Skritter review: app to learn Chinese characters and tingxie

Skritter is the main app my kids use for learning how to write Chinese characters and revising for their weekly spelling tests (aka tingxie 听写).  It allows spaced learning of character lists, in an interactive way, and progress tracking.   It’s an effective and enjoyable way to assist in writing of Chinese characters, and the added bonus is that it can be aligned to whatever syllabus or vocabulary lists your child is already learning from.

About one year ago I wrote a long guest post on Bilingual Kidspot with a review of the Skritter app. This is a more technical post updating on how we’ve continued using this clever app for a third year.

How we use Skritter app

Using Skritter enables my daughters to practice tingxie by themselves and develop confidence in character learning.  We’ve used the app successfully for ages from Kindergarten through to upper primary – and it’s really a lifesaver for a family where the adults don’t speak/read the language.

At the start of each school semester, I will upload all the weekly tingxie characters, along with some selected words that these characters are contained within (eg instead of adding just 你, I would add 你好, or instead of 下, maybe 下午).  Each of my children then use this app for 5 – 10 minutes a day, to practice the characters and learn new ones.

The first step is to “Learn” the words, where Skritter will read the word in a sentence, and demonstrate the right stroke order. 

The second step is to “Test” the words, where the child is asked the meaning, the tone, and writing of the character.  The app is very flexible, so it’s possible to turn off the reading and meaning components and just focus on one aspect (eg character writing, or tones) which is primarily what we do. 

The final step is the “Due Cards” will automatically appear from the learned vocabulary list, at regular spaced intervals for revision of the older characters, to jog memory and improve active recall.  There is a progress monitor to show how many characters have been learnt, and how they’ve been retained (or forgotten).

For example, after using Skritter daily for ~3 months, my daughter was able to pick up a new 250 characters (and many more words, since words are compounds of several characters), and finally achieved nearly full marks for her tingxie tests in school. Previous to this, she had been almost failing.  After one year, the learned character list reached >1000 characters, and most of them had been retained.  Three years later, we’re still using it.  It’s been very positive. In the last 12 months, we managed to use the app for 315 days out of 365, which was a pretty good effort I felt.

Skritter Chinese progress meter
Screenshot of the Progress Tracker from one of our Skitter accounts. You can see in this that “Definition” and “Reading” progress curves flattened out, because I switched off those aspects from being tested

Pros of Skritter

  • Helps a child to take control of their own learning:  Tingxie (Chinese spelling) is one huge area where I have felt limited ability to help my children, as a parent who cannot speak or read the language.  Skritter has been a godsend, as it’s a tool for helping a child to memorise and revise vocabulary, meaning, tones, and stroke order and track progress.
  • It works:   Clever algorithm behind the software, claims that it allows you to remember more than the 90% of the characters through spaced repetition system to ensure previously learnt characters are not forgotten.  I’ll vouch for this.   
  • It works in multiple languages from the one account:  Skritter apparently works equally well for Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese characters and Japanese characters too.
  • Learning to write Chinese is a key step to bilingualism:  For most schools (in Singapore), Chinese language is taught in large classes, and is primarily textbook based.  It’s been shown that for classroom-based learning, if a child can actively and independently read in the language, the journey becomes less of a struggle.  WRITING Chinese is an important step in learning to read because if you only learn how to recognise 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.
  • Bite sized, structured learning with spaced repetition:  Skritter gives an efficient structure for learning, as a child can clock in everyday, do the homework (about 10 minutes) and get instant feedback. The Spaced Repetition System is a really important part of the Skritter algorithm, as science has shown the regular exposure to a new concept helps to engrain it in the memory and aid in rapid recall (which helps well beyond just cramming for this week’s upcoming spelling test and forgetting it again).
Skritter Chinese spaced repetition
Image: from Skritter website, demonstrating the importance of space repetition (google it if you want the really detailed scientific research behind this)

Below is a screen shot of how this spaced repetition works in practice, showing the words my daughter has just reviewed, and the frequency for when their next review is upcoming. This is determined based on the previous review/test outcomes when this character has appeared, and how recently the character has been learnt.

Screen shot of our Skritter iPad list showing due dates for character reviews

Cons of Skritter

Anything that improves learning tingxie is likely to be positive, and I cannot think of a bad thing to say about Skritter. However a few considerations to keep in mind:

  • Good old pen and paper can do the trick ….  Many people have nailed Chinese without using any apps.  However, this will only work if you’re a parent who can supervise  and ensure the stroke order and execution being practised is the right way.  For our family, this was impossible.
  • Cost:  There are cheaper apps like Pleco, Memrise and Anki which you might consider (somewhat clunkier).  Then again, the best things in life are seldom ever free.
  • It’s about intrinsic self-motivation:  Skritter isn’t at all fun.  Fun apps for learning characters are things like iHuman, Wukong Literacy, 2Kids or Maomi.  Skritter is not gamified learning nor does it have any motivational aspects (like earning bubbles or gaming time).  It’s simply digital flashcards with some clever user interface, and some occasional videos.  Have the child’s buy-in, and be aware of burn out  Be sure to have your child self-motivated to want to use this app, as a study tool to help them do better in their tingxie.
  • Focus on the reason for learning – there is a “cheat” mode, which you should avoid letting your children find out at all costs!
Skritter due cards
The Skitter study screen from PC – the only “fun” but is the random phrases of encouragement which sometimes appear at the bottom

How to get the app

Skritter is a paid app – most good apps for Chinese learning are paid ones.  There is a free trial period (one week, full features), and then monthly subscription is about US$10 – $15/month, with lower price for longer periods. There’s currently a bit of a hack, whereby you can maintain access to the app even after the trial period finishes, but you just cannot add in new words (so download it, trial it, and then add oodles of wordlists!).

For those in UK, US, and Singapore, I know there is often an annual group buy for parents (or specific schools / classes) where a special institution group rate is organised. Keep a look out, or try to organise one at your own school.

Tips for using Skritter app

  • Input words/phrases not just characters: Typically the “vocabulary lists” provided by schools in Singapore are characters, as opposed to words or real vocabulary!  Don’t simply focus on inputting and memorising these ~10 characters per fortnight…. It’s better to look at the characters in a more fulsome context, and create words or phrases using them.  Without doing this, your child will learn characters without knowing many actual words, since words are made up of combinations of characters. 
  • Don’t input too may words all at once or they’ll be a tsunami of “Due Cards” for the child each day.  Skritter can be addictive at the beginning and it could be tempting for your child to get weeks “ahead” of the weekly spelling lists.  However, if you learn too many characters too fast they may soon be overwhelmed. It’s better to keep a slow pace, and sustain for the longer term.  Keep the number of due cards to a manageable level.   
  • Writing and reading are not the same thing: I’m now contradicting myself because I said earlier that writing characters helps in reading comprehension, which it does, for an older child.  However, I personally feel just like phonics in English, for a pre-schooler, it’s best to start off just with reading, until at least 100 or so characters are recognised and short phrases/sentences can be read.  Chinese characters are somewhat easier for a really young child to grasp than English, because they’re pictorial.  But for writing, they’re very much harder due to the stroke complexity.  Hold off on Skritter, and consider an app like Maomi Stars or Hongen Shizi, which focuses on character recognition over writing.
  • Leverage existing character lists from other users or the Skritter default lists: There are some great wordlists already all in there, including HSK lists. In fact, there are hundreds of textbooks and thousands lists., added by both the Skritter team and benevolent individuals. One interesting one is Hacking Chinese’s list of 100 most common radicals.
  • Check that your settings are right for your child:  There are different options for stylus input versus finger input, and also ability to set different levels accuracy for the stroke recognition (eg I have a different setting for my 4 year old versus my 8 year old).  You can also set the retention rate (e.g. 97% or 87%) which varies the spaced recognition algorithm.  A lower number is more efficient, whilst higher ensures your remember more.   Also, cancel the definitions or tones etc if your child doesn’t need these aspects.
The writing experience can be set to reasonably resemble handwriting when accessed from a tablet/phone device
Skritter Write Chinese
For a younger child, they may find it easier to have more limited access (eg only drawing the pinyin tones for a character)

Frequently asked questions on using Skritter to write Chinese

A few questions I’ve been asked quite a few questions about Skritter, so here are answers to some of the main ones:

Can there be multiple users on the same Skritter account?
Technically yes, anyone can use the single account.  However it’s not ideal because the progress tracking and the spaced recognition won’t work so well.  It’s ideal to have one account per child.

How can I set up multiple accounts with only one email address?
I don’t think you can; you need a separate email account to register each account.  HOWEVER, this is all you’ll need the email for (and for the annual renewal invoice).  After that, you can log in just with a username and password.

Can I use multiple accounts on the one PC or tablet?
Yes, it’s easy to log in and log out.

Can I add customised word lists?
Yes, this is the main reason we use Skritter. You can enter custom lists as either characters or pinyin.  It’s possible to search for a character/word and use the pre-defined definitions in Skritter, or alternatively you can add you own definition and new phrases.

For us, I make a new topic for each school semester (eg Primary 1A, Primary 1B, etc) and then within each I separate it into smaller sections for each week of the syllabus.

Skritter with MOE word list tingxie
This is how I have set up each Singapore MOE Chinese spelling list

Can I add the same customised word lists across multiple accounts or share with friends?
Yes – put the list you want in the first account, and then you can copy the link.  Then log into the other account and paste the browser link.  The other way is to publish the list (eg make it public to all) and search for it, but if you do that, you can never change the list again!

Can I add word lists in bulk?
Yes, if you have a list of characters with spaces in between, simply copy and paste the string of characters and it will add them all as separate words to learn.

Can I test writing without the tones and definitions?
Yes, Skritter is able to test writing, reading, tones and definitions in isolation, so not all characters need to be used for every aspect.  Each list can be set up differently – for example, we have it set for writing and tones for school words, and then definition for some of the idioms.

What’s the difference between the two Skritter apps in the app store?
For Chinese, the difference seems to be more of a formatting thing that anything else.  The same login will work on both of them.   We found the older version is slightly easier to ‘tests’ of specific words from but has less optionality.  The newer version (called Skritter: Write Chinese) is better for due cards and tracking progress.  There is a totally separate app for Japanese (but uses the same login).

Is it different on tablet/phone versus PC?
Yes – although you can use Skritter on a desktop computer, it is difficult.  Can you imagine writing the characters with a mouse?. It’s much better as a mobile app, with input from finger or stylus.  The PC version is helpful for a parent to upload wordlists or check progress of a child.

Can I install Srkitter on more than one device such as iPad and PC, or two iPads?
Yes, that’s how we use it! No issues.

Is having a stylus essential?
No, in fact we bought one just for Skritter, and kids prefer it without it.  Writing on the screen is not a substitute for writing on paper. So I’d recommend before a school tingxie test, it’s a good idea to get the child to do one run through using real pen and paper too.

Is there a way to practice particular troublesome characters over and over, without impacting the grading or the spaced recognition for other things in Skritter?
Yes, in the app you can search for a character in a list, and then open the practice scribble pad (option at top right corner which has a pen drawing the letter “S’).  I haven’t seen this option available on the PC version.

See the top right icon which I’ve circled in red – this let’s you get to the scribble pad

If a list has characters / words that the child has already learnt in Skritter (eg from a different list), does the app duplicate these in the testing and space recognition?
There is an option to de-duplicate lists if needed (in Skitter speak, this is called the “rejuvenate” option). It can be good in reducing number of cards, but also not ideal if you want a child to learn a specific set of words, including some words they may have seen previously, as ticking this box removes it from the list of cards to learn.

Is there an easy way to grab the Chinese text from printed tingxie lists in the Singapore MOE school textbooks?
Easiest way is if you can get a PDF or soft copy of the book (some schools or publishers do have this).  Aside from that, try the app “Text Scanner – extra text from images” by evolly.app.  It works slightly better than camera option on Google Translate.  But if you’re a parent who doesn’t read Chinese, beware of some words which may have been mis-scanned, no matter what app you’re using.  It pays to check over these, or ask your child to review them.  Another alternative (and good spoken practice for a child) is they can attempt to put voice audio input into Google translate, and give you the characters that way.

Is there an equivalent app to Skritter for learning English spelling words?
No, but then it’s solving for a different equation. English is a phonetic language, so the basic building blocks are learning the phonics.  After you learn a few dozen combinations, then you have the main language keys to decode most test (in contrast to Chinese where just about every new character needs to be learnt first. It’s not akin to learning the English alphabet at all)!

There are some apps I know of which are like spelling bees (eg SpellWizard or Spelling Bee), where you can enter in words lists, and it tests the typing/spelling of them.  But not really the handwriting and pronunciation aspects, and certainly not a spaced recognition concept. 

Other questions?
The app is always getting better – we’ve seen this from the past three years we’ve been using it.  Their team is proactive and user-oriented.  Skritter maintain an excellent Q&A on the Skritter website too, so be sure to search there and see what you can learn from their rich experiences of their user community.

Other Chinese learning tools you might like

If you have arrived at the end and found this helpful, maybe there are other posts on my blog you might also enjoy.   Our family is one where no parents speak Chinese, so we have explored a lot of fun ways to expose our children to the language.  If you’re considering Skitter, there are also other great technologies and online classes too which you want to consider, such as:

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