How to improve your Chinese reading is something we get asked all the time.
Improving your reading in Chinese is a necessary, but sometimes boring means of learning. In languages that use the roman alphabet, reading in normally the skill that is the easier the quickest. But in Chinese, this is different because you have a whole other set of skills to learn, as their writing system is completely different, it’s not even an alphabet.
Before you get started, make sure you know whether you’re learning simplified or traditional characters. If you’re not sure yet or want to learn more about the differences between these two, then you can check out our handy article here.
Let’s have a look at our top methods to improve your reading in Chinese.
Ways to improve your reading in Chinese
Learn more characters
The first way you can improve your reading in Chinese is to learn more characters. The more vocabulary you have, the easier it’s going to be to read. Chinese is a strange language in comparison to other where I find early word memorisation can really help. Normally I prefer a more natural approach through taking in vocabulary as I interact with it, but with learning Chinese characters, it can really help to cram in some memorisation hours to put you ahead.
The more characters you know, the easier it’ll be to read. If you’ve read other articles, you’ll have heard us mention memrise and anki before. With these apps you can select specific vocab to learn and then they help you learn with spaced repetition. If my goal was to improve my reading, and I wasn’t looking for specific vocabulary then I would start by downloading the HSK1 vocab, which consists of 150 characters and trying to learn them. Then I would download HSK2 and continue in this way until HSK6, downloading extra modules as and when I needed them.
Also when you’re learning the characters, make sure you learn what makes up the characters, just don’t memorise the shapes. So learn which part gives the meaning, which part gives the sound. Learn what a radical is, so if you don’t know a character it can help you to understand the meaning anyway.
If you’ve been learning Chinese for a while, at some point you’ve probably heard of the Chairman’s Bao even if you’re not actually sure what it is. If you’re completely new to Chinese maybe you haven’t. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has been learning Chinese has at some point downloaded the Chairmans Bao.
Chairman’s Bao is probably the most famous reading resource for Chinese learners. It is a graded news site to help you get started reading news articles. The site has material for levels HSK1 – HSK6 and releases 1600 new pieces of material per year. The Chairman’s Bao is so successful, that’s it’s not just used for self study, but universities have started to use it as well to help their students with their Chinese reading.
Graded readers are books or stories that have been written specifically with your level in mind. They tend to use the vocabulary and grammar structures of the level you’re studying at. Graded readers are great because you get to read a story that’s been written for your level rather than having to use children’s books.
It also gives you a great sense of accomplishment when you can finally read a book in a foreign language. Normally this wouldn’t be possible until much later on, but with graded readers, you can do this pretty much straight away.
Graded readers are becoming more and more popular so this means luckily for you, the stories are getting more interesting and you have more types of books to choose from.
Warning: If you download from Amazon, make sure you read the reviews first. As ebooks are becoming easier to publish, more and more people are writing their own books, which is absolutely fantastic, but it also means that without editors, it’s easier for a book to contain mistakes which won’t help with your learning. So when you download a graded reader ebook, just make sure you read the reviews first to check the book is at a high enough standard.
Look at our detailed list of recommended Chinese graded readers here to get started.
If you want to improve your reading because you’re going to take the HSK exam, then I couldn’t recommend using past papers more. They can really help with your reading skills and they actually test your comprehension so you can get an idea for how much you do actually understand.
Also if you’re planning on taking the HSK exam, then it’s useful to complete past papers anyway. You don’t want to walk into the exam and find an exam format that looks completely unfamiliar to you. Instead take your time to familiarise yourself with the exam. I would also recommend taking the exam under timed conditions and don’t look up words until after you’ve finished, so you can get a feel for what the exam will actually be like.
TV shows with subtitles
Start watching Chinese TV shows with Chinese subtitles. This is fun and gives you a more natural exposure to the language. It will also help to improve your listening at the same time as your reading. And the dialogue will be quick, so it’s a useful way to learn how to read for the gist of something rather than taking your time as you would with past papers or a book.
With Netflix, you can search for films in the language you want to learn, and there’s often a range of subtitle options you can choose from. This means that if there’s no Chinese series you’re interested in watching, you should be able to find some English speaking shows where you’re able to change the audio and the subtitles to Chinese. I know dubbed TV isn’t something we’re very used to, but if you want to get the most out of learning, it’s something you might have to give a go.
Consider taking the HSK exam
Taking an exam can be a great way to improve your skills in a language. If you sign up for a language, then you’re definitely going to study for it, which will improve your reading, listening, writing and speaking.
A great thing to do can be sign up for an exam, then buy a textbook to work your way through. Once you get to the higher levels, your textbook will also be in Chinese, so you’ll find that you’re reading more and more Chinese while you study.
These are our recommendations for the best Chinese HSK textbooks.
Are you in China? If so start changing your life in these ways
Ask for the Chinese menu
A great way to improve your reading in Chinese is to do it in more natural ways, and one of these if using the Chinese menu.
If there’s an option between a Chinese menu and an English menu, always choose the Chinese menu. This way you can fit more natural practise into your day. Worst case scenario, you end up ordering some weird food by mistake, but that way you get to try more things too so that’s a win win situation.
You can even do this if you aren’t in China. Most western countries and Asian countries definitely have Chinese restaurants, and because they’ll have Chinese customers, they’ll also have Chinese menus. When you go in just ask if you can have a Chinese menu instead of an English menu.
Play translation games
If you’re on the subway, walking around or waiting for a bus you can practise your Chinese. Look at the things around you and start trying to translate them. See how much of a sentence you can translate then you can use pleco (the dictionary app) to help you with the rest.
If you have Chinese colleagues, you can even take a picture of the sign then ask them what it means when you get into work to see how close you got to being able to read it correctly.
With this one you don’t even need to be in China. For those of you who aren’t aware of italki, it’s a language learning platform where you can find teachers or language partners. But it also has another use that we are going to look at here.
On the italki website, you can write notebook entries to improve your writing skills and then natives make corrections to your work. If you’re learning Chinese, it might be useful to go on these notebook sections and find other people who are learning Chinese and read their work.
The notebooks will normally be written at quite a simple level because they’re learning just like you, and you don’t need to worry about reading bad Chinese, because the corrections from the native speakers will be just underneath.
Then when you’re ready to practise writing in Chinese yourself, you can use the notebook feature for that too.
It’s not as easy to get started reading in Chinese as it is in languages that share the roman alphabet but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Sometimes I like to think of reading in Chinese like solving a puzzle. I try to translate the words and when I can’t I try to work out the rough meaning of the word by seeing what radical it has and looking at it in context to other words.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our list of ways to improve your reading in Chinese. If you have any other suggestions please leave them in the comments below for us to take a look.