by Richard L Woodard
Being able to read a language you're studying is a must in modern society. Text is everywhere and without being able to read, it would be difficult to thrive in a Chinese-speaking society, including online. Sure, you can sometimes find translations or bilingual websites, but that's still the exception, without reading ability, most of the Chinese world will be closed to you.
Reading is also one of the most powerful ways of expanding your knowledge of the language, especially when it comes to vocabulary. Instead of learning words from lists, you download on the internet, you can learn from reading. Naturally, you still need to review these words if you want to remember them later, but seeing them in context and being able to learn them along with the words that come before or after makes learning a lot more natural.
One problem is of course what you should read. For beginners, I recommend textbooks first and foremost. You can be a cool, independent language learner and try to find all the material on your own and just skip the textbook, but you're basically just making things difficult for yourself. Textbooks are good sources of learning for many reasons. First, the authors have done their best to present the content in a meaningful way. This is not the case if you read most other sources that aren't specifically designed for beginners. Textbook authors will avoid including things that are rarely used or too complicated. This means that the reading material in your textbook is quite suitable for you and starting there is a good idea.
Textbooks come with two problems, though. First, they are very limited when it comes to pure volume. A beginner or intermediate textbook simply doesn't contain that much text! Even if you read all the extra texts and read the main texts several times, you will still be reading much less than you should. Second, textbooks become difficult too fast. This creates an illusion of reaching ever more advanced Chinese, whereas you might still have the only very basic reading ability. Textbook authors know exactly which words they have taught you and can build on these to construct fairly advanced texts towards the end of a series of books. This doesn't mean that you can read texts of a similar complexity taken from a random source, including one meant for language learners.
There are two solutions to both these problems and I suggest you use both as much as you can:
Different textbooks focus on different areas of the language and cover different topics. By using several textbooks (I suggest two or three, including your main textbook), you cover more areas. You also cover some areas more than once, which is great. These are probably more important than other areas and approaching from another angle increases your knowledge in these areas and improves your ability in general.
Graded readers are books that are written for language learners with a specific vocabulary size in mind. Some are written with as little as a few hundred characters! This means that as soon as you have learned the basics, you can start reading other texts that are probably more interesting than your textbook (and definitely much longer). There are many series of graded readers for learners of Chinese, you can check out Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze. Also, unless you're very strapped for cash, you don't really need to choose between them, the more the merrier!
Reading ability is important, but as I have shown here, the goal should be to read extensively and broadly, don't just read narrowly, and focus on reading as difficult texts as possible. Stepping back and reading easy texts is also a good idea, there will always be some new words or patterns you can pick up and you also reinforce words and patterns you already know!
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