Chinese characters for children and kids - learning to read and write Chinese

Why read this article? (please note a pdf is available below - scroll down)

·          You are looking for new resources for learning Chinese characters ( in schoosl with children)

·          You wish to understand/remind yourself of the challenges of reading and writing Chinese characters to ensure your teaching practice meets them

·          You wish to check your understanding of what the thinking is around when to learn what

·         You wish to know how reading and writing Chinese characters fits into exams an qualifications

Potential Challenges  teaching reading and writing:  There are a number of reasons why children may perceive learning to read and write Chinese as being difficult:

·         Adult perception:  Adults who have a consciousness/experience about how ‘languages are learnt’ often make an fast judgment that because Chinese is  different it is also very difficult.  Adults may therefore pass on their opinions to children putting them off.   

·         How young should you start?  There is a balance between learning characters early when children’s’ brain are most receptive, coupled with their ability to both remember and enjoy the formation of characters versus learning too much too soon and the child become de-motivated/bored.

·         Balancing with other skills:  How much reading/written work do you do in relation to speaking/listening?   Should this be the  same as with other languages or should there be less reading/writing with Chinese because Chinese is a logographic language compared to alphabetical languages and potentially more complex?  

·         Rote or not to rote?  Chinese has no alphabet with reusable letters so is a rote memorization approach the best way to learn?  If so, how can the learning experience be made more interesting?  What approach do you take as a teacher?

·         Resources for learning to read and write Chinese characters? What resources are available either specific or general within Chinese text-books?  What should you bear in mind when choosing what to use?

Exams/Qualifications:  what do you need to learn?  Are you aware of the numbers of characters that need to be learnt?   Why not look at the links below to find out what characters you need to teach/learning for specific accreditations:

·         Certificate of Achievement Mandarin Chinese: A list of vocabulary is listed here

·         Asset Languages Chinese: lists of vocabulary per level is listed below:Breakthrough/Preliminary/


·         Chinese GCSE (UK):  Edexcel – Appendix 4 & 5 of specification/  AQA – 3.7 (Page 18) of specification

·         Chinese A-Level (GCE/AS/A2): See Edexcel specification.  See CIE specification for 2012 here

·         International Baccalaureate(IB) Chinese  – No specific vocabulary lists exist, however read Chinese Staffroom’s article about the IB

·         AP Chinese (USA):  Whilst there is no vocab list available on the College Board website, teachers/students can find sample questions on the AP Chinese course description.  There are also a number of AP textbooks which cover the vocab required. Details are on this article.

·         HSK  Chinese Test:  Look at the following links:Basic / Elementary/Intermediate/Advanced

·         YCT Chinese  Test:  For more details visit the YCT website.

Approaches to take and resources for learning Characters

·         Memorizing/Rote:  Many teachers argue that student just have to memorize or learn characters rote fashion.  Flash cards have been the traditional method of introducing characters to students.  Those which have stroke orders are particular useful for written demonstrations.   Why not look at PPP’s ‘Mandarin in a Flash’ sets which contain picture/photos/characters/character with stroke order and pinyin.   For primary/elementary try textbooks such as Chinese Treasure chest that contain lots of photocopiable activities to practise with or Primary School Chinese/Elementary School Chinese  (with online games area).  For secondary, Jìn bù can be used for 11-14 year olds (KS3) or Chinese GCSE for 14+ (GCSE Chinese). For younger children Kingka is an award winning for 1-6 players of all ages.  Children can learn up to 54 basic Chinese characters and  create 200+ new words or phrases and numbers 1 to 99.    There are also another two sets in the range with more characters.

Online/software resources can make the rote learning process more engaging particular for children.  For reading characters, the free Memrise is excellent.  The resource is motivational and provides an individualized programme of study.  Having registered, it keeps track of your progress, so you keep a running total of how many characters are now in your short and long-term memory, and can also measure your progress against the entire Memrise community or against the people who joined at the same time as you, those who study the same language etc. 

Anki is another method for teachers/learners to create their own flashcards.  Anki uses a very straightforward interface and allows you to create your own two sided flashcard and upload pictures and sounds. 

Teachers and learners of specific accreditations can create their own sets of flash cards based on standard vocab lists.  These can be uploaded on to Memrise for the whole community to share.   Languagenut for example introduces characters through a series of games, songs and stories and by repeating throughout.  MYLO uses an incremental build up of vocabulary using engaging games, comprehension exercises followed by a practical pupil task to pull all the vocab together. 

If you want to practise your writing and get it review by a native speaker, why not try Lang-8     

For other reading specific reading  tools, why not look at:

  • Wenlin - for Windows and Mac; paste in the Chinese text .  Access to easy character readings, dictionary  and character info.
  • Chinese Perapera-kun –widely used  Firefox add-on for adding popup-style readings to characters on any webpage
  • Zhongwen – a simple Chrome extension for adding popup-style readings to characters on any webpage
  • Lingro – type in a website address and the webpage will be converted into a version where you can roll-over specific words for a translation.

·         Character Stroke breakdown:  A simple way for pupil to learn stroke order is to write the character in the air using a finger.    Alternatively why not get you class using mini whiteboards, though make sure that pupils are aware that they should still be writing the characters within a square border.  Whiteboards can be purchased from TTS Group (packs of 30).  Pupils can then  practise using real brushes and ink or alternatively use ‘magic water paper’ and brush sets – the same effect but much less mess!  They are available from CME Books (UK).  There are also Chinese character writing software packages available online and for IPod/IPad users a number of interactive applications which focus on character formation/writing. See this article for more details - annex.

·         Mnemonics:  a mnemonic is a linguistic tool that helps the learner remember something by using something they are familiar with.  As Chinese uses a logographic written system, mnemonic memory techniques can be used with certain words.  One issue with learning through mnemonics is that some ‘memory hooks’ are easier than others.  In some cases ‘authors’ or mnemonics can make the hook so abstract that they can almost be more difficult to memorise than the character itself.  Pictorial Mnemonics for Writing Chinese Characters is an app for the IPhone/IPad that allows for pupils to practise characters using mnemonics.  The new textbook for Asset Languages breakthrough Chinese (UK) ‘OCR Chinese’  also contains a section with mnemonic characters.  Memrise mentioned above also incorporates mnemonics into learning.

·         Character formation using Pinyin Input: Characters can also be written using a computer, mobile phone or handheld device.  The growing trend for writing in Chinese on new technologies and reduction in handwriting skills has stirred some concern from higher levels in China (see below).  Most computer applications use pinyin input software in order to generate characters.  This mean that the user can type pinyin using a standard keyboard and generating tones for pinyin using numbers (1, 2 ,3 ,4) for each tone.  To find out more read our article ‘How to write Chinese characters on your PC’ How should you use this functionality in your classroom? Is too much association of pin-yin with characters bad practice?

Areas of Contention

·         Pin-yin:  is the official system to transcribe Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet to teach Chinese.  It’s level of use or use at all is a constant source for debate.  Whilst pin-yin enables the correct pronunciation of Chinese, there is an argument that students may ‘over-rely’ on the pin-yin and focus on it rather than the characters.   Others will argue that if a teacher/learner is going to use pin-yin should it be presented with the character is one word or broken down into syllables, rather than grouped into words/characters.  Some also state that the latter encourages learners to see pin-yin merely as a pronunciation system, rather than almost, as is often the case, an alternative romanized language.

·         Calligraphy: a dying art?   Increased computer using and text messaging means that more people in China are using pinyin input software (on phones or PCs) to write characters.  This means that an increasing number of school pupils in China are less able to write Chinese characters by hand (Calligraphy).  The education ministry in China is stepping in to encourage more pupils to learn calligraphy.  See BBC article.  Also look at the Chinese Staffroom’s article about Calligraphy here.

What makes learning to write and read Mandarin Chinese different?  New to Chinese or are you a Chinese teacher who finds explaining Chinese to others difficult?  Read and download ‘Chinese language & the 'languages of China': A simple guide’.