Back to handwriting Chinese

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.

  • I really want them to write mindfully.  I would rather that they want to write beautifully, because they want to write well, not because they must write 6 characters today as their assigned work.  Without the mindful writing, they’re not looking at how they’re placing their strokes.  It’s also this attitude about work I want to cultivate.
  • I would like them to recall how to write (e.g. spelling) a character without a lot of repetitious work.  Especially as the kids have a choice in the U.S. to write in English.  If practicing Chinese writing is painful, then they will resent having to write.  Without being able to write or type, they cannot express their thoughts.

I used to ask Thumper to write a character 6 times.  And I found that she doesn’t really remember it the next day anyway.  Or maybe she remembers it the next day but not the next week.  Nor does she remember how to write well.  In addition, I’ve recently been going over the next 400-600 characters she needs to learn and I realized that one great way to learn it is not through a Language Arts lens, but rather through studying subjects such as (science, history, geography, math) that use these characters.  This way, I get to add in the subject study I so want to but couldn’t find time for, without sacrificing Language Arts.

For example, to learn 歐, instead of reading it in a comprehension passage in Language Arts, she could be learning about Europe.  She could learn lots of other characters working on her Montessori geography maps.  The best thing is that since she’s learning through application so to speak, she learns the context in which to use these characters.  So there is no need to additionally study words on top of learning individual characters, the way Chinese Language Arts books teach characters.

Recently, I also started using the Writing with Ease curriculum.  The curriculum emphasizes learning the mechanics of writing (grammar, punctuation, etc) through dictation, looking at well written text, and practicing narration before asking a child to start writing.  Since there is a lot of dictation in the beginning of the curriculum, Writing with Ease really suits what I need.  It enables us to learn to write characters while looking at well written novels.

In summary, I decided that we will practice writing by using it in our daily study of other subjects, instead of studying it as Chinese Language Arts.

What we’re doing

Since I don’t have the other subjects prepped yet, we’re starting with Writing with Ease.  Right now, every week,

  1. Thumper writes a passage out of a book, a poem, or a song we’re learning.  The indirect purpose is to learn what good writing is.  It’s also a subject (music, poems, holidays, etc) study.
  2. Thumper learns how to write all the characters she doesn’t know how to write in our Workbook Record.  The purpose is to do real world writing.  Basically to make writing useful and practical to our daily lives.

Learning new characters through our work plan

So on Monday, we look through her work plan together.  In her work plan, she is allowed to write zhuyin for the characters she doesn’t know.  She picks 3 of them to learn how to write.  After I teach it to her, she can no longer use zhuyin for them.  Now, for the rest of the week, she gets her daily writing practice for these characters.  In the last 2 weeks, I’ve started writing down her work plan for the day so she only has to log it when she’s done.  Since most of the time can’t remember how to write them myself, I’ve found it is a super great way to remember how to write!  There’s nothing like being forced to recall day after day a certain character through usage.  For example, we learned how to write multiplication and division (乘法,除法) this way.  It’s also another great way to learn new characters.

Practicing and circling the characters we like.

Practicing and circling the characters we like.

On Tuesday, she is dictated a song (for now).  In September, it was 月亮代表我的心.  In October it’s the Halloween song 嗚哇嗚哇變.  She writes down any character she knows and for the rest uses zhuyin.  Then every day (Tue, Fri, Sat), we learn 3 new characters from the dictation.  She also has to note these characters down in her work log.  Any chance we get to actively practice using the characters!


Two weeks of final dictation

On Sunday, I re-dictate the parts of the songs she’s learned so far.  Often I will find that despite her “remembering” how to write 3 days ago, she does not remember again.   The great thing about songs is that it is repetitive so she gets her practice in when she rewrites.  Since we’re using components to remember how to write the character, even though she may forget again, I can remind her of the components and often that is enough to jog her memory.

The Actual Writing Part

Instead of asking Thumper to write each character 6 times, now I ask that she writes each character until she is satisfied with how it looks.  This way, the work is not an assignment, but a choice.  She is then to circle the character she thinks is the most beautiful.  I learned this from my New American Cursivecurriculum we used last year.  I think it asks the children to think about what they’re writing actively.  In my zhuyin class, when I ask the children to do that, and to be mindful when they write, they tend to write progressively better looking characters.

Though I haven’t done it consistently, I’m finding that spending an extra 10 minutes, going over every stroke and pointing out some of the gotchas on writing a beautiful character, helps Thumper write it well the first time.  It also avoids the power struggle and crying we have when I point out how she ought to write a certain character.  (I know, totally not conducive to making her want to write.  So hard to stop myself.)

Something we tried but didn't quite work, yet

Something we tried but didn’t quite work, yet

The first two weeks, I had Thumper show me the character shape and character structures in hopes that it helps her remember how to write.  But it’s not quite working when she’s not mindful.  I also had her write the stroke order down much like the character workbooks.  Meaning each iteration is one stroke order more than the previous.  In a way she gets her writing practice in.  Unfortunately that didn’t quite work either because the whole endeavor takes her a super long time with her playing on the whiteboard.  I know both of these will be useful in her practicing writing, as soon as I figure out how to present it properly.

A few other notes about writing Chinese handwriting:

  • I think there is a hand developmental thing where children really young just cannot write super well until they get to about 3rd grade.  This year I’ve noticed that, despite not doing a lot of writing last year, Thumper’s characters look more legible than last year.
  • Thumper has a tendency to write in block letter format, much like printed Chinese text.  I’m theorizing her years of staring at printed text (especially those free character practice sheets on the Taiwan government website).   This is not the same as calligraphy writing.  The actual textbooks show handwriting samples.  I’ve started printing out materials in handwriting fonts, hoping it’ll benefit Astroboy’s aesthetics. Montessori primary classrooms also print a lot of their text in cursive for this reason, to help children write in cursive.
  • It is so important to teach the kids proper stroke order when they’re young.  Thumper practiced writing a lot of characters in preschool.  I’m pretty sure they taught stroke order.  But I don’t think the teachers really check.  And now it’s this muscle habit that is hard to break for her.  I haven’t had issues with Astroboy yet because starting from the first time I showed him characters last year, I always traced with my index fingers the stroke order.
  • When you handwrite there is a natural slant.  Apparently for left to right strokes, it’s a 7 degree incline. Most practice sheets for children have a 4 or 9 square for guides.  But none of them slant!  It is hard to ask children to write well if they feel the need to follow guides and write a straight horizontal line.

I just found a super great website that talks about how to teach Chinese handwriting.  As I mentioned,  pen handwriting (鋼筆字) is slightly different from ink calligraphy writing (書法).  The website points out that some strokes in printed text are shorter than handwriting text.  And more applicable to me, that for 1st and 2nd graders, the only thing you can emphasize on is the stroke length and that stroke order and direction is there for you to connect from one stroke to another.  There are a few videos on the website that shows this.

I want to note that I by no means have figured out the most efficient or the best way to teach writing.  It’s a work in progress.  I’m always looking for new ideas.  Probably more than anything, I just know how I don’t want to teach writing.  In fact, I feel like while I love the way I’m teaching writing right now, it’s not quite working for Thumper on the writing beautifully front.  She forgets when she’s in a hurry.  It’s something I need to spend insomnia time thinking about.  The website I mentioned gave an example of how writing improved for a 5th grader after 1 month of twice weekly 30 minute class on handwriting.  So I need to pour over this website a bit more.

P.S. Thought of something else.  For me, the goal of learning to write is use it in composition.  If my kids were in immersion school and asked to write a character 50 times, I would totally refuse.  As I mentioned, nothing kills the brain’s desire to learn than boring repetitive tasks.  Instead, write it 6 times, try to use it in a sentence, write a story with just those 6-10 characters a child is learning.  That’s the goal anyway isn’t it?  Of course, part of the problem is, many immersion kids don’t learn their pinyin till later or zhuyin at all, so a child is unable to express their thoughts in Chinese before then.  They really should, because part of mastery of a language is output.


2 thoughts on “Back to handwriting Chinese

  1. I started reading your blog in the last few weeks and am so hooked! I’m trying to decide homeschool, immersion program, etc. for my kids even though my oldest is only about to turn 3. She is starting to learn simplified characters and is addicted to the monkey stories. I’m fascinated with the process of how young children learn, especially how they learn languages.

    Anyhow – my comment isn’t related to your post at all but I just wanted to say that I really enjoy this window into how it all works on a practical level.

    How old are your kids, if that’s too personal? I’m trying to get a feel for what is reasonable to expect at different ages.


  2. Thank you! Yes, I think that’s why I enjoy homeschooling. It’s really neat watching how children learn. Mine are 5 and 8. I think it kind of depends on the background of your children. We aim to be as close to grade level as possible. But as a bilingual household we’re probably 1-2 year behind Taiwan in speaking and 1-2 year behind US in reading/writing.


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