Chinese Writing: The Mechanics

What are writing mechanics?

There are two major components to writing: the writing mechanics and composition. Mechanics deals with the actual formation of words. Composition is more about how we write, e.g. writing a birthday card to a friend or an essay about a novel for school. The mechanics of Chinese writing are sometimes source of anxiety and stress for new students. For other students, Chinese characters are fascinating and they cannot wait to get started with writing.

Handwriting VS using a computer

In the long term, students will need to do far more writing on the computer than they will by hand. Students with a solid handle on the pinyin system will be able to input characters easily. Writing by hand requires considerably more knowledge, including that of stroke order. Strokes are the smallest unit of Chinese characters. In order to be written correctly, characters must be written with their strokes in a prescribed order. Generally speaking, all strokes must be written top to bottom and left to right. There are other rules to follow, and some variations that experts might squabble over, but every character has a defined stroke order that students must know in order to write correctly.

Many parents (and students) find the amount of knowledge required to handwrite characters intimidating. Fortunately, students today have options for learning the mechanics of Chinese writing. Some classes are “pen-less,” meaning that students only write using a computer. Other teachers might scaffold writing so that students are only doing writing exercises when they have a visual reference for each character they need. Still other teachers might focus class time on speaking, reading and listening, leaving students to spend as much or as little time practicing writing at home as they feel necessary.

Resources for learning writing mechanics

There are lots of resources for helping students learn the mechanics of writing at home. The caveat for learning how to write a character is the same as it is for reading: students should only tackle the words that they already know orally. Resources for this practice vary from standard flashcards that include stroke order like the ones pictured below, and there are several websites that provide animations.

flashcards

Old fashioned flashcards that show stroke order might be useful, particularly for younger students.

Websites:

https://skritter.com/

Skitter is highly recommended, but it is paid so is probably best for students who are very interested in learning Chinese writing and/or are preparing for an exam.

http://ce.linedict.com/#/cnen/home

LINE Dictionary (formerly NCIKU) is a free resource. Navigating to the stroke order animations is clunkier than I would like, but it works!

https://www.yellowbridge.com/chinese/dictionary.php

This website is even more web 1.0 than LINE Dictionary, but again, it works and it’s free. After searching a word, click on the character and then the brush next to it to see the animation.

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