Can reading books written in both Chinese characters and pinyin help students develop Chinese reading skills?

Many years ago, when a child turned seven, I bought her some books as a birthday gift. These books were stories of Chinese idioms, written in both Chinese characters and pinyin, accompanied with large and colourful illustrations. This is probably the worst gift I have ever given to anyone. 

My assumption was that she liked reading stories, and it was good for a seven-year old girl to read some stories and learn Chinese idioms. She probably had not learned enough Chinese characters to read such books, but she could rely on pinyin and still be able to read. The scenario played out in my head was that she read the character line, and when there was an unknown character, she would take a look at the pinyin which was printed on top of that character. Perhaps, she could learn some new characters this way. I was wrong.

It was true that she did not know half of the Chinese characters appeared in the books. I anticipated that. But it also turned out that she was not very keen in glancing back and forth between two lines, juggling with a mixture of Chinese characters and pinyin. Neither was she interested in juggling with the mixture, let alone learning any new characters. For her, reading stories was supposed to be fun. But there was no fun reading the books that I gave to her. 

Many parents are making the same mistake that I made before, wishing young children would benefit from books written in both characters and pinyin. So they keep buying these books, disregarding the fact that children are not attracted to these books. If children had their own money for books, they would buy those they can really understand and enjoy, definitely not those difficult books which appear to be easy in a parent’s eye because there is pinyin printed on top of each Chinese character. 

These books are not really beneficial for children. How about adult learners of Chinese? Are these books good for adult students who want to develop Chinese reading skills?

For Chinese Character recognitions only

Many students start reading such books by hiding the pinyin with a piece of paper. They want to practice reading the character line first to see how many Chinese characters they can recognise, and take a look at the pinyin line for those characters they feel that they almost recognise. Whether or not they can understand the story is not the primary goal. 

To a certain extent, this works. In this way, characters appear according to their occurring frequency in the Chinese language. The most frequently used Chinese characters will appear more often than those less frequently used ones. Chinese text is treated as a large amount of single character flash cards. If one or two sentences are understood, that will be an added bonus, as long as manipulating a piece of paper does not become too bothersome, and as long as students recognise those special Chinese characters which have more than one pronunciations.

Reading the pinyin only

For students who have not learned enough characters but want to enjoy reading a story written in Chinese, some of them may believe that they could read such a book, written in both Chinese characters and pinyin, but only read the pinyin part. Unfortunately, that won’t work well.  

Pinyin’s readability is very low. If pinyin is not grouped by words, i.e. one pinyin is printed separately from the next (as in English text, words are separated by spaces), it will be impossible for students to pick out words. If pinyin is grouped by words, it helps a little bit, but not much, as there are too many words sharing the same pinyin.

In the end, it is just pages and pages of pinyin hard to decipher. 

Developing Chinese reading skills

As for developing Chinese reading skills, I don’t see books with pinyin are any better than books without pinyin. 

Even with pinyin, an unknown character remains an unknown character. Pinyin does not tell the meaning of this character. Students still need to look up a dictionary to understand the character, or more critically, to understand the combination which this character is part of. 

In my opinion, the best way to develop Chinese reading skills is to read for fun. Grab a book that looks like a good read, and it does not have too many new characters.  Then start reading. Whether it has pinyin or not does not matter that much.


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