Have you ever opened a book of crochet patterns and been absolutely amazed by the long pattern instructions? It can be really easy to lose your place if the instructions for a single round or row span several lines of a page! You have probably thought to yourself, "There has to be an easier way" and there is! Crochet charts make pattern reading so much easier and faster and the good news is that more pattern books and stitch dictionaries are being published than ever before with crochet charts included. Charts allow you to see the shape of the object you will make, whether it is a bag, snowflake or an amigurumi. Also, the ability to read crochet charts gives you a wider array of projects to choose from--you are not limited to patterns written in English because the crochet chart symbols are standardized. For instance, Japanese crochet pattern books are really popular all over the world and they use a lot of charts. You don't have to know Japanese to be able to make projects from the books.
The best way to get started is to print out a copy of the standard crochet chart symbols from the Craft Yarn Council. This is a handy list of common chart symbols (it does not contain every symbol you might come across). I would recommend that you find a pattern that has both the written instructions and crochet charts so that you can see how the charts illustrate the instructions. Then, start with the first row or round, read the written instructions and look at the chart to see how they are represented. If your project is crocheted flat, you will start reading the chart at the bottom and work up. If it is crocheted in the round, you will start in the center and work out with each round. Focus on one row or round at a time--don't get overwhelmed by the whole project. After you've read through the project, try crocheting it by looking at the chart. Refer back to the written instructions if you get confused. At first, this will require a bit of time but it won't take you long to pick up on chart reading and the payoff is totally worth it!
Let’s look at a basic crochet chart to get you started. A partial chart for a simple single crochet scarf could look like this:
Starting at the lower left and moving right: You see 20 chains and a turning chain at the right end (the sideways circle): so you will need to make 21 chains total.
Row one: starting at the right and going left: The plus signs are single crochets being made in each foundation chain (20 single crochets) and at the left end chain one to make the turning chain.
Row two: starting at the left and moving right, 20 single crochets and a turning chain at the right edge.
Note: The chart would typically have more rows; this is just to give an example. Normally, the space between the rows of symbols is smaller—it will be clearer which stitch goes into which on the row below on a regular crochet chart.
If you are looking for some resources to get you started, or to work from once you have gained an understanding of chart reading, try looking for the following crochet books. For a beginner, Blueprint Crochet by Robyn Chachula is a great pattern book that actually teaches chart reading at the beginning of the book. Kyuuto! Japanese Crafts Lacy Crochet is a lovely book of thread crochet patterns that was originally published in Japanese and has now been translated into English. It has some supporting text and lots of charts, but requires relying more on charts than text--this would be a good book for someone who has some experience reading charts. If you are looking for a dictionary that includes written and charted instructions, try the Harmony Guides published by Interweave Crochet. They have a book of crochet stitches, one on motifs and another on edgings and trims.