Chinese For A Preschooler

My basic principle of teaching #3 Chinese is very simple. Read, read, read, read….read lots and lots of good children literature to him. The rest are secondary.

I am always busy with cooking and cleaning and the other two boys. To find time to cover everything from abc, to 123 AND Chinese is a bit of a challenge right now. So I decided that to do something is better than to do nothing. If I wait for the perfect situation, I may never get to start. So I started reading to him while feeding him lunch. So far, this has worked very well. Besides reading, reading, reading, I am also trying to speak more Mandarin to him. This is not easy because this boy started off speaking ZERO Mandarin. Sentence by sentence, I started to teach him. E.g. how to ask for something, how to reply, etc.

Then last year, I found this book at a Book Fair, which I think is very good :

Simply put, it is like The Reading Lesson, Chinese version. The basic idea for The Reading Lesson is that you teach alphabets (not in alphabetical order) such that the child can start reading words from Day 1. E.g. the first lesson covers C,O,S,A,T and from the very first lesson, the child can start reading simple words like cat, sat and cot. It gives the child a sense of accomplishment and it puts learning in context. I will elaborate more in my review of The Reading Lesson. This chinese book is based on the same concept. I liked the concept and bought Book 1 (7 volumes in total) to try on #3. Basically, the child learns a few characters per lesson. As soon as he learns enough characters, he learns vocabs and phrases that these characters can make. Eventually, by the end of Book 1, he should be able to read simply sentences. About 88 characters.


The book comes with flashcards of the characters, but I made these tactile flashcards myself instead. They are bigger and works like sandpaper letters. The characters are cut out from felt. It is a bit of work, but I think it works better than the normal flat flashcards. #3 can feel each stroke and I use it to teach him the name of the strokes, and the stroke sequence of each character as well. He picked up quite fast. When I read storybooks to him, I will ask him to look for the words that he has already learned.

The thing about teaching preschooler character recognition is this : do not think that it is difficult for them. It is not. They can remember pictures, then they will remember characters.

Chinese characters are pictorial, so one day, I used calligraphy ink to teach him. I did so because it seemed more fun than just pointing at flashcards. I drew the picture of the word and then “transform” the picture into the character, just to get him to understand the characters and remember how they look like. Of course, he wanted to meddle with the brush and ink. So I wrote the characters out in pencil and got him to ‘trace’ over with the brush. He could do it very well, which led to the discovery that calligraphy brush is very suitable for kids his age, whose motorskills are not developed yet to handle character strokes using pencil or pen. Brush is very easy to handle. So even though my aim is not to teach him how to write yet, it is a natural progression that once he picked up the brush, he ‘wrote’ by ‘drawing’ the characters.

Here are a few points that I learned through these few months’ experience of teaching him character recognition :

1. Multi-sensory approach is the best.

If we know that multi-sensory approach in teaching Maths or English or other subject is important to a preschool level kid, then naturally, the same principle applies to the teaching of Chinese.

Right now, what we are doing in this aspect is limited to tactile flashcards and occasional dabbling in calligraphy. I have tried playdoh mats but he does not seem interested in it. I will have to think of other means.

2. Repeated Exposure

Besides revising the flashcards (which I stuck on a cabinet door for easy access) frequently, whenever I read him a book, I will ask him to look for the characters that he has already learned. So among the many characters on a page, he will look for the 2 or 3 that he has already learned. The aim is to show him how the individual characters are put together to form sentences, which are in turn put together to form passages or stories.

3. Characters have to be meaningful

In other words, it has to mean something to the kid. Otherwise, it is just rote learning and easily forgotten. Hence, teaching of characters inevitably means that I have to teach him what the words mean. Sometimes the result can be amusing. Like he didn’t know fire is 火. When I first taught him this character, I drew a camp fire thingy that resembles the character (3 flames on top, two logs criss-crossing forming the bottom half of the character). Then I told him this character means fire. On another occasion, when I asked him “火“ (pointing to the character), he went ‘uh…fire” cos he couldn’t remember how to say it in Chinese! But at least he remembered what the character means!

In relation to this point, the system I am using with #3 is good because it builds up. The characters are not randomly selected. He can start forming words (2 characters form a word), phrases (more characters form phrases), and eventually, sentences. In other words, he can start reading as soon as he learns the characters. By the end of Book 1, he should be able to read simple sentences. This is important because it means he gets to see how the characters are put together to form words and phrases and sentences right from the start.

4. It is NOT good to start with teaching strokes

This is quite a common approach and I see this being done in the preschools and I used to think this is THE way to do things too. The very first thing they teach when they want to teach chinese characters is to start from teaching the names of the individual strokes and how to trace those strokes. Now, I strongly feel that it is the wrong way to start things.

First of all, individually, the strokes have no meaning. Effectively, what the kids learn are, well, strokes, which mean nothing to them and not surprisingly, they forget. So you spend like half a year going through the individual strokes to the complete bewilderment of the kids only to have them forget most of it after that. What a waste of time!

Besides, learning strokes inevitably means writing and tracing, which means the child has to be ready to write. Chinese characters are quite different from alphabets and personally, I think it takes more motorskill to master Chinese writing. Hence, you end up starting very late to teach Chinese if Step 1 is teaching strokes. Younger kids will not be able to handle the writing part.

On the other hand, even very young kids can recognise characters, especially when Chinese characters are so pictorial. Therefore, one can start teaching character recognition to a 2-3 year old kid. By the time the child is ready to write, he would have learned a lot of characters already. And by then, the strokes would have a little more meaning to him because he would have done lots of finger tracing on tactile cards and reciting of strokes. So he would see how the strokes form words.

In other words, learning strokes when you already know the character is much easier than to learn strokes first before learning the words. You save time and effort.

5. Graded Readers are BORING

Even though they are great as a systematic way to teach Chinese characters, they are so boring. How to hold the interest of a child with graded readers??? Better to get very simple books with very little characters. Do not be afraid of reading picture books even though they may look like a lot of words and sound difficult. The kid can understand the storyline and enjoy the tale. Hence, it is very important to get good children literature for reading. How to choose good Chinese books? It is the same as choosing English ones.

Now, there is a place for graded readers and I do use graded readers for #3 as well for both English and Chinese. They are good for teaching Reading (the skill). But for reading (the act of enjoying literature), choose good books and not rely on graded readers.

6. Don’t use pencil/crayon. Use brush.

Perhaps that was why writing was done with brush in ancient China. Cos it is easier! For a young child who may not possess the motor skill to learn how to write Chinese characters using pencil and crayon, the brush is a very good thing. The point is : we are not trying to teach calligraphy or even writing the characters. Calligraphy does not have to follow some classical form. It’s just for fun. Even though I really cannot write calligraphy to save my life, it didn’t stop us from having some fun with it at home. We even did couplets for Chinese New Year!

7. Save Hanyu Pinyin for later

If you can already read the character, why bother with Hanyu Pinyin? Well, for times when you don’t know the character and you need to check dictionary , I guess. Whatever. Hanyu Pinyin is not that important. It is important for school for sure. But in life, the usage of Chinese does not depend on Hanyu Pinyin and you can safely leave this until the child is about 6 year old.