10 Different Ways of Learning Chinese Characters



There are over 3500 frequently-used Chinese characters (Zhang, 1997). Learning them has always been regarded as a challenging task not only for Non-Chinese-Background-Speaking (NCSB) learners but also for Chinese native speakers when they start their first language acquisition. This article summarises 10 different ways of learning characters practised in the field of teaching Chinese as a Foreign or Second Language. It is hoped that NCBS learners can benefit from them by trying them out.

Key words: Teaching Chinese as a Foreign or Second Language, learning Chinese characters, language games

1. The Radical and Stroke Sequential Approach

The traditional way of teaching Chinese characters is to direct learners’ attention to the radicals of which each character is structured. This is followed by an illustration of the stroke orders of the character. The Pinyin Romanisation and English are listed alongside the characters, and then learners are asked to pronounce the characters or add Pinyin Romanisation to the characters listed. This traditional radical or stroke sequential approach to characters is still alive in the sphere of teaching Chinese to foreign learners and the best examples can be found in the textbooks by Lu (2001), Liu, et al. (2002), Zhang, et al. (2004) and Ma (2005).

2. The Systematic Approach

The most common practice in teaching Chinese characters to foreign learners is to teach them the form, the pronunciation and the meaning of a character first, followed by demonstrating its stroke orders. However, this makes the learning of characters hard to foreign learners (Zhang, 1997), as unlike the alphabetic-based language, Chinese writing is an ideographic system where the form, pronunciation and meaning of a character are integrated; therefore, there is a need to separate reading of characters from writing. Zhang (1997) advocates an approach where the teaching of characters follows a systematic way of learning the basic strokes and stroke orders of single characters first, and then compound characters. The whole idea of this approach to the teaching of characters is expressed in the book entitled Rudiments of Chinese Character Writing (Zhang, 1997).

3. The OVAL-Writing Approach

OVAL-Writing is an innovated approach to the learning of Chinese characters. It is specially designed for Non-Chinese-Speaking-Background (NCSB) learners, allowing NCSB beginners to accelerate their learning curve and fast track their mastery of Chinese characters (Ren, 2004a). The 5-letter acronym stands for Observing, Visualising, Articulating, Listening and Writing respectively. This approach intends to combine the learner’s visual, auditory and kinaesthetic senses together aiming for character retention which is away from the traditional focus of learning characters that is on character recognition and memorisation (Ren, 2004b).

4. The Integrative Perceptual Approach

This approach is based on the phenomenographic theory developed by Marton and Booth (1997). It requires the learning of Chinese characters closely associated with the learner’s own language use and experience. Characters are taught in clusters rather than in isolation. Teachers use similarities and variations among related characters in the clusters to highlight and emphasise crucial aspects of Chinese characters such as their structural features, written form and pronunciation  (Tse, et al ., 2006).

5. The Story-Reading Approach

Unlike most of the textbook writers concentrating on the learning of modern Chinese characters, Wang and Gao (2003) focus their attention on classical Chinese character phrases originated from ancient Chinese stories. They select stories from the classical literature and make the title of the stories by using the key character phrases originated from these stories. They also add pictures to these stories to help learners understand each story contained as well as the title of the story. This will not only help with learners master the key character phrases but also know the origin of these characters and the stories behind these set phrases.

6. The Game Approach

This is a very popular way of teaching foreign learners Chinese characters. This approach centres the whole class on learning characters through playing various games such as crosswords (Yan and Fu, 2005), passing the message, TV game shows, 20-Questions (Yao and McGinnis, 1989) or using flashcards to identify Chinese characters (Fuary and Kesseler, 2006).

7. The Picture-Matching Approach

This is a visual-dominated approach where learners are exposed to various pictures with characters listed alongside. They can play picture cards (Guan, 1996) or picture-matching games (Li and Xie, 2002) where students are asked to identify characters through matching them with the pictures or numbers written in the picture. The pronunciation of the characters is practised simultaneously The most comprehensive dealing of the picture-dominant approach is covered in the 2-volume textbook entitled Chinese Characters in Pictures by Wang and Zheng (2005) in which approximately 200 characters are explained in pictures. In this approach, the stroke orders of the characters are illustrated first followed by the Pinyin Romanisation and the meaning of the characters in English. Very often the pictures contain characters with extended examples of how these characters can be used within a sentence.

8. The Computer Keyboard Approach

HaFaLa Chinese is an animated fast learning software (8 CD-ROMs) developed by Shanghai Taotu Animation Technology Co. Ltd. It works on any computer to provide users with opportunities to learn Chinese characters. This software consists of most frequently used individual characters searchable through strokes, stroke orders, Pinyin Romanisation and English meanings. It can be used as a dictionary to aid learners in learning any printed Chinese textbooks.

9. The Nintendo DS Approach

My Chinese Coach for Nintendo DS allows users to learn Chinese characters through playing games on the Nintendo DS. Different games such as Hit-a-Word, Multiple-Choice, Whack-a-Mole, Tone-Recognition provide learners with different opportunities to learn various aspects of characters ranging from learning simplified vs. traditional forms of characters, pronunciation, meanings in English, Pinyin Romanisation, translation from English into Chinese or vice versa. Learners can also write out characters by following the correct stroke orders presented in the software. Couple with a bilingual dictionary, this application can be used as a practical tool to learn Chinese characters.

10. The iPhone Approach

The latest iPhone application Lucky Grasshopper provides a fun way of learning Chinese characters. This application uses pictures, sounds and animations to teach users stroke orders, pronunciation and meanings of characters, allowing them to master characters by touching the screen. Touching can also direct learners to different characters of their choice one at a time. This may be one of the most portable ways of learning Chinese characters. For a brief online demonstration, go to http://www.luckygrasshopper.com/ by LuckyG Media and Lucky Grasshopper (2009).


Fuary, M. and Kesseler, D. (2006). Chinese Language Games. Melbourne: Curriculum Corporation.

Guan J. (1996). Chinese Picture Cards. Honolulu: The Bess Press.

Li, D. and Xie, Y. (2002). Chinese Vocabulary. N.Y.: McGraw-Hill.

Liu, X., Zhang, K, Liu, S., Chen, X., Zuo, S. Shi, J. (2002). New Practical Chinese Reader (Vol.1). Beijing: Beijing Language & Culture University Press.

Lu, B. (2001). China Panorama Approaching Chinese (Vols.1-3). Beijing: Language & Culture Press.

Ma, Y. (2005). Chinese Made Easy (Vol.1). Joint Publishing (H.K.) Co. Ltd.

Marton, F. and Booth, S. (1997). Learning and Awareness, Mahwah N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Ren, G. (2004a). OVAL-Writing in Chinese. Melbourne: Camberwell Grammar School.

Ren, G. (2004b). Introducing OVAL-Writing, a new approach to Chinese character retention for secondary NCSB learners. Babel, 39, 1, 4-10, 37-38.

Ren, X. and Xu, J. (2004). The Learned Chinese (Vols.1-3). Beijing: Beijing University Press.

Tse, S.K., Marton, F., Ki, W.W. and Loh, E.K.Y. (2006). An integrative perceptual approach for teaching Chinese characters.  Instructional Science, 35, 5, 375-406.

Wang, J. and Gao, G. (2003). 100 Character Phrases and 100 Stories (Vols.1-2). Shanghai: Chinese Dictionary Publishing House.

Wang, C and Zheng, C.Q. (2005). Chinese Characters in Pictures. Beijing: Sinolingua.

Yan, T. and Fu, Y. (2005). Chinese Crosswords: for Speakers of Chinese as a Foreign Language. London: Cypress Book Co. UK Ltd.

Yao, T.C. and McGrinnis, S. (1989). Let’s Play Games in Chinese. Illinois: NTC Publishing Group.

Zhang, J., Liang, Y. and Zhang, L. (2004). Chinese Character Course. Beijing: Beijing Languages University Press.

Zhang, P. (1997). Rudiments of Chinese Character Writing. Beijing: Peking University Press.

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