How to Teach Chinese Characters: 6 Simple Methods

You need to know at least 3,500 characters to read Chinese properly.

That makes reading and writing in Chinese seem like “Mission Impossible.”

As Chinese teachers, it’s important to let your students know that learning Chinese characters isn’t as stressful as it seems.

If you learn how to write just 10 characters a day, it will only take a year to get to 3,500.

Here are six simple ways to help your students become literate (and confident!) in Chinese.


1. Introduce the Characters in Visual Form

When students are first introduced to Chinese characters, the words appear as more of a visual form than something made up of strokes.

This is a great time to have learners look at the contour of each character, rather than directly breaking down the stroke order.

Doing this lets them visualize each character as a picture, which can reinforce their memory and make it easier to learn stroke orders later—after they’ve become accustomed to seeing the character.

You can start by showing them 30 easy Chinese characters they should become comfortable with.

You can also immerse them in Chinese culture. After all, if they visit China, they’re going to be surrounded by Chinese characters. Why not create that same experience in the classroom by displaying Chinese characters all over the room?

2. Show the Same Character in Different Sentences

Say you’re teaching the character  (bān).

Give students examples of it by using short, simple sentences where 班 is the only word your students don’t know.

In the following sentence, 上 (shàng bān) means going to work:

今天我要去上班(jīn tiān wǒ yào qù shàng bān.) — I’m going to work today.

However, in the next sentence, (bān jí) means class:

班级里有多少人?(bān jí lǐ yǒu duō shǎo rén?) — How many people are there in the class?

Of course, this is going to confuse some of your students. But after seeing a few sample sentences of the character in question, they’ll get an idea of the context in which it’s used.

What’s more, this method exposes students to a particular character, making it easier for them to visualize the character in their heads.

This helps a lot when you start teaching the pronunciation and nuanced meanings of a character.

FluentU also comes in handy when it comes to this type of contextual learning.

Since the online language program uses authentic Chinese clips, such as movie scenes and music videos, students can use the interactive subtitles see how certain characters are used in formal versus colloquial speech. These videos can be part of the lesson or set as homework assignments, followed by multimedia quizzes to review new vocabulary.

3. Break Down the Characters

Many complex Chinese characters are comprised of two or more standalone characters. Teaching students in a way that breaks down the character into its components helps for teaching the new character, as well as reinforcing older ones.

An example of this is the character 机 (jī) — machine, which is made up of two simple characters students may already know: 木 (mù) — wood and 几 (jǐ) — few/how many.

You can break down 机 by showing students images of each character and asking for their definitions. Then, after introducing the standalone characters, have your students guess what they think the meaning would be if they were combined.

Finally, teach the character—in this case, 机by covering its meanings and giving sample sentences of how it’s used.

4. Stress the Stroke Order

As we mentioned above, the more complex Chinese characters can often be broken down into simple components known as radicals. Your students will be happy to know that stroke order remains the same for radicals, even when they make up a complex character.

For example, when writing 机, you first write 木 and finish it with 几. The stroke order for both 木 and 几 never changes, even when they are parts of an entirely different character.

Therefore, getting the stroke order right for simple characters is helpful for ensuring students succeed with more complicated characters. One way you can do this is by having the students play a game!


For this activity, divide students into two groups and take turns showing each team a picture of a Chinese character. Each group is assigned a different character, and they have five opportunities to guess the correct stroke order of that character. If a team makes five mistakes, it’s the next team’s turn.

Hangman is great because it adds some excitement to your lesson while helping students learn how to work through their mistakes.


Also, if you’re looking for resources to help teach stroke order, have a look at Arch Chinese’s website. There, you’ll find tons of helpful information about teaching stroke order to your students.

5. Have Students Identify Mistakes

After you feel students have a strong grasp on the characters taught, give them the opportunity to become the teacher.

Write your target characters down on the board, deliberately messing up a few strokes. Then, have your students identify and correct the mistakes. You can do this by having them come to the board individually or in pairs.


If students aren’t sure about a character or its strokes and struggle with finding it in a dictionary, have them look it up online. Naver’s Chinese dictionary has a tool that lets students draw and identify the character. From there, they’ll be taken to a page that covers its stroke, pronunciation and usage.

6. Help Students Develop a Feel for the Characters

As a native Chinese speaker, I try to visualize characters in my head as I’m writing Chinese.

Believe it or not, I don’t necessarily have a roadmap for strokes in my head. But when I’m actually writing the words down, the strokes come out naturally for me. This is because my teachers spent time covering stroke order, so I have a feel for what seems right. And this is precisely what you need to do with your students.

Practice matters, especially for beginners. Students are not going to truly grasp character writing without intensive copying practice. However, you can help students develop a feel for Chinese characters by incorporating fun activities into your lessons. The goal for students is to write characters until they can write them without thinking too much.

Here’s an exercise you can use to help your students get a better feel for stroke order and writing Chinese characters:

Similar Character Comparison

In this activity, students are shown sets of similar-looking characters. Many times, these characters are off by only one or two strokes. For example, you can show students 未 (wèi) — not yet/future and 末 (mò) — tip/end, then give them two sentences where they have to plug in the correct character.

世界__日到了。(shì jiè __ rì dào liǎo.)

你不知道__来会发生什么。(nǐ bù zhī dào __ lái huì fā shēng shí me.)

After the activity, explain the meaning of the character using the context of the sample sentence.

This activity is beneficial as there are so many similar-looking characters in the Chinese language. You can also take it a step further and have them write the characters, so they become better acquainted with the differences between the two—helping them get a better feel for Chinese.


Remember, Chinese character writing is only as hard as students make it.

Obviously, it’s going to take time and discipline to become fully literate. However, with these teaching ideas, you’ll be able to break down some of the more difficult concepts while boosting your students’ confidence levels.

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