A graded reader is a book that is limited to a certain reading level. In Chinese this is typically based on the number of characters used in the book. For example, a beginner book might only include 300 unique characters which are then used together to tell a story. One of the great things about a graded reader is that with the limited number of characters you will see words repeated many times. The repetition and application in sentences will boost your learning rate.
If you’ve spent much time learning Chinese you’ll know that one of the best ways to improve fluency is through stories. Finding books written at your reading level can be difficult. Graded readers allow you to spend more time reading and less time looking up words. When you do look up a word, you’ll likely find it again in the story.
There are some limitations to graded readers that you should know. Oftentimes they lack audio and do not have definitions for all words. The good part about this is that you are forced to remember simple words yourself, but early on it can be a stumbling block. If you try a digital graded reader such as the lessons in Du Chinese you’ll be able to customize your experience based on your needs. You can read Chinese with help when you need it.
Using a graded reader is the same as reading a book. The benefit is that you get some assistance along the way for the more difficult characters. A good Chinese reader will be written in modern Chinese with words that are used frequently. As you read through the story you will start to recognize more characters as they come up more often.
One of the best things about Chinese graded readers is they give you a lot of Chinese content to consume all at the same level. When you’re studying Chinese in a textbook you’ll run into example sentences or even paragraphs, but not enough to actually learn the language. The problem is that textbooks move on to the next level before offering enough practice where you’re at. That’s where graded readers come in - you can use them to practice Chinese at your current level before you advance.
Reading is one of the four pillars of language acquisition: Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing. The reason why it is so effective is because it supports the other three pillars as well. When it comes to increasing your vocabulary and understanding how it is used, reading is probably the best way to do it. Graded readers in particular help because they offer you help when are likely to need it most.
As crazy as it sounds, Chinese graded readers have been around for a long time and used with school children. They weren’t so clearly designed for it and they didn’t have the fancy name, but there are many Chinese children’s books that fit the description. They use a limited number of characters and they give pronunciation guides for the less common or more difficult ones. It’s worked for Chinese kids for decades at least and it can work for you!
Graded readers are available both digitally and as hard copies. Mandarin Companion has some nice ones for beginners and are currently working on new stories for higher levels. Amazon also has some high quality ones that are worth checking out. Du Chinese has also begun publishing short stories based on skill level which are essentially graded readers in the app. Check back often as new stories are being added every week.