Online Reading Skills Lessons in Mandarin Chinese for High School Learners

National Foreign Language Center, University of Maryland

Welcome to Read-Chinese!

The Read-Chinese! Internet lessons have been developed at the National Foreign Language Center (NFLC) at the University of Maryland primarily to meet the needs of American high school students who want to learn to read Chinese and have already learned to recognize a few basic written characters. Others will also find the materials useful, however, including people who wish to review and practice their reading ability in Chinese.

The Read-Chinese! materials include several innovative activities that we hope you will find useful (and fun, too). Although the developers have made every effort to ensure that everything works properly, it may be that you experience a technical problem as you work with the materials. In that event, please e-mail the NFLC at We will be glad to help you.

Objectives of This Guide

The purpose of this guide is to provide information about the Read Chinese! lessons, including how to get started, how to take full advantage of the different learning resources, and how to achieve maximum results. Please read the entire guide.

Some topics covered include the lesson objectives, lesson content, curriculum, and what you will need to do in order to benefit. There are study suggestions to help you get the most out of the materials; there is also a short discussion of what you can reasonably expect to be able to do in reading Chinese when you have completed the lessons. We hope that the guide will answer many of the questions you may have.

About Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) is the national language of the People’s Republic of China on the Chinese Mainland (PRC), the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC), and the island state of Singapore at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula. It is spoken as a native language by almost 900 million people and as a second language by more than 200 million others, both within China and overseas.

The language called Mandarin Chinese is based on the speech of the capital, Beijing. There are about twelve other major “dialects” of Chinese spoken in China, each about as different from one another as the Western European languages like French, German, Italian, Danish, Serbian, and Russian are from each other. An excellent summary of information about Mandarin Chinese can be found at the “About World Languages” Web site at

If you are interested in information about Cantonese, go to the related Web site at: There is also an excellent linguistic map of China, including the major dialects, at

Although some of the vocabulary and the sounds of the tones, vowels, and consonants vary quite a bit from one Chinese dialect to another, all of the dialects have several important features in common. They all use tones as an important feature to distinguish one word from another word and they all have words that typically consist of only one or two short syllables (with no extra prefixes or suffixes as in English or other European languages).

Written Chinese

Although the varieties of spoken Chinese vary considerably from area to area, as we have seen, all Chinese people make use of pretty much the same writing system, Hanzi (characters), which has been in use in China since the Han Dynasty in around 200 B.C.. Thus, it is possible for two speakers of different Chinese dialects who cannot understand each other’s speech to, nonetheless, understand each other’s written messages. There is a good short description of the development of the Chinese writing system at

English words are made up of letters; Chinese characters are made up of strokes, traditionally made with a brush and ink. Some of the basic strokes are the following:

The following chart shows how different strokes can be combined to make characters to represent words:

Like some English words that can be divided into a root and prefix or suffix, some Chinese characters are made up of smaller meaningful units, too. You can learn about some of the most important kinds of these smaller units by working with the four Novice-level lessons with the title *Basic Language: Characters.

An excellent introduction to writing Chinese characters can be found at writing with a pen or brush, students learn to pay attention to the stroke order by which each character is written. If you are writing Chinese on a computer, however, stroke order is not important. It is only necessary to type the pinyin pronunciation of a character, and the computer will suggest one or more characters for you to choose from.

Traditional (Standard) and Simplified Characters

Chinese characters have changed a lot over more than two thousand years. Some changes have been gradual; some have been drastic. A lot of Chinese characters contain a large number of strokes, sometimes more than twenty. In 1956, the government of the People’s Republic of China began a campaign to simplify many of the characters in an attempt to increase literacy by making it easier to learn to read and write. A panel of linguists simplified the forms of many characters by reducing the number of strokes. Some characters were left unchanged, from the traditional form, while other simplified characters were very different, as you can see in the next chart:

Simplified characters are used officially in the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) and Singapore. Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Overseas Chinese communities generally use traditional characters, but simplified characters are typically used among mainland Chinese immigrants.

In Read Chinese! each lesson is provided in both traditional and simplified formats. You may work in only one of the formats or you can practice reading both kinds of characters.

Goals of Read Chinese!

The goals of Read Chinese! are to provide American high school students and others who are inexperienced readers of Chinese with opportunities to read short examples of Chinese writing about a variety of interesting topics. Research shows that the best way to learn to read in any language is to do a lot of reading. The stories, articles, notes, and lists in Read Chinese!, together with the several different learning activities, provide fun opportunities to practice reading. At the same time, they also introduce students to information about Chinese language, culture, history, and society.

Learners need to be able to recognize some basic Chinese characters to benefit from Read Chinese! It also helps to be familiar with the pinyin phonetic transcription of Chinese words.

There are three levels of reading difficulty for the Read Chinese! materials:

  • Novice materials consist of very short readings with frequently used vocabulary. These beginning-level readings are simple lists, basic everyday dialogues, or very short sentences.

  • Intermediate materials are typically short articles or descriptions, often taken from the Internet, a newspaper or book of straightforward readings. To read these comfortably, learners should have completed at least one or two years of Chinese language study, or they should be very familiar with the topic of the particular lesson.

  • Cultural materials are examples of excerpts from Chinese literature and cultural sayings and proverbs. To understand these completely, a learner needs to be a very strong reader of the language, but the lessons are designed so that even beginning readers are able to appreciate them by referring to the English translations and cultural notes.

Getting Started with Read Chinese!

Access to the course materials is provided directly from the Web site at or by downloading the material from the Web site onto the learner’s computer so as to use it there or to burn it to a CD or DVD. The materials may be copied freely, so long as they are not sold for profit. On the Web site, you will find the following clickable list of Read Chinese! materials:

Traditional Form These materials are written in the Traditional characters used in the Republic of China on Taiwan and in Hong Kong.
Simplified Form These materials are written in the Simplified characters that were adopted in 1955 in the People’s Republic of China and Singapore.
Novice Materials designed for beginning readers, typically toward the last part of the first year of study.
Intermediate Materials intended for learners who are already able to read simple connected sentences in Chinese.
Cultural Materials at a more advanced linguistic and cultural level that provide insight into Chinese traditions and values.

Begin by selecting the kind of characters and the level of reading passage that you wish to work on.

The topics in each level are listed alphabetically and not in any recommended order. However, in the novice level, the lessons at the top of the list that are marked as *Basic Language are less difficult than the others. You'll also notice that some lessons are alphabetized together by a shared theme or topic. You should look for a topic that interests you or that you know something about and try it. If it seems too hard for you now, then do a different lesson first and come back to the first one later. The next section describes what you'll find in a lesson.

What’s in a Read Chinese! lesson?

The opening page of any lesson in Read Chinese! will look like this one:

On this Overview page, you can find information about the passage, including its approximate level, the focus and content of the lesson, and the source for the passage.

Across the top of the screen, you can see a clickable button for the Source, which is simply the text itself with pinyin transcriptions of each character in the text.

Also shown across the top are links to from four to six learning activities based on the reading. An example of an activity will be shown later.

At the bottom of every page in the lesson, you will find the following clickable words along the window’s frame:

Text Plus. You will use the Text Plus link a lot. It takes you to a screen where you can you can see a line-by-line translation of the passage into English and can play a recording of the Chinese passage being read aloud for you to follow. In some lessons, you will also find a .PDF file of extra material on the topic of the lesson. Here is an example:

Notes. The notes provide information about the culture and about language use in relation to the topic of the lesson. You should make it a point to read the Notes in every lesson. You may find it helpful to read them before starting to read the passage itself.

Glossary. The Glossary includes English explanations of from four to twenty or more words or phrases that are used in the passage or in the learning activities. The meaning shown always reflects the meaning of the character as it is used in the passage. Many characters have more than one meaning, but only the meaning used in the passage is shown in the Glossary.

Next. When this link appears, it takes you to additional examples of the particular learning activity.

Dictionary. Clicking this provides you with Internet links to some useful online Chinese dictionaries. If you don’t know a character in one of the passages (or anyplace else on the Internet), you can copy it and paste it into a dictionary to get the meaning in English.

Strategies. The link to Strategies takes you to some suggestions based on research to help you become a more effective language learner. If you browse through this section, you are certain to find some hints that you will want to try.

Tutorial. This document provides information about how to use all of the different kinds of LangNet lessons and activities. Read Chinese! uses the LangNet software.

Here is an example of a learning activity from a Read Chinese! lesson:

In any learning activity, you can change the instructions from Chinese to English just by clicking on the rectangular orange Instructions box. If you are already familiar with the different kinds of activities and do not need to see the instructions at all, you can click on Hide Instructions at the bottom left of the page, and that will give you more space in which to work.

Clicking on the “light bulbs” will provide hints, as will clicking on the word Hint at the bottom of the page. You will also get feedback and additional hints each time you select an answer in an activity. Then, if you still don’t know the answer after two tries, the program will provide it for you.

If you want to start an activity over again, click Reset at the bottom right. You can do this as many times as you wish, and the activity will be presented to you again.

Notice, too, at the top left of the Activity page, right under the white LangNet box, you may see the words Learn More. If you click on these words when you see them, you will find interesting additional information about the language or culture in relation to that activity. They are like a kind of “bonus.” When you see a Learn More link, we recommend that you look at it before you do the activity itself.

Some Learning Suggestions

Here are some hints on using these materials. The hints are based on what we have observed about language learning over the years and on what people are just beginning to learn about successful computer-based learning.

Hints on Working with the Read-Chinese! Materials

Following these steps will help you get the most out of the materials:

  • Choose some easy texts at first that you feel comfortable with. Start with lessons that you think might be a little easy for you, such as the ones marked as *Basic Language.
  • Choose topics that you are interested in and know something about; actively use your knowledge and experience to help you understand a text.
  • When you have chosen a text topic, look at the Notes section to get an idea what it is about.
  • Click on Text Plus to access the audio recording of the text, the pinyin transcription and the English translation. Compare the lines of translation with the Chinese original. Then, go back to a text a couple of weeks after you have studied it and try to understand as much as you can without using the translation.
  • Scan the Glossary and see if you already know any of the words in the passage. Then go back and look at the text without using the translation and see how much you can find that you recognize and understand.
  • Be aware that vocabulary translations cannot be exact. Keep in mind that although each Chinese word or phrase has been translated with a corresponding English word or phrase, the English term may not be the exact equivalent of the Chinese in all contexts. The two words will probably differ in the scope of their meanings, the words they combine with, and the contexts where they are used. Think of the English translation as an approximation of the Chinese meaning.
  • Identify words or phrases from the materials that you know that you will want to remember. Write the characters for those words in a notebook and try to use them in basic sentences. Try to follow the right stroke order. The act of writing them several times will help you to remember them.
  • The first couple of times that you read a passage, you will probably put most of your effort into figuring out words and short phrases. Read it again after you feel familiar with it and try to look for longer phrases and sentences that you understand.
  • Manage Your Expectations with the Materials

    Computer-based learning is not the same as a classroom course, and you cannot expect to make progress as quickly as if you were in a full-time daily course. For one thing, a lot more depends on your own commitment to doing the work. But if you combine regular reading (and re-reading) of these and other passages, study of the learning activities and notes and lots of other practice using the language to talk with Chinese speakers and other learners and listen to Chinese, you will be pleased with your progress.

    Language is Arbitrary

    Any language is a conventionalized system used for communication. Each language has its own unique system of sounds, word order, units of meaning, rhetorical organization, written symbols, and patterns of usage. Although every language has its own system unto itself, that system is, in many ways, arbitrary. Sometimes the only real answer that you can be given to the question “Why do you write it that way?” is “Because that’s the way we write it!”

    Hints on Effective Online Learning

    Motivation and attitude are often the most important factors in predicting success in learning a foreign language. The following are some of the ways of maintaining a positive helpful attitude and self-motivation:

    1. Set up a regular study schedule. One cannot cram in learning a language. Language learning is a real case where “slow and steady wins the race.” Do at least a little bit every day.

    2. Be patient with yourself. Language learning is gradual and mistakes are part of learning. You may make mistakes that you did not make earlier because you are focusing on new material and you need time to integrate and sort out the material in your mind.

    3. Do not compare yourself with others. Individuals learn at different rates and learning rates differ within the same individual

    4. Set realistic goals for yourself. Reward yourself for approximations as well as for complete correct answers. (“Well, at least I got the first part right.”)

    Hints on Self-Evaluation

    Evaluating your own progress is important. We recommend the following procedure: Set short-term goals first. Can you understand more completely today than two weeks ago? More than a month ago? What can you understand in spite of unfamiliar words? Ask yourself whether phrases and words are coming more easily, or whether you are thinking in the language. Thinking and dreaming in the language are good signs of your active involvement in the learning process. A good way to check how much progress you have made is to go back and read again a passage that you read a month ago. Does it seem easier? Can you read it more fluently? Can you understand more?

    Hints From “Ideal” Language Learners

    From studying foreign language learners over many years, researchers have come up with some typical characteristics of good language learners. While you may already have some of these characteristics, see if consciously cultivating others helps your learning.

    Successful language learners share the following characteristics:

    1. They are selective in what they retain from a passage. They focus on main ideas and content and function words. Most important, they focus on what they can understand instead of what they can’t.
    2. They tolerate ambiguity language. They are able to fill in the meaning of items that they do not understood immediately by using the context to make intelligent guesses.
    3. They have insights into their own preferred learning styles and are able to organize input into a coherent system for themselves.
    4. They are willing to take risks and appear “ridiculous” in order to test their own hypotheses about the language. A wonderful language learner, when asked the secret of his success, answered with a smile, “I have no sense of shame!”
    5. They focus primarily on communicating and doing things in the language (rather than on following grammar rules).
    6. They do not refer back to their native language system, but create a separate reference system for the new language. They are able to “think” in the language early in their study.
    7. They take advantage of every opportunity they have to use the language. For example, when people are talking together in the language, good language learners will be “impolite” and listen in. Try to speak Chinese to everyone that you know who speaks it as well as (or better than) you. And try to read something in every Chinese sign or note that you see, including online.