Five Steps for Learning Chinese Characters

In Chinese, Japanese by Skritter

First published Sep 2012 and re-mastered in April 2020. Article written by Jake Gill. Be sure to also check out the Instagram gallery post and YouTube video

Even with the help of Skritter, the Heisig method and other online and offline resources, effectively learning Chinese characters is no walk in the park. In my early days of Chinese study, I was very keen on the 抄写[抄寫] (chāoxiě) method; I would spend hours furiously copying characters into study books and onto graph paper hoping that I could “remember” how to write the characters just long enough to get a solid grade on the next 听写 [聽寫] (tīngxiě: dictation quiz). After the quiz, it was back home to rinse, wash, and repeat.

copy copy copy

Somehow this strategy worked for the first few years of Chinese. Aside from the daily dictation quizzes, my teachers rarely assigned actual writing homework. When I inevitably forgot how to write a particular character by hand (usually a few days after my dictation exam) I was content with looking it up in my dictionary. Surely there was a better way to learn characters in less time and with a higher retention rate.

So, what can one do to really learn Chinese characters effectively? During the summer of 2011 in Beijing, China I found a strategy that would not only improve my overall retention rate but also reduce the time I spent learning Chinese characters on any given day. It appeared in our textbook as a 口号[口號] (kǒuhào: slogan), which has stuck with me ever since. In this article, I will break down the slogan into individual parts, and provide an example or two about how it works.

Here is the slogan I pass on to you…
一看二拆三写四比五记
一看二拆三寫四比五記
yī kàn èr chāi sān xiě sì bǐwŭ jì  

看 (Read)

看 (Read): The first step to effectively learn and remember characters is to actually look at the character. So simple, right? While this step is fairly straightforward, the goal should be to go beyond a quick, often unconscious glance. Rather, we should be aware and conscious of the new character before us.

拆 (Analyze): The second step involves 拆开[拆開] (chāikāi: separation), or the analysis of this new character. During the process, one should think back on what they’ve learned about 部首 (bùshǒu: radicals) and 部件 (bùjiàn: components) and see if you can’t identify them in this new character. Don’t know the radical or a component element? Skritter is great in providing this information, but apps like Pleco and websites like MDBG will also give you similar character decompositions.

Skritter Write Chinese on iOS and Google Play

寫 (Write): Now that you’ve taken the time to consciously look at and analyze the new character, it is time to write it. During the third step in the process of learning a new character, it is important to go beyond the number of strokes and stay aware of the components found within the character. It helps to hide the original character from your view as well (if you can)… to help overall memory retention. In addition to writing the character, I also find that saying the individual components of the character as I’m writing them really helps keep me aware of them and also helps solidify a more conscious study process. 

比 (Compare): Now that you’ve reached step four it is time to step back from your work, and 比较 [比較] (bǐjiào: compare) what you’ve written with the original character. Do they look similar, is your stroke order correct? If not, make the necessary adjustments and try again. If they look the same, then proceed to step five!

记[記] (Memorize): The final step is about actually committing the character to memory. So how do you do it? Mnemonics, or other memory retention techniques like storytelling help aid in the memorization process.

Skritter Write Chinese on iOS and Google Play

If you are seeing a character on Skritter for the first time then check out mnemonics that other users have submitted for a bit of inspiration. Keep in mind, however, that coming up with your own story or mnemonic is probably going to yield the best results over the long-run. I’ve found that the crazier the mnemonic the better it sticks.

Conclusion

I used to teach this method to all of my students during our first few weeks of class and would get some pretty amazing results. No matter if you are using Skritter or other study methods to learn Chinese, I think the most important thing is to work on developing a more conscious and active approach to learning characters. If you’re studying on Skritter than please give these five steps a try and watch retention shoot through the roof!  

Do you have your own Character learning process? Be sure to tell us about it in the comments below.

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