Should I read texts above my level?

Some people get fed up with coursebooks and graded readers, because the more they progress, the less challenging those texts become. But moving on to more daring stuff, they discover that reading turns into an uphill struggle again. Deciphering just one page of text takes ages. How much of a struggle should reading be? What’s the best strategy to improve your reading skills?

  1. Should I read texts above my level or rather on my level?
  2. Should I be doing extensive or intensive reading to speed up my reading?
  3. Should I look up every unknown character?
  4. What about Pinyin written above the characters?
  1. What’s a healthy reading speed?
  2. How can I find out the difficulty level of a random text?
  3. Should I read children’s books for a start?
  4. Where do I find suitable online reading resources?

Should I read texts above my level or rather on my level?

Reading texts far above your level is a bit like plodding your way through high snow. The longer the text, the more exhausting it gets. My advice would be to do both, but to concentrate your time and effort on “less demanding texts”.

Why so? Because – it sounds all too obvious – the best way to improve your reading skills is to read. A lot. You must cover some miles every day. But not just random characters or unreadable prose from the Ming dynasty. Preferably, something meaningful that your brain can process in an enjoyable way. In other words: extensive rather than intensive reading.

Which doesn’t mean you should abandon intensive reading altogether. 80 percent = extensive, 20 percent = intensive worked out really well for me.

To read intensively is to completely deconstruct a text, with the goal of absorbing as much meaning from it as possible. This is done by taking a text, and systematically looking up every word, phrase, or collocation that you do not understand.

Luca Lampariello (01.12.2019)

Reading a lot above your level is “applaudable”, but doesn’t necessarily result in picking up all that new vocabulary. On the contrary, I would have forgotten most of it by the next day. And to counter that, I would spend more time reviewing than actually reading.

Reading on your level means that you are familiar with 95 to 98 % of the words in the text. For each 1000 words you should only have to check 20 up to 50 words on average. It should feel more like a relaxed Sunday morning walk.

Should I be doing extensive or intensive reading to speed up my reading?

One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it.

H.P. Lovecraft

Extensive reading of texts suitable for your level is the best way to accelerate. I tried both strategies and I’d say extensive reading is the most helpful means to absorb new words through context and read faster. It shouldn’t cost much effort, since you’re (speed) reading the text as opposed to studying it to extract every detail for eternity.

Extensive reading is also helpful when your preparing for HSK tests, especially the higher levels where reading speed becomes more crucial. Only reading textbooks and HSK tests may not be enough. What you need is all-round reading experience. Once your brain is trained to process Hanzi faster, you’ll extract the meaning from a random HSK question without much guessing.

Should I look up every unknown character?

Admittedly, I often do this myself, however it’s not a good habit to develop. For three main reasons:

  • Looking up characters interrupts the reading process and makes you slow.
  • Looking up every unknown character isn’t necessary to understand what you’re reading. Often you can guess the meaning, or it becomes clearer after a few pages.
  • The more characters you have look up, the harder it gets to remember them and the less time you have to read.

Unfortunately, looking up 1000 characters every month doesn’t result in learning 1000 new characters every month. You have to be a very committed and skilled learner to pull that off. I’d suggest reading easier texts and looking up a limited amount of key characters only.

What about Pinyin written above the characters?

It’s an unnecessary distraction. As helpful Pinyin is when you are just starting out reading Hanzi, after a while you should allow your brain to focus on characters only. It needs time to adapt.

Focusing on Hanzi: this is an old-fashioned graded reader with CD and Pinyin cover mask.

The (non-Chinese?) brain cannot ignore Pinyin and prefers to process alphabetical letters first. Try it yourself:

That’s even more true for English translations added below the Chinese sentence:

So it’s better to get rid of the Pinyin in an early stage and allow your brain to absorb the characters. That doesn’t mean you cannot occasionally uncover the Pinyin if you’re unsure how to pronounce a character.

This question has been debated in depth in this episode of the Mandarin Companion podcast by the way.

What’s a healthy reading speed?

This depends on your reading strategy. If it’s intensive reading, take 10 or 15 minutes per page if you have to, since you are really studying the text.

For extensive reading, you shouldn’t take much more than 4 minutes per page, only occasionally consulting a dictionary (or better, consult it after reading). Remember that you don’t have to understand every detail and analyze sentence patterns, grammar points and so on.  

How can I find out the difficulty level of a random text?

The free reading tool DuShu enables you to analyze Chinese texts on their difficulty level. It shows you detailed statistics like the percentage of vocabulary in different HSK levels and give a difficulty ranking. Like “lower intermediate”, “intermediate”, “upper intermediate”, “advanced” and “highly advanced”. The actual reading experience doesn’t always match this ranking, since the tool doesn’t know what you know, but it’s clarifying anyway.

This tool cannot tell the difficulty of a text, but it filters out the HSK vocabulary. Useful when your preparing for a HSK test and want to focus on HSK characters only.

Chinese Text Analyser can do all those things and more, but you need to purchase the software first.

Should I read children’s books for a start?

I wouldn’t recommend children’s books for beginners. Books for children are much harder than you would assume and usually contain lots of irrelevant vocabulary, since they are meant for kids.

As for content, expect to be bored quickly, unless you are into little rabbit becoming friends with fat piggy in the green forest. More grown-up stories like Harry Potter, The Hobbit or The little Prince require plenty of skill to read and enjoy in Chinese. Try cartoons and graded readers instead.

Reading Xiao Wangzi
Reading 小王子 in an early stage of my learning. I translated character by character. What was even worse: I couldn’t tell which characters belonged together and failed to recognize common grammar patterns. Honest effort, but not a recommendable reading strategy. The little Prince is a good read though.

Where do I find suitable online reading resources?

Free online resources:

Non-free online resources:

What are your experiences with reading Chinese texts? Where do you find useful resources? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Upgrading your reading skills: online vs offline reading

I have a confession to make here: I’m an old-fashioned guy who likes to read the old-fashioned way and believes firmly in the paper brain and deep reading. When it comes to reading Chinese texts though, the advantages of online-reading are simply overwhelming. How to make the best out of both worlds?

Online reading

What makes online reading great?

  • Texts tend to be up to date! I mean who wants to read some Mao Zedong poem if you could be reading what is happening in China right now or for that matter any other content that is relevant to you.
  • Never ending supply of free online resources (Intermediate and advanced learners can check out the Mandarin version of the New York Times or read Chinese news from Deutsche Welle for example)
  • You can find topics that naturally interest you instead of reading the usual random stuff from your textbook.
  • Most important: You can use reader apps to track your progress, create your own system of flashcards and vocabulary lists. Reader apps can tell you the difficulty level of a given text.

But there are some risks as well…

  • The texts won’t always match your reading level. If they are too hard for you, you can loose interest easily. This is why people invented graded readers for Chinese.
  • Some people say you are more easily distracted reading online (pop-ups, other content appearing, chat messages and what have you). This depends on your situation, but I somewhat agree.
  • When I read online-texts or use an app like Pleco or DuShu, I have an urge to check every unknown character. This is not a good way to read texts, because the learning effect is very limited. I have forgotten most new characters the day after. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as clicking or tapping your way to fluency. Skill comes with practice. And practice in this case means daily brain gymnastics without (too much) cribbing.

Reading like the monkey king or Non-linear reading

Neuroscience, in fact, has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen. So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards “non-linear” reading — a practice that involves things like skimming a screen or having your eyes dart around a web page. 

Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing

Offline reading

Merits of reading the old-fashioned way

  • I personally like the focus of the physical object in front of me. In others words, I get out my book and will put any other stuff that will distract me away, so it’s just me and the text I’m reading. This is called deep reading or slow reading and involves a higher level of concentration.
  • I also have this nasty habit of making markings, notes and drawings when I’m studying a text. Of course, you can do that online as well and may even have more editing options available, but still! Old habits die hard. I cannot help preferring to “physically” work my way through a text.
  • If you are reading a Chinese textbook like the New Practical Chinese Reader, chapters follow a well thought out progression and cover a variety of general topics. Most of which even proofed quite useful in China, though I didn’t really like those texts much when studying, I have to admit. The point this kind of offline reading really helps you laying the foundation for basic proficiency.

Deep reading is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one’s comprehension and enjoyment of a text. Contrast with skimming or superficial reading. Also called slow reading.

A Guide to Deep Reading
Outdated Chinese reader from the Mao-Era

What’s less attractive…

  • This has always been a major issue: most textbooks take so much time to conceive, write and publish that by the time they are released, they are already outdated. When time goes by, they just grow increasingly odd and silly. To take an extreme example: I have a Chinese reader which is filled with stories about communist wartime heroes and speeches of Mao. Apart from being historically interesting (if you dig language didactics), this reader has lost its relevance.
  • Or to counter this effect, readers become just so timelessly boring, containing only classical texts or content-free reading material that fails to be relevant on any level.
  • Mostly you look in vain for any “hot topics” like new trends in Chinese social media or currently the Sino-US tradewar that you might want to be able to discuss with your Chinese friends.
  • Many textbooks come with audio, but certainly not all. This problem is easier to solve online.

So to come to a conclusion here: Offline reading still has got its merits. The key issue being FOCUS which allows us to comprehend and appreciate what we read on a deeper level. It shouldn’t be impossible to integrate that into our online reading routine though. The possibilities of online reading are just too good to ignore. For now, I stick with a healthy mix of both: online reading can definitely complement old-fashioned, offline reading in a powerful way.