A new entrant to the industry, the three-year-old private library and education center Acre Junior Library is creating a lot of excitement with its meticulously researched Chinese-language graded reading series.
“Our product, aimed at children ages four to eight, is made up of 12 levels, with 20 books per level,” explains Eva Song, who cofounded the company with her husband (formerly of Microsoft Research Asia and Alibaba) and four other partners. “We came from different backgrounds—which include education, literary criticism, product design, and advertising—and back in 2016, we had several children ranging from two to four years old between us. We searched for reading materials for our kids, saw what was available and missing, and realized that we could parlay our diverse work experiences to create a successful business to benefit not only our children but also other parents and their children. We also have the know-how to leverage new technologies to transform paper-based content into games and multimedia offerings.”
After a couple of years of research into different English graded readers and existing Chinese ones, Acre Chinese Graded Reading series was born. “Most series in the market focus on practicing and memorizing Chinese characters with very few promoting reading as fun,” Song says, pointing out that “in China, children should ideally know at least 800 Chinese characters prior to entering grade school, so that they can deal with textbooks and test papers. The problem is kindergarten does not deliver such proficiency, which leaves parents scrambling to find a solution and prepare their children for first grade. Our series plugs this gap by making the learning process fun and filled with original stories to instill independent reading habits.”
Fun in learning is critical given young children’s short attention span, Song notes. “Fun affects motivation and memory retention. This is even more crucial when it comes to remembering Chinese characters that are often complex. Without the fun part, this process becomes passive and rote—and this is not going to cultivate a love for the Chinese language, culture, or reading.”
Song’s background in creative project management has been helpful in evaluating illustrators and their work, as well as ensuring a nicely packaged product. “We want this series to be like a box of multiflavored chocolates that gives the child something new in terms of storyline and artwork style in every title,” she says.
The Acre series, moving from simple picture books to chapter books, enables children to learn a total of 3,000 characters, while a dedicated app further helps them effectively remember the characters learned. The online self-study program offers audio files of the books, short videos on each new character, and practice games. The child’s progress is recorded and tracked to enable further assessments.
Intensive effort is put into organizing the video clips for the app. “Each Chinese character has a story of its own, with some evolving from scratches on oracle bones thousands of years ago, to those that combine meaning with sound, and others that were created in recent memory,” says Song, whose team had already made more than 1,000 video clips by the time the fourth level was completed.
The series’s 240 books cover five categories: personal and social education, natural science, social science, traditional culture, and literature and the arts. For instance, The Shadow (in Level 1) links the rising sun with shorter shadows; Playing House with Little Bear (Level 2) illustrates safety issues around the house; Buying a Cow (Level 3) tracks the evolution of trade from barter to facial-recognition payments; and Writing with a Brush (Level 4) introduces the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy.
Song says, “This series, aside from providing the skills for independent reading, is also about building a holistic understanding of the world around the child.”
To date, 80 books (covering more than 1,200 Chinese characters) have been published. The second batch of 80 titles is set to finish this year, with the remaining completed by 2021. “We have created the Acre Box set for each level of 20 books, which comes with personalized app access and a parent toolkit,” Song notes. “For online study groups, the support kit and progress-tracking tool are provided. As for training centers, we are currently preparing a curriculum based on our series. At the end of the day, our effort is about ensuring literacy while cultivating good reading habits in the young.”