The Characters a Chinese First Grader Learns

I recently wrote about being amazed by how many characters my daughter learned in a year of Chinese elementary school. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on that, and it’s a great way to highlight the difference between “first language acquisition” and “second language acquisition,” as well as the difference in respective study materials. But first, I just want to share just the lists of characters and words covered in the textbooks of the two semesters of first grade in China. (Otherwise, I’ll never get this stuff done!)

The following word lists come from this 语文 (Chinese language) textbook series, the standard set approved for all Chinese children by the Chinese government in 2018 (and published by 人民教育出版社):

1st Grade Textbook (China, 2018)

The book on the left is for semester 1 (上册), and the book on the right is for semester 2 (下册).

In the images to follow, the characters in the 写字表 (“Character Writing List”) are all words the kids need to learn to write, even if some of them initially appear in a 识字 (“Character Recognition”) section of the textbook, and some of them first appear in other sections.

Grade 1: Semester 1 (Character List)

1st Grade Textbook (China, 2018)

Grade 1: Semester 2 (Character List)

1st Grade Textbook (China, 2018)
1st Grade Textbook (China, 2018)
1st Grade Textbook (China, 2018)

Grade 1: Semester 2 (Word List)

This isn’t a comprehensive list of all the words that could be made (or even were covered) by the characters learned in the second semester of first grade. It’s more a list of words that can be formed with the new characters learned and were covered in class. Single-character words are not included in this list. (Note: just perusing this list, you will notice that even in first grade, certain words appear that you would never teach a non-native beginner learner.)

1st Grade Textbook (China, 2018)

Apologies for the iffy quality… the scanner was acting up. All the characters should be clearly legible, though.

I’ll follow up in a future post with some of my thoughts on all this. I also plan to convert these lists to nice electronic text formats (or maybe just find a place to download them), but if someone else does it first, please share!

In the meantime, beginners, do not despair! You’re not a child, and you won’t learn like one, but you can still learn Chinese. Just differently.


John Pasden

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


  1. Very different from the first characters that I learned in my textbook, and it has to be. Of course a Chinese school child already knows how to speak, so the characters will follow the rising difficulty level of the characters itself, without having to pay too much attention to content. As a foreign learner you need to start with basic phrases like “where are you from”, “I want to eat breakfast”. Characters must be chosen according to these phrases, so we did not start with the easy 一, but the rather complicated 我。

    This is very important, and I had a quite frustrating experience related to this, which I only understood in hindsight: Before going to university, I travelled Europe and my itinerary also included a three month home stay with a family in Morocco, attending Arabic classes every day. After three month of being in an Arabic speaking environment and having classes 4 hours a day, how much Arabic could I use in daily life? Nothing, virtually nothing at all. One reason was that we studied classic Arabic, but everyone would speak Moroccan dialect. But the main reason was, that we used a textbook for Moroccan school children. We started with only practising the Alphabet, and then moved to Phrases like “The farmer worked his field with a plough”… You can imagine how useful that was when shopping for food or taking the bus… Well, at least my French improved a lot.

    Luckily my Chinese classes were structured differently! After a few years another foreigner asked me how I would compare my Chinese to a Chinese child, that is, which age level I would see myself at. I tried to answer this with a number, but then it occured to me that it is not possible. As a (back then) 27 year old European born and raised university graduate in my first job I would come from a totally different angle than a first grade Chinese school child. I would know and understand a lot of concepts that a kid has never heard or though about, and also my motives for learning and the application of language are quite different. So, while I never in my life had to fight my parents about cleaning my room in Chinese I have already had negotiations about market strategies or talked about the EU financial crisis…

    So, in my view this idea of “learning a language like a child would” maybe sounds more appealing than it really is.

  2. Julie Rodrigue Says: September 10, 2019 at 9:53 pm

    Very interesting! Thank you for sharing!

  3. […] recently posted a bit about my daughter’s Chinese first grade Chinese language (语文) textbook. I […]

  4. Very interesting! Do you know where I could by this series of books in the US?

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