Using Chinese textbooks to improve reading ability

These are some of the textbooks I have in my bookshelf. Have you used any of them?

The title of this article might look odd, don’t textbooks at least partly exist to help you learn to read Chinese? Indeed, but it also seems popular to  bash textbooks and favour more natural and wild ways of learning. In this article, I’m going to explain why I think textbooks are good for learning to read Chinese, although there are several caveats and a few specific ways you should use them.

It’s also the case that this month’s challenge on Hacking Chinese is about extensive reading (it’s not too late to join, it’s only been running for a few days) and I have received some questions about what beginners should read. I did offer some suggestions in the article linked to above, and one of them is indeed “textbooks”. However, I don’t just mean that you should keep using your textbook, I mean that textbooks are good sources of reading material in general that you can use much more than you do at the moment. Before we look into that, though, why are textbooks good?

Texts meant for native speakers are harder than you might think

The obvious reason textbooks are useful for learning to read Chinese is that they are designed for foreign adults. This is very different from writing a book for a native speaker, even if it’s a child. They already know how to speak Chinese when they start learning to read properly!

Therefore, books for children seldom work well as reading material for adult second language learners, at least not beginners or lower intermediate learners. They focus on entirely the wrong things, and take things for granted that are actually very difficult for us.

Furthermore, it seems like the goal of these books is to teach the children new words, rather than telling an entertaining and/or edifying story, so even if the size of the printed characters indicates that a book ought to be easy, it can contain many characters and words you really don’t need to know.

Dealing with the diversity problem

If you read books in electronic format and use a pop-up dictionary (see last week’s article for more about this: The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading), you can still read these texts, but it’s essential that you don’t try to learn everything you see. Remember, for every unnecessary word you learn, you could have learnt a useful word that would have improved your Chinese much more. Use the rule of three: only learn something the third time it appears.

The main problem with authentic reading material of any kind is diversity. If you design a textbook for second language learners, you try to avoid using more new words than necessary, so it’s a very bad idea to introduce three near synonyms in the same chapter. That happens all the time in texts written for native speakers, because diversity is one of the signs of language mastery. Re-using the same words again and again just shows that the author has a limited vocabulary. As second language learners, however, that’s exactly what we want!

Incidentally, this is why non-fiction, even if it’s fairly advanced, is still easier to read than novels. When you read a novel in Chinese, the author often makes a point of not using the same words over and over. In academic writing, if you change the terminology in every sentence, you won’t get your paper published.

The benefits of reading textbooks

Textbooks introduce words at slow pace and make a deliberate effort to re-use words in later chapters to make sure you still remember them. One chapter builds upon the next. Apart from this, each new step is described and explained, and although the explanations are far from perfect, it’s still better than nothing. Most of the questions you might want to ask about the text, such as what certain words mean, how they are used in the text and how the grammar works, have already been answered.

In addition, textbooks focus on things that are relevant to your situation. Of course, the match isn’t perfect, so middle-aged Korean learners will have to read about American college students, and you might learn more about baseball than you want to, but this is still pretty good. It’s at least possible that these topics will be good to know about. It’s also better than the typical story for children, which have little to do with your situation. I’m not saying that the average textbook is terribly interesting to read, I’m just saying that the alternatives aren’t much better.

Use more than one textbook for reading practice

I have argued before that you should use more than one textbook. The reasoning is simple: since each author limits diversity in a different way, by using several different textbooks, you gain most of the benefits while avoiding the main drawback, the lack of diversity. You also double or triple the reading material you have for your specific level, which is awesome. You don’t have to learn or read everything in these books, of course, but the extra reading practice is great.

If I get the chance, I would like to try to teach a full-time student using three different textbooks and going through chapter one in all three, then chapter two in all three and so on. It would of course take longer to get to an “advanced” level, but the foundation would be much more solid and I think the end-result would be better. Some language centres and schools rush students through textbooks and I really hate that. The amount of Chinese you know is not measured by how many chapters you have finished in any given textbook series.

Some problems with using textbooks for reading practice

Even though I think that textbooks are excellent for beginners and intermediate learners, there are problems as well:

  • The language is somewhat unnatural – This is a result of the lack of diversity mentioned above. Natural, spoken Chinese is very diverse and the textbook author sacrifices this to make the text easier. Still, the language isn’t a big problem and most complaints seem exaggerated to me. I can recall many occasions where one native speaker looked at my textbook and said “we never say that” only to hear someone use that exact phrase a few days later.
  • The illusion of advanced learning – This is something I mentioned above. Many textbook series advance too quickly, meaning that they start using fairly difficult language in book three or four, teaching the students lots of idioms and formal ways of expression. This gives the illusion that the student has reached an advanced level. However, the lack of diversity mentioned above means that there are huge holes in the student’s knowledge of very basic Chinese. Use more than one textbook.
  • Limited range of topics – I mentioned above that it’s good that textbooks focus on topics relevant for your situation, but this is also a drawback once you get to an intermediate level. Thus, while it’s okay to keep to textbooks (and graded readers, see below) as a beginner, the range of topics is just too limited for intermediate learners. Of course, this varies from series to series, there are many different kinds of textbooks and some have very diverse content. Just don’t stay in textbook land too long. If you feel that you have, you might want to read this: Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese.

Add graded readers to the mix

Even though I’m fond of textbooks, there are other sources of reading material available. Grader readers are excellent, because just like textbooks, they are targeted at language learners at a specific level (measured by how many characters you know). This might still be too hard for complete beginners, but once you know a few hundred characters, you should have a look at Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze. They are meant to give you more volume and the content is usually more interesting that the average textbook’s.

Which textbooks to use

I don’t think it’s super important which books you use for reading practice. It’s not going to be your main source of learning anyway, so anything you can pick up cheaply or find in other ways should be fine. If you have no clue at all, here are some of the major textbooks series used around the world:

What books do you use? Have you found any other reading materials I haven’t mentioned here? Please leave a comment!

Learning how to fish: Or, why it’s essential to know how to learn

In a world with perfect teachers and a perfect education system, we wouldn’t need to know how to study Chinese. We wouldn’t need to take many decisions about how to learn and even less about what to learn. The curriculum would be designed and executed in such a way that it made sure that we learnt everything we need to master Chinese. We could just do what was required of us and expect that to be enough.

Image credit: Alexander Warnolf
Image credit: Alexander Warnolf

Unfortunately, as we all know, this world isn’t perfect and Chinese education is in fact very far from being even adequate in many areas. Sure, there are schools that are really good and teachers that do their job well, but there are also lousy institutions and teachers who mostly teach because Chinese happens to be their native language, rather than because they have a passion for teaching and the necessary skills. Even in a very favourable situation, it’s unlikely that a teacher or course will provide you with what you want. You need to take control of your own studying.

This is partly why I think learning how to learn is essential for all adult students, not only those that are ambitious and like experimentation. Even though I realise that you as a reader of Hacking Chinese are probably more motivated and ambitious than the average learner, I do think and hope that what I write will spread to all students eventually. The ability to learn on your own isn’t something you need only if you have no teacher and no course. Instead, it’s a core ability that will determine your success in learning Chinese.

In other words, take responsibility for your own learning now!

Teaching you how to fish

There is an excellent saying in Chinese which pretty much sums up this entire website:

授人以魚, 不如授人以漁
shòu rén yǐ yú,
bù rú shòu rén yǐ yú

This is usually translated as: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If you take a course, your teacher will provide you with lots of fish and you won’t starve to death. If you read Hacking Chinese and apply what I write here, on the other hand, you will gradually learn how to fish.

In other words, if you have an excellent teacher who can drip-feed you fish (yuck!), you actually don’t need Hacking Chinese. However, since most people can neither afford nor find a teacher who caters to their individual needs, most people still need to learn how to fish. You can of course just try to find other people to help you with every single problem you encounter, but it’s much better to acquire the ability to help yourself, it’s going to take you much farther and puts you firmly in the driver’s seat of your language learning journey.

Teachers and classrooms

It ought to be obvious why most students have to rely on them selves to learn Chinese. In a classroom, the teacher doesn’t have time to do everything. Even in very serious language programs, there are seldom more than a few hours of lessons everyday. If the students are ambitious, the teacher can focus most of the classroom time on things that actually need a teacher (such as improving speaking ability) and avoid things that don’t (listening, reading and vocabulary learning).

In compulsory education or with students with low motivation, much time is wasted on things like:

  • Learning words the students have never seen before
  • Listening to the dialogue in the textbook
  • Reading explanations in the textbook
  • Learning the stroke order of characters

These are things you could (and should) do on your own. If these areas are covered in class, the problem is that students might get the impression that they are already doing enough and that the teacher is providing them with everything they need. This is wrong. There’s simply no teacher or program that can provide you with everything you need. Not only are you responsibly for your own learning, you’re also the only one who has the potential to really understand your own situation.

The journey is long, so you’d better learn how to fish

The reason it’s not true that you can simply rely on your teacher or course is that it’s almost certain that they won’t provide you with enough Chinese in terms of quantity. You don’t necessarily need to study more, but you definitely need to expose yourself much more to Chinese in order to get used to it. To a certain extent, learning a language is about understanding rules and patterns, but this is completely useless if you don’t combine it with a lot of exposure to the surface forms. Knowing a grammar rule is only truly useful when you can understand it in context and the requires quantity of exposure. Obviously, you need quality as well, but in my experience, students don’t really lack this aspect since it is what most textbooks and teachers already provide. Most students lack quantity.

This is particularly true for listening and reading, which will eventually spill over into speaking and writing. The reason quantity is so important for the passive skills is that it’s not only a matter of if you understand or not (binary), but also how fast you can do it. It doesn’t help that you know the meaning of all the words in a spoken passage if it takes you a second to recall each and everyone of them, because you’ll lag so far behind the speaker that you will become lost almost immediately.

Because most courses can’t provide enough exposure, it means that you will be on your own most of the time, even if you’re enrolled in a serious Chinese language program. The better your teacher is, the more support you will have, but very few teachers have the time, ability and willingness to feed you fish all day long, even if you have the money to pay them for doing so. Learning to fish yourself is the only way.

How to learn to fish

Learning to fish requires three things:

The rest is about adjusting the methods to your goals and evaluate your progress, then tweaking or reconsidering your method based on the outcome of the evaluation. This is the start of a never-ending and fascinating journey in the the soul of language learning!

If you want some more concrete examples of things you can try to improve your learning right now, check the following carefully selected articles (or you can check the less carefully selected study hacks category):

  1. How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner
  2. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  3. Learning Chinese in the shower with me
  4. Vocalise more to learn more Chinese
  5. Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small
  6. Timeboxing Chinese
  7. A smart method to discover problems with tones

Finally, don’t get stuck on just reading about these different ways of learning, actually try them! Now!

Why you should use more than one textbook

Studying a foreign language in a classroom situation (which should include most of us, I think) typically depends on a series of textbooks. Even if you aren’t enrolled in a language program, it’s still likely that you will use a textbook for reference. What I’m going to discuss here is the value of using additional textbooks as a resource for more comprehensive learning of vocabulary and grammar.

Textbooks teach you how to find your way around without getting lost

Before even beginning to discuss the various benefits that using additional textbooks entails, it’s necessary to take a closer look at what a textbook can do in the first place.Textbooks are good for a number of reasons.

  • The authors have chosen vocabulary that they think is suitable for students. These lists are valuable, because the authors’ guesses are a lot better than yours and they also avoid overly complicated language that might be a waste of time at your current level. You should focus on learning many words, but make sure the words aren’t so rare that it will be years before you see them again.
  • Textbooks explain the language, which is crucial for some learners (myself included). I cannot simply learn a language efficiently only by listening and reading, I need a slightly more theoretical approach for some elements, including but not limited to grammar. Reading about how words or patterns are used is helpful if the usage is non-obvious.

That being said, there are of course lots of things textbooks can’t teach, but that’s not the subject of this article. Let’s instead look closer at the most important aspect of language learning: vocabulary.

Language learning as mapping a foreign land

Repeating what I explained above in a different way, a textbook can be said to be your guide in an unfamiliar landscape after having parachuted from an aircraft. It indicates a direction and leads you along a path of ever increasing difficulty as the topics gradually becomes more difficult as the starting point vanishes beyond the horizon behind you.

However, you mustn’t fool yourself into thinking that being able to walk a distance in one direction means that you can do the same in another. A new language is a huge landscape and even the easier parts of the terrain are vast. Approaching more difficult challenges doesn’t mean that the easier ones are all mastered. This is where additional textbooks come in, but before I explain how, I shall illustrate with an example (if you want to read more about maps, terrain and vocabulary, check Mapping the terra incognita of vocabulary).

In my own Chinese studies, I’ve primarily used the Practical Audio-Visual Chinese (although I did use Short-term Spoken Chinese for my first year). This means that when I landed in alien territory, those books took me around a carefully guided tour, introducing various aspects of Chinese. Perhaps this guide also resulted in a false sense of security, because even though my vocabulary and grammar is now reasonably developed in some areas, I can fail very basic vocabulary tests for areas I simply haven’t visited yet. This is true for English as well, please don’t ask me about words for cooking or cars!

Additional textbooks solidifies your fundamental knowledge of Chinese

So, how might additional textbooks be used here? If you use an additional textbook, it provides a new and different guided tour through the landscape, which should be at least partly familiar by now. The vocabulary is chosen by different authors with slightly different perspectives, leading to another set of words somebody thinks you really should know. No author can include all words they think are necessary in a single textbook (series), they have to select a few and omit others, but if you use more than one textbook, you will get a more complete picture (this applies to grammar, too).

An alternative would be to choose words that you encounter in everyday life, but they are problems:

  • The words might be very far from universal (i.e. used locally or by the person you’re talking to)
  • The words might be uncommon (depending on what you do and whom you talk to, again)
  • The words might be common, but not very useful (e.g. learning how to describe clothes, which is common, but only useful in a very limited setting)

Since you can select textbooks roughly at your current level, you can expand vocabulary and strengthen fundamental grammar in a relaxed manner, without having to worry about encountering too many words belonging in the categories described above.

In addition, different textbooks explain rules, words or phenomena in different ways, so reading more than one will give you a better understanding. If you think a grammar explanation is incomprehensible in one book, perhaps it’s crystal-clear in another! Different authors have different opinions about how to describe Chinese, so using more than one textbook will increase the chances that you find explanations that suit your way of thinking.

What additional textbooks to look for

I would choose textbooks that are at or slightly lower than my current level, but this depends on how much time and effort you’re prepared to spend. Studying those kinds of textbooks, I’ve found that in general, I know about two thirds of the words and most grammar, but the elements I didn’t know were truly interesting and useful. The topics chosen in these extra books did of course differ from my ordinary textbook, so some specialised words were new. For instance, one book might have a chapter on going to the swimming pool, another about playing football. Some of these I could safely ignore, but I always found lots of words I didn’t realise I was lacking before I saw them, or expressions that are genuinely useful although I had never seen them before.


By way of conclusion, I would like to recommend people to use more than one textbook. You don’t necessarily need to study it carefully, but do at least make sure you know the grammar and the relevant words (ignore those that are too specific in areas you have no interest in). It’s an efficient way of strengthening basic language skills and makes sure that you cover as much of the truly fundamental aspects of the language as possible. Which textbooks to use is of course impossible to give general advice about, but I think Taiwan Today: An Intermediate Course is an excellent choice (yes, it has both simplified and traditional characters) for beginner and intermediate students.