Where to Start if You Want to learn Handwriting in Chinese

Handwriting is Different than Listening, Speaking and Reading

Learning to write Chinese characters is a different endeavor than learning to read or speak. Some students want to study Mandarin Chinese without learning how to read Chinese characters. I do not recommend this approach as it is nearly impossible to progress past a certain level without knowing how to read Chinese. Handwriting is a different story however. Students can “write” in Chinese via a smartphone or computer without ever really knowing how to handwrite Chinese characters. While handwriting Chinese characters is a beautiful thing, in the 21st century it is not necessary to have this skill in order to communicate.

Materials

First graders in China learn to write Chinese characters by writing on paper called tian zi ge. The paper has a grid pattern for students to practice writing their characters. The grid pattern looks like the character 田 (pronounced “tian”) hence the name of the paper. There are plenty of options for students who want to buy practice notebooks like the ones that kids use in China. Or you can just print off a free version from the internet.

Learning Stroke Order

Before students start to practice writing Chinese characters, they need to understand stroke order. Each unit of a Chinese character is called a stroke (think brushstrokes). Each character has a prescribed order with which to write each stroke (generally speaking we go top to bottom, left to right.) There are many websites that feature little videos that show stroke order. I like this one. Look up a character or word and you will be able to see a video that shows how to write the character.

still shot of video from Line Dictionary
Videos like this one show stroke order for Chinese characters

Start with the Most Frequently Used Characters

The process for learning how to write Chinese characters is not that different from how kids in China learn how to write. Students need to write the characters over and over in order to build up the muscle memory of writing each character. Often practice books for writing Chinese characters start with the simple, pictographic characters, like 木 (wood, tree). I suggest that if adult students want to learn how to write Chinese characters, that they instead focus on the most frequently used Chinese characters. These include 我,想,是,有,在 etc, to start with. This poster can be a useful guide to the most commonly used Chinese characters. Adults who are interested in handwriting Chinese characters often enjoy the process of learning how to write them.

Handwriting for Kids

Kids are a different story to adults. While adults have the intrinsic motivation that they need in order to sit down and practice writing, young children generally do not. In order to teach young children how to write Chinese characters, I borrow from the Montessori method. Little kids like the tactile sensation of using the sandpaper characters pictured below. They practice with these until they are old enough to be able to concentrate on writing using a pencil and paper.

photo of Chinese sandpaper character
Sandpaper characters, like this one, can help young children learn how to write Chinese

Older children, especially if they have chosen to learn Mandarin Chinese, often have the motivation to practice writing Chinese characters on their own. For these students, it is important to keep encouraging them in their writing so they don’t get frustrated. Learning to write Chinese characters takes time. It is okay for students to write the pinyin while writing a longer passage in Chinese. They should keep up their momentum so they don’t get frustrated.

More on writing Chinese characters

Mandarin and Montessori

Do Mandarin and Montessori Mix?*

A good Mandarin Chinese class is not just a version of a Chinese class in China on American soil. In order to be successful, a Chinese class needs to borrow from different educational approaches. These approaches need to make sense for the students in the group. Especially for younger children, the Montessori philosophy can make rich contributions to Chinese language learning.

Montessori education has been around for over 100 years and for good reason. Many parents and children appreciate the focus on individual learning and on creativity in the programs. I am not a Montessori teacher, but I have worked in a Chinese immersion Montessori school and other programs that borrow heavily from the tradition. Just as schools all over the world adopted the child-sized furniture from Montessori, there are other Montessori-inspired tools that work well for Chinese language study.

Montessori Tools for Reading and Writing Chinese

In language classes, students build up their knowledge of the second language from getting input. This input comes 100% from their teacher in the early days. Montessori education tends to have a lot of individual work. At first glance, it may seem like Montessori education and Chinese language classes are a bad fit. This is because students need to spend so much time at the beginning listening to their teachers. However, reading and writing in Chinese requires a great deal of scaffolding and I have found that Montessori tools can provide the type of support that students need.

Montessori three part cards with Chinese words for Colors
Three part cards with colors

As I have written earlier, I believe that children learn how to read best when they learn how to read words they already know by sound. This does not mean that seeing a word they they know a few times in a story is enough. Success in language learning depends on repeated exposure. To this end, Montessori three part cards are a good tool that students can use to associate Chinese characters with their meanings. Three to six year olds use three part cards in Montessori. There are many words that we see often in children’s books for this age group, e.g. words for colors, animals, and family members, that work for three part cards. Using three part cards is great for students because there is a the control of error, meaning that they can tell from the materials if they have matched the cards correctly. Using three part cards is a self-paced activity. Students can manipulate three part cards for as long as they need to in order to feel confident that they know the material.

Chinese Montessori three part cards for family members
Student using three part cards for family vocabulary

Writing Chinese with Montessori

The mechanics of Chinese writing (i.e. how to hand write Chinese characters) is notoriously time-consuming. Some teachers and schools choose to have a pen-less classroom. A pen-less classroom uses only computer-assisted writing and students do no writing by hand. This can work for many people. There are many students, however, who really do want to learn how to hand write characters. Calligraphy has a long tradition in China. I sympathize with students who do not want to neglect this part of the culture.

Montessori sandpaper letters can be used to learn the mechanics of writing Chinese characters. These are quite a bit of work to put together. They are very durable, however, so students can use them over and over again. Students can also put sandpaper letters together to form sentences, as a form of writing accessible to young students. It is hard to tell from the picture below, but my sandpaper characters show the stroke order. Students first trace the sandpaper character to build up the muscle memory and to get a sense of the “flow” of Chinese characters. Then, they can try to write the character on their own.

Chinese writing practice with sandpaper letters
Students can first practice Chinese writing using sandpaper letters

*I can’t resist some good alliteration

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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.