Learning the Characters by Rationales

A more meaningful way to learn the written forms of the characters is to take advantage of the historical origin of how the characters were created as they were in ancient time (i.e., 字理識字(learning the characters by rationales)).

Using this approach, 賈國均 Jia in 湖南岳陽 Yueyang, Hunan proposes the teaching of simple characters jointly with a picture of what the characters were originally created for and how they came to the present forms. For example,

This approach is particularly useful to helping children to memorize how to accurately write the characters. To illustrate this, note the three vertical hooked strokes at the bottom of the character 鼠([shǔ]mouse). Affected by the first two, children often erroneously add two dots to the third (See the error in Figure below). But, using the above picture, the teachers can explain to the children that the character represents a mouse sitting up and the first two vertical strokes are the feet of the mouse where the two dots indicate the nails. Thus, obviously the third, which is the tail, has no nail. After having seen the picture, the children will probably not make the same error again.

Similarly, teachers can also explain why logical-aggregate characters are made up of their components. As previously mentioned, logical-aggregate characters have their meanings added up from the meanings of their components. The teachers can thus explain this to the children and help them to more reasonably understand how the components are combined. For example, one common error of the children is to produce the logical-aggregate character 束([shù], to bundle) as 柬([jiǎn], invitation). But once the children realize that the character 束([shù], to bundle) represents a rope 口([kǒu], mouth) that ties up the wooden logs 木([mù], tree) together, the correct use of 口([kǒu], mouth), rather than , as a component can be easily remembered.

To evaluate this approach, 賈國均 Jia conducted a test on 192 random-sampled Second Graders from 4 schools, which have adopted this approach in the teaching of the characters. The children were found to correctly recognize 1663.9 characters after being taught for two years.

  A similar attempt of this approach was made previously by 王筠 Wang in the 清代 Qing dynasty. He believed that the basic 2044 characters could be learned strictly in the order according to 六書(the Six principles), which categorizes the characters into six groups by how they were created historically. On this basis, Wang developed his 文字蒙求(Characters for children), which however, taking the characters out of meaningful context, was in practice rarely used for beginners in learning the characters.