Effective Strategies for Reading in Chinese

Why reading matters

Without a doubt, reading matters in every language, including Chinese. There are tons of essays and research papers published to illustrate or confirm the importance of reading,

But I must deliberately emphasize Chinese reading. This is because I, as a Chinese teacher, have heard “I only want to learn speaking” or “Speaking is enough for me, and I don’t want to learn Chinese characters” so many times.  This is not good for a learner with a long-term goal, because it will lead to a kind of illiteracy, one who can only speak but can’t read Chinese. I must state that Chinese characters are highly related to Chinese reading. In fact, reading is indeed used everywhere in China, from an instant message to a work email, from a menu to written news, from directional signs to a written notification, etc. Since there are Chinese characters everywhere in China, differing from other countries with Phonetic Writing, reading is a survival skill far more than a language skill to some degree. Besides, if you can’t read well, it actually blocks you from a lot of things, like a better job, a deeper understanding of China, and fluent communication with your friends, just to name just a few things. What’s more, in every test, reading also counts for a large part. For instance HSK (Chinese Proficiency Test) has reading parts from Level 1- Level 6. Besides those evident benefits – opening your horizons, enlarging your vocabulary etc. –  better Chinese reading ability is really favorable for your studies or work. It will definitely give you more opportunities.

How to improve reading in Chinese

Just as I mentioned above, the ability to read in Chinese is pragmatic and favorable, so how can we reach a better reading ability? Here, we are going to provide several tips.

For beginners

Goal to understand the exact meaning without confusion.

Suggestions:

1. Master 300 basic words.

In a piece of reading material, the sentence is the basic unit. However, words make up sentences, so reading must be built atop the amount of words you know. For beginners, mastering basic words is a must. Referring to the requirements of HSK 2, it should take 300 words at least.

2. Understand the exact meaning.

The reading materials for beginners are not so difficult – it’s short, like a short dialogue or a short essay, and the grammar and words are simple but frequently used. So in order to lay a solid foundation and foster a sharp sense for further study, you’d better understand the materials fully, and once you’ve mastered those basic language rules, you will finally find out that it is still the same kind of organization even in a long and complicated material in the future. Even when choosing appropriate words to fill out the blanks in HSK, you can also quickly get answers once seeing the items because you have already digested it in situations where this word should be or with which word it can be combined with after your long-term regular practice.

For intermediate learners

Goal: to understand the main idea of a reading material, and get the cultural points behind these as well as catch relevant details.

Suggestions:

1. Try to master what you’re learning in chunks.

When studying in the intermediate level, step back and learn in chunks. This is because of the more complex materials, more twisted context, mixed grammar points, etc. If you still try to focus on understanding every word, you may go far from the true idea the reading material wants to express.  Thus, at this time, you should try to master the frequently used combinations or structures in chunks. As we all know, sometimes a word in a group will show a different meaning compared to when it is used alone. In this way, when coming to a long and complex material, catching the chunks will be more helpful than following every single word. Consider the reading and comprehension part of HSK. It’s really hard for you to read and choose a corresponding choice in such a short time. However, if you have fostered a habit of remembering in chunks, you will quickly pick the right answer when seeing the corresponding partner.

2. Get the main idea and filter out irrelevant details.

Actually I still highly recommend perusing all the materials, but at this level, the process will be quite time-consuming, which intimidates a lot of learners. In a fact, you can scan the whole material first to obtain a brief image about what it is, and then peruse it to learn the specific expressions and the logic behind it. During this stage when you are looking at the details, you should pay more attention to the parts related with the main topic and filter out irrelevant information, which will improve your reading effectiveness to a large extent. This strategy is good for the improvement of your comprehension and the speed of doing a reading test, where the passages can be long but time is limited.

For advanced learners

Goal: catch the gist quickly, understand the profound culture behind the materials and aim to communicate with the culture rather than just focus on words or grammar.

Suggestions:

1. Intensive and extensive reading.

For advanced learners, words and grammar won’t be the hub of their reading. They pursue things like a new theory, professional knowledge, enlightment, etc. At this time, both intensive and extensive reading should come together. According to the cognition and knowledge advanced learners have already formed, they should choose materials which are worthy of intensive and extensive reading. At this stage, advanced learners should keep acute information, which is more crucial than digging deeper into each material.

2. Find a specific area of study.

As an old Chinese saying goes: Studying is like sailing against the current; either you keep forging ahead or you keep falling behind. Since advanced learners have already reached a high level, making progress on language may be hard for them. In this way, they should focus on a certain area or topic – reading a series of professional materials, for example. If you have interest in Chinese history, martial arts, traditional Chinese Medicine, or Tea Culture etc. reading relevant specific materials will not only let you get a deeper understanding but also improve your comprehension ability, and maybe even help you make friends who have similar interests.

General suggestions for Chinese reading: Comprehensible input

Developed by Stephen Krashen (1981), Comprehensible input refers to acquiring language by hearing and understanding messages that are slightly above their current language level. (Comprehensible Input +1 or N + 1) It is also true for Chinese reading, no matter what level you are now, it will help to touch something a little bit beyond your current competence. In this way, you can get confidence, a sense of achievement as well as a feeling of curiosity for new things. Actually some tips I posted above from beginner to advanced level stems from this theory. Don’t hesitate to practice them. But remember: the more haste, the less speed. So read gradually to learn better.

Chinese Reading Practice Materials

MandarinBean provides practice for Reading and Comprehension which are based on HSK scales. You can easily find the materials which are suitable for you. All the reading content are written or edited by native Chinese teachers. Each article has about 20% – 30% vocabulary which may be beyond your current Chinese level. This exactly matches the Krashen Comprehensible Input Theory.  Improving your reading can thus be more effective.

These reading materials on MandarinBean can not only train your Chinese reading abilities, but can also help you learn more daily vocabulary and expressions. The types of these reading materials are various, including fun stories, news, lifestyles, and culture. Whether you want to read in simplified version or traditional, both are provided.  Of course, to make sure you understand all the content, you can also check the English translation as a contrast. The key vocabulary and flashcards are also listed for you to learn and review.

What`s more, it’s completely free as well.

Summing up

Better Chinese reading competence takes time. I hope these suggestions can make a big difference to your Chines reading. Still, don’t forget the basic criterion “N + 1”- touch a little bit beyond your current level, because sometimes going too far is as bad as not going far enough.

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