Why writing Chinese characters is important
Writing is important for literary in any language (especially non-phonetic ones) as the sequential movement of the fingers and hand hardwires the brain to learn. It’s especially important in learning Chinese, and there are some fun ways to help your children to learn to write Chinese characters.
Whilst it may seem archaic and mundane, writing out Chinese characters by hand has been proven by research to be a key tool in the acquisition of literacy in Chinese. It is possible to learn to read without writing, but at least for languages without alphabets, it’s been shown that to become literate nothing beats handwriting with pen and paper. And, literacy has been shown to be a key aspect in becoming fluent in a language when it’s not learnt via immersion. So, henceforth, learning to write the old-fashioned way is an important aspect of Chinese.
Handwriting s a really important technique for acquiring Chinese as it is comitting to muscle-memory the different components of a character, and being able to associate them to specific character groups (ie radicals) and meanings. Many characters looks ridiculously similar, so it’s only when writing them out to perfection that the differences will jump out. Also more generally, it’s been shown that when something is handwritten, it’s more likely to stay in the brain’s memory longer, which is an important aspect of learning vocabulary. What’s more, for more digital Chinese dictionaries, it’s incredibly convenient and fast to look it up by writing the character out.
However, it can also be very tough for a child to figure out correct stroke order and it is very repetitive in execution. It’s even more challenging if you’re the parent who cannot read Chinese, and you’re trying to oversee a child using pen and paper. There are all sorts of gadgets and smart apps for learning to READ Chinese characters which I’ve written about on this blog, but there are far less on how to WRITE Chinese characters. There are even less which involve physically holding a pen.
Ideas to help kids write Chinese characters
This post includes a few ideas for encouraging your child to write more in Chinese. It’s things we’ve done in our house, in no particular order. Do forgive the videography! There’s a reason why I don’t usually post videos.
1️⃣ Tracing characters onto magnetic tiles
This is a good way to start, especially if you have some flash cards or early readers with enlarged characters and stroke order. Of course it could be done with tracing paper too, however if you use the tiles it’s also a helpful way to write sentences by arranging a string of tiles together.
If you have the infamous Sagebooks 500 set, the inner square of the larger size magnetic tiles fits exactly over the numbered stroke template page, which is handy too.
2️⃣ Skritter Write Chinese app
Skritter is a great app for spaced repetition of tingxie, for a primary-age child. It’s not fun. It’s not gamified. It’s literally just writing out characters from a user selected list, which is perhaps what some families do on paper, but this is on tablet format. It’s good because it keeps track of the characters, corrects for wrong stroke order, and it uses clever AI to repeat characters where the user is weaker. I’ve reviewed Skritter in detail over here.
3️⃣ Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen
This is a smart digital pen that resembles a conventional pen, and it writes on real paper. If you saw it on our dining room table, you’d be mistaken thinking it’s really just ordinary pen and paper – in fact my husband has used the pen to scribble notes whilst working from home without realising the amazing equipment he was holding. The Alpha Egg AI writing pen is equipped with sensors to detect movement and pen position. When paired with an app via bluetooth, it can give real-time feedback on stroke legnth, order, size. The accompanying books teaches over 800 characters. This method is really standout to me as it’s real pen and paper -and several scientific studies have shows stronger brain activity after writing on paper than on a tablet or smartphone. I have reviewed Alpha Egg AI Writing Pen in more detail in a recent post.
4️⃣ Maomi Stars app
Maomi Stars app is a wonderfully put together app, which encompasses reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in Chinese. It’s ideal for beginners, through to more advanced (syllabus included Singapore MOE Chinese Primary 1 standard). It has short fun games, and is customisable and cute. It works for non native and native speaking families, which options for Simplified Chinese and Traditional, along with Cantonese and Mandarin. One especially great feature is that it contains a plethora of preloaded wordlists including from well known levelled readers (eg Sage, Odonata) so you can use it to mirror you home reading. Every character includes a finger writing component. I’ve reviewed Maomi Stars in detail a few months back, and please not that is has ONLY GOTTEN BETTER since my review!
5️⃣Osmo Masterpiece app
Osmo is a unique piece of kit which aims to create tangible experiences and hands-on learning from an ipad. We use it for math, Englsh and coding, and it’s excellent. It has one app which can be adapted for learning to write Chinese characters, but it’s a little gimmicky. Unless you already have the tool, I wouldn’t be recommending this approach. Basically you can use the Osmo Masterpiece app (which is for teaching your child to draw anything) and instead let you trace Chinese characters. We did this hack from using our Le Le flash cards. You could basically do it with any sheets of printed characters or soft copy, and the app will let you trace it out using physical paper. My kids like to use their washable chalk books rather than paper.
6️⃣ Youdao pocket printer
This one is a hack, for anyone who happens to be lucky enough to own a Youdao pocket printer. It’s a mini inkless printer which connects to your phone and prints out onto receipt-size paper. It has many uses for it, but a good one is template tracing sheets as it’s so cheap and easy. You can literally photograph the character (or graphic) that you want to print out, and then send it to the printer within seconds.
7️⃣ Magic water writing cloth 水写布
This is a mess-free way to practice more of traditional Chinese calligraphy / brush painting. This magic cloth paper is a bit like a thin picnic mat, and is reusable. The output really looks like real ink too, except without the mess and the smell. It only requires a brush and water. When the water dries, everything is erased (it stays for about 20 minutes though which avoids frustration!). Some even come with 米 grid squares, or even with printed characters for tracing printed on them. This is our magic water writing cloth being used with the flash cards which show stroke order.
8️⃣ 田英章 writing books
Some bilingual mothers swear by these books saying that 田英章 is THE master in Chinese handwriting & calligraphy, and the reason why their kids write so neatly. It’s basically books which contain tracing paper, and allow you to go over the printed characters. These were recommended to me by an online bookstore called Owlissimo, which used to stock these. They don’t seem to anymore, but they have other great Chinese products.
What else would you suggest to help a child write Chinese?
Once a child has picked up basic writing skills, there are other ways you can continue to engage them in their penmanship, such as with composition pieces, doing calligraphy, or perhaps even writing to a penfriend (my kids have a penfriend that they send snail mail too, and they were highly motivated to improve their own character writing when they saw how difficult ot was to read someone else’s handwriting).
If you have other great ideas for helping children learnig to write, I’m happy to check it out, test them out and add it onto this blog post too.
In case you’re looking for other suggestions for levelling up your child’s Chinese, here are some other posts you may enjoy: