One of the most frequent questions I’ve heard recently is “How can I get my Western learners of Chinese to read characters?”

I think we take a somewhat schizophrenic approach to teaching Chinese at times. On the one hand, we are constantly reminding people how it is a “Class 4” language — so difficult — and on the other hand, we are often failing to give our students the same support that any kindergartener or first-grader receives in terms of reading in his first language. We seem to expect that since our students can already read in the first language, there’s no need to each them about Chinese text and how it works (other than having them memorize radicals, maybe) or to start them out with easy texts.

Since this very obvious fact dawned on me about a month ago, I’ve been including picture support with many of the readings my students work with. The difference has been dramatic. As well as providing clues to the meaning of the “chunk” they go with, pictures also serve to break up the reading. I think a lot of us forget how forbidding and scary a whole paragraph of Chinese characters can look when you’re not exactly sure of what every one of them is.

I’m seeing better application of other reading strategies, too. Think-alouds and questions during class reading show that the kids are using the title for clues, guessing unknown characters and combinations using the known words, and using their “feasibility filter” to determine what the unknowns might mean.

A lot of teachers are hesitant about adding pictures because they feel that they cannot draw well, or because they simply do not have the time to do so. When I say “picture support”, I mean one picture per two to three sentences at this time of the year (earlier in the year, it should have been one to one) and gradually ramping the number of pictures down as the year goes on and the kids become more proficient in reading characters. The pictures should not take the place of reading the text, but they should support the meaning and give clues or support guesses using the text.

So in addition to using other literacy strategies in teaching characters and reading, try typing out your reading, splitting it into small chunks of one or two sentences, and adding a picture to each. Even if it’s a bunch of stick figures (which is what I swear by!), the worst picture is better than none at all. Prompt the students to use the pictures and see if it helps their reading.