Raising children to speak Mandarin Chinese in the United States is not an easy task. Over the last 9 years, my children and I have been on a quest to find the best Chinese learning resources. In the process, I have downloaded dozens of Apps, and tried a variety of textbooks, online tutors and in-person classes.
One of the techniques we have found most useful is a daily routine in which my sons choose three Chinese books to read. For the past two years, each of my boys have read over 1000 Chinese books and counting. This simple but consistent act has profoundly improved not only their Chinese proficiency, but also their motivation and confidence in the Chinese language. It is our family's Chinese learning game changer.
Although my house is full of paper Chinese books, ebooks are convenient and much more affordable when it comes to large numbers of Chinese books. It is recommended that for a child to learn a second language, 30% of her time should be immersed in that language. I needed a lot of help to bring up our Chinese book accessibility in order to compete with my boys' seemly unlimited access to great English books.
Ebooks are extremely helpful in achieving our three-book-a-day routine, especially before COVID-19 when the boys were always on the go. In this blog, I am sharing my family's experiences with the following popular Chinese ebook Apps, their pros and cons, and how we finally found the two wonderful ebook Apps my children love to read with every day.
- Leveled Reader: iChineseReader App
- Leveled Reader: WaWaYaYa Joy Reader App
- Leveled Reader: Level Chinese
- Individual E-book Apps
- Interactive Ebook Library: Ellabook App
- Ebook Library: 咔哒故事 KaDa App
Leveled Reader: iChineseReader
In 2017, ebook apps for non-native Chinese speakers were just beginning to appear. After some research, I subscribed to iChineseReader ($7.99 monthly subscription).
At first glance, iChineseReader looks and feels very much like RazKids, the popular English graded reading App. Even the home page designs are very similar.
iChineseReader homepage interface
RazKids homepage interface
iChineseReader's key features:
- Books are categorized into 20 reading levels.
- Books are also categorized into different topics such as literature or informational.
- After registration, there is a simple test to gauge the child's reading level; the app then recommends a reading level for the child.
- Some features to aid non-native Chinese language learners include an option to turn the pinyin on or off and an option to turn off the audio narrative.
- The app can switch between simplified and traditional Chinese.
iChineseReader Book Classification
iChineseReader App can switch between simplified and traditional Chinese
At first glance, the app looks promising. Although the topics of the books were limited and the stories were not as engaging as I wished, I believed that these problems were common to all leveled readers. Leveled readers are usually written with strict vocabulary and sentence structure requirement, thus they are generally not the most engaging literature. Nevertheless, I hoped that my son would take to Chinese language leveled readers just as he had the English leveled readers on RazKids.
Soon, however, we encountered some obvious deficiencies with iChineseReader. Before my son had a chance to read many books on the app, he was frustrated by frequent technical issues:
- He had to type in the user name and password every time he opened the iChineseReader App. It was already a battle to convince my son to read on iChineseReader, but this was just one more hurdle!
- The app would frequently freeze.
- After a few days, the app login quit working altogether.
My then 6-year-old son read about 10 books on iChineseReader before we called it quits, mainly because of its unfriendly user interface design and technical problems. In addition, the general impression of the App, along with its selection of books, made it feel too much like serious "study" for my kindergartner, like a chore he had to do, or an academic task of the day. It failed to get him excited about reading in Chinese.
Leveled Reader: WaWaYaYa JoyReader
After iChineseReader, I found WaWaYaYa JoyReader. I learned that WaWaYaYa JoyReader was used by some reputable Chinese immersion schools ($9.99 monthly subscription, $99.99 yearly subscription). It had more books than iChineseReader, and the interface seemed a bit livelier than iChineseReader.
WaWaYaYa homepage interface
I had previous experience with WaWaYaYa in 2015. The first versions of WaWaYaYa had a very limited number of seemingly self-published books, unattractive and outdated. It did not arouse my interest at all back then. When I downloaded WaWaYaYa in 2018 for a second look, I saw significant improvments. It added more high-quality books published by reputable publishers, as well as several new features designed for non-native Chinese learners.
My sons especially liked a leveled reader book series 酷熊猫 (kù xióng māo Cool Panda) in the WaWaYaYa App. This is a set of Chinese graded reading books jointly published by China Higher Education Press and Kennesaw State University in 2017. Unlike most Chinese graded reading books, Cool Panda is more relevant to the lives of American children. WaWaYaYa also has a read-after-me function. In the first few days of using WaWaYaYa , my boys loved recording their voices to get a score of their pronunciations from the app. They loved to compete with each other for a higher pronunciation score.
Cool Panda Chinese Leveled Reader on the WaWaYaYa App
China Higher Education Press has made the Cool Panda E-books available for free access on the website More Fun Chinese. You just need to create a free account on the website. The navigation and E-book interface on More Fun Chinese is not all intuitive, but it is free access to a set of great leveled reader series!
Similar to iChineseReader, WaWaYaYa focuses mainly on graded readers. Graded readers can play an important role in the early stages of children's learning. If you want an app for graded readers to use at home, I think WaWaYaYa Joy Reader is a better choice than iChineseReader.
My boys enjoyed reading with WaWaYaYa for about 3 months, before the "read-after-me" freshness of the app subsided. They claimed that they had read most of the "more interesting" books and that the rest of the books were "boring". The biggest cons of WaWaYaYa for us was the lack of "random" good book selection outside of their leveled reader arena. Kids move beyond leveled readers quickly, and they need more.
Leveled Reader: Level Chinese
Another leveled reading platform that has received positive feedback is Level Chinese. This is a graded reading and learning platform that mother, and engineer-turned-entrepreneur Pauline Shuen in Silicon Valley founded a few years ago. Level Chinese developed its own Chinese reading and writing levels and standards, drawing from a few sets of popular foreign language standards. Level Chinese's books go hand in hand with immersion schools' curricula. The app developers are adding gamification to the content right now. I have heard great feedback about Level Chinese from immersion school teachers, but I have not used the App personally because the App is now only available for schools. As an individual parent, there is no a way for me to purchase or open a Level Chinese account for personal home use. If your kid's school is already using Level Chinese, I believe that you will not need another leveled reader app like WaWaYaYa.
Leveled readers should not be the sole reading materials of young language learners
I was hoping to use conventional Chinese leveled readers to bring systematic Chinese learning and character recognition to my elementary schooler, but motivating him to love reading in Chinese requires books that are more sophisticated and exciting. The storytelling and entertaining power of most leveled readers are relatively weak. After all, my son was reading the super fun Dog Man series in English!
I think one common trap for most young language learners is that their readings are focused primarily on leveled readers. This is partially because it is difficult for parents (even teachers) to have access to a large number of non-leveled reader books in a foreign language, and partially because we grownups believe that non-leveled readers are too advanced for our children. Kids need to have access to unfamiliar vocabularies, with scaffolding through familiar stories, pictures and plots. We parents started reading books in our native language to our babies before they even start to speak. When our kids learn to read in English, leveled readers are only a small faction of all the books they encounter. Reading in a foreign language should not be an exception.
Leveled readers are extremely important in building beginner's literacy. We prefer to use physical books as our leveled readers because I wanted to encourage the kids to focus on recognizing each character with minimal distraction. My children used Sage Book, Cool Panda and now are reading Mandarin Companion. Even though the content of Mandarin Companion is designed for older language learners, my boys feel proud that they are reading big kid books independently.
I would recommend selecting two or three of the best leveled reader books to build children's vocabulary and understanding of the target language. Then expand their reading horizons to many non-leveled books in a wide arrange of topics, especially after the children have already built a foundation of literacy.
I believe that if my children have access to the best Chinese books--exploring humanity, emotions and humor across cultures, borders and languages--they cannot help but enjoy reading in Chinese!
I went on a search for good Chinese books that reflect humanity and arouse emotion through engaging stories. I love the sparkle in my boys’ eyes and their giggles when they read Mo Willems’s Piggy and Gerald. Where could I find books of this quality in ebook format?
The Individual E-book Apps
I searched high and low in the Apple App Store and bought a few individual books, among which my boys read one book again and again 国王的新衣 The Emperor’s New Clothes ($ 3.99) developed by Pan Asia Cultural.
This book has beautiful pictures and vivid presentation. The boys could interact with the characters by tapping on the screen. It was a pity that I only found this one book that had such beautifully done content and presentation. What if there is an e-book app that has many books like this 国王的新衣: beautifully made and fun to “touch-and-read”? What if there is an App that brings together Chinese books that have won children's literature awards from around the world? After we discovered Ellabook, I think we have found just that.
Ellabook , the Interactive E-book library
Ellabook Homepage-Parents Portal
We first discovered and downloaded the Ellabook App in 2018 . My then first-grader and I sat together to open the book 铲车大汉 (chǎn chē dà hàn, The Mighty Excavator), a book that won the New Zealand Russel Clark Award. We were instantly attracted to this beautiful book. The high-resolution, beautiful pictures are lightly animated as the text is read by a professional voice talent. My son tapped the screen, the excavator moved the shovel and shook his head, and out burst a few words. There are more than 1,000 such books and Disney movie adapted books on the Ellabook App!
Since then, Ellabook has gradually become a mainstay of my sons' Chinese learning routine. In 2018, we were using the Ellabook App that was designed in China and intended for families in China. There was no US-based data server, so downloading a single book could take ten minutes. Sometimes we would go for several days without being able to download a single book. There was no way for us to subscribe to the app without a Chinese phone number, so we had to ask relatives in China to subscribe for us.
However cumbersome the downloading was, Ellabook was the only app among all our e-book apps that my sons were eager to use.
I loved Ellabook so much I traveled to China with my JoJo Learning co-founder Caelyn in the summer of 2019 to visit the Ellabook team in Zhengzhou, China. We hoped to help make this great resource more accessible outside of China. Since then, we have been tirelessly providing feedback and support to a dedicated Ellabook Chinese team. Today, I am proud to say that we have contributed to bringing Ellabook to children outside of China!
In December 2019, Ellabook launched an expedited global server service, and the download time for a book in the United States and Canada was reduced to about 30 seconds. In March 2020, Ellabook released an English version with most navigational tools translated into English. There is still much to improve, but knowing the team, we have confidence that Ellabook will continue to develop as they get to know their new, global audience.
咔哒故事 KaDa, the Ebook Library
咔哒故事 KaDa App's main interface
It was just four months ago that 咔哒故事 KaDa App was brought to our attention, but along with Ellabook, this App is becoming one of the go-to-apps my boys like to read with. We love that it has a huge selection of books, but there are some cons that would be helpful for you to know before you decide which ebook App is the best for you.
- Huge selection of 30,000 books both in Simplified Chinese and English (English books focus more on leveled readers aimed at Chinese kids learning English). There is a good chance your child will find books on their favorite topics.
- Great selection of popular western book series in Chinese, such as the MineCraft graphic comics (A favorite at our house, we have been reading the physical books together. Now the boys read them on KaDa).
- If the original physical books come with pinyin, the 咔哒故事 KaDa version has pinyin also. However, the pinyin text usually is small and hard to read.
- It has some built-in points-collecting games to encourage kids to read more. My boys are excited about reading for points!
- Big selection of audio books, professionally narrated
- Fast downloading: it takes about 10 seconds to download a book
- Option to turn off the narration. This is helpful if your children are able to read Chinese books independently.
- Affordable: $20 for a 3-month membership (plus other in-app purchases), $60 annual VIP membership.
- Registration and payment can be processed simply using your Apple store account (many other Chinese Apps require a Chinese local phone number to register!)
- Can't be used on Android devices (it is not in the Google Play App store)
- The app is designed to be used by native Chinese children and sold within China. All navigation features and pop-up instructions are in simplified Chinese.
- In order to proceed with payment and other parental verification functions, parents will have to know Chinese idioms
- Lack of language-learning helpers such as highlighting the Chinese character being read, read-after-me, etc.
- A number of their popular books are bilingual. However, the voiceover reads each page in English first, and then in Chinese. There is no option to choose just one language. For my family's Chinese learning purpose, we prefer books being read only in Chinese.
- 咔哒KaDa's E-books are static images from the original paper books, while Ellabook's E-books are animated reproductions of the original paper book. My children prefer Ellabook's interactive books, as they love to touch the pictures to interact with figures and animals. I feel that by interacting with the book in Chinese, my boys are getting a little more Chinese context and immersion.
- Lastly, the biggest drawback of 咔哒故事 in my opinion ( in the opinion of a nearsighted mother who is concerned about protecting my children's eyesight): the Chinese characters on the book pages are often small. Both of my boys are learning to read Chinese characters, so I encourage them to follow along in the text while listening to the narrator. Book pages on 咔哒故事 appear to be scanned in directly from the open pages of a physical book. So the app tries to squeeze two pages, side-by-side onto one iPad screen. This sometimes makes the text too small to easily recognize the Chinese characters. Since Ellabook reproduces each single book page to fit the full screen, it has the liberty to adjust font sizes, position and colors to make text more readable on a tablet screen. The pictures on Ellabook also seem to be of higher resolution, with more vibrant colors. Please see the side by side comparison of the screenshots taken from the same 玛德琳的救命狗 （Madeline's Rescue）book from KaDa 故事 and Ellabook.
In the past few years, so much more first-rate Chinese resources have become available for children who are learning Chinese outside of China. We are humbled to become part of the movement that makes learning Chinese language fun and accessible. Let language help bring the world together!
The simple act of daily reading has been essential to my boys' rather significant improvement of Chinese proficiency. It reminds me of the old Chinese saying 水滴石穿 (shuǐ dī shí chuān) "dripping water wears away hard stones". Tiny drops are calm, yet constant. They are small, yet powerful. They wear away the hardest stones quietly yet surely.