Should I read Chinese 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.

DuShu: a powerful reading tool

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You want to improve your reading of Chinese texts? DuShu is a reader app that will take any Chinese text and turn it into a learning resource. Check out what DuShu can do for you.

DuShu

I’ve been using DuShu for over a year now and I recommend it for intermediate and advanced learners who want to improve their reading skills. It’s extremely useful for reading news articles, but you can import any text you want.

I experimented with using DuShu everyday for 20 to 30 minutes, reading the news in Chinese. It not just allowed me to understand the latest news in Mandarin, but also allowed me to gradually speed up my reading and expand my vocabulary.

What makes DuShu such a powerful tool:    

  • Easy to use: Just copy & paste any text into DuShu, save it and the text will be added to your reading list.
  • Difficulty: DuShu will tell you the difficulty level of the text you are about to read. For more details you can go to text info in the upper right menu. It will show you the text’s statistics and give you a detailed difficulty rating with percentages.  
  • Start reading: DuShu offers two kinds of reading modes: you can read sentence by sentence or in full page mode. DuShu further supports your reading by underlining words, so you know exactly which characters belong together. It will also point out conjunctions and particles with a purely grammatical function that otherwise might confuse you. You can personalize these settings to your own needs.
  • HSK-friendly: DuShu generates a vocabulary list for each text. It shows you the HSK level of the character(s). It will tell you for example that 毕业 is HSK 4 vocabulary. This allows you to focus on your target level and ignore any words that are less relevant for your current goals.
  • Pronunciation: Any sentence can be read out loud if you want to listen to what you are reading. Also the tones are marked with different colors.

What to read…

I advise reading texts that are just a little bit out of your league, the gap shouldn’t be too wide though. If you have a solid HSK 4 basis you can have a go at intermediate up to upper intermediate texts, but the advanced level might be overkill for now. Not sure this is the right level? Try a topic you’re familiar with.

Avoid texts where you have look up every second word, unless it’s a text you are really eager to read. In general though, progress will be easier with texts that match your level, reading more satisfying.

If your main goal is speed, then you should try extensive reading. Pick texts within your comfort zone, texts you can read with ease, and just keep reading.

Success doesn’t come overnight, but invest enough and the results will come.

What could make it even better…

Doing some research on the app, I noticed some people having issues with the audio function: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I sometimes have this problem too.

Another thing which could be even better are the automatically generated exercises after each text. They are pretty good, but still somewhat basic. I’d be happy to pay something for more advanced practicing.

And what about this? You’ve finished reading your text and want to memorize the vocabulary. You can use the flashcard exercise, which is nice, but it only gives you 20 randomly picked words. What if you want the whole list and practice with a spaced repetition flashcard system? Yes, the vocabulary list can be exported (premium feature) and imported to Anki, but this doesn’t work very well in Anki’s android version. It would be great if DuShu allowed to make your own deck of flashcards from each text and provide a more sophisticated vocabulary trainer.

Integrated graded readers as premium feature would also be welcomed, because finding the right texts on the internet is not always as easy as one would expect.

Google translations are limited, so you only get 10 free translations every day. For more you must upgrade to the premium version. Once you read your ten sentences you have to rely on your own translation skills. Vocabulary still gets translated individually though, so it’s not the end of the world.

Fun would be to add an element of a competition. So that you could compete with friends or other learners on reading “distance” or speed and see how you list in the weekly top ten.

Closing the small complaining part, I recommend including DuShu into your personal Chinese learning tool kit. When used daily and in the right way, I am convinced it will improve your Chinese reading skills and take you the next level.