Create your own Chinese lessons with MandarinSpot

Man reading book

You probably know one of the fastest ways to build up your Chinese vocabulary and recognition of characters is through reading. It provides repeated exposure to words you’ve learned and also presents new words you can learn. Reading stories and articles can be more interesting than studying from a textbook.

But, if you’re a beginner or intermediate learner, reading Chinese can be a painfully slow process compared to reading Romanized text. Every unknown character becomes a roadblock to comprehension. After hitting one roadblock after another, is it any surprise that you get frustrated and give up?

In order to build up your vocabulary, you need to read. But, if you can’t read the characters, then how can you learn new words? So, it seems we have a catch-22.

Fortunately, Zhou Youguang (周有光), who is considered the father of Pinyin, developed a Romanized system for Mandarin. Pinyin has made reading Chinese much easier for learners. This can be good and bad depending on your view. The good is it’s made learning Chinese much more accessible; the bad is it can often act as a crutch to the point where one must rely on it to read Chinese at all.

At some point, you should learn to read without relying on Pinyin, but in the meantime, Pinyin is your friend. So, welcome Pinyin with open arms and be grateful for the step-by-step guidance of your friend!

With so much content on the web, you’re no longer limited to just learning from a textbook. If you’ve wanted to read Chinese articles online, but found it difficult without Pinyin, then you should try MandarinSpot. MandarinSpot makes it easier to read Chinese by annotating the text with Pinyin.


Online dictionary and annotation resource site

It can also annotate text with other phonetic systems such as Zhuyin Fuhao, more commonly used in Taiwan. Other lesser known phonetic systems are also available.

One of the features I like about MandarinSpot is that you can turn whatever reading material you find online into content for a lesson. When you select the check box for printing, more drop down menus appear below for choosing HSK level vocabulary words.

Once you click the Annotate button, the annotated text appears with a vocabulary list of words that you can study. And, if you don’t want certain words on the list, you can click the word to remove it. Conversely, just click the word in the article to add any words not listed and they will appear in the list below.

MandarinSpot Annotated Text

An example of Chinese text annotated with Pinyin and a vocabulary list produced by the MandarinSpot website

This feature allows you to create a very customized lesson for study and can be much more relevant for your learning needs. You can print out the annotated text and vocabulary list and collect them in a binder for review.

If you want to remember the words you’ve learned, it’s best to add them to a flashcard app such as Anki or any flashcard program that utilizes spaced repetition. Consistent review of your flashcards combined with regular reading will quickly increase your vocabulary. (Read my post on How to Learn Chinese Words So They Stick to learn more.)

The benefit of creating your own lessons is that it puts you in control of your learning. When you’re in control, you will be more motivated and successful with your learning goals. This has been proven in studies on the concept of locus of control which can be internal or external. While a person with an internal locus of control believes she has control over her own life, someone with an external locus of control has the opposite view.

Charles Duhigg provides a few interesting case studies in the chapter on motivation in his book Smarter Faster Better. He writes, “People with an internal locus of control tend to earn more money, have more friends, stay married longer, and report greater professional success and satisfaction” (Duhigg 24).

But, you’re probably aware of the difference between reading for pleasure and reading something that’s required. Therefore, you’re more motivated to read stories and articles you’ve selected versus reading assignments from a textbook.

This method can serve as a bridge for intermediate learners who want to progress to the next level. It can be a good way to dive deep into a subject area and learn all the related terms. For example, if you’re interested in topics about health and nutrition, business, technology, or sports, you can read and study personally selected material from online sources.

Words you learn on topics of interest will allow you to have more interesting and engaging conversations with native speakers beyond the initial conversation starters.

Below are some links to sources for reading material if you need help to get started. Some of these sites may or may not have English translations.

商周.com: A site that publishes business news focused on matters related to Taiwan

New York Times (Chinese edition): Current events from an American perspective

Voice of America (Chinese edition): News from an American perspective reported in Chinese

Slow Chinese: A cultural podcast for Chinese learners

楊桃部落格: A food blog with mouth-watering photography

功夫: A Kung Fu novel by Taiwanese author Giddens Ko (English translation)

Financial Times (Chinese edition): An international business and economic news site

Are there other sites you visit to read Chinese? Please share in the comments below!

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