What are Graded Readers?

Graded readers are books created specifically for foreign language learners that are written using carefully controlled words and grammar. There are graded readers written in many languages, but in our case, Mandarin Companion graded readers are written for Chinese learners. Graded readers are commonly novels and written at a target difficulty level or “grade”. 

They are not easy to write. It takes very careful analysis of words used (corpus analysis), disciplined writing, calculated editing, and creative storytelling to make graded readers an effective learning tool.

We take this responsibility seriously at Mandarin Companion. Through our creative work and deep analysis, we’ve been able to write 16 Chinese graded readers at three different levels based entirely on the Chinese characters and words that a learner is most likely to know. Our level one, also known as “Breakthrough,” starts at the 150 characters level. Level One is designed for 300 characters, and Level Two is a 450 character standard. 

The Magic of Graded Readers

quote christine nuttall

Extensive reading has been the focus of hundreds of studies by experts and is a proven method for building fluency now and mastering the Chinese language. Every learner who includes reading into their study plan will experience the magic that happens when the texts are level-appropriate, interesting, and just challenging enough.

“The beauty of extensive reading is that it leads to ‘reading gain without reading pain.’” — Day and Bamford 

Extensive reading focuses on reading quickly at a high level (98%) of comprehension without frequently stopping to look up characters.

🚨This is different from intensive reading 🚨which is reading at a 90-98% level of comprehension. Many Chinese learners are familiar with this type of reading exercise commonly found in textbooks and learning materials. It is typically slower, requires a dictionary or reading aides which results in frequent pauses to look up and verify new characters and words. While intensive reading is helpful, it is not as effective as extensive reading.

Reading pain is reading below a 90% level of comprehension, which is at 1 or more unknown words for every 10 words. At this level, reading is slow, comprehension is very low, and the experience is ultimately “painful”. It may take 30 mins to read a few paragraphs this way and afterwards still be unsure of what was read. This is the least effective reading method for learning a language.

What Graded Readers are Not

❌ COURSE BOOKS.

Course books do not have enough repetition necessary for learners to develop a deep knowledge of the language. It takes between 10-30 encounters with a word before it can be connected to its meaning. For abstract or new concepts, it can take 50 or more meetings of a word.

Let’s look at Integrated Chinese. How many vocab words in a chapter? A lot. If you look at how many times each character is seen in print, you might be lucky to get 4 or 5 in a chapter. How do you expect someone to learn to read if that’s the only opportunity they have to learn to read and they are learning those words at the same time by force of memory?  – Terry Waltz, You Can Learn Chinese Podcast Episode #39

❌ BOOKS FOR CHINESE CHILDREN.

The conventional wisdom is to seek out children’s books written for Chinese kids because after 

all, they’re written for kids, therefore they must be simple, right? 

Wrong. 

It is important to note a few features of children’s literature and picture books. 

  1. The children already understand Chinese, and likely more than you do. 
  2. Children typically do not read the books, instead adults are reading the book to a child.
  3. Children’s books are commonly filled with words that you are unlikely to ever learn or use as a second language learner. Think of books that include words like “huff-and-puff”, “ruffled feathers”, “squish”, etc.  

Simply put, children’s books are not suitable for foreign language learners because they are not written for foreign language learners. Can you read them? Maybe, but your mileage may vary.

❌ BOOKS WITH PINYIN OVER THE CHARACTERS.

Pinyin is essential, but every learner should be careful about building an over-reliance on pinyin.  If you’re serious about improving your Chinese reading skills, this means avoiding reading materials with pinyin over the characters. It’s a crutch and if you get too attached, you will find it is counterproductive to your literacy development and make you LAZY about memorizing characters. Boo. 👎

If you say, “without the pinyin, I can’t read it!,” then you are likely reading something that is too hard for you. If possible, find something without pinyin you can read closer to your level.

❌ SHORT BOOKS.

We all love a quick, short read from time to time. Right? Right! But truth be told, your short reads aren’t doing you a lot of favors in the fluency department. 

Why? Books that aren’t long enough cannot provide sufficient context and repetition. That’s what makes our Chinese graded readers the perfect resource: The right length, the right amount of repetition, the right introduction to new vocab, and the right exposure to the stuff you already know while gently stretching you to a higher level. 

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