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Reading Material around HSK4, and General Study Advice

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A quick background, I started self-learning mandarin July 2019. My first and only resource for several months was YoyoChinese's beginner conversational course, which got me up to HSK2ish. Then I stated their character course and since then, I have finished all 3 conversational courses and all character courses (~600 characters). After that I have mostly self-learned with:


- Mandarin Companion, Du Chinese, Chairman's Bao

- Spoonfed Chinese

- Weekly conversation practice on Skype

- Netflix passive listening (watched 5 or 6 full series during quarantine)


As well, since I finished the 600 character course but wanted to keep learning characters on a "curriculum", I did the dumb and often not-recommended method of learning straight from a wordlist. Basically I built a python program that took my list of known characters and words, generated the first 6 characters I had not learned from HSK1 -> HSK6, and then combed all of HSK1-6 to grab new words including these characters and other characters I already knew. This gave me 6 new characters as well as about 20 relevant HSK words to learn a day. The idea was that learning the new characters with several new words would help them cement in my mind. I did this religiously for a few months but I noticed my retention rate was terrible and recall failed all the time. I wrote down and tried to visualize new characters and words, and I certainly learned some of them, but found the only way I could do it was pure rote repetition. As well, usually I would have to purposefully say "Good" on cards I didn't get to give myself some slack and not always have 200 reviews per day per day. This definitely isn't the way Anki should be used. I'd say I retained only around half of the characters and words I learned, and purely out of context. The other issue I found was that I would have to learn characters that were only part of words, so I would just take the top 3 dictionary definitions and pronunciation(s) and put that in Anki. Recently, I have been burned out with this method and it has clearly been ineffective, so I've decided to take Imron's often quoted advice that it's ok to abandon old decks. I stopped enjoying the process and really don't want to go back to that. Furthermore, I'm confident that reading can help maintain my old vocab. 


Right now I've basically finished HSK4, and from my program I've also learned perhaps 500-800 random extra words from HSK5/6. I have 2 things I could use some advice on:


1) How should I go about acquiring new vocab / characters? This word-list method is really not working well for me. If there was some online course of series of books that would take me on a continous path to building a strong vocabulary past HSK 4 I would 100% do that. Extensive reading in Mandarin Companion has been amazing but I'm almost done all of their books and it only goes up to 450 characters.


2) What is some recommended reading material around my level? If I could extensive read my way all the way to HSK 6 I would be ecstatic, but I am running into some issues. I tried the often recommended book "活着" in Chinese text anaylzer and only knew around 65%, and practically every other word I didn't know. Even without adding to flashcards, it would take me minutes to get through a sentence, and I don't think 65% comprehension is high enough to really considering diving into a text. 


I've tried Du Chinese and Chairman's Bao, and while they are useful and I use them, I find that there are so many Proper names and the articles are so short, it is hard for me to really pick up anything besides improving my reading speed for stuff I already know. Definitely not long enough for extensive reading.


I like Mandarin Companion because it is quite long (10 chapters per book) and repeats new words many times. Anything else like this out there? As well, books which could get me past 800-1000 chars so I can finally start on things like "活着"? Perhaps if there were graded readers at 750 words, 1000 words, 1250 words .etc


Thank you!


P.S. One last tiny question 3) When you encounter a word you don't know made up of two unknown characters (for example), do you add that character to a words deck, and then memorize the two characters separately too and add to a character deck? This is what I've been doing but I'm not sure if it's the norm.

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Also note that I don't mind paying for materials at all and also that I'm not adverse to textbooks, although I've never tried using them for learning a language. Perhaps something more rigorous and formatted in my self-learning routine would be good, if you guys had any suggestions. As long as I build my skills with a good foundation and a sustainable study routine where I improve every day, I am happy! :)

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I'd recommend looking into the NPCR (New Practical Chinese Reader) series or the HSK Standard books.

You could just use the vocabulary from the chapters of a book as word lists and study them as you progress through the textbook.

I used to study HSK2-5 like that (with the HSK Standard series), always a few chapters ahead with the word list.

This way you can both make progress with the HSK levels and also not have to think about what word lists to use.

Later you can do the same with native materials, but I suggest using some textbooks before, <HSK6 most of the words are useful in my opinion.


9 hours ago, TofuChris said:

P.S. One last tiny question 3) When you encounter a word you don't know made up of two unknown characters (for example), do you add that character to a words deck, and then memorize the two characters separately too and add to a character deck? This is what I've been doing but I'm not sure if it's the norm.


I only have a words deck, that's already enough to review every day. You could embed some info about the characters on a card for a word with 2 new characters.

But I don't really see what you would get out of learning a single character's meaning if it is only used in 2-character words.

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Good question! I was in a similar spot a year or so ago. 


You could try Sino-lingua readers, since a number have longer form stories. But from here on out, I think you will keep struggling to find appropriate materials, since you are now at that awkward stage where the HSK is teaching you low frequency words. You mentioned having to look up nearly every other word in 活着, but how many of those words are HSK words? If the answer is not "most of them", then reading more graded readers built from HSK word lists is not going to help you. 


活着 might not be the ideal novel for you, but maybe try some other good ones that aren't too tough. Perhaps something from San Mao or Ba Jin. As a side note, I feel like the early sections of novels are toughest - these are the parts where all the specialized vocab is introduced, and also the parts where the writers are putting their best foot forward to prove that they're good writers with interesting word choice and ornate expressions. 


Don't worry about doing too many word lookups. Even if you have to look up 30 words per page initially, is that any different that the articles you'll find in advanced textbooks? When I stopped using textbooks, each textbook lesson was a 1-2 page article with somewhere between 50-70 vocabulary words. You can keep studying HSK tests too, but my hypothesis would be that your reading problem is not due to lack of the advanced, specialized vocab in the HSK5/6 lessons, and more due to lack of basic vocab and structures that the HSK skip over. 

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