Spaced Repetition character learning with Anki

This May, we finished our Sagebooks.  Right after, I got ambitious and wanted to do something similar to Sage for the next 500 characters.  I partly stopped because Thumper went through my first 20 characters way too quickly.  I randomly estimated then that maybe she knew about 600-650 characters, because she whizzed through set 4 and set 5 pretty quickly.  However, summer and life took over and we concentrated on learning zhuyin and getting into reading instead.

Recently, I’ve been getting quite anxious that Thumper’s not formally learning any of the next 700 characters (our goal is 1200 this year) and it’s October already.  We really need to reach this goal this year because I’m not sure my inner anxiety can take another year of her not reading in English.  (On a side note, just met an all english unschooler recently whose 8 year old isn’t reading either.  Made me feel just a tad better there are others out there.)

Two weeks ago, I finally got my behind in gear and printed out the long list of about 1200 characters I painstakingly compiled from the Hong Kong website (3000 characters for elementary kids), cross referenced with first 3 years of Kang Xuan Mandarin self study book (1200-1600 characters) and Sagebooks’ 500 characters.  We highlighted whatever we knew and counted 750.  I figured that meant Thumper knew at least 800.  However, I knew Thumper would balk if I continued on by asking her to look through the rest of the 3000 characters.

Plus, the lazy, techy person in me balks at paper.  I went looking for software.

There are lots of options out there.  I looked at Quizlet and Memrise, and iFlash.  These are all flashcard systems often used in language learning.  In fact, if you want your child to just circle the words they know/learned, and count the total once in awhile, you could always just buy a poster from Mandarin Poster.

Quizlet and Memrise are actually very cool.  Quizlet has built in audio for Chinese words you upload.  Memrise also has space repetition algorithm built in I think.  But of course I make life hard for myself.  What I wanted was a way to track the total number characters Thumper can read, and also the stage (taught how to write, practicing, remembered) she is in for the character she can write.  And maybe also tag a character in various ways.  So these websites don’t fit my needs because I’m really looking for an assessment tool, not learning tool.  I don’t need Chinese characters on one side and zhuyin or English translations on the other.



I finally went back to Anki, which is a spaced repetition software, used often for learning another language, that I looked at 6 months ago.  Though not its intended purpose, you can do assessment through the use of Anki’s tags.  What cinched it for me was this shared deck of 4808 most common characters published by Taiwnese Education Ministry (台灣教育部常用國字).  Anki and this deck is super cool because:

  • It has traditional and simplified Chinese, stroke order, zhuyin, and English translations!
The reason why I love this deck

All the tags I made on the lower left panel

I really liked the stroke order part because one of my ideas was for Thumper to look up stroke order in a dictionary.  And not a paper dictionary, it’s so painful and slow and really not the intended purpose of most of these dictionaries.  Another thing I can do is to add sample words for each character, taken either from HSK or just Kang Xuan textbooks.

  • I can keep count of the total number of characters learned across decks.

This was something I couldn’t figure out how to do with Quizlet, just how many characters I knew out of one deck.  The easiest way to do this is just to click on a deck and it tells you the total.  So all I need to do right now is to add up the total of the 6 decks of words Thumper knows.  Anki also has a Mark button.  So for Astroboy, if there are specific words he’s really having trouble with, I can mark it and tell it to show me just marked cards.  This again gives me a quick count.

  • I can move the master list into multiple decks to study.


Right now I’ve got each Sagebook in it’s own deck.  And for Thumper, a deck of words that she’s learned since then.  Plus another deck of words we haven’t gone through.  I love how it’s easy to move characters between decks.  Organization-wise, it’s easier with Anki than the web apps out there.

Thumper and I have been slowly going through the characters when we find time and as of tonight, the count is at 942!   Yay because we’re actually ahead!  And I didn’t do any work!

  • I can use it to reinforce characters for Astroboy.

This is the official deck Astroboy’s using I’m going to share eventually

What I like about Anki is this whole premise of spaced repetition.  It is not there for you to actually learn to recognize your Chinese characters, but to retain it right before you will forget it.  This is to say that if the child consistently cannot recognize a character then you have to use other other means to help them learn it.


Studying a deck, note the time on the bottom.

Here’s how Anki works.  For each flashcard, you’ve got 3-4 options.  You can tell Anki if you found it hard to remember, normal, or easy.  It then knows to prompt you with the same character in 10 minutes, 1 day, or 10 days.  The next time this same character pops up in 4 days, if you find it similarly easy, you now get 4 options, 1 day, 4 days, 15 days, 1 month.  I’m making the numbers up.  But you see how the time gets exponentially longer when you tell it, “This was easy to recall.”  You can change the setting for these.  But people have said you don’t need to really tweak it since it is based on some knowledge about memory and retention.  Obviously retention in children work a bit differently  (I read some papers on this last year) but for now it’s good enough for me.

Anki has a paid iPad version, much easier to use than sitting in front of a computer.   I chose the time intervals for Astroboy, though after a few uses, he totally gets why I would push certain buttons.



It even has a statistics tool which shows me how I’ve been learning the characters.  I used this with Astroboy for a few days and noticed that yes he did indeed retain the characters from Sagebook Set 1 that he’d forgotten.  Now my problem is to remember to use this daily.  We do it during meal time as a game.

Sorry, Anki itself is available in English but I changed it to Chinese so the kids can use it.

As I mentioned, Anki is a powerful tool.  It has a lot of features that I didn’t really go into, and half of which I’m not even using.  I’ve shared the first 3 Sagebook decks.  If you don’t make changes to the card’s templates, you can redownload the decks when I make changes to them, like adding vocabulary words.



One thought on “Spaced Repetition character learning with Anki

  1. Thanks for this!! I finally got around to checking out Anki and am downloading your decks. FYI the link to Sagebook Set 1 is wrong and is actually the link to Set 2. Although I was able to find the link to Set 1 by doing a search.


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