Graded Readers at 150 Characters

This is just a quick note that Mandarin Companion has released its “Breakthrough Level,” a series of graded readers requiring only 150 simple characters to read.

I’ve been developing this for over a year, and it was quite a challenge. In fact, I originally designed Mandarin Companion’s Level 1 to be 300 characters because I felt at the time that that many characters really were needed to tell a full, decent story (10,000 characters long).

So has my opinion changed? Not exactly… Mandarin Companion Level 1 and 2 stories are all adaptations of existing classic works. Although we do take some liberties with the plots as we adapt them to Chinese stories, the overall plots remain intact. In order to adapt an existing story, you need a “story toolkit” of a certain size to pull it off.

Breakthrough Level (150 characters), on the other hand, doesn’t work that way. The stories are not adaptations. They’re original stories (by Jared and me), because they have to be. The plot of each story revolves around the words that we can actually work with at this level, and at 150 characters, we have just enough to pull it off. It’s been an interesting ride!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Lantian Says: May 31, 2019 at 9:46 am

    Hi John. As someone who had at one point tried to use local children books to study and then found it too frustrating to lookup all the unknown characters, it is great to see how you have addressed this issue. The use of a reference number and then the pinyin and definition at the bottom of the page is a true innovation! It provides the information that you need in a handy and accessible manner, and it also is kept far enough away from your eye and the actual hanzi so that you don’t just automatically read the pinyin (which is what happens with local kids books).

    Plus, with the 150 word count, you know that you’re learning and repeating a limited set, not some ever expanding vocabulary (which you are not getting exposed to in regular daily life, like a native child in China would). Totally awesome. I would love to hear how much haggling and discussion you needed to endure to get your publishers and co-authors to agree to this. (For some reason, it seems to me that Chinese academics love to torture kids and make them look up ever word as they learn, or are just too lazy to provide the definitions in an index, etc.)

    I’m so so on the illustrations, but hey, such is life. Will the books be available in an e-format? I think they’re probably too easy for me at this point, but it would be nice to read thru them, as I don’t often (well, never) have any graded materials that are interesting enough to read… It would be nice to read the books. Maybe I’ll buy the paperbacks, as support and to just have around.


  2. Lantian Says: May 31, 2019 at 9:55 am

    Bought the book on Amazon, it’s on my phone and Kindle now! Will read it tonight. Thanks John and Jared. Rock on!

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