Short and Sweet: How to Teach Mandarin to Beginners with Simple Stories

Do you remember the first book ever read aloud to you?

If you’re a native English speaker, maybe something by Dr. Seuss?

Or maybe “Goodnight Moon”“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”?

Before someone read fun stories to you, did you have to study hard and memorize lists of words?

I bet your answer is no.

I’m guessing that those who read to you let you enjoy looking at the pictures, hearing the language and watching as they read aloud slowly.

They didn’t make you analyze the letters or the words.

Yet, over time, you could read along.

People read to you, you followed along and one day you were reading on your own.

We can provide this kind of joyful experience for our Chinese language students using resources appropriate for beginners.

We can make our students’ process of learning to read match those happy experiences with storybooks in our first language.

But how?

We’ll get to that, but first, let’s look at the value of using stories to teach Chinese from the very start.

Stories from Day One

Here are some good reasons to start using stories in your beginning Chinese class right away:

  • Stories present whole language in context, naturally demonstrating correct grammar and vocabulary use.
  • Stories can more easily get our students involved. Teachers can ask questions to compare characters in a story to students, ask students’ opinions of the characters and talk about what the characters do. Asking “你喜欢他/她吗?” (nĭ xĭ huān tā / tā ma — “Do you like him/her?”), and similar very simple questions, brings your students into the story. In that way, even a simple story read aloud gains some of the same interest level of videos; it catches emotional interest. And you can use stories in video format, too!
  • Stories can stand alone as the basis of your curriculum, or can be used by any teacher in conjunction with your school requirements. If you need to follow a textbook, you can still add an occasional story to the mix of activities.
  • There’s no need to wait until students can read 300 characters anymore. More teachers are realizing the benefits of reading meaningful stories early on, and more materials to meet that need are being published. (See the list later in this post for suggestions.)
  • Reading simple material builds our students’ confidence and prepares them for the enjoyable and beneficial habit of reading in Chinese. As they become more advanced, stories will make for great extensive reading material. Allow students who are a little further along in their Chinese to spend some class time reading their choice of an easier storybook on their own.
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What to Consider When Choosing Stories for Total Beginners

Students without any background in Chinese are usually excited to begin learning Chinese…and often a little intimidated. Let’s give them a successful start to their relationship with Chinese language and culture by considering some important factors.

Teaching material needs to use limited vocabulary, but in an interesting way

Teaching material for total beginners in Chinese needs to include very limited vocabulary to build successful reading, and even fewer new words at a time. However, very limited vocabulary can still make for something of a plot.

Let’s compare two short readings to see how this can work:

I like apples. He likes apples. She likes bananas. Mom likes pears. They like oranges. I don’t like oranges. I like apples.

This feels like “practice.” There’s a list of fruits and a verb, but the writing doesn’t have much direction or interesting qualities. It includes 11 different words. It also limits sentence structure unnaturally.

I like chocolate, and he also likes chocolate. But mom doesn’t like chocolate. She likes broccoli! She really likes broccoli. We like chocolate, but mom likes broccoli!

Now we have something quirky that might make us wonder what happens next. It’s still very limited in vocabulary, but has a little bit of plot started (you can imagine the “I” and “he” are children at snack time). It only uses 13 different words, but with more varied, natural sentence structure.

Teaching material needs to suit the age, abilities and interests of your students

Some beginner-level reading has been created for very young children learning Chinese, perhaps in immersion schools. However, those materials are less likely to appeal to American high school students or adults.

Similarly, books designed for heritage speakers and native Chinese-speaking children to learn to read are not ideal for non-native, total beginners. Chinese is notoriously challenging to learn to read because it is not written phonetically. Yet books of this type present many new words all at once. For children who are already fluent in aural and spoken Chinese, that may not pose such a problem. But non-native speakers who may only know 10-30 words in Chinese need even simpler material if reading is going to feel pleasantly easy.

Authentic materials are great, but the concept may need to be redefined for total beginners

Sometimes teachers feel a great sense of pressure to only use authentic materials, defined as “for native speakers, by native speakers.”

But “authentic” can also be defined as allowing meaningful communication with the students. By that definition, using materials that only include Chinese the students understand can be authentic in the sense of real exchange of information.

Suggested Materials for Total Beginners

Stories intended for non-native, beginning students are a special treasure to share with your students. Here are some great resources you can share from Day One:

  • Terry Waltz’s readers: These are quirky, funny picture storybooks with very limited vocabulary and fun references to American pop culture sprinkled in. Simplified and traditional script editions are both available.
  • FluentUStories don’t need to be limited to printed materials, and audio and video make the experience more interactive.

    FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Besides being a great resource for authentic materials for all levels, FluentU offers “newbie” materials designed for absolute beginners, including the “A Good Morning” course—a limited-vocabulary story you can use from Day One. I love these videos, and so did my students. A FluentU teacher’s account lets you play videos in class with captions, or “assign” them so your students can watch, read and learn vocabulary on their own time.

  • Stories shared online by Chinese language teachers:
    • The Great Mandarin Reading Project includes free, short stories and readings by Chinese teachers and students (edited by their teachers). All materials are free to download and use as you wish. The number of stories is growing, and Chinese teachers are invited to share stories created for their classes. Search “novice” to find the simplest stories.
    • University of Hawaii Chinese 101 currently only includes a few stories. However, these beginner stories have illustrations and audio, so they are ready to go for independent reading. If you use the textbook “Integrated Chinese,” your students will find the vocabulary familiar.
  • Helps for online reading: If using online reading material for students to read independently, you may wish to introduce these great tools.
    • The Chinese Reader Revolution reading help website: Here, you can copy and paste Chinese text, and, using the site’s very flexible features, you can get support through pinyin, colors for each tone, word spacing and pop-up dictionary help.
    • Zhongwen and Perapera pop-up dictionaries: These browser add-ons allow you to hover over any Chinese words and see immediate pinyin and English gloss of their meaning.

Strategies for Using Materials Designed for Total Beginners

Once you understand the value of teaching with stories and have some materials in hand, here are some ways to use them effectively and engagingly.

Pre-teach most included vocabulary to provide comprehensible input

Pre-teaching means first using massive doses of any new words that appear in a story that you later intend to share with students. Once those words are familiar to their ears, they will be prepared to listen and follow along.

Generally keep in mind that asking questions, keeping your speech slow enough and staying within the vocabulary your students know are key to teaching Chinese with stories.

Read aloud with the class to build literacy

I used to think that reading aloud to students was making it “too easy” for them. Later, I learned that reading aloud is a major strategy for developing literacy!

Chinese audiobooks that allow us to hear and see the text at the same time are also excellent. But a teacher can do even better than an audiobook: We can watch our students for confusion and pace our speech according to their needs.

Kindergarten-style reading (not just for kindergarteners!)

Reading aloud from a picture book, and pausing to let students enjoy the pictures, can be fun even for older students from time to time. I read upside down so the book faces the students, and I point at each word as I say it.

Be sure to use dramatic inflection and emotion! If you are any good at making different voices, now is the time to use that skill. It’s okay if your students think it’s cheesy. It still makes the experience richer for them.

Let students sit wherever they wish as they watch you read. At least let them out from their desks. If you have a rug, that could be a good story-reading location. Letting students bring in a snack to share during reading aloud is always popular.

If you have a large class, use a document camera to display the text, or read from an e-book version.

“Rocky Horror Picture Show” style audience response

Similar to kindergarten reading, with this technique students are hearing and following along visually while the teacher reads aloud dramatically. But like movie showings of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the “audience” (your students) have certain words from the story to which they respond somehow.

For example, whenever an emotion gets mentioned, students (or one student appointed for the role) act out that emotion:

Happy: big smiles and a thumbs up!

Angry: furrowed eyebrows and a growl.

Choose only a few key words, though, or this can get too distracting!

Reader’s theater

I like to use this technique after reading a story once through entirely.

Stories that are visually interesting—including obvious actions and emotions—work best. You might use only one part of a longer story.

As you read again slowly, student actors should silently act out the meaning. Or strong student readers can each dramatically read a part.

A few simple props, made by your students before the theater, add a lot of fun to this technique.

Draw a mural

This approach is better for stories that don’t already have pictures. It helps the whole class visualize what is happening. Artistic talent not required: Stick figures work great.

Read a sentence or two from the story. Pause and get a student to volunteer to draw its meaning on the board. As the student draws, you might ask a few questions about the sentences or the drawing to keep students from the temptation to talk about something else.

Continue to read the next sentence or two. Bring up another volunteer student to add to the drawing accordingly. Eventually, you’ll have a mural of the whole story’s meaning.

Remember to take a photo before erasing it! Use that photo for review discussions and writing prompts.

Have you been inspired to make reading a pleasure for your beginning Chinese language students?

加油 (jiā yóu — literally “Add gas” or “You got this, go”)!

Diane Neubauer is a high school Chinese teacher who has taught five-year-olds through adults. Besides learning and teaching the Chinese language, she enjoys raising laying hens and spending time with her husband. She blogs at

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