Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

What to read to improve your Chinese and why

When you first start learning Chinese, choosing reading material is not at the top of your list of problems for a simple reason: there simply aren’t that many texts that you can read. Anything works that you can make sense of with the limited vocabulary and grammar that you have, which means carefully curated texts in your textbook or related content. If you are a beginner looking for reading material, I recommend you read this article instead: The 7 best Chinese reading resources for beginners.

As you move beyond the beginner stage, however, the options for reading practice multiply, and choosing what to read becomes trickier. When you start dipping your toes into texts not written for language learners at all, often called “authentic texts”, the number of options explodes.

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So how do you determine if a certain text is good for reading practice? Are authentic texts better or should you stick to material written for language learners? I will try to answer these and related questions in this article and a follow-up article. Here, we’ll focus on reasons for reading and how those influence your choice of reading materials.

Reading in Chinese is good for many reasons

Before we can discuss what kind of text is good for reading practice, we need to have a look at why reading is useful. This is a huge topic and my goal here to highlight some relevant aspects, not summarise all the benefits of reading. I’m particularly interested in how your goal influences your choice of reading material. Naturally, while you might read with only one specific goal in mind, reading will allow you to work towards many goals simultaneously.

Here are some of the most important reasons to read more in Chinese:

  1. Improve your reading ability – Students, especially at lower levels, read texts in Chinese in order to get better at reading texts in Chinese, so that you can then read other texts for other purposes (for work, for social purposes, for  enjoyment). Of course, “reading ability” is a broad term that includes other abilities, from lower level processes such as character recognition, word segmentation and sentence parsing, to higher level processes like utilising prior knowledge, guessing, deduction, hypothesis testing and using reading strategies in general. I’ve discussed challenges students face when learning to read Chinese and how to overcome them here.
  2. Expose yourself to Chinese to refine your mental model of it – As a learner, one of your most important goals is to expose yourself to enough comprehensible Chinese to allow you to form a good representation of how the language works: what words mean, how they are used, which words go together with each other and which don’t, how words are strung together to form phrases, and so on. This personal version of Chinese that you have in your head, sometimes called “interlanguage” in literature, is constantly refined and updated over time. Comprehensible input (reading and listening) provides you with the data you need to ensure that your version of Chinese approaches that of native speakers.
  3. Expand your vocabulary and knowledge of grammar – Another reason to read might be that you want to learn more words and pick up useful grammar patterns. Most researchers agree that these things are best learnt in context from meaningful input rather than from lists, so this is a good reason to read more in Chinese. If you understand most of what you read, you’ll be able to pick up words and patterns automatically (this is called “incidental learning”), but most students will still need to use dictionaries, word lists and other forms of scaffolding to make sense of harder texts.
  4. Learn more about Chinese culture and the lives and experience of Chinese-speaking people – At first, this might not seem to be directly connected to reading practice, as you you could in theory learn about these things by reading in English, but reading is about much more than extracting information from text. In order to put things in context, interpret meaning and truly understand what you’re reading, you need to know things the author takes for granted that the reader will know. This is one of the major hurdles for learners when faced with real-world, authentic Chinese, but more about this later.
  5. Enjoying yourself – There are two ways reading in Chinese can be entertaining. First, on lower levels, it can feel satisfying to read something and be able to understand it. This is the pleasure of overcoming a difficult challenge. Second, on higher levels, you might truly enjoy the texts you are reading. Even if enjoyment probably isn’t the highest priority for most learners, it plays an important role. I have discussed enjoying the journey to fluency here.

An introduction to extensive reading for Chinese learners

Your goal influences what texts you should read

The question of what you should read depends on why you’re reading:

  1. Is your goal to get better at recognising characters and understanding basic sentences? Then almost any text in Chinese will work, although preferably texts that contain mostly things you already know. Reading is a great way of reviewing what you have learnt and the more you read, the more fluent the process will become. You’ll get better at seeing where one word ends and the next begins, and each time you understand a character in context, the recognition process will be a little bit faster.
  2. Is your goal to expose yourself to tons of Chinese to refine your mental model of the language? Then you need to make sure the text is easy enough to enable you to consume large amounts of it, providing your brain with enough data to form a model. It’s also important that the texts you read are good representations of the language you want to acquire, so only reading a certain type of text is not recommended, but more about that in next week’s article.
  3. Is your goal to expand your vocabulary and learn more grammar? In general, the same principle applies: read as much as possible, focusing on texts you understand with as little help as possible. This will make it more likely that you pick up new words and grammar. Of course, if your goal is in a specific area of Chinese, you should choose texts that cover that area. At more advanced levels, this could include texts related to your profession or other interests. Narrow reading is a great strategy here.
  4. Is your goal to learn more about Chinese culture? Then you have to pick texts that are about Chinese culture or Chinese people. You attain all the goals mentioned in this list so far by reading, say, a novel translated from English to Chinese, which in itself is not related to Chinese in anyway, but to learn about Chinese culture, the reading material needs to be about Chinese culture and Chinese people. Apart from that, the same principle applies: texts roughly on your level allows you to read more.
  5. Is your goal with reading to have a good time? Then choose texts about things you enjoy or care about. Like I said above, this goal is usually not the main goal for reading, so it’s often a case of considering other factors first, and then choosing texts that meet those criteria, but that you also enjoy. How important this is depends, but if you’re serious about extensive reading, you have to pick things you at least found bearable, or else it won’t work.

An introduction to comprehension-based Chinese teaching and learning

Two competing principles: comprehensibility vs. authenticity

To summarise, there are two seemingly competing principles that are relevant when choosing texts to read:

  1. Comprehensibility – The text should be at a level as close as possible to your own, enabling you to cover large amounts of text, instead of spending hours on a single page. The more you can understand, the better, providing that the text also contains some things you didn’t already know (this is almost never a problem).
  2. Authenticity – You want the text to be a good representation of Chinese, containing all sorts of information about how the language works, including how Chinese people think, talk and live, along with all aspects of culture. The only way you will get these things is if you read real-world Chinese, not written specifically for you as a language learner.

Unless your reading is already on an advanced level, these principles certainly conflict with each other. Authentic texts that feature Chinese as it’s used by real people are too hard for beginner and intermediate students, but texts written for students are by definition not authentic and will be lacking in certain areas. Did the author choose to phrase something a certain way because it was simpler and contained known characters, even though it doesn’t sound natural?

To give you an example everybody knows about, beginner textbooks almost all contain dialogues with 你好吗 (nǐ hǎo ma) “How are you?”, even though Chinese people almost never use this phrase in this way. It’s simple, but it’s not how the language actually works. Reading this phrase will boost your reading ability in some ways, but it’s a poor guide to how the language works and outright misleading when it comes to the culture of how to greet people.

So what type of texts should I read to improve my Chinese?

In this article, we have looked at five reasons why you should read more in Chinese, and how the priority of these reasons influence what type of texts you should read. We haven’t resolved the issue of comprehensibility vs. authenticity yet, but we’ll dig deeper into that next week. As we shall see, there might not be a simple answer.

As we shall see, authentic texts can be great, but they can also be quite bad for language learning purposes. The same is true for texts written specifically for learners, which can be great in some cases and awful in others.

There are also texts that are written for native speakers, but in specific conditions that will influence how suitable they are for language learners, such as texts translated from other languages into Chinese, and texts where naturalness wasn’t top-priority for the author. Read more about this in this follow-up article: Are authentic texts good for learning Chinese or is graded content better?


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