When I started out learning Mandarin one of the things that used to irritate me the most was receiving vague and unhelpful replies from seasoned learners about precisely how they became fluent in the language. For some reason these responses were most common when asking how they became proficient in Chinese reading. The conversation would typically go something like this:
Me: How did you learn to read native Chinese texts?
Seasoned Learner (SL): I can’t remember really it just sort of…happened.
Me: But you must remember something about the techniques you used…
SL: I remember using lots of flashcards.
Me: Right, but acquiring a sufficient number of characters to deal with native texts takes time. What did you do to practice reading in the meantime?
SL: Awkward silence.
Me: Did you use graded readers?
SL: No, I preferred to dive straight into native texts.
Me: Awkward silence.
To date, I have never received a satisfactory explanation as to how it is possible to move from recognition of a couple of hundred characters to novels and newspapers without the use of something like graded readers. I stress something like because I do not think graded readers are the only system available for building reading proficiency from a low base. Nevertheless, in my experience until you know a large number of characters – probably in excess of 1000 – attempting to read even simple native articles is not very fun, even with a browser plugin dictionary. That is of course, a subjective statement. Some learners may find it fun to read native texts for which they have to look up more than a quarter of the characters or words they encounter. But my guess is that most of us do not.
The discovery of graded readers made a big difference to my Chinese learning and for the first time gave me real hope that attaining a high level of reading proficiency was possible without large amounts of prolongued pain. I first encountered them soon after passing my HSKIII exam in 2019. At that time I had acquired around 500 characters, largely through a painstaking process of combining flashcards with DuoLingo and boring short textbook dialogues. After spending so much time and effort on memorising these characters it was quite dispiriting to discover that native texts were still way beyond my grasp. I started looking around for a solution.
The two graded reader series I found were Mandarin Companion and Beijing University Press. Each book contains a mini-novel and audiobook using the most common Chinese characters and includes definitions of rarer words at the bottom of the page for ease of reference. The readers are set at difficulty levels according to how many distinct words they contain. I started with a novel set at at a 500 word limit about a mother who became estranged from her teenage son after he ran away from home. Obviously, this is not high literature but I actually found it quite moving. I have since discovered that Mandarin Companion offers storybooks starting from as low as 150 characters, which I would have taken advantage of had I known they were available earlier.
Having previously relied on shorter texts, to begin with I was not accustomed to reading large sections or paragraphs of text in one go. Although I could recognise most of the characters, many of the sentence structures were hard at first and took time to decode. Yet after completing a couple of books this became much easier as my brain started making sense of the grammatical patterns it was being exposed to. I continued to combine graded readers with flashcards until I reached over 1000 characters. This enabled me to build my reading fluency while expanding my character base and vocabulary in a way that was quite painless.
My conclusion after reading most of the books in both series was that graded readers were part of the answer, rather than the full answer. Knowing 1000 characters is a very solid base on which to build on but not enough to be comfortable reading newspapers and novels. This base did enable me to start tackling simpler native articles with the help of LingQ, a process I have described in some detail elsewhere. With enough time I was eventually able to read real Chinese novels and graded readers played an important role in this process for me.
Ultimately not everybody enjoys learning through reading stories and graded readers offer one way, as opposed to the only way, of building reading proficiency from a low level. Other systems include reading elementary lessons on LingQ (which I didn’t discover until later) or articles on Du Chinese. Whichever method you choose, having some system in place to facilitate large amounts of compelling reading from a low base of characters will make learning Chinese much more enjoyable and is highly recommended.