How Reading Can Improve Your Chinese Learning


Are you tired of just memorizing Chinese characters and not really using them? Here’s a small tip. Reading stories can improve your Chinese learning

Six months ago I hardly used my written Chinese for anything outside of the occasional text message.

“我到了” – I’m here.

Now I read short stories every day, and I was able to start doing so with knowledge of only around 100 characters. I’ve watched that number jump up to 500 and beyond and I’m actually enjoying the process! As it turns out, you can start reading Chinese today at any level. All you need is to read Chinese that was written for your level with assistance when you need it.

Why it works

Before written language even existed, history was passed down through stories. When you read it activates your brain and builds connections. fMRI scanning (a way of measuring brain activity) has shown that the regions of your brain activated when engaging with a story are the same regions that would be activated if you were actually living the story yourself. This means that by reading stories you enjoy a similar benefit to full language immersion.

Think about when you first learned your mother tongue. After learning to listen and speak, you would then learn to read. While reading you would come across new words and your mind would automatically learn the meaning through context. For learning Chinese this can help you understand the way words are actually used, instead of just understanding their English translations. Many words and idioms in Chinese simply don’t have perfect English translations due to language differences and cultural context.

In spoken language, the average native speaker typically uses only around 10% of their full vocabulary. Think about the last time you asked someone about how they were doing: Good, Fine, Okay.  When you read a book things are usually not just good, they’re magnificent, dazzling, spectacular, breathtaking, colorful, exquisite. In everyday conversation, people just don’t put as much thought into what they’re saying as someone does when they write. The nuanced meanings of words are learned when you see them applied through writing.

How to improve your Chinese learning through reading

The more you read, the more you will master the language. That much is a given. In order to make your learning as effective as possible, try the steps below. Just as with any study plan, you can structure your reading practice to help you advance quickly. As mentioned, I saw myself learning to read faster than I ever had before.

Step 1: Find content

Find something to read. There is a lot of great content out there! If you’re familiar with the HSK levels, search for reading content based on your HSK level. Sometimes you may even want to look at the content below your level so you can read through it more easily.  A great way to find content is simply searching for something like “HSK reading practice” or by using Chinese reading practice apps.

Graded Readers

Nowadays there are books created specifically for varying levels of Chinese reading proficiency. The quality of the books varies, but there are a lot of reviews out there to help guide you. If a book only uses 500 characters make sure that those are relevant characters to what you’re trying to learn.

Children’s Books

Who would have thought that you’d be reading Children’s books again? These can be great because they typically have a limited vocabulary. You can find books that have pinyin written above the characters to help you with reading. Don’t worry about understanding every single word that you read. The more you read, the more you will practice building understanding from context. The more you consume, the faster you will learn. If you do need to look something up, try Google Translate’s scanning feature to look up characters quickly.

Parallel Texts

This is something that works well when you are at an advanced level of reading because you can choose almost any book that interests you. There are books available that show you English translations right next to the characters you’re reading in Chinese. You can also get a book that has been translated from English to Chinese and read them side by side. This is something that works well when you are at an advanced level of reading because you can choose almost any major book that you like.

Step 2: Learn along the way

If you find content that you enjoy reading, it will motivate you to improve more quickly. Reading both for pleasure and as a means to an end. You’re trying to learn Chinese! Don’t let the dictionary slow down your process, but don’t forget too that you’re trying to learn as well. Here’s how you can learn new words but read without interruption:

Take notes

As you encounter new words, write them down to study later. At times you may run into a word you’ve never seen before and need to look it up right away to understand what’s going on. If that’s the case – look it up. Otherwise, it’s more important to keep reading while absorbing all that good Chinese content that is improving your language skills.

Save flashcards

The great thing about memorizing words from the stories you read is that they will likely come up again as you continue reading. When you’re reading based on your skill level, you’ll definitely see them again because they are a part of set word lists.

Follow along with a native speaker

If you have the option to read along with a recording (such as an audiobook), that will help you as you go. You gain the benefits of context and depth through the reading with the added benefit of improving your pronunciation at the same time.


Learning to read Chinese is not fun until you actually start to read things in Chinese. When I started to read stories it really opened up my mind and accelerated my learning. It has worked for millions of language learners around the world. Now quit reading this article and go find something to read in Chinese!

Guest post by Ray Banks, Du Chinese

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