Beginning February of this year, I finally signed the kids up to a Chinese calligraphy class.
Best extra-curriculer class we took this semester, other than music.
I’d wanted the kids to do Chinese calligraphy for a long time. Three years ago, I visited a Montessori preschool and was told that they don’t ask the children to write, but instead teach characters through calligraphy and learning the evolution of characters. We know that many kids nowadays write too early. You can see it in their pencil grip. And especially with Chinese, where they traditionally do repetitive writing, it’s not good for their hands.
Calligraphy is a good alternative if the children aren’t ready to hold a small pencil.
Two weeks ago, I convinced a friend to try Skritter with her child and went through the installation process with her. I thought I’d document reasons for suggesting Skritter and also some of the issues we came across during the installation.
The Problem I Had
Last semester, if you recall my happiness at our writing curriculum, I asked Thumper to find 2 characters a day she doesn’t know and practice writing them. It’s how I’ve it done in a few of the Montessori schools I visited. The children choose characters they’re using in daily school work and learning those. The great thing about this method is that children are:
learning characters relevant to their daily lives
get choices in what to learn and don’t hate writing Chinese as much
learning characters through subject vocabulary, rather than strictly through language arts.
However, the problem was despite practicing through the traditional methods of writing at least 3 times per character and using relevant characters, she was still forgetting. I felt this wasn’t working for us because:
Last year, I bought a whole bunch of books from Greenfield. That’s the company that makes the books you can use after Sagebooks. I didn’t buy that set of readers, but rather a bunch of other stuff: several first grade chapter books, Let’s Play Writing, and High Efficiency Reading. They arrived in November, too late for us to use in the Fall semester.
I finally dusted them off and added them into our work plan this semester. Though we’ve only done 4 chapters, I am loving this curriculum.
Let’s Play Writing is actually a set of 3 books, from Taiwan. It’s out of print in Taiwan for some reason. So the only place I can buy it is Greenfield. I’d been trying to figure out how to teach writing for at least 6 months, asking any Chinese teacher I know, looking at textbooks, even talking to my ESL Teacher Sister. In the meantime, I started on an English writing curriculum called Writing with Ease.
When I talked to ESL Teacher Sister, she said that some important education dude thinks children learn how to write by writing a lot. This is a bit different from the Writing with Ease curriculum which says that you learn narration and dictation first for 2-3 years and learn the mechanics of writing, before you start writing.
Two months ago, while I was researching Anki, I re-tried Skritter and Chinese Writer for the writing characters part. Unfortunately Skritter required a subscription. So I dropped it till this week, when I subscribed through a group order (so much cheaper!)
My first impression of Skritter, 2 months ago, was that it was very powerful, and that it was more suited for Thumper (8) than Astroboy (5). Playing with it again today, my second impression is that the more English you know, the better suited it is for you. It also doesn’t have zhuyin support on iOS, which is our primary OS at home.
So I wrote this way last year, summarizing a research paper I read about learning to read/write Chinese. Upon re-reading it, I realized how so much of the info is relevant to my current obsession of writing! Thus making me finish this post finally.
Learning how to write character components is the 4th step in our Learning how to handwrite Chinese study thread. I provided all the links in that post. The Cool Chinese website has lots of info. But I’m using the research paper PDF I found online as a way to teach how to recognize characters. I thought I would sum up the research paper so that I can internalize what I learned. It is a 160 page paper! The abstract is in English.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I decided that for us, writing for now means learning to handwrite beautifully in addition to learning the composition skills. The question for me then, was how to teach handwriting.
For me, there are two components to handwriting, recalling how to write a character (English equivalent of “spelling“) and writing beautifully. I know that if there is no continual usage, the kids will forget how to write, so I’m not going to be too insistent upon it. But at least while we’re learning to write, I’m going to teach them to remember by using character components.
I remember as a child, I learned how to write characters by writing it over and over again, probably 6-10 times. And writing homework probably fills at 1-2 pages, kind of like this picture here. As an adult, I’ve tried re-learning how to write this way, only to forget how to write them the next day. There is something in the nature of repetitive writing that zones my brain out. Especially since I’ve already learned stroke order, I just mindlessly write one stroke after another without thinking.
For me, this is not how I want Thumper or Astroboy to learn how to write. For two reasons.
A week ago, I printed out 1200 characters or so. Thumper and I highlighted the characters she recognized. Close to 800! When did that happen? A lot of it was through reading apparently. Because she’s telling me left and right as we go through them which book she picked it up from.
With 800 characters down, suddenly I’m not so stressed about learning 1200 characters this year. And I’m casting my eyes on the question of To write or not to write…..?
I will sum it up first to save you reading a long winding post: We need to separate writing curriculum into handwriting and composition writing.
Arguments for Writing
Now a days, I find that I have a lot of problem with knowing how to write emails, FB posts, etc. I often write emails back to Taiwan to make inquiries to booksellers. They need to be in a more polite form than normal speech. On FB posts, same thing. If I type the way I speak, then it comes out sounding very unschooled, very elementary Chinese level.
My sister the ESL teacher tells me, writing is not the same as speaking.It’s a separate skill you need to teach. Just because you can speak does not mean you can write. Her ESL students speak fine, but they still have trouble with writing.
As of now, there are still instances when I have to handwrite. Unless I always have technology with me, I cannot take notes, make a todo list, write a grocery shopping list, in Chinese, on a scratch paper. And I already use technology way more than most. More importantly, when I go back to Taiwan and I have to fill out official documents or or take notes, I always have to ask others to write it down for me. It’s so frustrating on my end when that happens. I also get embarrassed that my writing looks like an elementary school child’s.
Arguments Against Writing
I’ve been reading FB posts of other parents’ experiences and most people concentrate on reading. The typical experience is that a child forgets how to write easily. And that they don’t expect their children to write because we’re in the U.S. The kids already have enough to preoccupy them in their English curriculum and to add the usually painful experience of learning to write as well is too much. The typical Chinese writing curriculum consists of writing many times a single character. Muscle memory and all that.
I can totally vouch for the forgetting to write. I could write in Chinese till I was 12 or 13, then I stopped writing letters back to Taiwan. I’ve forgotten how to write most characters. In fact, my siblings who have much lower levels of Chinese than me remember how to write more because they went to Saturday Chinese school for a year as teenagers. Now a days, I can type in pinyin and it really doesn’t stop me from communicating. My mother herself cannot remember how to write sometimes. So,writing requires continual practice.Will my kids still be writing as teenagers? Not sure.
Of course, another argument is that my Hapa kids are not going to have the same experience as me. What is the likelihood that they will go back to Taiwan and live there like I do? Or that people expect them to write? They’re considered 外國人 (foreigners) to the Taiwanese people we meet and people are already surprised and happy they even speak Chinese.
Lastly, if you tie your writing curriculum with learning new characters, then your child will not progress fast enough in the reading department. This is an especially important point for kids in the US, where you want them to read before their English reading skills catch up.
After teaching Thumper the different character shape, I gave her our first writing lesson about 2 days later. I’m definitely on a high because the results were really surprising to me, in a good way.
I only had formal Chinese instructions up to 4th grade, and as an adult, I find my writing pretty atrocious. It just looks like half way between a child’s and adult writing. It’s missing a lot of the components that make writing characters more akin to writing beautiful handwriting or beautiful calligraphy.
As I talked about in the previous post about character shapes, there are a gazillion of them. Yes, I exaggerate a bit. Before our lesson I’ve actually done some random reading while researching stroke order and read about WHY we write Chinese character a particular way. It’s all about Chinese calligraphy, because calligraphy is an art. So good pretty writing is about making it look beautiful.
Unfortunately, with the advent of typesetting, many teachers lament that this skill is getting lost. The typesetting character isn’t necessarily how you would write a character. So it is very important to use 標楷體 when you’re using fonts for lesson plans. Because they tell you how the brush starts and stops. And if you know about strokes then when you see a character, you can look at it for clues on how to actually write the character.
I did not use to like this font because I did find that often they are not how we actually write characters though. But now I do use it knowing it’s mimicking brush strokes. However, I don’t think it is good as a way to copy how characters are written. This is why the character practice sheets from the major textbook publishing companies now have a 鋼筆字 component. One big reason is that the left right stroke (橫) is actually written at a 7 degree angle. Don’t ask me why it’s exactly 7 degrees. But I read about it on this website. I actually then went and drew a character grid and mapped my 標楷體 onto it. And it is indeed 7 degrees for all the 標楷體 characters.
I’ve been searching and searching online over 3 years for a font that mimics 鋼筆字 and really none are exactly right for young children, because they do add a beautiful writing component to it and this means that the strokes are sometimes not very clear, they kind of start mimicking brushes. However, I’m now using the 華康雅風體 in my dictionary since it’s going to be used for writing. You can find bootlegged copies online all over the place.
Because writing Chinese characters is all about fitting into a square. So another thing I learned about strokes is that sometimes strokes change in order for the character to fit properly into one square. For example, for the character 林, which is made up of two 木’s. 木’s stroke order is 一橫，一豎，一瞥，一捺. When it’s written on the left side, it’s 一橫，一豎，一瞥，一點. So the left to right diagonal () is shortened in order to allow room for the right 木 to fit in there. There are many cases like that.
Apparently if you look at the character practice sheets from New Taipei Government, you can kind of see this. When they teach characters, they do point out these little gotchas. I really really wanted to use these character practice sheets. But alas, we’re following Sagebook, so instead I’m making more work for me by doing it myself through using the 華康雅風體 font.
How I presented
Tonight, we started our lesson with the character 林. First we looked at the character structure reference I made for Thumper and we talked about its character structure. Then we talked about the character shapes of the character and decided that they were two same long rectangles. I then gave Thumper a few example of what long rectangles mean. The left/right stroke is proportional to the diagonal strokes, this is how you can make that rectangle. It isn’t too long nor too short. I also talked about how the point of writing character is it’s in the center of the square. It isn’t hiding on the top left corner or bottom right corner. Finally I talked about how when we actually write Chinese, the left to right stroke goes slightly up. (I read about the 7 degrees only after the presentation).
After practicing different ways to NOT write 林, I finally got down to work showing her how to write it. I wrote it on the character practice booklet I made 6 months ago for her. (Finally!) And wow, if I may say so myself, my writing actually is not bad looking for once. These workbooks have 7 characters total in one column only, with the top to be written by the teacher. From the character component paper and other things I’ve read, they say that practicing and practicing and practicing writing is not going to make the child actually remember how to write it. This is one reason why I’m limiting it only to 6 characters. I’m hoping that with other writing practice it’ll stick better. However, I do see how beautiful writing characters is both a muscle memory and mindful writing thing so I need to figure out what to do about that.
Anyways, borrowing an idea from the English handwriting workbook I purchased, I asked Thumper to write two characters in her book, make little circles in the character of where she thinks she needs improvement and where she’s writing well. Then she tries again with the next two, and finally with the last two she writes them w/ no critique for me to see.
Since the practice sheet does have a crosshair in it to guide you, it helped her see where to start the writing when she’s copying my character. Her character writing turned out very well for 林. She wanted to try it with 凱, but we had a tough time deciding what type of character shape & structure it has. We analyzed it to death. It did turn out pretty good too compared with before. And definitely I’m amazed at how much better I write. But I can see she does just need more practice writing in general because she can’t quite make her lines too straight or her curves curvy enough yet.
I’m not sure how long we can make this interest in writing beautify characters last. I will have to figure out how to make it more interesting as we go along.
In regards to writing in general, I’m glad we’re finally starting at age 7.5. It is a bit old and it isn’t like she was not writing before now. But for 3 years I was super frustrated that she was holding her pencil incorrectly but her school work makes her write. It’s mostly her choice to write of course but we weren’t going to a play-based school. Finally this year she’s got enough strength in her hand to hold her pencil right. And I can see how an older age makes a bigger difference in how well she can manipulate that pencil. She was just one of those kids who did not develop her pincer grip early enough.
Lastly, after reading that article about 7 degrees, I’m going to be changing all of our practice sheets to that format instead. I am a lazy person and I don’t like to nag. I hate for her to develop the habit of writing a specific way, having her muscles remember it, and then having to correct it when she gets older. It seems just so much easier that the guides for writing slanted is IN the practice sheets.
I’m going to be making my reference guide for these character shapes next.
This week I introduced the second part of Chinese character structure. These are two different things but I don’t know how to translate them into English. The first one was called 漢字基本結構, so more Chinese characters’ basic structure. It’s really more about how the character components fit each other to form a character. This second part is 字體結構, and it’s about how to write these character components so that it looks nice.
So this is part 3 of my lesson plan on teaching how to write. One was stroke name, two was character structure, and three is character shapes. Two and three are really inter-related.
The easiest way to explain character form is to look at some characters. For example, 山. This character is triangular in shape when you write it. Or, a character like 牙, which is long rectangular shape. Or, the one character that Thumper tends to write funny, 天. You can see it’s kind of triangular shape. But Thumper likes to write it so that the first left-right stroke is as long as the second. It was because of this that I thought it would be important to talk about character shapes with her. The 8 shapes for simple characters are:
inverted triangle 下
wide rectangle 丑
For characters with character components, you can break down the character shapes even more. For example, one of a character’s basic structure is left/right, where the character components are left and right of each other, e.g. 朋. Then you can break this down even more and say some characters have the left side bigger, some the right side bigger, some the left is long rectangle, right short rectangle, etc. Here are the 6 basic ones for just the left right structure:
left wide, right narrow 割
left narrow, right wide 姐
left long, right short 私
left short, right long 喔
let tall, right low 胡
Crazy right? I count 27 of these for the different character component, plus the 8 for simple for a total of 35!
How I Presented
As usual, to make sure I don’t spend 5000 days to actually create the material (which I’m doing now, hours and hours of work), I just printed out the relevant pages from the research paper as prep. This was actually just a 5-10 minute lesson I squeezed in before cooking dinner. I first showed Thumper the reference material I made for her the other day.
I then talked about how it’s not just these basic structures but the characters themselves have specific shapes. For example, her 天 she often writes it with two equal lines. (I know I know, I really should not be pointing out her mistakes. sigh). But really 天’s shape is a triangle. (Here I draw a triangle around the character. We then just went through and talked about the 8 basic character shapes. I definitely stressed the long rectangle shape because that is seen the most often. And then we went through some of the shapes for the left/right components. By then she was getting tired so I just left it at that.
One technique I’m using from reaching Nurture Shock. I tend to give many examples of what NOT to do. Thumper really really found it funny to show me examples of how not to write the characters. Looking back, I think I should have let her go with it. But at the time, I stopped her after a few examples.
BUT! there is an epilogue. Two days later, we finally talked about how to write Chinese characters, and we started practicing. Wow, what a difference knowing character structure makes!
One of the anxieties for me is wondering if the kids are hitting “grade level” in their Chinese characters knowledge. In the past teachers have refused to tell me, citing reasons like, “They may know it today during the assessment but not know it tomorrow.” Or, “They may recognize a character but not know how to write it or use it.” While this is very true, and in fact it’s a problem I see daily with Astroboy, I generally hate it when people don’t want to give me estimates. THERE IS ALWAYS A RANGE! Seriously. Because obviously my child doesn’t know 10000 characters (is there even that many in Chinese?), nor do they know 1000 (it would take longer than 2 years for most children). To me, it also illustrates the distrust between parents and teachers. Somehow I’m going to take this info and try to whip my kids into learning more characters faster or accuse them for not knowing enough. Okay, I will stop ranting now. There is a list published in a research paper of number of characters children will be presented for reading and writing by each grade level in Taiwan. This is expected number of characters to be introduced. It does not mean your child will know this many. But it gives you a good general idea of where your child is vs a child in Taiwan. Or plan your curriculum.
Reading (characters / words)
Writing (characters / words)
400 / 600
300 / 400
800 / 1200
600 / 800
1200 / 1800
900 / 1200
1600 / 2400
1200 / 1600
2000 / 3000
1500 / 2400
2400 / 3600
1800 / 3000
There is a character vs word component because knowing a character is only half way, since characters are usually used to compose words; e.g. two characters combined. For each writing level, you’re expected to be able to make a sentence with said character, know when this character should be used. The same knowledge applies to words you can write. I hear the standards are different in China. You know a lot more characters by the end of first grade. But no time to research that right now. For me, it’s difficult enough in the U.S. to learn this many for each grade level. No need to feel even more anxious by comparing to China. This website lists frequency character coverage. I don’t know if it’s based on Traditional or Simplified Chinese though. Anyways, using this chart we have:
400 = 70%
800 = 85%
1200 = 91%
1600 = 95%
2000 = 97%
2400 = 98%
Looking at this table, it seems that you should be able to read pretty well after 3rd grade. I’m assuming after 4th or 5th grade, you’ve seen enough characters to really be able to guess at the meaning and pronunciation of new characters you don’t know. For the Sagebooks, this means that it only takes you to 1st grade level and we really need another 500-700 to reach 3rd grade level. For us, IF we get through the Sagebooks by the end of May like I planned, we’re on track for first grade level. I guess I better get started on planning what to do with the second 500 characters! If I want to reach 300 character writing proficiency, we also need to cover up to the Orange Series in Sagebooks. This means about 20 characters a week. I’m not sure it is doable. Though technically Thumper already knows how to write a lot of these characters already. I just want her to be able to write it properly.