How Chinese Student learn Chinese Characters now?

Children in China learn the characters in schools by learning to use them in practice. This can be clearly seen in the way that most popular school textbooks for the primary level Chinese language subject are organized.

The organizations of almost all textbooks are by chapters of texts, with a total of approximately 50 such texts for each grade level, i.e., for one year. The texts are mostly about content familiar to children, such as school life. The following is a typical one for First Graders.


生字:裡 對 說 要 禮 貌 記 做

新詞:裡 用功 禮貌 記住

句式:(我們/好學生/大家) 要 (好好學習/天天上學/聽老師的話)。


A typical text in Chinese language textbooks

In a typical lesson, teachers go over a few things about the text. These include (i) the content of the text itself, (ii) the new characters, which have never been taught previously, (iii) the new words4, (iv) useful sentence patterns and (v) questions for discussion on the topic.

In each text, children must learn on average roughly about 10 new characters. As a consolidation exercise, teachers often assign homework for children to practice copying the characters after school. Then regularly in every week, there will be a dictation lesson, in which the children are tested to see if they can write those characters in the one or two texts that have been recently taught (i.e., about 24 such dictation lessons in total each year). In the dictation lessons, sometime the teacher read out the characters to the children (i.e.,默讀[mò dú]), while in other times the children must recite on their own part of the texts (i.e.,背誦[bèi sòng]).

  In addition, in some schools, children are taught a few common components of the characters (i.e., called the bu-shou 部首), which is useful for looking up the characters in Chinese dictionaries. But the bu-shou’s only cover a small portion of the components that make up all of the characters.

Taught in this way, children are expected to learn 2600 characters as listed in the curriculum during the six years in primary schools. See table below for the number of characters that children are expected to learn in each grade level. Having learned these characters should be enough for children to read and write Chinese in most everyday uses. According to the statistics of linguistic analysis, if a person has learned the 2460 most frequently used characters, the person can read 99% of the characters in most everyday reading materials in Chinese.  









Characters Number








The number of characters that children are expected to learn in each grade level

The above has very briefly mentioned the way that Chinese characters are taught in schools in China. But, from this, the emphasis is put on learning the characters in use. Children learn the characters not one by one but in meaningful texts no matter in teaching and in writing the characters in dictation. This way of teaching the characters very much stresses the importance of reading for meaning in context. The assumption is that so long as children are motivated to read the texts, they will be able to naturally pick up the characters in the course of reading. This approach is partly justified by the once widespread belief that general knowledge about the characters is regarded as complicated and too hard for children to learn. Thus, only incidentally, teachers in the class will attempt to analyze the compositions of the characters.

  For this reason, the general orthographic aspects of the characters have been given very little attention for a long time. Characters bearing similarity in certain orthographic aspects are rarely put together at the same time in front of the children.

Since these characters that are related to each other in terms of the orthographic aspects usually spread out in different texts, the orthographic aspects of the characters may not even become noticeable to some children. As commonly observed, children make errors in writing a homophonous character in dictation. For example, to write the character 植([zhí], plant) in 培植([péi zhí], to plant), they erroneously produced the characters 直([zhí], straight), 值([zhí], value), 埴([zhí], clayey soil) or 殖([zhí], to reproduce), which are all pronounced the same but are incorrectly used here. This shows that since these homophonous characters are seldom put next to each other, the critical difference among the characters is only vaguely understood.

  Actually the characters 植([zhí], plant), 直([zhí], straight), 值([zhí], value), 埴([zhí], clayey soil) and 殖([zhí], to reproduce) only differ in the component on the left, which importantly has to do with the meaning of the character. However, when the children write the character 植([zhí], plant), they hardly ever attempt to make sure whether the components in the character agree with the character meaning. Or else, they should have realized that, the character 植([zhí], plant) in 培植([péi zhí], to plant), meaning “to plant”, should contain the component 木([mù], tree) rather than 亻(people) as in 值([zhí], value), 土(soil) as in 埴([zhí], clayey soil) or 歹(evil) as in 殖([zhí], to reproduce), which are all inappropriate. This demonstrates that, though extensive reading in school gives children much exposure to the characters, this alone does not seem to be enough. Rather, in addition to teaching the texts, other instructional activities that engage children in recognizing the general orthographic aspects of the characters should be helpful to their learning of the characters.