Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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!

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  1. Taemin says:

    the problem with textbooks is stiflingly dry content. If I have to read another piece on traditional festivals or friendship between our two nations, I think I might scream

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I know, I agree, but can you find more interesting material at the same level anywhere else? Of course, if the frustration is strong enough, it might be worth looking into material which is way too hard, which is definitely possible with pop-up dictionaries and so on, but that’s frustrating in another way.

  2. Larry Lynch says:

    Olle, I’m in complete agreement with your helpful comments about using textbooks for reading materials. I use and like both Integrated Chinese and NPCR. My latest favorite is Living Language: Chinese, especially for the well-designed audio & written exercises and for the dialogues. It is like a much more compact version of either IC or NPCR, and contrary to some books like Chinese for Dummies, DOES include the characters, not just Pinyin.

  3. John Renfroe says:

    Excellent post, really jibes with my experience.

    Pretty much the whole time I was studying Chinese intensively, I used multiple textbooks at the same time. I studied PAVC 2 on its own, but PAVC 3 was paired with 今日台灣 Taiwan Today and Far East IIB. PAVC 4 was paired with 20 Lectures on Chinese Culture, Mini Radio Plays with Talks On Chinese Culture (an ICLP book which I found used). Then while I took a newspaper-reading class (using the newspaper, not a textbook), I studied 思想與社會 on the side. Then while I took 思想與社會 (it’s a lot of material and I felt like a review would be good), I studied parts of 從精讀到泛讀 The Independent Reader on the side and read an intro book on 古文字學 (which was my first real book, and reasonably easy for me by that point).

    And on the side of all that, I studied 文言文, starting with Fuller’s An Introduction to Literary Chinese when I was taking PAVC 3, using Shadick’s A First Course in Literary Chinese as a reader after that, and then moving on to selections from 古文觀止 and Taiwanese high school 國文 readers.

    It’s tiring just thinking about all that! But it was very effective. I went from the beginning of PAVC 2 (which as you know is very much a beginner’s textbook) to starting work as a freelance translator in 15 months. It isn’t something that’s practical for most people to replicate. I was on scholarship and my only work obligation at the time was tutoring English a few hours per week, so I was very lucky in that regard.

    In retrospect, however, I did focus a bit too much on textbooks. After 15 months at the MTC doing everything I listed above (plus the occasional TV show w/script and various other things), I started to realize that my Chinese was a bit stilted, and a bit old-fashioned. As one of my former teachers put it, textbooks in Taiwan tend to teach 「蔣氏王朝的中文」. Some of them are excellent, but they need to be balanced out with authentic, modern material. At any rate, a year of working as a translator followed by a year of grad school in 國文研究所 (with classes in 口譯 on the side, which were enormously helpful) fixed that.

  4. Brian Buckley says:

    This article makes a very good point on the need for diversity in reading material. I can agree with the criticism for a lack of diversity in vocabulary, however the application and use of the vocabulary that is being used is the key. I had a tutor who emphasized the lack of diversity, but I strongly feel the importance of being able to reinforce and use the vocabulary that I am learning.

    My own experience was that I completed my study in Integrated Chinese, only to find that the volume of vocabulary was sadly lacking, so I have gone back to the very first lesson in New Practical Chinese Reader and am working my way through this series. Only, this time I am also studying with a tutor which has been a great help to my Chinese level.

  5. Peter Palme says:

    Thanks for the suggestion. Textbooks are another useful resource of getting into reading Chinese.
    I use the graded readers quite extensively and I use the advice of Kato Lomb a well known polyglot. She learned languages by extensive reading. Her advice is not to immediately consult a dictionary when you do not understand the word. Instead it is better to reread the text. I was amazed how well this worked for my Chinese Reading. In the graded readers I come across words that I don’t know. I just keep on reading.
    The next day I go back and reread again the text and I amazed how much more I understand without consulting the dictionary.
    Besides graded readers I came across these sites:
    Chinese Newspaper Global Times called Target Chinese for intermediate. http://language.globaltimes.cn/category/for-intermediate/target-chinese/.
    A newspaper for Chinese language learners
    Articles for HSK Level 3-6
    And then there is the website bliu bliu
    It first makes a quick assessment of the Chinese characters you know and then presents you with Chinese text at your current level
    Jun Da a well known linguist has done extensive research on reading. To read a Chinese Novel is the most demanding tasks. To read a Chinese Newspaper you need to know less characters.
    Olle, there was one point you made in your blog post that surprised me. I was under the impression that Chinese Children although they can speak and understand Chinese will only know a limited amount of characters compared to adults. Therefore I thought that books targeted to children would contain fewer unique characters than other literature.

    1. Olle Linge says:


      Thanks for the suggestions! I’m aware of most of them already, but not all. I also spend a lot of time reading and mostly follow the same principles, i.e. I only use a dictionary when not knowing what a word means really stops me from understanding what’s going on, which isn’t all that often.

      I was under the impression that Chinese Children although they can speak and understand Chinese will only know a limited amount of characters compared to adults. Therefore I thought that books targeted to children would contain fewer unique characters than other literature.

      I don’t think I have claimed that children’s books contain more unique characters than other forms of literature? What I did say what that they are harder than you’d think if you compared the situation in Chinese with that in English.

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