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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Montessori, Pinyin

Pinyin Part II: Moveable Alphabet

The moveable alphabet is a quintessential part of every Montessori classroom. My favorite thing about it, aside from strengthening reading and spelling skills, is that it enables the child to express thoughts before he/she is able to write.

Little Man is 5 years old and can only hand write a handful of characters like 一二三四, 口, 大. Obviously, given the limited characters he can write, he is not able to express himself much.

Enter the moveable alphabet:

Little Man is familiar with the moveable alphabet in English as he is in his third year of Montessori preschool. He actually knows much more about Montessori than me. I am trying to learn through blogs like Carrots are Orange and How We Montessori.

We started with the “a” vowel this weekend and sounded out the pinyin for words with the simple “a” sound. I did not include any diphthongs like “ao”, “ai” etc. as those make a different sound. We used the flash cards from 四五快读 Books 1-3 that he knows, and I made sure to include words that have the same pinyin but different tones like 爸 and 八 since this is the area he especially struggles with.

We will be using our pinyin moveable alphabet a lot in the next few months. Little Man knows the consonants pretty well from these Youtube videos so we’ll mostly focus on vowels. My plan is to introduce the six basic vowels one at a time, then slowly introduce the diphthongs, triphthongs, and exceptions. My hope is that as he gets better with it, he will be able to create his own Chinese sentences.

If you want to make your own moveable alphabet… Buy a 32-compartment storage container from a craft store, such as this one from Joann Fabrics. You can use my printable (or make your own) and print 8-10 copies on heavy cardstock. Laminate and cut. EASY.

I made the letters following Montessori colors, red for consonants (声母) and blue for vowels (韵母). The tonal marks are also in blue as they are placed on top of the vowel. This makes it easy to see that most Chinese words have the CV (consonant-vowel) structure. In Chinese the only CVC words end with the “n” or “ng” sound.

The moveable alphabet is different from my pinyin tiles in that there are no digraphs like “zh”, “ch”, “sh” or diphthongs like “ai”, “ie”. This adds an additional challenge!

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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!

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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.

magnet

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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