Chinese Flash cards and Montessori Leitner Box approach for kids

Confused about whether your family need Chinese flash cards? Flash cards are an age-old, scientifically proven method to aid in memory recall and can be used for a variety of purposes – most commonly either for acquiring new vocabulary or learning to read in English. They do work. For learning Chinese, flash cards actually work equally well. But finding good flash cards seems more elusive. This post gives some ideas on things that have worked for us and other families.

Why do flash cards work for Chinese?

in general, flash cards work because they can allow a learner to interact with new information in a way that is very tangible, and easier to retain than other methods. It allows fast access to words, which can be recalled, and this then reinforces the neural connection in the brain.

A very targetted set of words can be used with the cards, and easily repeated until the muscle memory sets in. Flash cards, if used consistently also aid in ‘spaced repetition’ which is a concept whereby spacing out the internals between studying certain information can help the brain to recall that information. The concept of ‘spaced repetition’ is not unique to flash cards, as it is also how many of the well-known Chinese graded readers, like the Montessori-inspired Sage 500 Chinese Books, are designed.

One of the greatest things I like about flash cards is that a child (or groups of children) can also use them for play, or for self-practice, without the need for adult support in many instances – provided the flash cards are well designed. This means a child can become self-sufficient and study independently. Often my kids will play their own games with flash cards, if I leave a pile out as an invitation to play.

Since Chinese characters in general don’t follow ‘phonetic’ rules, flashcards can effectively be used for a much longer period (eg throughout primary school) than flash cards would typically used for an English learner (eg confined only to preschoolers). That explains why Chinese flash cards are part of the book lists in Singapore schools for Primary 1 and Primary 2 students. Mastering Chinese literacy requires (essentially) memorising characters, and this is a critical element to becoming a successful reader. Note, I didn’t say to rote memorise characters, this isn’t what I’m advocating.

Types of flash cards for learning Chinese

We have quite an eclectic mix of flash cards, from the school-issued MOE flashcards to DIY self-printed cards, and even digital flash cards collections.

I’d group Chinese flash cards into four main types:

1. Picture vocabulary flash cards

These are useful for specific objects like animals, fruit, household objects, etc, for a learner to make a connection between the characters and the object. I’ve seen some cleverly designed cards which even turn the character shape into a similar picture, to aid in mnemonic recognition. We have some lovely Oracle Bone cards from My Story Treeasuy which do something similar too, and I’ve seen some from Chineasy too.

The most beautiful and jkoyful set I have seen at the Habbi Habbi Bilingual Flashcards, each with 50 double-sided cards.  These cards are hands-down the most durable flashcards we’ve ever used (and we’ve used heaps ….).  They’re thick cardboard, Montessori friendly (12 x 9.5cm in size), and constructed from glossy wipe-clean material.  They’re compatible with the Habbi Habbi Reading wand which adds a fun audio component too.

One aspect with picture cards that I really like is when the pictures are culturally specific, since it’s a nice way to explore Chinese cuisine or festivals etc with a child too. For Chinese language though, this type of flash card vocabulary learning is largely limited to younger kids and beginners.

2. Chinese Character-only flash cards

These flach cards have only Chinese characters. In the most simple form, these are the Singapore MOE flash cards which have a Chinese word on one side, and literally nothing else helpful (no English, no Pinyin) . These are good for passive review – for a child to review what they’ve learnt. They’re hard for someone who hasn’t learnt the character, as there is no context given as to the meaning or pronunciation. I wouldn’t actively choose these cards, but we needed them for primary school, and ultimately need to use our Luka Hero Reading Robot to help translate them.

Some really nice chatracter-only cards at the Le Le Chinese flash cards, which contain single characters on one side and a short sentences on the other, based solely from the renowned Le Le Chinese Learning System which teaches the first ~1200 characters through 300 short stories.

Le Le Character Review Chinese flash cards
Le Le Character Review Cards

3. Chinese Character & English Text flash cards

This category refers to a simple card with a Chinese character on one side and English on the other, with words that go beyond simple pictorial objects.

After wondering why these are so hard to find, I literally resorted to print these myself for my kids. This was my DIY project in 2020, where we printed double-sided flash cards showing the character shown on one side, and the English translation and Pinyin on the other for all the MOE flashcards. Laying it out like this I found is a much more effective approach than having the character only.

There are several great online apps where it’s possible to build these yourself (even for a non-Chinese reading mother), and there are also several great websites where mothers share their own printables to download readymade versions. The hardest part was cutting these all out. I’ve shared more on how to DIY below in this post.

4. Combination Picture, Text, Stroke Order and/or Context Flash cards

Post pandemic, I’ve seen many many great Simplified Chinese flash cards retailing online. It appears many other mothers had the same frustration as me and took it one step further to commercially produce their cards for the benefit of other families. I’m most thrilled about the latest additions to our home flashcard set which are a beautiful set from Mandarin Prodigies, designed by an Australian mumtrepeneur.

These take flash cards to a whole new level and go beyond a simple word + picture + translation. Characters are complex structures and learning characters in a wider context can be a highly effective way to learn. When learning a specific character, I find it’s helpful to stop and “de-code” the character for a bit with the child – e.g. does it look similar to another character already learnt? what are the radicals that it’s built from? do you have any visual hints for how to remember it?

For example:

  • Showing stroke order: these can help a child to practice writing. Stroke order is usually indicated on the cards through use of colours or numbers, and I’ve seen mothers who do a DIY version by using ordinary character cards and added colors dot stickers or paint pen marks. There are many nice Montessori tools for this, including Chinese stroke order sandpaper cards. It good to highlight here the important of WRITING Chinese. My daughter’s school teacher shared that if one only learns how to recognize the characters (i.e memorise from the textbook) but aren’t able to reproduce them from scratch (i.e writing them out), it’s easy to get confused.
  • Showing character radicals/components: allows a character to be broken down into functional (or semantic) components like form, sound and meaning. The characters are built from logic, and understanding this can aid a reader to be more self-sufficient and make connections between characters, or distinguish between those with similar components. I have not seen this done particularly well in any form of flash cards, but there are classes that do this from Outlier Linguistics (for adults) and Koala Know (for children).
  • Showing the specific context for a character: use of an word or expression, is another important layer, as in Chinese the same character can mean many different things in different contexts. I have not seen many cards which do this well – although the latest sets from Mandarin Prodigies are good. We also use digital flash cards through Skritter app for this too. Specifically for idioms, we also have a set that is compatible with Luka.

How to use Chinese flash cards with children

Flash cards are so versatile, meaning there are many great ways to use them. It depends a lot on which methods worked for your child.

At our house, we use flash cards (be it Chinese or other) primarily in two ways:

  1. Learning and revising characters: Our “Leitner system” is the key method for learning new written characters, which I’ll explain later in this post.
  2. Learning new vocabulary/phrases: Especially with the shift to homeschooling my youngest, we’re using flashcards more and more for new vocabularly (eg animal names, vegetable names, etc).

But we’ve also used flashcards for many other things, such a sorting characters into themes, sentence building, sensory play, etc. Occasionally we’ll play memory games or matching games with them too. -we like to do this with the MOE cards especially as we have multiple sets. If the cards show stroke order, they can also be used for character writing practice.

Sometimes we’ll hide them around the house and play treasure hunts. Or, invent a game “how many words can you think of which include this character” and have a competition as a family. For Christmas one year, we made an advent calendar using characters. For something very Singaporean, one hack with have with the MOE flashcards is to encase them in two magnatiles, and display them on the bomb shelter door!

DIY Chinese flash cards

We started to DIY our own flash cards journey because the school-supplied flash cards don’t contain the pronunciation or definition …. so I was flying blind as to whether my daughter was getting the cards right or wrong. After searching the shelves at many great bookstores, we couldn’t find ANY decent Chinese flashcards.  So, we retreated to good old-fashioned creation of homemade cards in various forms.

Print it yourself: Many mothers have created great flash card which you can download and print yourself. For example, Mandarin Homeschool and Guaravarama each have sites where for a minimal amount you can print off from their collections. The main effort is in printing, cutting and sorting (it’s literally painful if you make 1000 like we did) but you could turn this into a fun family exercise.

Design and print it yourself: There are many existing apps that let you put exactly the words and format you want, and print your very own self designs Chinese flash cards in a jiffy. I discovered this is possible from Chalk Academy, and it’s been really helpful. What I think makes a flash card good is:

  • shows the Chinese character, pinyin and stroke order.
  • shows an image that looks like the character, as well as words that contain that character.
  • gives a guide to the meaning
  • Nice to have: pictophonetic / ideograph to explain how the character is created.

I think the easiest two websites to DIY printables yourself are Arch Chinese (paid) or Anki (free).  Whilst Arch is a paid service, I’m pretty sure you’ll fall in the love with the results! It has an easy system to input a wordlist and create cards that show character (and picture image if desired) on one side, and then definition, pinyin and pictograph on the other. It’s all automated. In terms of a flash card, you couldn’t ask for much more! You can also print writing sheets, etc  They do look beautiful right?

Digital flash cards: for this, we use Skritter app. Skritter is a digital flash card app (for Chinese or Japanese), enabling spaced repetition of user-selected tingxie and idioms. Once a child knows >500 characters, it’s much easier to keep track and do spaced repetition when it’s all digitally in an app, rather than physical cards. For my elder two daughters, they use Skritter daily. Whilst we love Skritter and it’s nice to use this technology to revise for weekly tingxie and practice stroke order, I still think for a younger child nothing beats the old-fashioned physical flashcards and time learning/playing with a parent! 

Leitner System for flash cards and spaced repitition

I had an old post on my blog from early 2020 and ‘Leitner Box’ was one of the most regularly searched for terms for people to get to my blog. This is an expansion on how it works.

The Leitner system is a widely used method with flashcards, that has it’s origin from a German scientist called Sebastian Leitner in the early 1970s. In this method, flash cards are sorted into group according to how well the learner knows each card, and arranged in a series of boxes. This enables spaced repetition to occur at different intervals across different boxes. I’ve seen all sorts of fancy setups for boxes, many being sold for a ridiculous amount of $$. No surprise, it can also take up a lot of space, especially if implementing these boxes with multiple children. This approach seems especially common amongst Montessori homeschooling families.

Chinese flash cards using the Leitner approach
Leitner Box System credit Zirgeusi

Our “Leitner” system is rather simplified versus the original method proposed by German science journalist Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s.  However, the principal remains the same – a simple system for spaced repetition, where the cards are reviewed at increasing intervals until they become part of the muscle memory (we hope!). I have found this works for a three year old, and equally well with a tween.

  • Set up: We don’t have a “box” per se, but a series of plastic zip pockets (from Popular bookstore).   The zip bags are red, pink, yellow and green.  We use the same system for both English (with our Letterland Flash Cards) and Chinese.  For my elder daughter, I’m also trialing the same concept for mastering key science conapts too, where we’re writing our own concepts on small cards. I’m considering the same approach with our Chinese idiom flash cards, as these are becoming more important with composition pieces in upper primary school.
  • Choosing the words: For Chinese, we don’t just use arbitrary words.  I deliberately choose them for my middle-child based on vocabulary to match the graded readers which we are working through; and for my older daughter, we simply follow the school syllabus, but add in additional words related to the characters being studied.
  • Using the cards: The cards start out in the red bag (‘to learn”), and once reviewed they go into the pink bag (“learning”).  I’ll test 10 each day, and it if the child gets it right immediately, the card moves to the “nearly there” bag.  The “nearly there” bag is tested in full, only on weekend, and a correct answer moves the card into the “final check” bag.  At the end of the month, we go through the “final check” bag.  If it’s right, the card can graduate out of the system! If at any stage, the word/character is wrongly said, it goes backwards into the previous bag. If we were to be doing the full Leitner approach, there would actually be 5 separate stages, not three.
  • What happens when the cards exit the “Final Check“: when cards reach the end of our Leitner System, I put some of the characters virtually into our Skritter app, so that writing and understanding can still be visited again at a later point.  

What else has been helpful for making our Chinese learning journey an effective one?

Flash cards are helpful, yes, but they’re only one tool in the suite. My suggestion is that if you only have limited time, and your child already has working basic vocabulary, then focus first on extensive reading. Lots and lots of it. Find books that are age-appropriate and level-appropriate. The learning will come from the reading, and the flash cards can be a helpful check or tangible reinforcement.

If you got to the end and found this helpful, maybe there are some other posts on my blog you might also enjoy. As a parent who doesn’t speak any Chinese, we’ve relied heavily on online tools, clever robots, and recommendations of others in our Chinese learning journey. Some of my earlier posts are:

I also love learning from other parents -so please reach out through my IG or FB if there are other flash cards and techniques which you have found effective.

2 thoughts on “Chinese Flash cards and Montessori Leitner Box approach for kids

  1. Thanks for writing such a thorough post all about flashcards! We have several different sets and styles of flashcards in our home as well so it is cool to see how you use different cards in different ways. (My sons’ favorite flashcard study method involves shooting the flashcards with Nerf guns, lol!) Also, I love your simplified Leitner method! What a great suggestion for parents. One question…As a non-native speaking parent, myself, my biggest challenge with flashcards is knowing if my kids tones are correct when they say the word. Have you found any good solutions for this?

    1. Nerf gun method! LOL! Sounds great fun. I don’t have any great solutions, but two ideas I can offer ….. both are not foolproof but they’re better than my non-native ear …..

      First, Youdao / Alpha egg pens have modes where you can say a word and get graded with stars as to how well you say it. It’s a bit fiddly to set up though. Also in the same vein, there is Maomi Stars app (a really great app) which has a pronunciation function. For Maomi, it’s only for words in their wordlist though, unless you want to pay to create a customer list.

      Second, use Google Translate’s audio input feature on your phone, and see if Google recognizes the word. The same approach words with Luka too, if you have one, but the library doesn’t have such an extensive wordlist like Google.

      However, my main answer would be to forget the flashcard pronunciation as such. If your son recognizes the character, he can clearly read it (and the point of flashcards is usually for literacy/reading). Then use something else for pronunciation at a separate time, like LingoAce, Instant Mandarin, etc etc.

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