After listening to an interesting podcast episode by David Moser in a discussion with Matthew Coss about handwriting Chinese characters and whether students should be expected to learn handwriting, I’m interested in continuing this discussion as a Chinese language learner, teacher, and Ph.D. researcher. My own current research focuses on learning motivation, but learning characters is also an important element in the complex topic of motivation.
Perceived difficulty in the Chinese language definitely affects learning motivation. Two of the most difficult aspects of the language that students report themselves is the pronunciation, especially tones, and the Chinese characters. As a teacher I understand that the characters can seem very intimidating at first and one doesn’t quite know where to start learning them or like what happens with many adult students in private learning settings, they decide not to learn them at all. Thus missing out on a large portion of the fascinating language and culture of Chinese.
How to teach Chinese characters
In his article “Towards a Curricularized Approach to L2 Hanzi Teaching and Learning“, Matthew Coss shares his way of teaching Chinese characters and the step-by-step curricula for teaching characters components and skills needed for learning how the character system works.
My own process for teaching characters to adult learners of the Chinese language outside of academia is very similar. I could summarize it into the following steps:
- Sparking the interest toward characters by sharing a bit of the history of how characters have developed and interesting examples of oracle bone characters for fun. Showing oracle bone characters for a few animals and letting them guess the meanings. Having fun with the characters and making them less intimidating.
- Sharing a simple introduction to the categories of characters, including pictograms, ideograms, compound ideograms, and pictophonetic characters. Using the classic example of 妈 teaching the students that many characters include both a meaning component and sound components, and leading into an exercise where they need to recognize meaning components and guess the meaning of words with the help of these components.
- After the initial introduction, I start teaching the characters in the order of from simple to complex, grouping characters together by their meaning components when possible. Thus learning spoken Chinese and written Chinese follow different paths (as the phrase “thank you” is easy to say but difficult to write 谢谢), in the end leading to the same destination of being able to speak and read the words on HSK1 curriculum for example.
- In the beginning, I ask students to write characters down a few times, to experiment with character writing and learn the basics of writing them. Our goal is still to be able to read and recognize characters, not to write them from memory.
- After learning basic characters with the help of a teacher, roughly for HSK1-2, the students already possess study skills to continue learning the characters on their own as well if they choose to do so.
Should adult learners learn characters?
As I teach adult L2 Chinese learners at a private institute, the students are at the center of our lesson planning and we do a lot of tailor-made teaching. According to the needs and wants of the student, I design their learning plan and choose the suitable materials and teaching methods. This is of course very different experience than teaching Chinese in compulsory education or university.
Sometimes students wish to not learn the written language, instead focusing on spoken Chinese and pinyin. As a private institute, we of course follow their wishes. But at the same time with new students, I actively find ways to introduce basic knowledge of characters in order to spark an interest. With some students we continue learning the characters as long as they learn Chinese, with some students after an introduction, we decide to focus only on the spoken Chinese.
Students have their own preferences, but as an educator, what are my thoughts on whether students should learn characters or not and if they should learn to hand-write or not?
In my experience as a learner and a teacher, learning basic spoken Chinese is completely possible without learning any of the Chinese characters, but once a student hits the intermediate level, learning characters is more useful than trying to ignore them. I personally would prefer and find it the most useful to slowly start learning characters from the beginning.
- During HSK1 getting to know how characters work, how to learn them, and developing an interest in learning them.
- After the newbie phase, start learning characters more systematically, aiming to be able to recognize all the characters the students can say. Making sure that all skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing(typing) develop together. At this stage, learning characters from simple to more complicated, in a different order compared to spoken Chinese.
- Starting from the intermediate level, learning characters as the student learns new vocabulary. Student already have the necessary skills to learn characters on their own and it becomes a natural part of learning vocabulary to also learn to read.
Is teaching handwriting characters important?
In China, the new Chinese Proficiency Grading Standards for International Chinese Language Education lists for each level how many characters learner should study and how many of those should they be able to write. For example for elementary level, including levels 1 to 3, the student should know 900 characters, from which to be able to write 300. On advanced level, levels 7 to 9, student should know a total of 3000 characters and be able to write 1200 of them.
At the University of Turku where I’m doing my Phd program, the Basic Chinese 1 course requires students to recognize 400 characters and be able to write 200 of them either by hand or by typing. Perhaps one could argue, that if the students can recognize 400 characters, in theory they should be able to type them all as well. Handwriting therefore isn’t expected at least according to the course requirements available on the university website. For advanced Chinese course there is no mention of handwriting.
I believe that in the beginning of learning characters, the act of writing by hand helps with remembering the characters and getting used to the different types of characters and components. Handwriting it-self doesn’t have to be the goal, rather using writing to help in remembering how to recognize characters. I believe it’s valuable to teach students the handwriting skills so they can later choose themselves if they want to keep practising it or not.
There has been some studies done on the matter, and for example by Hsiung et al. (2017) shares the following findings:
We found that CFL learners who practiced writing the characters had improved accuracy in their Chinese writing assignments and meaning assignments compared with students who did not practice writing, indicating that writing exercises helped students to memorize the orthography and output of Chinese characters. Writing exercises also helped improve memorization of the meaning of Chinese characters. However, the traditional emphasis on the correct stroke order, which has been considered helpful for learning Chinese characters, demonstrated no significant impact on the effectiveness of recognizing and writing Chinese characters.Hsiang-Yu Hsiung, Yu-Lin Chang, Hsueh-Chih Chen, Yao-Ting Sung,
Effect of stroke-order learning and handwriting exercises on recognizing and writing Chinese characters by Chinese as a foreign language learners
On the same topic, a synthetic review by Lyu et al. (2021) concluded:
Given that handwriting strengthens orthographic knowledge and orthographic-semantic mapping and typewriting enhances phonological knowledge and phonologic-semantic mapping, a multimodal, flexible plans for writing tasks could be adopted and adjusted to facilitate the different aspects of Chinese character acquisition.Boning Lyu, Chun Lai, Chin-Hsi Lin, Yang Gong,
Comparison studies of typing and handwriting in Chinese language learning: A synthetic review,
International Journal of Educational Research
Writing characters by handwriting or typing is not an area that I am doing research at the moment, so my views are mostly based on my years of learning and teaching Chinese to adult L2 learners in China, especially in a private language institute. In my current role the first question for my students is to learn characters or not and if they decide to do so, I as a teacher will include handwriting exercises that will promote learning to recognize the characters. The goal being learning to read by writing.