Since this spring's COVID-19 school closures, my sons have been relying on 3 first-class resources to complete their Chinese learning daily routine. I should really say that I have been relying on these 3 resources because they enable my sons to have independent Chinese learning time while I work in our home office.
In today's post, I'd like to focus on one of these resources: the interactive e-book App Ellabook. For those of you who are searching for a good digital book library in simplified Chinese to supplement your family's supply of physical Chinese picture books, Ellabook is an excellent choice. If you already have the App, you may find if helpful to read my Tips for Making the Best of the Ellabook App. Also, don't forget to check the end of the article about the special Ellabook Discount with JoJo Learning.
Some Background on Ellabook
Ellabook is a beautifully-made interactive E-book App. Its Chinese version has 4 million subscribers and it has been incorporated into the curriculum of over 12,000 preschools in China. Its international version (with English navigation) was only made available outside China in January 2020.
You can watch the following videos to get a quick taste of the beautiful interactive E-books on Ellabook. When you see the white gloved hand that indicates what would happen when you click on one of the illustrated characters.
I Won! by Ruth Wielockx from Netherlands
Freedom in Congo Square, is a poetic, non-fiction story about a little-known piece of African American history in New Orleans, a 2017 Caldecott Honor winner.
My Family's Experience with Ellabook
First, a little bit about my family’s Chinese learning situation. My husband does not speak Chinese. I am a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, but I am not able to be my two boys’ full-time Chinese teacher. I interacted in Chinese with them most of the time, and relied on a 2-hour weekend Chinese class at a heritage community school to do the serious teaching. Last August, my then 8-year-old son finally negotiated an agreement with me: he would quit the 2-hour weekend Chinese class, but promised to follow a daily self-learning schedule at home.
Over the past 9 years of raising bilingual children, I have tried a great number of Chinese resources and classes. Many approaches did not work for me and my sons, but over time we found a few pieces of gold in the vast ocean of Chinese resources.
My 9-year-old took a lot of detours in his Chinese learning journey. He didn’t learn to read Chinese before his English reading took off like a rocket in kindergarten. In an earlier blog, I talked about why playing 2nd-language literacy catch-up with an older child is a lot harder: Why your child should learn to read in their 2nd language before their 1st.
My 9-year-old tried all kinds of Chinese textbooks, weekend Chinese schools, one-on-one online tutoring, summer in-country immersion... What has been most effective for my boys is not a certain set of books, textbooks or classes, but a simple routine: read at least three children’s books in Chinese every single day.
Now that I run a Chinese children's book e-commerce store, and we are constantly testing new books, our house is full of great physical sample books for my kids to choose from. This means that my kids now have the option to choose between reading physical books on their own or with Luka and reading with Ellabook.
I know that many people don't have access to as many physical books as my family though, so, I think that during this period of quarantine and isolation, Ellabook could be especially helpful to those families.
Older brother enjoys a book on the Ellabook App while waiting in the doctor's office; younger brother enjoys a book while waiting for mom and dad to get packed up from a camping trip in 2019
The brothers enjoy an Ellabook E-book in the backyard during COVID-19 school closure.
What has been most effective for my boys is not a certain set of books, textbooks or classes, but a simple routine: read at least three children’s books in Chinese every single day.
We started this routine in August last year. When school was in session, Ellabook was extremely helpful in achieving this three-book-a-day routine. My 3rd grader’s only opportunities to practice Chinese were fragmented bits of time when he was on the go, riding to soccer practice or waiting in the doctor’s office. Since schools closed as a result of COVID-19 and he has become home bound, he now has the option of reading digital books on Ellabook or physical books with Luka. I am pleasantly surprised by how much improvement ten months of daily reading has had on his Chinese proficiency, his reading, speaking and comprehension.
My older son, who at one point was on the brink of quitting Chinese, is now speaking Chinese to me and reading Chinese books over the camera to his grandmother in China. In February, he took the STAMP (STAndards-based Measurement of Proficiency) test at a local immersion school, and demonstrated the proficiency level of a 3rd grade Chinese immersion school student.
My younger son’s Chinese is thriving. At 5 years and 4 months, he knows over 800 Chinese characters and is independently reading beginner level Chinese books. He is quickly catching up to the reading level of his 9-year-old brother, and is closing the gap every day. His surprisingly fast progress reinforces to me how important it is to start building language literacy at a young age!
The simple act of daily reading 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.
For our family, Ellabook has been integral to making 3 Chinese books a day possible. For families with less access to physical Chinese books, I think it could be even more of a language-learning game-changer.
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 first 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 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 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.
However cumbersome the downloading was, Ellabook was the only app among all our e-book apps that my sons were eager to use.
In the summer of 2019, during our trip to China to hunt for the best Chinese resources, Caelyn and I paid a visit to Ellabook’s headquarters in Zhengzhou, China and had the opportunity to meet Ellabook’s dedicated development team. Over the past ten years, Ellabook has phased out their traditional point-to-read pens and pioneered “point-to-read” interactive digital books on mobile devices. Under collaborations with major publishers around the globe, Ellabook developed its own proprietary software to animate award winning books. The engineering team demonstrated how one original picture from a book was broken into over dozens of small pieces in order to create the animation.
Ellabook team’s dedication, focus, speed and openness felt like a window to a new generation of first-class Chinese companies. Caelyn and I left Ellabook with deep admiration and a desire to help bring this beautiful resource to Chinese learners outside of China. In the past few months, we have provided Ellabook feedback on developing a version that is tailored to non-native Chinese speakers.
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 navigation 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.
My sons were allowed to choose between reading three books with Luka or Ellabook each day. When school was in session, my 3rd grader’s reading was done mainly with Ellabook during his fragmented time sitting in the car. After the COVID-19 school closure, both boys choose between Luka and Ellabook for their daily 3-book routine. My 9-year-old chooses Ellabook about 80% of the time, while my 5-year-old chooses Ellabook about 50% of the time.
What My Family Loves About Ellabook
1. Classic Books, World Literature Treasures. Ellabook does not publish its own books, but collaborates with major publishers to develop animated versions of beautiful, award-winning books. I have to put a time limit for my boys when they read with Ellabook. My 3rd grader was so drawn into the comic book series that he proclaimed that 丫丫历险记 (yā yā lì xiǎn jì, Ya Ya's Adventure) was his all-time favorite Chinese books. The story is about two children in Shanghai during the Chinese-Japanese War in 1937, a co-creation between a team of Chinese and French authors and illustrators. The book series won 9 international comic awards. It is an original Chinese story about history, war, love and friendship, with world-class storytelling, illustration and character development. The stories have the right amount of action and suspense for a 9-year-old American boy who has limited Chinese reading skills to fully appreciate the story with the assistance of an narrator. The sound and visual effect on the digital book added another layer of excitement to the stories. This series, about the Japanese war and involving a vicious man who kidnapped orphans and made them working for him, includes some graphical scenes (It provided me an opportunity to discuss with my 9-year-old the sad history when a significant number of orphans lived on the street of China). I would recommend trying this with your children only if they are ready for PG movies such as Harry Potter and The Star Wars.
My 9-year-old discovered that the book series has 9 episodes in total but Ellabook has only 6 episodes on the App right now. He couldn't wait to read the rest. For the first time, he urged me to buy him a set of Chinese books as eagerly as he campaigned for his beloved Dog Man and Diary of a Wimpy Kid books! We bought the physical book set and he announced that he preferred the Ellabook version because the "cool sound effects made the story even more exciting."
"Little White Fish Series" by Reader's Digest Best Children's Book Illustrator Award Winner Guido Van Genechten, a book series from Belgium with a focus on children's language development
The Beloved Madeleine Series, Caldecott Awards from the United States
Babar and Father Christmas by Jean de Brunhoff , winner of Horn Book Children's Classics from France
"The God of Stove", an original Chinese story by China's celebrated author and illustrator Xiong Liang'
Ricky, by Guido Van Genechten, orginal story from Belgium, international Illustrator's Award City of Hasselt
" Me … Jane " by Patrick McDonnell, New York Times bestselling author. The book won the Caldecott Awards from the United Sates
2. Beautiful Things Speak to All. Opening a book in the Ellabook app is a joyful experience. The pictures are just beautiful, conveying the creativity of masterful illustrators around the world. I firmly believe that our children, however young they are, have the ability to appreciate arts and beautiful things if we give them the chance.
At some point when we were getting ready for a road trip, I also bought the popular English e-book App Epic! ($7.99 monthly subscription). Some books in Epic! appear to be put together by scanning book pages. The Epic! books not only lack interactive features, but the picture quality of Epic! is also noticeably lower than Ellabook. Driven by the enormous education market in today's China, Ellabook and other Chinese start-ups like it are producing truly exceptional educational products!
3. My sons like to interact with the pictures. Most of the books in Ellabook feature interactive functions. If you are familiar with the traditional point-to-read pens paired with paper books, imagine now your finger is turned into such a pen, and the tablet screen is the book page. Touch a person, an animal or a flower, and the object responds with an action and words. My younger son particularly likes the mini-games for preschool children, such as the one in this Belgian 完美小孩养成书-动物宝典 (wán měi xiǎo hái yǎng chéng shū - dòng wù bǎo diǎn , Perfect Child Development Book - Animal Collection), a story-related game within the cute stories about little girls and animals.
4. My sons love to have their own individualized reading space, the child portal. One Ellabook account can support three child profiles , and each child can enter his own library, a small train.
I used to buy individual Kindle books for my sons, but they never really got into a habit of reading books within my Kindle account. I wonder whether it was partially because their Kindle books were mixed in with my books. They do not like putting their own books on mommy’s bookshelf. My 9-year-old son said: "I like Ellabook because it feels private. I have my own train."
Ellabook App's children's mode is a small train. From the small train, one can enter a bookshelf to access all the downloaded books for each child .
5. Ellabook has audio books. In addition to the animated books, there are many audio books available in Ellabook. My younger son likes to fall asleep to an audio book. At 5 years of age, he likes to read the same story repeatedly, and then listen to the same stories repeatedly.
Listening to books is another important mode of language acquisition. Lance Knowles, creator of the RHR theory that bridges brain neuroscience and language acquisition, believes that in order for children’s brains to learn language most effectively, they need to repeat the same content repeatedly through multi-modal input such as vision, hearing, and touch.
6. Affordable. Ellabook's monthly subscription fee is $6.99, and annual subscriptions are $69.99. I used to buy individual e-books on Kindle: $2.99 for Madeline in English, and $1.99 for 小年兽 (xiǎo nián shòu, The Little New Year Monster) in simplified Chinese. For Ellabook, a $6.99 monthly subscription gives my boys access to 1000 high-quality, interactive books in simplified Chinese. I consider this a great value for the money. The App has saved me countless hours searching for high-quality children's books.
7. Having an e-book App on the iPad enables my boys to read books on the go. Turning fragmented time into Chinese reading time was especially useful when their school and extra-curricular activities were in session before COVID-19.
What My Family Would Like to See Improved About Ellabook
The international version of Ellabook is frequently being updated these days and we are seeing improvement with every update of the App. After all, Ellabook was originally designed for Chinese children who are native speakers of Chinese, so it's natural that it won't be perfect for westerners at first. In some ways, Ellabook has not fully fulfilled the wishes of children who speak Chinese as a second language. Although I learned not to underestimate the learning ability of a diligent company, here are our current reservations:
1. Ellabook is not user friendly for a child who wants to search for and download books independently. Due to each book’s large file size, downloading a single book can take 20-30 seconds on a high-speed internet connection. This is no big deal for grownups, but it tests my sons' patience. Also, the App is designed for parents or teachers to navigate, search and download books for their kids, thus the navigation is not child-friendly.
2. Some features for non-native Chinese speakers are still under development. Although the books on Ellabook are engaging, wonderful books, the App's current version lacks a couple of key functions for children learning a language. For example: highlighting each Chinese character when the word is read; having option to turn pin yin on and off; providing English translations of phrases and characters; and having an option to turn off the voice-over if a child is able to read the text independently. All those features are already available in Ellabook's sister App developed by the same company "Ella English," which is made to help Chinese kids to learn to read in English (Ella English does not have Chinese books). Ellabook is working to make these features live in the Chinese Ellabook app, and we look forward to seeing these features that I believe will be extremely helpful for young Chinese learners.
3. Ellabook's English language features still sound "foreign" right now. The App's navigation is mainly in English, but you won't miss the fact that the English is not the native language of the developers! Since we are using Ellabook to read Chinese books, this doesn't bother us much. We do hope that Ellabook's English interface will become more polished over time!
4. All books in the Ellabook App are in simplified Chinese right now. There is no option for traditional Chinese.
5. You can only search for a book by its Chinese title. And you can only type in the Chinese characters (the current search function doesn't support copying and pasting a book title).
6. Some books subject to regional copyright restrictions are not yet available to users outside of China in the Ellabook App. This January, Ellabook formally launched their app's international version. Download speed was largely improved and English navigation was added. However, some of my children's favorite books were no longer available. These mainly include books adapted from western animated films such as Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon. Sadly, the book series Paw Patrol, adapted from the popular animated show, was also removed. My boys loved to read those stories, especially after they also watched the movies and shows.
Ellabook explained that their current copyright agreement with Disney and other western publishers only allows them to produce and use film-based E-books within the borders of China. To open up these books' international copyright requires additional contract terms which would be expensive and complicated. No surprise. Since Ellabook's international edition is new, it is difficult to justify the high costs while their international user base is still small. With a growing subscriber base, Ellabook is hoping to be able to make these super popular western books accessible to its international users within a year. I really hope that will happen soon!
Chinese-learning Children's Disney Dilemma
To make a Chinese version of Disney animated books easily accessible for children outside of China, I appeal to you to support Ellabook ! Caelyn and I have long had a dream: what if watching Disney movies in Chinese was as easy as turning on our TV and tablet, and as convenient as watching an English movie in an American household? Our kids need fun, highly entertaining materials in Chinese! We wrote to Disney several times. We met with executives of China's largest streaming service 爱奇艺 (iqiyi.com, the Chinese equivalent of YouTube+Netflix). After extensive investigation, we realized that watching the Chinese language version of Disney movies in the United States is indeed still a dream. Right now, there is no way for a parent to purchase Chinese-language Disney content in the United States.
Some people go through the trouble to "climb over the wall" to access China's network through a VPN in order to watch Chinese movies on a Chinese streaming platform such as iqiyi.com. However, dealing with the unstable and confusing VPNs can be a huge headache-inducing and time-wasting experience. As someone who has personally tried, I wish you good luck maintaining your sanity if you try!
Ellabook's Disney animated books are based on original Disney movies. Disney has much input into Ellabook's animated book reproductions of their movies. Developing one Disney animated book on Ellabook takes significant time and multiple versions of revisions with a Disney Chinese team. I believe Ellabook is the only E-book App that is authorized to adopt Disney movies into animated e-books in China.
In China, Ellabook's Disney animated E-books are released at the same time as new movie. It is indeed very cool! When we were still able to see these books in Atlanta last year, our two sons went to the theater to watch Toy Story 4. After returning home, they brought out Ellabook's Toy Story 4 animated book and read it again and again!
In our opinion, one of the best ways to potentially make more Chinese-language Disney products available in the U.S., is to demonstrate to companies like Ellabook, who already have a relationship with Disney, that there is sufficient demand.
Tips for Making the Best of the Ellabook App
1. Select and download the books to the bookshelf (the train) ahead of time. What works best for my boys is for me to download a batch of books for the boys every so often. Any downloaded books will automatically be put on the shelf in the train. My boys usually go directly to their train to select books that are already downloaded. On their shelf, they simply click to read. There is no wait for downloading, no time spent in looking for books.
2. Set "child mode" as default mode. Turn on the "Default child mode" in settings after you download the app. That way when your child opens the App, she will go directly to her bookshelf in the train. Entering into the app's "parents mode" (the default homepage with lots of texts, information and book recommendations) can be frustrating for a young child. My boys are much fonder of the Child Mode.
3. Use the book recommendations (for different topics and age groups) on the Ellabook homepage to search for a book, if you are not able to type in a certain book's Chinese title, or the Chinese characters of a certain topic.
4. Use the Ellabook App offline. Once a book is on the bookshelf, it can be read offline. This is very handy when my children are in the car and on the go.
5. Listen to the audio books of your child's favorite Disney stories. Disney books are available as audiobooks on the Ellabook app right now.
7. Use Ellabook on PC. For teachers who would like to use Ellabook on a PC for online teaching or classroom teaching, please download this instruction (it is rather cumbersome right now). Ellabook will be releasing a new version in the near future to allow more convenient PC access for teachers. Stay tuned!
8. If you are a teacher, please register as an educator to qualify for lifetime free access to Ellabook.
9. Get 45 days free access to Ellabook this summer. At the beginning of February, Chinese schools were closed to battle COVID-19. Ellabook provided Chinese children free access to their app. We reached out to Ellabook, and they are willing to support children outside China who are now staying home. We are so pleased that Ellabook is willing to provide a 45 day free access to all JoJo users and anyone JoJo can reach. For 45 days this summer, our JoJo parents can access the Ellabook App absolutely for free. You will not be asked to sign up the app with your credit card, just sign up with your email account or phone number and simply use the a redemption code "jojo". In 45 days, the access will expire. There are no automatic charges, and no worries about forgetting to cancel an app subscription.
"Reading safeguards second language for life."-Dr. Naomi Steiner, M.D., author of 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child
For our children to learn any language willingly, happily and effectively, they must read a lot of good books.
I sincerely hope first-class E-books such as those found in the Ellabook App will bring more Chinese-learning children an affordable, convenient way to access a great library in Chinese.
Raising kids who speak Chinese in a predominately English-speaking country can feel overwhelming. If you enjoyed this post or found anything about it helpful, please share the learning with others by liking, commenting, or posting to your social media feeds using the buttons below.
Thanks for reading!