Pinyin, Teaching Strategies

Parent Guide to Teaching Pinyin

When I first started this journey to teach my son, I was completely clueless about how and where to start and what to do. I’m documenting our learning journey on this blog as a resource for other parents. Obviously I don’t know everything and I’ve only ever taught one child to read. So, just take what I write on here as my reflections and opinions.

When to teach your child pinyin? The short answer is: After he/she can read several hundred characters. 

According to this study, kids in China know an average of 627 characters before learning pinyin in first grade. In my case, I taught my son pinyin when he knew about 400-500 characters.

⚠️ Warning! Do not make the mistake of teaching your child pinyin before he has a solid base of characters – this will only result in over-reliance on it. As stated in this blog post by Parenting Joy, many children fall trap to only being able to read with pinyin and cannot read without it.

Little Man learned English reading first 1.5 years ago before we started pinyin, so he has never confused the two. I don’t have any experience with teaching English phonics and pinyin at the same time so I can’t comment on whether that is confusing to a child or not.

Pinyin is an extremely useful tool when introduced at the right time. Here are the benefits I’ve discovered:

  • Read Chinese books independently. At this point he only knows maybe 500-600 characters, a far cry from the 3000+ characters that you need to know. And yet he  can read harder, more interesting books by himself through the magical thing known as pinyin.
  • Learn new characters. I was completely blown away when Little Man recognized characters that he has never been taught — because he has seen them before paired with pinyin. He can remember the character in a different context, even after the pinyin is removed! (No my son is not a genius. Every child does this.)
  • Review characters by himself. It has made life a lot easier because he can review flash cards by himself on days that I have to work late. He is no longer dependent and incapacitated without me, the sole Chinese speaker in the house.
  • Improve pronunciation. Little Man is English-dominant and his Mandarin tones are frequently inaccurate. The visualization of the tone marks in pinyin help him get the tones right, or at least, better.
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DIY flash cards to review characters

Learning Pinyin:

Pinyin is very easy for an English-reading child – most of the consonants make the same sound as English so you just have to learn the tones and vowels. It took him about a month to learn it through YouTube videos here and here and these Montessori-style cards that I made.

Right now he is about 80-90% accurate with reading pinyin, and he continues to improve through reading books. His current favorites of the pinyin books we have (not a lot) are 植物大战僵尸 Plants vs. Zombies picture books and 我会读 I Can Read.

As an example, three days ago I posted a video of my son reading PvZ in which he stumbled over the word “一次” which he has never learned before. After three days of reading PvZ, guess what? He can read 一次 without any help! Imagine if a child learns one character a day independently, that’s 365 characters a year or 1000 characters in 3 years! In reality it’s probably MORE than that because as a child gets more fluent, he/she will find it increasingly easy to learn new words.

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An easy set of beginning readers
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An easy set of books, great for building confidence and speed

We learned the first 500-600 characters without using any pinyin through the 四五快读 curriculum. However, lately I’ve switched to practicing reading both without and with pinyin: 10 minutes reading books with characters only, 10 minutes reading books with pinyin every day. This is working out well so far to balance both types of reading, which I think are equally important.

四五快读 Book 8 only has the new characters with pinyin. I like this approach of putting pinyin there only when needed and slowly phasing it out.

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四五快读 Book 8. Only new characters in pinyin

If you have taught your child to read Chinese characters and pinyin, please share your 心得 with me! It is always so helpful to hear others’ experience.

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