English Reading, Learning to Read, Teaching Strategies

English Reading: Road to Fluency

One of my friends asked me the other day what my son is reading now (in English) because she wanted some ideas for her kids. This made me think that I should document the books Little Man read from when he was a beginning reader until now, as a reference for parents teaching their kids to read in English.

Background: I taught him English phonics between the ages of 1.5-3 years old, then taught him to read at 3 years 2 months old using the reading curriculum The Reading Lesson: Teach Your Child to Read in 20 Easy Lessons. It took us four months to complete it, by the end of which he could read at about first grade level.

From 3.5 y.o. on, we practiced reading increasingly longer and harder books (see our reading list below) and it took him approximately 12 months to become a fluent reader. What I mean by fluent is he can read without thinking/hesitating and can read books by himself that he’s never read before.

Around 4.5 y.o., he could read a few chapter books Magic Tree House and Boxcar Children but he did not really enjoy those. He then fell madly in love with Captain Underpants (and Super Diaper Baby and Dog Man by the same author), which skyrocketed his reading ability to around 3rd grade level.

Now at 5 y.o., he desperately wants to read “grown up” books like Harry Potter, which he has tried three times (unsuccessfully) to read. He is able to read the words but cannot comprehend the complex plot and flashbacks because he is after all only 5 years old.

But, I am happy to report that he has now found a happy middle of reading books that are appropriate for his age and ability. I am absolutely thrilled that he has taken to reading non-fiction lately, which he has never shown interest before.

Back to what this post is about. Here’s a list of books that he read from 3.5-now. I don’t keep track of all the books he read, but these ones stuck out in my memory as being significant. FYI just borrow the beginning readers (BL 0.7-1.7) from the library. Libraries have hundreds of beginning readers and they are not worth buying IMO because 1) the stories are dumb, and 2) they get outgrown quicker than you can blink.

ATOS Book Level are shown in parenthesis, e.g. 0.7 level means can be read by a typical kindergartner in the 7th month of school, 1.2 means 1st grade 2nd month. I find ATOS levels to be inflated and always mentally take a year or two off. For example, Magic Tree House is listed as a 2.6 but most kids I know read it around K-1st grade.

To find the ATOS book level (BL) of any given book, go to this website and search the title. As you can see, “One Fish Two Fish” is listed as BL 1.7.

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Some publishers (e.g. Usborne) provide Lexile measures instead of ATOS. They can be converted using the chart here, e.g. Lexile of 440 corresponds to ATOS 3;0.

Books Little Man read, in order of difficulty:

Starfall Learn to Read (N/A)

Scholastic Sight Word Tales (N/A)

I Can Read, Step Into Reading, Scholastic Level 1 and Level 2 readers (BL: 0.7-1.7)

Elephant and Piggie series (BL: 0.7-1.1)

Dr. Seuss Beginner Books series (BL: 1.2-1.7)

Dr. Seuss I Can Read It All By Myself series (BL: 1.5-2.1)

DC Super Friends Story Collection (BL 1.2-1.6)

Fly Guy series (BL 1.2-1.7)

Lego DC Comic Readers series (BL 2.4-2.8)

Katie Woo series (BL 1.9-2.2)

Amazing Adventures of Superman series (BL 2.7-3.1)

Nate the Great series (BL 2.0-3.1)

National Geographic Readers (BL 2.9-3.9)

Magic Tree House series (BL 2.6-3.3)

Captain Underpants series (BL 4.3-4.7)

Dog Man series (BL 2.6)

Where the Sidewalk Ends (N/A)

Wayside School series (BL 3.3)

Currently reading: 

Usborne One Hundred Illustrated Stories (BL 4.1)

Usborne Stories from Around the World (BL 3.1)

Usborne Non-Fiction Beginning Readers (BL 2.9-4.5)

National Geographic First Big Book of Space (BL 4.1)

Random Notes:

  1. There is no point in pushing too high of a reading level. This is because books that are of higher reading levels are often of inappropriate content for young children. It appears to me that 3rd grade reading level is where he will stay for a while and it will not get any higher than that because he cannot comprehend even though he can read it.
  2. On the other hand, I caution you about waiting too long to teach your child to read because early readers have really dumb storylines like “A wig on a pig”, “The cat in the hat”, etc. An older child will find it extremely frustrating when they want to read more interesting books but their ability only allows them to read baby books. (Little Man currently has this problem in Chinese which he is very frustrated by).
  3. I’ve always tried to get him interested in non-fiction but failed. A few weeks ago, he suddenly picked non-fiction and now loves to tell me facts that he learned from books. JOY OH JOY!! Goes to show sometimes you just have to be patient and wait for time and development to take its course.
  4. The most important factor is to hook your child by finding books he/she absolutely loves. Looking back, he made huge jumps in reading ability when he encountered certain series that were highly motivating, like Lego DC comic books (jumped from 1st to 2nd grade) and Captain Underpants (jumped from 2nd to 3rd grade).
  5. Because of the huge selection of English books available (sadly not so for Chinese), you can easily find books of your child’s interests at different reading levels. E.g. He loves DC superheroes and I found K, 1st, 2nd grade level superhero books by searching on Amazon.
  6. He slowly became able to read everything around him like signs, recipes, instructions etc., a process that took around 12 months and I don’t think can be rushed. And this is in his first language English! I wonder how long Chinese fluency will take.
  7. Listening to audiobooks (or adult reading aloud) helped my son bridge to chapter books because he was already familiar with the stories. He loved the audiobooks: Where The Sidewalk Ends, Nate the Great, and Sideways Stories From Wayside School. Unfortunately, due to our focus on Chinese in recent months we do not listen to English audiobooks anymore. 😦
  8. He is now independent in English reading (except for the occasional word) and I only read to him in Chinese. He keeps wanting to read “grown up” books I keep assuring him it’s ok to read picture books. We’ve found a compromise with Usborne story collections which he likes because they are thick and “grown up looking” and I like because he can comprehend the stories. Joke books, poetry collections, comics are also a good fit for him now.
  9. I have an ongoing struggle with getting him to read more. He is not a natural bookworm like some kids are, and rarely picks up books on his own. We have mandatory reading time in the morning and evening, and he recently made up his own rule that he gets evening screen time if he reads 100 pages that day. I have no problem with this!

Anyway, I hope this is a helpful starting point for you. The key to English reading is simply to 1) teach your child to read (phonics) and then 2) keep reading longer and harder books until you achieve fluency. I’d like to think that Chinese will be a similar process but the problem with Chinese is no book levels so I have to make my own guesstimates for book levels. This is the current pain in my neck!!!!

I don’t claim to be any form of expert in English or Chinese reading. Just sharing our experience with you — take of it what you will. As always, I try to be objective in my information and not humblebrag too much. 😛

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Learning to Read, Teaching Strategies

Busy Parent Guide to Teaching Chinese

During our trip back to Singapore a few weeks ago, I got to catch up with some of my good friends who confessed that they have NO TIME to make crafts. And my blog makes them feel stressed and guilty for not doing enough with their kids.

!!!!! Obviously it’s not my intention to make anyone feel that way. 😬 So, this post is for all you busy parents out there who have no time. Which is basically every parent.

Best kept secret…

YOU DON’T NEED CUTE ACTIVITIES

Kids don’t need beautifully handcrafted activities or expensive wooden Montessori materials to learn colors, shapes, or anything else. Look at all these lovely activities I spent hours making…

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All completely unnecessary.

Kids learn just by having someone telling them “this is red”, “this is blue”, “your cracker is a square”, “that’s a ladybug”. So don’t even feel bad for not preparing activities. Remember that children have learned to speak, read and write for hundreds of years without Pinterest!

(If you’re wondering why I make activities despite the minimal impact on my son’s learning, it’s because I enjoy it. Making stuff and crafting and blogging is my hobby.)

PRIORITIZE

So what DO kids need to learn Chinese? It comes down to just 3 things. Anything else is just extra and for fun.

#1. Language exposure

In the book Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability (excellent read by the way), the author’s research showed that 25 hours per week of exposure is necessary for language proficiency. You must make sure your child is getting the minimum 25 hours of input from either a parent, nanny, immersion school, classes or some other way.

For me as a full-time working parent, this means speaking to my kid in Chinese for 2 hours every weekday and 8 hours per day on weekends. And listening to music as much as possible, like in the car on the way home from daycare.

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Listen to music or audiobooks as much as you can

#2. Read Chinese books

If you’ve watched TV shows like 《爸爸去哪儿》and 《爸爸回来了》, you’ll notice that native Chinese parents speak to their kids with extremely advanced vocabulary, grammar, and 成语 (idioms) in almost every sentence. 😱

Since I am incapable of speaking a high level of Chinese like that, the only source of advanced vocabulary for my son is through reading books. We read 2-3 Chinese books (and a few English books) every night before bed. I’d like to read more but that’s all Fidgety Boy can handle.

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READ READ READ

#3. Teach your child to read

I spend 15 minutes doing this every single day, including weekends, holidays, his birthday, when I’m sick, and when we go out of town. This is my #1 priority.

A child that can read fluently can independently learn and do so many things. I see this with my son in English — he basically just learns by himself through reading books, road signs, and everything around him.

Invest your time in teaching your child to read well.

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Daily practice with 四五快读

In summary…

Don’t stress about the unimportant things and just focus your attention on the most crucial things.

#1 and #2 are just part of daily life and don’t take up much additional time. #3 does take commitment but if you value it I bet you can find time for it.

加油!💪🏼

About Me: I am a speech-language pathologist and have taught PreK-12th grade language and reading for almost 10 years, including 5 years at a Chinese immersion school in midwestern USA. 

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Home Library, Learning to Read, Preschool Reads

Chinese Home Library Part V: Finale

This morning Little Man completely out of the blue said “I really like my library mom, thanks for my library.” AWWW. 😊 Allow me to bask in this moment because just a few months ago he flat out refused to read any Chinese books!

Here’s how I organized the ~350 Chinese books and ~150 English books we currently have. We have far fewer English books since there are five awesome all-English libraries within 15 mins of our house.

We used to have just one 3-cube bookcase in his bedroom, mixed English and Chinese books, and completely overflowing. This was a really terrible set up because most of the Chinese books are paperbacks with very thin spines, meaning my son pulled everything off the shelf onto the floor to look for what he wanted. URGHHH!!! Also many books were overlooked because he just didn’t see them.

In our new organization system (that I just put in place yesterday!), the 3-cube bookcase is now entirely for English books in one corner of his room. He also got a nice comfy beanbag chair for Christmas which he loves.

On the other side of his room, I bought an Ikea Billy bookcase and 12 Samla bins for Chinese books. I have it set up like a typical USA classroom library, which is books organized by genre and level, and forward facing as much as possible so that it grabs the child’s attention. Now he can browse books by bin without pulling them all into a giant pile on the floor. WIN.

The bottom two shelves are 绘本 picture books (designed for adults to read to kids) and the top shelf are 桥梁书 readers (designed for kids to read to themselves). I got a 3-shelf bookcase because it’s the perfect height for him at 5 years old. Ideally I would love the picture books in bins facing out too, but… space constraints.

The picture books are generally arranged by height from tallest to shortest. My OCD self really wishes all books were the same size so they can look perfect, but alas. For the readers on the top shelf, they are sort of arranged by reading level from left to right, with Bin 8 being the easiest and Bin 11 the hardest. I think Bin 6 looks a little pathetic being half empty so I am looking to buy some more books to fill it up. 😛

A few people asked me for book recommendations so I’ve listed the books with the following rating scale.

  • R = Recommended
  • Ok = Books that are not the greatest but my kid has somewhat enjoyed and learned something from them
  • TBD = To be determined because we haven’t read them yet. HAHA.

Note: 95% of my books were purchased online from Taobao but I am not able to give you direct links to them as TB sellers sell out of items fast. Also the prices fluctuate quite a bit so search around for the best price. If you are interested in the books, please copy and paste the title in Chinese and enter it into TB search. Alternatively, you can also copy the image and do an image search.

Picture Books:

 

100层的巴士 The Hundred Decker Bus (R)

生气王子 The Angry Prince (R)

我变成一只喷火龙了 I Turned Into a Fire-Breathing Dragon (Ok)

帕拉帕拉山的妖怪 The Monster of Papa Pala Mountain (Ok)

过年啦 Chinese New Year (R)

首先由一个苹果 First There Was An Apple (R)

开车出发系列 Tram series (Ok) – Better suited for 2+

100层的房子系列 100 Story House series (Ok) – Better suited for 3+

Bin 2:

 

你看起来好像很好吃系列 Tyrannosaurus series (R)

青蛙弗洛格系列 Frog series (Ok)

小猪佩琦系列 Peppa Pig series (Ok)

Bin 3:

 

屁屁侦探系列 Butt Detective series (R)

可爱的鼠小弟系列 Little Mouse series (R)

Bin 4 and Bin 5: 

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奇先生妙小姐系列 Mr. Men and Little Miss series (Ok) – Print quality is disappointing

Bin 6:

 

 

 

中国传统节日绘本系列 Chinese Holidays series (R)

上下五千年系列 5000 Year Chinese History series (TBD)

Bin 7:

 

爆笑虫子漫画系列 Larva comics series (Ok)

植物大战僵尸漫画 Plants vs. Zombies series (Ok)

闹闹漫画乐园系列 Nao Nao comics series (Ok)

Bin 8:

我会读系列 I Can Read series (R)

亲爱的小熊系列 Little Bear series (Ok)

笨狼的故事系列 Stupid Wolf series (Ok)

Bin 9:

青蛙和蟾蜍系列 Frog and Toad series (Ok)

我爱阅读 蓝色系列 I Love Reading Blue series (Ok) – Some people like this but I don’t. I ended up selling them.

Bin 10:

我爱阅读 黄色系列 I Love Reading Yellow series (Ok) – Some people like this but I don’t. I ended up selling them.

阅读123系列 Reading 123 series (R)

Bin 11: 

成语故事系列 Idiom stories series (NR)

十万个为什么系列 10,000 Why series (NR)

And finally… here is a bookcase in the basement that I refer to as my “dumping ground”. This is an old bookcase that I use to store books that are either too advanced or outgrown or books that are crap. We have a lot of books like Dr. Seuss and Elephant and Piggie that my son used to love but rarely touches anymore. So they get sent to this dumping ground for a year or so before they are purged. HAHA.

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Read the rest of my Chinese Home Library blog posts:

A special THANK YOU to Guavarama for her Building a (Traditional Chinese) Chinese Library posts. They are so informative and I refer back to them frequently.

Questions? Feel free to contact me via Facebook or Instagram

Learning to Read

How many characters should my child know?

I admit I’m a little bit obsessed with numbers. Must be an occupational hazard of being an educator because I feel a NEED to know reading levels. What level my son is at. What level he should be. How he compares to kids in Singapore and China.

#tigermom

Here’s what I’ve found so far in my research:

Anyway I’m really glad I did all that googling because I found out that kids in China know A LOT more characters than their Taiwanese counterparts in the early years. I assume that eventually in middle and high school they end up the same, knowing about 3500 to 4000 characters.

Kids in Taiwan use zhuyin (bopomofo) to aid reading from preschool all the way to about 4th grade. (Read Mandarin Mama’s informative article about this) Not so for pinyin. In China pinyin is used only for a very short period in 1st-2nd grade. There is a stronger emphasis on character acquisition and I read that kids learn 7 characters a day!

Traditional Chinese books, from picture books (e.g. Mr. Men) to beginning readers (e.g. Elephant & Piggie, Little Bear) to chapter books (Reading 123, Magic Tree House, Roald Dahl) are all accompanied by zhuyin.

In contrast, the same Simplified Chinese books DO NOT have pinyin. A quick browse on Taobao will show you that only 1st-2nd grade books like 笨狼的故事 and 米小圈 come with pinyin. Picture books? No pinyin. Early readers? No pinyin. Anything beyond 2nd grade? No pinyin! 😬

I guess what this tells me is… if I want my child reading Simplified Chinese books, he’s going to need to know A LOT of characters. Heck of a lot. Otherwise he will find himself unable to read the books he’d be interested in (age wise) at the elementary level.

My #tigermomgoal is to get my son to the level that is around Singapore Higher Chinese and maybe a little bit more. Because can I really expect my American child to compare to China/Taiwan children who eat and breathe Chinese every waking moment of every day? NOPE. Singapore Higher Chinese, for English/Chinese bilingual children, is a much more realistic and attainable goal.

FYI I’m from Singapore and took regular Chinese, not Higher Chinese. I think that Higher Chinese at the secondary level is much more rigorous than primary level but I have not found that data yet.

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Learning to Read, Si Wu Kuai Du 四五快读

Si Wu Kuai Du 四五快读:Organization Tips 

When we first started《四五快读》(description here) I kept misplacing our flash cards and it was a frustrating and time-wasting endeavor every day. 😖 Seriously, it sucks to dig through piles of little cards to find the ones you need.

Anyhow I figured out a system to stay organized. I got these supplies from Dollar Tree during back-to-school shopping in August:

#1. Zippered pencil pouches

I got six of these 3-ring pencil pouches, one for each 四五快读 book (there are 8 books but only the first 6 books come with flash cards).

All nicely labeled and stored in a 1.5-inch binder:


#2. Accordion card holder

All the flash cards we are currently learning go in this index card holder. We start our lesson by reviewing flash cards from previous days, and I move them backwards by one sleeve pocket every day. New words for the day are placed in the front.

The flash cards keep moving backwards until they are mastered (around 6-8 days), at which point I take them out and put them on the word wall (#4 below). 

#3. Working Tray

Our current book and everything we need go into this tray. We usually do our reading lessons in the dining room, but sometimes in his bedroom or basement school room, so this tray makes it easy to grab and go. We do flash cards and a few pages of the book every day.

#4. Pocket Chart

I put all the words that he has mastered on the wall in our “homeschool” area. We don’t review these daily, just whenever the chart gets full, which is about every two weeks. I then have him read all the words, and the ones that he remembers (80-90%) are taken off and put into permanent storage.

The ones that he forgot stay on the chart until the next time we review again.

Materials needed:

  • 6 zippered pencil pouches
  • 1 binder
  • 1 accordion card holder
  • 1 tray
  • 1 wall pocket chart

Total cost: $10

With this system in place, we have a nice rotation of learning new words and reviewing previous words until they go in his long-term memory. I really like these basic 四五快读 flash cards as they train him to recognize characters for what they are instead of using pinyin, pictorial, or context clues.

Generally he retains characters pretty well, but I’ve noticed lately that the more he learns (right now about 250 characters), the more interference and confusion there is. For example, he used to know 宝 (Book 1) really well until he learned 玉 (Book 3), and now he names 宝 as 玉. Anyhow I think this is a normal phase of learning and it will eventually work itself out.

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Curriculum Review, Learning to Read, Reviews, Si Wu Kuai Du 四五快读

Curriculum Comparison: 《四五快读》vs. 《基础汉字500》Sagebooks

There are two highly popular curriculum out there for parents to teach their child to read Chinese. In this post I will do a comparison of《四五快读》and《基础汉字500》, also known as Sagebooks or Basic Chinese 500, to help you decide which to get!

Disclaimer: I do not have personal experience using Sagebooks, just my extensive internet research and browsing them at the bookstore.

First, what are they?

They are curriculum designed for the child to learn the most commonly used Chinese characters, by the end of which they should be able to read simple reader books by themselves.

《四五快读》covers more characters at 552 (in the first six books) and 800+ by the eighth book compared to Sagebooks which has 500 exactly. Some parents buy both and use them concurrently, but I think one is sufficient. The characters covered are largely the same.

Cost Comparison:

The total cost for《四五快读》is ~$25, as compared to Sagebooks which cost at least $200-300. A huge price difference!

The other thing I really like about 《四五》is that you just buy one nice complete set of 8 books. Everything is included. Bam.

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In contrast, Sagebooks has 5 levels and 5 books per level, for a total of 25 books. At Popular bookstore in Singapore, they sell each book individually and a few books were not available. Meaning you have to run to several stores or buy from several sellers on Carousell to collate all 25 books. 😣 In addition, the parent guide is found separately on the website, and flash cards have to be purchased or you have to make your own.

chinese_readers__ji_chu_han_zi_basic_chinese_readers_500_very_popular_series_1507083662_4d0029a4

Alternatively, the complete set of books can be purchased online from the HK publisher for a whopping $243 USD, not including shipping. 😱

Teaching Style:

The primary difference between these two is the teaching style. 《四五快读》is more “textbook style”, and the child learns to read characters, phrases, sentences, and short stories (sample lesson shown below).

I really like that it teaches different 造词 combinations for each character. My son has learned a lot of new vocabulary like 大学生,小学生 which I don’t think he would otherwise encounter.

After the child reads each sentence, he points to the picture that matches what he read. A great way to check for comprehension!


Flash cards for the characters are included in the back of each book to cut out. Very convenient. There’s multiple of each character so you can make your own sentences.

I ❤️️ these reading charts which are found every few lessons. The intensive practice really helps my son differentiate similar looking characters like 白,日,目.


As the books progress, the font size gets smaller and smaller, pictures get fewer and fewer, and story gets longer and longer. I love this! It has really helped build up my son’s confidence and reading ability. Overall, I find 《四五快读》very similar to the book I used to teach my son to read in English. This is the main reason why I chose it, because I already know this method works for us.

Sagebooks on the other hand teaches through a “storybook style”. Every lesson introduces a new character and you read a story that has many repetitions of that character as well as previously taught characters. It is like the Chinese equivalent of Bob Books or Dick & Jane books.

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As you can see, each page has a picture and the sentence in characters, pinyin and English. I’m pretty sure my English-dominant son would rely on the pinyin, resulting in me not knowing if he is reading pinyin or characters.

Target Audience:

As the name suggests, 《四五快读》is ideally suited for 4-5 year olds. I think it would be okay for a 3-year-old who has strong Chinese background. The author actually taught her daughter to read 1000 characters before she turned 3!

《四五》was designed for Mainland China parents to teach monolingual Chinese children, however I am using it successfully to teach my American-beginning-Chinese-learner to read. So I would say that it is ok for use with children even if their Chinese is not strong, BUT the parent’s Chinese must be strong! This is because the parent guide is 30 whole pages in Chinese! 😂


This parent guide is a must read and full of important information. Please do not use 《四五》without reading the parent guide first. It would be akin to trying to build complicated furniture without reading the instructions.

I don’t know if there is an official recommended age for Sagebooks, but most parents also use it around 4-5 years old or slightly younger. There seems to be consensus that 3-5 years is the optimal age to teach Chinese reading.

Sagebooks seem to be designed for bilingual children and bilingual parents, because both the books and parent guide are Chinese-English. It is better suited for parents with limited Chinese proficiency.

Time Commitment:

Similar for both. It takes about 15 minutes practice a day, 5-18 months to complete, depending on child’s age, temperament, and how diligent you are!

In summary…

I do not think one is better than the other; there is no one-size-fits-all. If you are consistent with practice, I’m pretty sure either of these curriculum will succeed in creating a reader.

For me, I like things 1) affordable, 2) organized, 3) simple black-and-white, 4) focused on characters only, 5) pedagogy and research based, so needless to say I went with 《四五快读》and LOVE IT. ❤️

Have you used either of these? Share your experience in the comments!

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