Learning to Read, Pinyin

Pinyin Part I: Learning Phonemes

I had not planned on teaching Little Man pinyin since I want to focus on characters, and he can already read it pretty well due to similarities with English. However, I changed my mind because:

  • He needs serious help with his tones. Because Little Man joined the Chinese game late at 4.5 years old, his tone perception is often erroneous. This not only affects his pronunciation but also causes a lot of confusion during our reading lessons with 四五快读. Just yesterday we were learning “喊” and he exclaimed “汉字家园!”. Me: No this is 喊 hǎn not 汉 hàn! 😣
  • Pinyin and characters are complementary. He has surprised me a few times by recognizing characters that he has never been taught. Pinyin helped him independently learn characters from books!


I’m not too worried about him relying too much on pinyin as most of our Chinese books, including 四五快读, are characters only.

Our main task for pinyin is learning the four tones as well as the sounds that differ from English. Most of the consonants are similar to English except for j, q, x, zh, z, c, s, y, w. The vowels however are completely different. We start with the basic six: a, o, e, i, u, ü and will slowly learn the diphthongs (e.g. ei) and triphthongs (e.g. uai).

I’m approaching pinyin the same way as I taught him to read in English. In English we learned letter-sounds easily by watching Leapfrog Letter Factory. For pinyin we are using the Youtube videos below.

We started with this one to learn consonants and six basic vowels:

Followed by this playlist. I really like this playlist as they cover the tones well, show the mouth position, and it’s broken down into bite-sized lessons. Each lesson is only 5-7 minutes long and covers 2-4 sounds. Very manageable.

  • Lesson 1: a, o, e
  • Lesson 2: i, u, ü
  • Lesson 3: b, p, m, f
  • Lesson 4: d, t, n, l
  • Lesson 5: g, k, h
  • Lesson 6: j, q, x
  • Lesson 7: z, c, s
  • Lesson 8: zh, ch, sh, r
  • Lesson 9: y, w
  • Lesson 10: ai, ei, ui
  • Lesson 11: ao, ou, iu
  • Lesson 12: ie, üe, er
  • Lesson 13: an, en
  • Lesson 14: in, un, ün
  • Lesson 15: ang, eng
  • Lesson 16: ing, ong

We are currently on Lesson 5. Every day we do a quick 5-minute review using our pinyin magnetic tiles (printable below) or I write the letters on a piece of paper and see if he can name them. We move on to a new lesson when I feel he’s mastered the previous sounds. So far everything is smooth sailing, but I’m sure we’ll have to spend a lot more time on Lessons 10-16 which are confusing even for me. I still have a hard time distinguishing in/ing.

These magnet tiles are inspired by Montessori and All About Spelling. They follow Montessori colors, red for consonants and blue for vowels. This makes it easy to see that most Mandarin words have the CV (consonant-vowel) structure. The tiles are about 1-inch in size, similar to All About Spelling tiles. I arranged the tiles in the order that pinyin is usually arranged, which is not alphabetical. Pinyin is arranged according to which part of the mouth you use to say that sound (e.g. bpmf with lips, dtnl with tongue tip, gkh with back of tongue).

This is a REALLY EASY DIY. Just print out the tiles on cardstock, laminate, cut, and stick magnets on the back. I used Lakeshore magnet dots because I already have them, but you can easily find magnet tape or sheets at any craft or office supply store.


If you’re feeling lazy and don’t feel like DIY, there’s also different versions you can buy on Taobao. (If you don’t know how to buy from TB then read my how-to guide here.)

Little Man enjoys playing with the magnet tiles and tries to make words and sentences. One of the first things he spelled was “wo ai ni”. My sweet boy. 😘

There are many ways to use the tiles, such as:

  • Have the child find the sound you name
  • See if the child can name the sounds
  • Teach blending, e.g. b + u = bu
  • Count the number of sounds in a word, e.g. bu has 2 sounds, jiao has 3 sounds.
  • Distinguish real words vs. nonsense words (e.g. tue, fiong)
  • Make new words by changing the consonant (bo, po, mo), changing the vowel (ba, bi, bu) or changing the tone (bā, bá, bǎ, bà)
  • Write characters using dry erase markers and have the child sound out

And many more! Have fun. 😀

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2 thoughts on “Pinyin Part I: Learning Phonemes”

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