To teach our children how to write Chinese characters, teachers always get the kids to do writing practice, also known as 写生字 or 习字. It is one of those headache-inducing things that parents in Singapore have to deal with because is it rare to find a child who loves to do it. We wish for a less loathsome way by which our kids can learn how to write Chinese. Unfortunately, the reality is :
There is no shortcut to learning how to write Chinese characters except through practice, practice and practice.
This means doing writing practice (习字), which is mundane and painful for
a lot of some kids. There are thousands of Chinese characters. For primary school syllabus, by primary 6, students are expected to know how to read 1600 – 1700 Chinese characters, of which 1000 – 1100 they need to also know how to write. For primary school Higher Chinese syllabus, by Primary 6, students need to know how to read 1800 – 1900 characters, and write 1400 – 1500 characters.* That’s a lot of characters to learn.
To learn how to write English, you only have to learn how to write 26 alphabets. Since the language is pretty phonetic, it is easy to learn the spelling of the words. This is not so for Chinese. Each and every character has to be learned on its own. You cannot learn parts and then learn to put the parts together using some meaningful principles.
There are certain heuristics and tricks that will help you to remember how to write the characters, as most characters consist of 2 -4 parts, one of which could be the radical, which generally suggests the meaning of the word, and another which may be an existing word, which gives the pronunciation to the new character. E.g. the character for flower 花, has a 艹 radical (草字头) which has the general meaning of plant; and the second component is 化, which is pronounced as huà, which gives the new word 花 huā its sound.
Even with such heuristics and tricks, one still has to practise writing each character. Not only that, the sequence of the strokes is equally important. As if that is not bad enough, the minutest detail not taken care of could lead to you writing a totally different character. E.g. 己 and 已 and 巳 look almost the same but they are three different characters with totally different meanings. Imagine teaching young children to write in precisely that sequence of stroke, and make sure each particular stroke is placed just right, no extending beyond a certain point, yet not too short either. Repeat for X number of time, X being nothing less than 10.
Then, after painstakingly teaching a number of characters, with all the tears and cajoling and threats, you find your kid forgetting half of them next week and you have to start all over again. I have gone through all that.
For my first two boys, because they went to preschools, I was not totally in charge of their learning. Basically, I went on the “prepare for spelling” method of teaching. When they were in K1, they started Chinese spelling (听写). Each week, they had to learn a number of characters for Chinese spelling. At first, I didn’t have any system of teaching. After a while, I realised that in order for them to actually remember how to write the characters, they had to practice writing them again and again and again. In school, they were taught how to write the characters and had to do writing practice (习字) as well. However, it was either due to time constraint or the teacher’s unwillingness to make practice too tedious for the kids, the number of repetition was not enough for them to remember how to write the characters. In the end, I had to make them do more writing practice at home. That was when I realised there was really no shortcut. Painful as it was, it had to be done.
Fortunately, we reaped the rewards later on. When they went on to primary school, they were pretty used to writing practice. They didn’t like to do it, but they were used to it so there was less complaints. The best part was that they could recognise more characters than their peers.
So over the years, I have learned a few things about teaching the kids to write Chinese characters :
1. Remembering how to write is not the same as remembering how to read.
The child can remember and recognise many characters without ever having written any of them. I have mentioned this in Chinese for a Preschooler that a very young child can be taught to recognise Chinese characters, even before his fine motor skill is developed enough to start writing anything. Therefore, it is possible for a child to know how to read a character but does not know how to write it. Hence, they cannot learn Chinese Spelling by staring at the list of words (which my #1 was so fond of doing despite my nagging, until he learned the painful lesson himself that it didn’t work).
However, writing does reinforce the retention. It is only natural that a child knows how to read a character that he has learned how to write. Writing practice is essential for the child to remember how to write, not how to read. If your child is not systematically taught how to read with plenty of reinforcement to help him recognise the characters, writing practice becomes an even more important part of teaching him how to recognise and read the characters.
2. Start with calligraphy brush
As mentioned in Chinese for a Preschooler, if your child is still too young to manipulate a pencil to write the complicated strokes of the Chinese characters, try using a calligraphy brush. It is easier and more fun.
3. Close supervision is necessary
It is very tempting to just chuck a grid worksheet at the kid and ask him to fill up the blanks with writing while you go off to do something else. I find that close supervision is necessary even though it may seem very troublesome. It will be short-term pain for the long term good. The reason is simple. You get the strokes and writing right from Day 1 and you will have less mistakes to undo later on. Trying to undo the mistakes later on is like trying to change a bad habit. We all know how difficult that is. So, best to take the trouble to supervise closely from the start. Watch the kid write character after character, catching every mistake, and making the kid correct it immediately will ultimately be the most effective way to make sure he learns how to write correctly.
4. Lots of repetition. Lots of review.
According to my mom, when I was around 3 – 4 year old, she made me write pages and pages of Chinese characters every day. She belonged to the generation that was taught the traditional (complicated) form of writing, so that was what she taught me too. These days, I think it is near impossible to expect even an older kid to write pages and pages of characters each day. But the logic is simple : the less you practise, the easier it is for you to forget how to write.
Besides repetition, frequent review is also important. If you seldom get to use the character, you will soon forget how to write it. Even for me, after all these years of not writing Chinese, I have now forgotten many characters. If I see them, I will still recognise them. Just that sometimes when I need to write them, I just can’t remember how to and need to refer to a dictionary again.
How I Teach #3 to Write Chinese Characters
1. No hurry to start
Apart from letting him play with calligraphy brush every now and then, he didn’t start writing practice until just a couple of months ago. He is now 5½ year old. If I were to send him to preschool, he should be in K1 now. I do not know if this is actually late or early but I most certainly did not have intention to start him early, like 3 or 4 year old. First of all, in terms of fine motor skill, he may not be ready. Secondly, in terms of attention span, older is better than younger. Chinese character writing requires a certain amount of focus and attention span, as well as patience! All these are qualities that are found in older kids, not younger ones. Thirdly, my focus for Chinese is character recognition first.
2. I do not teach strokes or radicals separately
I actually started off thinking that I will get him to practise writing just the different strokes first, then the different radicals, before I get him to put everything together into characters. I even bought those colourful practice books from the bookstore. In the end, I didn’t use them! Actually, I did use 2 of them, not for teaching him writing but just to keep him occupied when I was busy. He was attracted to the colourful pages and wanted to write in the books, so I let him. It was more for fun than for real learning.
When it comes to the real thing, all I use is just a regular exercise book from the bookshop. Buy XL Square if you are getting some. I made a mistake buying Large Square, thinking this should be the biggest.
I went straight to teaching him how to write a whole character, not parts. No strokes and radicals. At first, I was a bit apprehensive because I didn’t know whether he could manage a whole character right from the start. Surprisingly, he had no problem with it at all, even the rather complicated ones, like 我!
3. Teach Chinese character writing meaningfully
I like to teach things in a meaningful way so that he knows the relationship between characters and how to write meaningful things instead of just writing character after character, not knowing how they come together to express ideas. Hence, I use Siwukuaidu (四五快读) as a spine, and teach him how to write the characters in the lessons, starting from Lesson 1 Book 1. (I also taught him how to write his own name first!) As in teaching him character recognition, once he knows how to write a few characters, he can form meaningful vocabulary, and then sentences.
Doing this has another purpose : I take this as a form of review for character recognition as well. As he goes on to the later volumes of this series, sometimes he forgets how to read the characters he has learned in the earlier volumes. Making him write, starting from the earlier volumes, helps him to revise the characters that he has already learned before.
4. Bite size practice, frequent review
I know that I cannot expect him to do what I did when I was little, writing pages after pages of characters. I know making him write one whole page of one character will soon kill any interest he has in writing Chinese. Therefore, I decided to take a “Bite Size Practice, Frequent Review” approach.
E.g. The first time he writes a new character, say, 我, I make him write about 3 lines of a page, which works out to be about 17 square (not counting the first square, where I will write the character for him). The rest of the page will be used for review of characters he already learned before.
Day 2, he will write 2 lines of 我, which is about 11 squares. He will write 3 lines of a new character, e.g. 有. The rest of the page will be used for review.
Day 3, He will write 2 lines of 有, maybe 1 line of 我, and 3 lines of a new character, e.g. 好.
As days go on, he writes less and less of 我, maybe just 2 squares for review.
If a character seems particularly hard, I will make him write more but never more than 3 lines a day. I make him write 3 lines of the character more days instead.
I do not introduce a new character every day, of course. This is just to illustrate how I split the writing into bite size practice with frequent review. Eventually, of course, I will drop some characters, as more new characters are introduced. But every now and then, the old ones will still be brought out for review by making him write 2-3 squares each.
Every day, he writes a few characters, but all in all, it is only 1 page of work. This is definitely less painful that to make him write 1 full page of just 1 character.
Every now and then, I will leave a line blank for “dictation”. As soon as he has learned enough characters to form a simple sentence, I will dictate, and he will write the sentence in the blank line. E.g. 我有好爸爸. He is so proud that he can write a whole sentence! This is also how I get to teach him simple Chinese punctuation, like how to write the full stop and comma, and where to write them in the exercise book (a punctuation mark take up one square of its own). The dictation sentences are from the Siwukuaidu (四五快读) books also.
6. Tactile Cards
The tactile cards come in handy because I will first use it to let him ‘finger’ the character in the correct stroke sequence. It is easier and more effective, in my opinion, than to hold his hand and demonstrate the strokes in writing. Stroke sequence is very important. Even for me, when I am unsure, I will refer to a stroke sequence book first. You can find many of these books in Popular Bookstore. Some dictionaries provide the stroke sequence too.
7. Close Supervision
As I mentioned above, close supervision is necessary to make sure the kid is writing correctly.
8. Do Not Allow the Child to Split the Strokes
If you have tried letting your child do writing practice, and still he does not seem to remember how to write the characters, check him! One thing that the kids are fond of doing is this : they will write one stroke at a time, across all the squares. E.g. to write 大, they will fill up the squares with the first stroke, 一, first. Then they will comeback to the first square and fill in the second stroke, 丿, and continue for the rest of the squares. Finally, they will repeat the same for the last stroke. They will never learn how to write the character this way. In order to remember how to write the character, the child has to write each and every character as a whole and not split the strokes. In other words, if he is learning how to write 大, he has to write 大 in the first square, then repeat writing the whole, complete 大 in the second square, and so on, until he finishes his writing practice.
9. Practise Every Day, Review Regularly
Every day, he writes one page of characters. Each day’s practice always consist of a new character that he is learning, as well as review of characters that he learned before.
Do I Eventually Teach Radicals and Stroke Names?
I do. But I do so as I teach each character. I also created Radicals Minibooks for #3. I will point out the radical of each character as he learns it. As we go through the stroke sequence either on the tactile card or in writing, I will say the stroke names. It is a bit like “spelling” a-p-p-l-e is apple, in this case, it is like ‘héng, piě, nà, 大’. Basically, I teach stroke and radical names as part of something.
The reason why I differ from the conventional way of teaching is that first of all, if the child is ready in terms of attention span and motor skills, and he is able to write characters, I see no reason in wasting time writing small parts of characters. Hence, another reason why one should not try to let the child start writing too early before he is ready. (I know I said that at 3 year old, I was writing pages and pages of characters, but I was probably not representative of an average kid, and kids of our generation probably didn’t have as much attention issues back then, and I was pretty much a very obedient child so would do what my parents said.)
Secondly, I like to put things in context as much as possible, so as to make things meaningful and easy to learn. To me, it is more meaningful to learn radicals and stroke names as part of a character rather than on their own. The kid learns that all these make up a whole character. When they already can recognise characters, it is easy to see the “big picture” and the relationship of these “parts” to the “whole”. Our brain learns best through relationships and associations, so I feel that this is the best way to present the information.
Further Reading :
Primary School Chinese Character List. (MOE website)
* According to MOE 2007 Chinese Syllabus. (Document is in Chinese.)