Friday, April 30, 2021

Mandarin Companion graded readers review: Part 1, Levels


Multiple Mandarin Companion graded reader reviewed
Various Mandarin Companion books

Note: since writing this post, Mandarin Companion has a new look. Some details may be different in the new versions.

Reading Mandarin: 17 books as your companions (and growing!)

How would you like to be able to read a book in Chinese?

No, really.


Ok, I’m not talking about a book meant for a native speaker, but if you show it to someone who doesn’t read Chinese, they might be impressed! This is where the graded reader books from Mandarin Companion come in. Mandarin Companion’s creators, John Pasden and Jared Turner, along with native-speaking collaborators, have done an amazing job of creating interesting stories for those of us starting this journey of learning Mandarin Chinese.

The graded readers are currently available in 3 levels with each level adding in more words and grammar. The words used in the lowest levels are primarily those you will encounter over and over in your studies and in real life. These are the characters that are worth the effort to learn. Guess what, by reading them over and over in books like these, you will be cementing them into your brain, making them available when you encounter them in the wild.

At this same time, you are also experiencing the grammar structures that you will also need to learn. They have done a great job of taking a really small number of characters, especially in the Breakthrough Level, and forming an engaging story. I actually wanted to read the stories and it was exciting to get to the end of each one I’ve read so far.

Levels of Mandarin Companion graded readers

The graded readers that have a limited number of characters, focusing on characters you are likely to encounter often. The number of included characters increases with each level. Mandarin Companion has a thorough discussion of their levels on their website.

  • Level 0: 150 characters (Breakthrough Level)
  • Level 1: 300 characters
  • Level 2: 450 characters
Levels of Mandarin Companion graded readers reviewed
Mandarin Companion books are leveled by their number and difficulty of characters

If you have been studying Chinese, you know how few 150 characters is and how hard it would be to write a story using only these characters. In the case of Mandarin Companion books, they do allow a very small number of higher level characters that are key to the story and used often throughout. Don’t worry, though. These characters are underlined and referenced by number to definitions at the bottom of the page where they first appear as well as in a glossary at the back of the book. I think having these definitions available, but only when you need them (as opposed to right next to the word) is an important method to encourage you to try to remember the words.

Honestly, I’m continually amazed with what they are able to write with such a small number of characters. It’s obvious they have put a huge amount of thought into these books and how a learner of Chinese would use them.

What level should I read?

Everybody learns differently, but I could read Level 0 fairly well early on in working on the HSK 2 course. By the end of HSK 2, I could read Level 0 very fast and could understand Level 1 fairly comfortably. By mid-HSK 3, I could read Level 1 at a decent pace. Although, there were those few characters I seem to have to look up over and over again! It is great to recognize grammar patterns that I’m learning in my lessons in addition to the vocabulary. Currently, I’m about halfway through the HSK 3 course. I think as I finish HSK 3 and start the HSK 4 course, I will be ready to start taking a peek at Level 2.

What if you are just barely past 你好? Personally, I don’t think I would have had much success with these books before finishing HSK1. Luckily, HSK1 doesn’t take all that long to complete! It wouldn’t hurt to get a few Level 0 readers ready to try out now and then, but you might be spending a lot of time looking up words until your vocabulary expands.

Ultimately, if you are motivated to brute force your way through a book that’s at a high level for you, go for it. However, I agree with the authors that you should be already familiar with the majority of the words and characters. In the introduction to the books, they recommend that you “have at most only one unknown word or character for every 40-50 words or characters that are read.” I feel that this ratio helps keep me from becoming too frustrated. Also, I am able to get the flow of the book and recognize the grammar used.

Mandarin Companion graded readers review: Part 2, Formats

Mandarin Companion graded readers review: Part 3, Features

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