Jenny, We don’t have them as we have a lot of other books, but I’ve heard from many parents that the Treasure Box books are great for reading practice and building confidence. Hope that helps!

      1. Thank you !! Sorry one last question, do your worksheets work in the same order of appearance of the Chinese characters in the Sagebooks? I just ordered everything last night and I just discovered all these wonderful additional resources like these worksheets. I am like you β€” I am an ABC, illiterate and I am hoping to teach my child Chinese haha.

  13. Hi Betty! I found your website recently and have been so inspired to work on my Chinese and try to teach my two little ones! What are your thoughts on teaching traditional vs simplified Chinese to kids? When you started out with the sagebooks series, what prompted you to purchase the simplified Chinese version verses the traditional one?

  14. Thank you for this! Is the link for the flash cards in simplified Chinese supposedly going to the HK Sage website? I am looking for your [simplified] flash cards instead of the Sage ones. Thank you!

  15. Hi may I know when can i buy the full set , which is in the simplified Chinese version? The hk one is the traditional version.

    1. Hello! These books are available in simplified Chinese from the Sagebooks website listed in the post. In the Sagebooks online shop, there is a drop-down menu where you can choose your desired language.

  16. Thank you for all your great insight on sage books. I’m interested in purchasing a used set if possible but don’t know where to go to post my interest. Would you have any feedback on this? Also, is there an audio recording for each book and if so, is it fairly user friendly?

    Thanks!

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