3 simple suggestions for brush stroke success in writing Chinese characters

Teaching children to write Chinese characters can be daunting. But a few simple steps can help youngsters overcome difficulties and perfect their skills as calligraphists

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2018, 10:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2018, 10:28am

Understanding daily conversations, check. Basic conversations (at least try to), check. Starting to read entry-level book, check. Then it comes to writing in Chinese, a milestone most parents find hard to reach, myself included. Writing with the correct stroke order seems to be the Mount Everest to many, even those whose mother tongue is Chinese.

Unlike languages such as English or Spanish, writing in Chinese requires more than memorising a few dozen alphabets or symbols. The Chinese writing system can be daunting, thanks to its rich, beautiful and challenging mix of pictograms, ideograms and phonetic loan characters, and the confusion gets even more serious if your child needs to write traditional characters.

Tongue-twisting writing systems contribute to the seemingly chaotic and endless journey in grasping the skill in written Chinese. So what is the problem? And more importantly, how can we help our children start writing Chinese characters?

Before we begin, I hear that some parents have concerns as to when is the “suitable age” to start their children writing? Some parents put a pencil on their little one’s hand as young as 24 months, while others put off any sort of writing until their child reaches primary school.

My theory is that as soon as you see your child expressing an interest in learning about Chinese characters’ structures you can introduce them to the skills involved, as simple at the beginning as using their fingertips or using a twig to “write” on sand. Remember, the more time and effort you put in at the beginning to help them negotiate the bridge to writing mode, the less “pain” you will find in them when you get them to start actual writing.

Below are some common issues parents come across, as well as suggestions that you can try:

1. Children do not express any interest

Many parents are in exactly the same boat with this problem, particularly in Hong Kong as we do not have a Mandarin-speaking environment. I cannot emphasis too strongly the importance of an interest in Chinese. If you child is not a native speaker, it is paramount to help children express themselves confidently through a sound use of sentence structures. You will only push them further into “hate Chinese” territory if you force them into dogmatic copying and writing.

Suggestion: 

If your child is an absolute beginner, you may want to check out my article about different approaches to getting them started:

Learning Mandarin can be child’s play – with the right approach

If your child has foundational oral communication skills but an insufficient vocabulary pool, you should help them build up sentence formation logic before you push into too much writing. The reason is, if their sentence structure foundation is not solid, they will never be able to compose them naturally in their heads. Hence, by the time they reach upper primary they will have a major struggle with creative writing.

Children in this situation may be reluctant to write because they are not confident or fluent enough in their Chinese. A continued immersion language environment will help, and you may want to expand their sentence structure ideas by nurturing a love for reading.

Zhuyin sounds key to children learning Mandarin as a second language

2. They don’t understand Chinese character structures

Every week my son has a Chinese dictation at school, and I see him trying to “piece” together different parts of a character like a puzzle. The struggle is real.

Working on countless copy books, penmanship homework and dictation was, and still is, how most children learn written Chinese. I have yet to meet a child or parent who enjoys learning this way. Sadly, it seems to be the only way for them.

Suggestion:

Learn more about character structure through stories (traditional characters only).

You may have heard of Chinese radicals, which is a graphical component of characters traditionally listed in a Chinese dictionary. Learning Chinese via “root” characters comes in one step before that, where it helps the child differentiate between characters that look “similar”, and helping them learn about the structural foundations.

I found a tool in teaching young children to write in Chinese that involves learning the “word roots” of Chinese through stories from a local Hong Kong NGO publisher (www.buspublishing.com). The method groups together Chinese character“root” groups, such as the group with Chinese characters for “mouth”, for “person” and so on. Each character is then presented through a brief story, each added stroke expressing a plot development. For example, the character for “person” becomes “big” when you add a stroke in the middle, which then becomes the character “sky” when you add one more at the top.

The series then goes on to “radicals” and “camera words”, just like the ones in English. I enjoy this method because with each story, the correct order of strokes is subtly incorporated. When the correct stroke order is in place, they become photographic memories which can be used as building blocks to formulate more complex characters as they progress.

3. They cannot manage to write with the correct strokes

Having to learn more about character recognition and “root” words, another issue often raised is the lack of correct stroke skills. Children often prefer to “draw” the words out in the stroke order they prefer, and as time goes by they become unalterable bad habits. Correct handwriting is important in Chinese culture, as we have a saying: “zì rú qí rén”, which means “the handwriting reflects the person”.

Suggestion:

Practice. Practice. Practice – not on paper but on iPads.

The two websites below have visual demonstrations of the correct strokes, as well as reminders of the correct pronunciations. They are the household staples whenever I do homework with my children, because they will stumble across words they have never used. Using this website can show the writing to them, and is a good chance for them to practise the strokes, too.

Traditional:

http://stroke-order.learningweb.moe.edu.tw/

Simplified:

https://dictionary.writtenchinese.com

There is no short cut to learning any language, and never a perfect way for every child. At the end of the day, interest and immersion are key. However, this should not be equated to mindless repetition and tension between parents and children. We may not be able to completely take away the pain in climbing the Mount Everest, but if we can help our children enjoy their journey through laughter and fun, there is no reason not to.

No matter what stage of Mandarin your child is at, remember that our job as parents is to show our support and appreciation of their progress, rather than continually complaining about what children their age are “supposed” to know. Mandarin can prove useful for your child in the future, yet its difficulty and monotonous teaching style have put many children off. In our generation, we have seen many friends, and even ourselves, regret that they have not persisted in learning Chinese better. So now is the time to think of the better game plan so that our children don’t drop the ball.