10 months of Sagebooks: a progress report

I started Sagebooks with Colton just under a year ago, when he was around 4.5yo. He was starting to sound out English consonant-vowel-consonant words, so I thought I’d better start him on Chinese reading before English has taken over. Who am I kidding, English has long ago taken over as his dominant language, we are just doing the best we can to keep up. As it turns out, learning Chinese characters is actually easier than reading English words. I think Chinese characters, being logograms, are easier to learn than phonetic reading. There’s none of that sounding out each letter, then putting them all back together business. When we first started Sage late October last year, he actually enjoyed reading Chinese more than English. Now it’s not the case anymore because, well, his English reading really took off in the last few months.

How we do Sage: 一天一課

We do one lesson (課) usually before bed, which means he’s learning one new character a day. On average it take us 5 minutes to go through the lesson- they are very short, like 6 pages. Here’s an example of a lesson:

Set 2, Book 5, Lesson 3。The character is 洗。
Flipping through Set 2, Book 5 to give a feel of what less than 1 year of daily practice can achieve

Working a little bit each day for 10 months, we are now on the last book of the second set, which means he is able to recognize nearly 200 characters, or I should say he is exposed to nearly 200 characters as many of the newer characters have not stuck… yet, but that’s okay! I am not worried because there is a lot of repetition in Sage. Astute readers might notice, in the last 10 months or 300 days, we are “only” at 200 characters, so that means we forgot to do the lesson a lot of days. Oops! But, progress is still being made, let’s not be too hard on ourselves.

We’ve still got 3 more sets to get to the end of 500 characters. It will take us at least a year to get through it- which sounds long, but this is great progress for not a lot of work. I’ll bet 3 hours per week of Saturday morning Chinese school is not even close to accomplishing 300 characters after one year.


I think Sage is awesome because…

  • Requires no preparation from me. I just bookmark the next lesson and start there the next day. I don’t have to spend any mental load on thinking about the next lesson. If you subscribe to the power of habit like I do, this ability to make a little progress every day is everything. But that is not to say I don’t spend more time on solidifying his retention- when I do have time and feel up for it, I do do more.
  • Demands only a short amount of attention span from the kid. For us it only takes five, at most ten, minutes a day. He forgets often, so sometimes I’ll do a quick review of a few of the recent characters. There’s also a lot of repetition, so even if he has forgotten words, I just keep going. He will eventually see a character enough times to commit to long term memory.
  • Enforces routine and consistency. Because each lesson is so short, it’s easy to stick to the routine. We even bring the book when traveling. Each book is thin and easy to bring along.

Some tips on improving retention:

  • Quickly review previous lessons. If I feel like we have multiple days when characters are hard to remember, I review previous lessons. We do not go through the previous lesson entirely- that would take too much time. We just read one page that I randomly select.
  • Review on a whiteboard. Sometimes I make a mental note of characters that are hard to remember, and try to review using a whiteboard.  For example, for a while he was confusing 也, 地 and 他。We have a whiteboard easel by Melissa & Doug by the dining table. I went to the board and and constructed sentences with all 3 characters. “小白兔在草地上吃草。他也在草地上吃草。“ Or, when we finally got to those characters, I wrote “早安” on the board for him to read in the morning.
  • Point out characters in daily life. I try to point out the characters he’s learned in storybooks. This doesn’t add any additional work since we already read story books in Mandarin Chinese together.
  • Wait until the child is ready. Don’t force Sagebooks if the child is not interested. My own 2.5yo daughter has hovered around our Sage sessions so I did the first book with her just to see what would happen. While she’s learned the first characters “山“, “高“,and “人“, it took longer and she gets frustrated when faced with longer sentences. I have seen parents starting Sage with their 2 year olds with success, but that’s not us. I know she will get there one day, and because Chinese characters are easier to learn, will probably start her earlier than English reading.

Sage is only one part of Mandarin learning

  • Sage is not for comprehension– your kid should to have a background in Chinese already. Five minutes work for us because I speak to him in Mandarin most of the time and we read Mandarin books almost daily. He has has a good level of comprehension and knew what all the characters mean.
  • Sage does not help with speaking– it’s for reading characters. It’s not going to help the child converse more easily in the target language. Colton, although quite good at understanding Mandarin, will not respond back in Mandarin. That’s right, like many others in the US I have the kid who hears Mandarin but answers back in English. We are working on that by going back to Taiwan and hiring a tutor who only speaks Mandarin. Just know that Sage will not get them to start speaking Chinese.
  • Sage is not for writing– although the stroke order for each character is presented at the beginning of each lesson, writing is not at all emphasized as part of the curriculum. There are tons of free resources – worksheets for writing based off of Sage’s set of characters- created and shared by parents on FB groups. I do none of that because Colton wasn’t interested in writing. Sage in itself is a program used for learning to read characters.

Facts of Sage…

  • It cost $550, of which $192 is shipping from Hong Kong, for the Sage Formula set, which included The Basic Chinese 500 and the Treasure Box Reading set.
  • The Basic Chinese 500 is the core curriculum, teaching the 500 most frequently used Chinese characters
  • Treasure Box is the accompanying leveled reader storybooks.
  • Sage comes in both Simplified and Traditional. I am using the Traditional Character version because I am from Taiwan. I wish it had Zhuyin/Bopomofo instead of Pinyin, but, nope.