A parent’s question: How many characters does one need to be able to read a children’s chapter book fluently? An wuxia novel (e.g. Jin Yong)? A newspaper?
My take on it: There are characters, and then there are words/vocabularies and idioms, which are often combination of characters. On top of that is reading proficiency/fluency (with good comprehension of course), which takes practice, even if one recognizes all the characters and words. In general, knowledge of 1,600 characters cover about 95% of the characters in regular mass media, at least for traditional characters, and that is generally considered the minimum to be considered “literate”. Of course, one can know what certain characters/words mean when one reads them, but without knowing how to pronounce it. There are different levels of children’s books, chapter books included of course. If I have to make a guesstimate, I would say it takes familiarity of somewhere around 600-1,000 characters to start reading chapter books, though reading proficiency / fluency takes practice over time. A child who knows 1,000 characters and read a book at 500 characters a minutes with good comprehension has much higher overall proficiency than a child who recognizes 1,500 characters and reads the same book at 100 characters a minute. Similarly, reading proficiently more advanced media such as Jin-Yong kungfu novels and newspaper written for regular adults (not abridged version for language learners) requires much more than character recognition. There are words, phrases, idioms, background knowledge/concepts, and relevant cultural knowledge involved. But, if you really want to have a number to work with, I would say knowledge of 2,000 characters is the minimum. In general, I think parents shouldn’t dwell on the number of characters the child knows but whether the child can read proficiently. Reading proficiency is so much more than character recognition.