Reading in Cantonese to Your Child – Storytelling (口語) or Story Reading (書面語)?

Reading in Cantonese to Your Child - Storytelling (口語) or Story Reading (書面語)

I came across this video when I was researching the best way to read to kids in Cantonese. This was written for parents in Cantonese speaking places such as Hong Kong, but many good nuggets of information that would also apply to overseas parents. I tried to translate the content the best that I could.


Benefits of Reading

The benefits of reading to your child are well known – it enhances children’s language skills, cultivate their interest in reading, increase their general knowledge, broaden their horizons, and helps character development.


Method of Reading in Cantonese

  • Storytelling – Telling the story in the spoken language / Colloquial Cantonese (口語)
  • Story Reading – Reading the story in the written language / Formal Cantonese (書面語)

The question of the method comes up quite often for Cantonese speaking parents – do I tell the story in the spoken language / Colloquial Cantonese (Storytelling) or do I read the words (Story reading)? This is a conundrum that is emphasised with dual layered languages such as Cantonese, where what you read and what you speak is different.


Study 1: A Comparison Study of the Effects of Story Reading and Storytelling on the Reading Performance of Young Children

The Hong Kong Journal of Early Childhood has published a study comparing the impact of these two methods on children. In this study, researchers read to two groups of children aged 5 to 6 for twelve consecutive weeks, two to three times a week, 30 minutes each time. One group was read to in the spoken language / Colloquial Cantonese and the other in the written language / Formal Cantonese.

It was found that the children’s language skills improved in both groups. However, in the written language group, the effect is more obvious. Children who listen to stories in written language paid more attention to the text in the book, and are more “word-led”, and learnt to read faster. The group that used spoken language were “picture-led”. This research demonstrates that story reading can more effectively improve children’s ability to recognize and use words.

However, this does not necessarily mean that one should only be story reading.


Study 2: The Effects of Storytelling and Story Reading on the Oral Language Complexity and Story Comprehension of Young Children, Rebecca Isbell

In a second study, Rebeca Isbell, an American professor and consultant in early childhood education, studied of the effects of story reading and storytelling on influence the language development and story comprehension of young children

Two groups of children aged 3 to 4 would listen to the same 24 stories over 12 weeks. Group A were told the stories and Group B were read the stories. Both before and after these twelve weeks, children were asked to retell a story they heard and the length of utterance, fluency, vocabulary diversity were assessed. Children were also asked to create a story using a wordless picture book, and their stories was were evaluated based on the following attributes – Beginning, ending, theme, setting, moral and narrative.

Both storytelling and story reading were found to produce positive gains in their language abilities.

The children who heard the stories told, demonstrated improved story comprehension in their retelling – they had a higher ability to retell the stories; they were better at expressing character roles and describing scenes, and they could conclude the story better.

The children in the story reading group performed better in “seeing pictures and making stories”, and there was a marked improvement in their language/ vocabulary complexity. They were however more reliant on illustrations to organize the story. If they forgot the name of a character, they will reference the illustrations to describe the character instead, whereas the children in the storytelling group will create a replacement character, making the story more complete. Researchers believed that the reason was that storytelling allows for better recollection of the story, hence increasing understanding of the contents and meaning of the story.

If a child listens to a story with the aid of illustrations and pictures, kids will remember it while imagining it. They will form a deeper impression of storyline and characters and be more moved by the picture.


As you can see, both methods have their own advantages, so it is no surprise that experts recommend alternating between both methods, and also employ different expressions and interpretations (用更多不同演釋方法), so as to excite and stimulate kids, prompting a more well-rounded and comprehensive development.

What does this mean for ABC kids?

Outside of Asia,  it would be unlikely that your family would be immersed in a Cantonese rich environment. It is more than likely that Cantonese will be a minority language. In Hong Kong , one will be exposed to lots of Cantonese in the community and via the media, hence children have more opportunity to pick up all  kinds of vocabulary. Whereas, in many countries, some families might be the only source of Cantonese for the children. It would be important if you are pursuing  fluency in the written form, that you do not neglect the spoken form of Colloquial Cantonese. You have to consider how to expose your child to more Colloquial Cantonese, whether it is via increased conversation,. media. games, or story telling.

Lastly, the method of storytelling you decided on,  would also depend on your circumstance and include factors such as the parent’s Cantonese fluency and the Cantonese goals you have for your children. They might be different from what parents in Hong Kong want for their children. If you aiming for oral fluency only, storytelling is sufficient. If you are native and hope for your children to attain a high level of Cantonese proficiency, then it would be good to alternate to between storytelling or story reading, as per the recommendation above. If you cannot read Formal Cantonese, then you might want to consider just storytelling.

Tip: If your child does not have much exposure to the written form of Cantonese (let’s face it, once a week Saturday school is not a lot of exposure), you can ease into it by reading a line and then explaining it in Colloquial Cantonese. Likewise for young children who may not have heard it before. That’s what we did.

Regardless whichever method(s) of reading you decide on, your children will reap the benefits of you reading to them.

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7 thoughts on “Reading in Cantonese to Your Child – Storytelling (口語) or Story Reading (書面語)?

  1. Jing Jing says:

    Thank you very much! I have been wondering this for the last 11 years, since my daughter was born, and gotten zero answers from my own mom (who never actually read to me, now that I think of it…). This is very helpful.

    • Cantonese For Families says:

      Glad to be of help! I struggled with this question too, so was pleasantly surprised when I found research about this topic.

  2. Viveik Saigal says:

    Hello Manny.
    I am very impressed by your dedication to teaching Cantonese. i love your blog.
    I too am a big believer in Storytelling and want to inform you that the Hong Kong community has started an initiative to tell Stories in Cantonese.
    These are going to be available free under a CC 4.0
    Please find the videos of the storybooks here and kindly email us for any questions you may have related to this project.
    Thank you.

  3. jonathan says:

    hello, i’m an ABC but was never consistently speaking cantonese, even when my parents talked to me, i would answer in english. now i wish my parents forced me. now i’m a father with a 3 year old son and try to learn and teach him what i know, he is my motivation to learn more. however, i can’t read or write. i’m not a fluent speaker either but i can understand, i know the basics but not good in sentence structure. how can i read to my son? I really want to, my wife speaks mandarin, originally from TW but she doesn’t know much cantonese or how to read in cantonese. do you have any tips for me so when i have alone time with my son, that i can read or learn to read so i can read stories to him later? thank you!

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