I was taught Chinese by my family and could do the memorizing of many words. The thing that had me worried is that while I could read without pinyin in some parts, I couldn't in others. If I was given a children's storybook, I would read it aloud, knowing each lashes of the word. If I was given a difficult adult book, I'm not able to easily read it without the pinyin on the top.

Is there a way to solve this problem?

  • There are many possible reasons, e.g. incorrect sentence parsing, difficult words, difficult grammar etc. It's hard to receive a satisfactory answer with the scope of the question this wide.
    – L Parker
    May 14, 2021 at 13:15
  • It was the difficulty of the words that increased. I have a total of ten books of Chinese that are labeled 一年级 上册 and so on. I manage to get to 三年级 上下册 before I can't go on to the next grade level. May 14, 2021 at 13:41
  • It's not a problem, you need time and a lot of repetitive practices - read out loud and remember the words and the meanings. Buy a good dictionary, and find time to read it as a book. It builds up your vocabulary, pronunciation, and usage very quickly.
    – r13
    May 17, 2021 at 3:37

1 Answer 1



  1. You need a bigger vocabulary to increase reading proficiency. Based on your comments, it sounds like you know a lot of vocabulary (perhaps orally), but you have trouble recognizing those characters in writing. So, instead of a bigger vocabulary, you need to increase your character recognition. Point #3 below + Anki will help you do that.
  2. Pronunciation and vocabulary size are correlated, so having good pronunciation and knowing the pronunciation of the words is important.
  3. I wrote a Python script that calculates word frequencies in a given Chinese text that may be useful in pre-learning the vocabulary for a reading project. YMMV. Or, search online for a Chinese word frequency counter like this one.

Like L Parker mentioned in his comment, there are many reasons why you have difficulty reading a "difficult adult book". Is that adult book fiction or nonfiction? If it's nonfiction, does it contain a lot of jargon from a specific field? How familiar are you with the content?

In general, one popular area of research into reading comprehension is that of lexical coverage and lexical thresholds — i.e. what percentage of the vocabulary of a given text do you need to know in order to be able to comprehend it? Laufer (2013) seems like a relatively recent, short, and decent introduction to this problem:

"Most researchers agree that only when readers possess a critical mass of second language (L2) knowledge (lexical and grammatical) can general reading skills, such as distinguishing between main and peripheral information, ... operate most efficiently ... vocabulary knowledge is a good predictor of reading proficiency, if not the best" (Laufer, 2013, p. 868, emphasis my own).

In other words, vocabulary size is key. Laufer (2013) summarizes research which suggests a lexical threshold of 95% to 98% coverage as optimal, but there are many factors that would determine what threshold you'd need for your own situation.

Since you mention pinyin, here's a side note about pronunciation:

Learners with unstable pronunciation have trouble putting words into working memory (Ellis and Beaton, 1993 (PDF)), and Papagno, Valentine, & Baddeley (1991) showed that verbal working memory and vocabulary size are correlated. So, pronunciation is critical for vocabulary in the long term, and Chinese has the problem of not easily being able to derive pronunciation from the written form.

However, I don't have any citations about pinyin and reading in Chinese, but I imagine that learning the pronunciation of characters in context through ruby pinyin may not be recommended as a learning strategy, because you may find that you associate the sound and meaning more with the pinyin than with the character itself.

As an L2 learner of Chinese myself, I created a Python script to count all the Chinese words (not characters) in a text and sort them according to frequency. It also takes a stop list of words to remove the words you already know. It's not very flexible, but if you know how to run a Python script, it may be helpful to you. It helped me when I decided to read a translation of 1984.

There are probably also user-friendly online solutions you could put your text into, like this one I found with a Duckduckgo search.

Hope that helps!

  • Well, the thing is... I AM Chinese and I lived in China for five years. My accent in pinyin is good but I'm just having trouble reading words without pinyin. May 14, 2021 at 15:47
  • So is Chinese your L1 or your L2, or are you bilingual? When did your family start teaching you Chinese? I assume from your question that your problem isn't just a matter of literacy, that is, learning the characters for words you already know. In that case, maybe simply studying character composition, common radicals and how they can hint at the sound of most characters might be enough. (Actually this would probably be helpful if you know the words already or not, I think.)
    – kGdmioT
    May 14, 2021 at 16:21
  • One other thing that we haven't touched on is the question of which dialect of Chinese you and your family speak. If it's a dialect close to Putonghua like the Beijing dialect or Dongbei dialects are, then learning the characters and so on through pinyin would be pretty straightforward. But if you speak Shanghainese, or a dialect from Anhui or somewhere, then this could present a different problem.
    – kGdmioT
    May 14, 2021 at 16:25
  • Well, I already know how to write and speak, and I already know how to read with the pinyin on the top. That when the difficulty increased to the point where pinyin is no longer on the pages, I'm stumped. I learned Chinese when I was four and entered America at five. From then on, my parents teach Chinese at home and English at school. May 14, 2021 at 16:28
  • Fuzhounese is my family dialect but right now, I'm more focused on Mandarin Chinese. And I already know all the difficult words, it just hard to remember them since the words aren't often used. May 14, 2021 at 16:33

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