What is the best age to introduce Chinese characters to children? There’s no time like the present! Although kids develop observation and listening/speaking skills before text recognition, early exposure to Chinese characters in a positive and immersive way sets the stage for learning.
This post is part of a series on teaching kids how to read Chinese:
- 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
- When Should My Child Learn Hanyu Pinyin?
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When is a child ready to learn Chinese characters?
In China and Taiwan, children see Chinese characters everywhere! It’s never too early to introduce Chinese characters in the home environment. However, this does not mean that it’s time to pull out workbooks and textbooks for formal sit-down lessons.
Generally, children between age 3-6 years begin to develop pre-reading and reading skills, though some children may be ready earlier or later than that range. Just as you can’t make a baby to walk at 9 months, you can’t force a child to read before they are ready. Instead, you can be observant of their sensitive period for reading and cultivate the following skills:
- Print awareness
How to get kids interested in reading Chinese
Read, read, and read Chinese books with your child! Turn off smartphones, iPads, and TVs so that you are modeling uninterrupted interest in reading with your child, and have Chinese books throughout the house and in the car!
While most beginner books have few words, you can expand upon the script by discussing the illustrations in your own words. Kids are naturally drawn to pictures! Intermittently, point out that the text on the page represents pictures.
Other ways to increase print exposure:
- Create large Chinese signs around the house
- Label items around the house
- Wear clothing with Chinese characters (Zazzle)
- Play with toys labeled with Chinese characters
When my firstborn daughter was 10 months old, she began to ask about text while we were looking at baby board books. Before she could speak, she would make a”Mmm mmm?” sound and point her little finger at letters and numbers over and over again. At an early age, she was knew how to hold a book upright and recognize numbers, letters, and characters.
On the other hand, my son seemed oblivious to print until he was age 2 years. He first showed interest when he picked up my daughter’s Korean letter blocks and Chinese puzzle magnets and asked a short phrase “什么字? (Shénme Zì? / What letter?)” However, sometimes he still has to be reminded about the correct way to orient books!
How to improve attention span in children
Attention spans in young children are quite variable, especially before age 6, but concentration is a skill that can be improved with practice. Children need focus to not only for reading, but also for putting away their toys, buttoning clothes, counting and calculating, and drawing a picture among many other tasks. Four common causes of decreased attention include:
- Parental interruptions: Parents often feel like they need to help their children and rush to “fix” things. If your child shows interest in doing something that is not dangerous, you can observe quietly while he or she figures out a solution. Another common problem is that parents will try to redirect their child from something that they think is not important for a child to do. Again, if there are no safety concerns, let your child explore it! It’s important for children to develop confidence to try things independently.
- Environmental clutter: Excessive toys (too many options!) and screen-time commonly detract from a child’s attention.
- Internal distractions: Attention may lapse due to hunger and fatigue. Make sure your child has a healthy snack or meal before they get too cranky. In addition, breaks and restful nighttime sleep are important for restoring energy.
- Inappropriate learning material: Children may lose focus if the task is too hard or easy for their developmental level. For example, if you try to teach a child to read Chinese characters without first establishing listening and speaking skills, the information may be overwhelming.
Keep in mind that children begin to learn in short chunks of time (eg, minutes) and build stamina over time.
Strategies to encourage print awareness
Before children learn to read, numbers, letters and characters are abstract shapes and designs. Gradually, you can help your child make the connection that words represent concepts.
- Point out words:
- When reading picture books with your child, use your finger to point out pictures as well as words related to the picture. That being said, if your child is enjoying their time with the illustrations, don’t interrupt or rush her exploration. When they are ready to turn the page, you can quickly point out a Chinese character.
- Stop and look at signs and labels that you have created around the house! If you live in a Chinese-speaking country, look for familiar characters on public signs.
- Write for your child:
- Handwriting lets children see how Chinese characters are formed.
- Use different writing utensils such as pencils, pens, markers, paint, chalk, etc for variation!
- Interact with Chinese characters: Since print is 2-dimensional, children may benefit from a 3-dimensional, tangible ways of learning Chinese.
- For all ages, Chinese character puzzles (here and here) allow kids to feel the whole character in their hands.
- Children age 3+ who can follow directions may benefit from sandpaper letters and tracing boards which give tactile input while tracing Chinese characters. Montessori schools typically introduce Chinese sandpaper letters in the 3-6 classroom.
- Trace & Build:
- Use playdough, Legos, twigs, stones, pipe cleaners, or any object to create Chinese characters!
- Ask your child which characters are the same and which are different? And what’s different about similar characters? This takes the pressure off memorizing the characters and instead lets a child take their time with comparing and contrasting characters.
- Older kids may enjoy puzzles of Chinese words cut up into pieces and put back to together (examples here).
Here’s an example of my 5-year-old daughter teaching my 25-month-old son Chinese characters 水 (shuǐ / water) and 雨 (yǔ / rain). Notice that she first asks my son which characters are the same and which are different. After he has demonstrated mastery of this, she then asks him to point to the matching character.
Which Chinese characters should I teach first?
Two general rules for choosing first Chinese characters:
- Characters with few strokes
- Words that your child speaks in Chinese everyday and understands the meaning
Start with one simple character and build his or her confidence over time. Since my son knows his colors well, I put different colored 口 (kǒu / mouth) on a tray. After a few days, he said, ” 妈妈，太容易了! (Māmā, tài róngyìle! / Mama, too easy!).” Then I knew he was ready for more! However, if your child does not know colors yet, it could be confusing to know which concept to focus on.
Although Chinese numbers are among the most simple Chinese characters, my son does not know how to count. For this reason, I have exposed him to those characters through a homemade puzzle, but I am not worried about teaching number recognition to him yet. In contrast, my daughter understood the concept of numbers and counting at a young age. Therefore, Chinese numbers were the first characters that she learned.
Another example is that 士 (shì / soldier) is a similar character to 土 (tǔ / soil), both with only 3 strokes. 土 is an excellent word to teach early because kids play with dirt outside! However, my kids have never seen a soldier, so 士 is an abstract concept at the time.
What you should not do….
- Don’t forget that life is short and kids need to have fun! If they have no interest in learning characters yet, that’s okay. Continue to encourage observing, listening, and speaking skills.
- Please don’t criticize your child if they cannot remember Chinese characters. Be patient and mindful that negative associations can quickly deflate interest and motivation.
- Don’t introduce too many characters at a time! Plastering your house with large Chinese flashcards does not mean your child will learn more characters. Instead, focus on a few relevant Chinese characters at a time, and rotate in new characters.
- To poke fun at my own photo, do not post colorful Chinese color names next to your toddler’s bed! These colorful papers were up on the wall for only a short while, because the colors were too stimulating and exciting for my son to sleep. He tried to rip it down many times! Soon after removing the papers, my son’s sleeping space has returned to peace and calm. To reiterate a prior point, sleep is sacred and necessary for adequate attention 🙂
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
Bilingual Facebook Group
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For helpful support, I also recommend the following Facebook groups:
- Raising Bilingual Parents in Chinese & English
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Happy learning, friends!