A Kanji Writing Practice Strategy That Really Works

Ready to take your kanji writing practice from 0 to 60 in 15 minutes flat?


Then keep reading…

If you want to learn kanji ASAP, you need to practice:

  • Stroke Order
  • Meanings
  • Phonetics
  • Vocabulary

The more your kanji writing practice includes these four things, the better you’ll be able to remember the kanji when you need them most. Like on tests. Or when you’re writing that email to your new boss.

So let’s start with some kanji writing practice that covers these four basic bases…

The #1 Focus for Beginners: Stroke Order

The very first thing you need to learn is stroke order.

It’s fundamental.

To get up and running right now, grab your smartphone and…

Nab a stroke order app

Yes, they do exist. There are Japanese language-learning apps devoted exclusively to learning stroke order. The one I use is called Kanji Draw, by Lusil. There’s another one with the same name by Leafdigital.

Give them both a try and see which one works for you.

There are obvious advantages to practicing writing with an app. It’s free, you can pull out your phone any time you want to practice, and you don’t have to worry about pencil and paper.

But don’t rely only on apps.

Look for a kanji book

When you want lots of structure, find yourself a kanji practice book. There are lots of textbooks out there to help you learn kanji, but they don’t all help you learn stroke order.

Books such as Japanese Kanji Power and Tuttle Learning Japanese Kanji are two examples of books that include stroke order. These types of books are great because they also give you some space to look at the kanji and practice it.

But if you have a mobile device, definitely nab an app, like Kanji Draw or JA Sensei. These apps not only show you the stroke order, but also the stroke direction.

And that’s just as important…

Find a kanji web app

Web apps such as Kanji Alive are designed to help you learn to read and write kanji. This app lets you search for kanji by meaning, grade, or you can input the character itself if you have a Japanese kanji input tool. It gives you the stroke order along with the meanings, phonetics, and definitions.

This app can be a useful reference when you want to look up a kanji and find out its stroke order.

The FluentU program can also help, through its use of subtitled videos and powerful contextual flashcard system.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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When in doubt, get Japanese people to help you. They’re right most of the time, and can even teach you shorthand methods.

Got your apps and books ready to go?


Now let’s start with the kanji writing practice…

Kanji Writing Practice: My Ultimate Strategy

Let’s say you’ve got a bunch of kanji you want to practice.

What’s the best strategy?

I use what I call the 3-pile approach.

It’s simple. Create flashcards that have the kanji on one side and your learning objectives on the other: stroke order, kanji meanings, sounds, and so forth.

Here are a couple of tips to help you do this right:

  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Dip your toes in by only studying stroke order at first. Or maybe adding one or two other things…like the meaning of the kanji or the sounds.
  • Leave space on the back of the flashcard. Once you “graduate” from Stroke Order Academy, it’ll be time to add more stuff to the back of your flashcard. So save room for seconds…
  • When you’ve got your kanji list and are ready to practice, make one big pile.

Your Recipe for Success: The 3-Pile Approach

In a nutshell, here’s how it works: you go down through the pile you made and practice writing the kanji. Keep those that you got wrong in the same pile, then move the ones you got right into a new stack on the right.

You should have two piles. Now, go through both piles and repeat the process. Move the ones you got right to the right, and leave the ones you got wrong in the same stack. You probably have 3 piles now.

And…this is important…you can’t stop until you’ve pushed all the kanji to the right, through 3 piles into a 4th and final “finished” pile.

Why does this work? It forces you to keep practicing the ones you get wrong until you get them right a certain number of times. When you’re done, they’ll be in the “finished” pile all the way on the right side.

In case this is a little confusing, we’ll walk through the steps in detail.

Let’s say you’ve got 10 kanji you’re trying to learn before that big test on Friday. So you make one big pile.

Yes, that’s hardly going to make “1 big pile,” but anyways…

1. Put the pile in front of you, a bit to the left.

Pull off the top card, then write the kanji in your notebook once.

Look at the back of the card. Make sure you get the stroke order and the direction right.

Got it? Good.

Write it four more times in your notebook: good old-fashioned drilling. This helps you learn to write it the correct way.

2. Move the flashcard to a new pile on the right.

Keep going through the first pile until you get to the bottom.

Each time you get it right, write the kanji four more times, then move the flashcard one pile to the right.

Each time you get it wrong, write it four times the right way and leave it in the same pile.

Again, by keeping the ones you get wrong in the same pile, this forces you to try it again until you do get it right.

Practice makes perfect.

3. Once you’ve gone through all the kanji, start again at the first pile.

Now you get to try the kanji you got wrong.

And if you get it wrong again, leave it in the same place until you get it right.

Go through one pile at a time until all your kanji have been moved to the “finished” pile.

I suggest going through the “finished” pile one last time, then you can “graduate” these kanji to the next level.

And that’s it!

Pretty easy, right?

It seems simple, but this basic flashcard strategy will help you learn how to write kanji in no time.

You’re probably saying, “That’s not enough practice to actually memorize a character. I’ll just forget them tomorrow.”

And you’re probably right.

Now is a good time to put the kanji away for another day. Like tomorrow. When you come back to them again – in a few days or a week – repeat the process with more piles until you’ve internalized the kanji.

I call this the Stroke Order Academy.

So how many levels should you use for your Stroke Order Academy?

I use 3 levels and keep separate boxes for each level:

  • New: Put completely new kanji into this level and move the kanji through 3 piles.
  • Medium: Once a kanji has graduated from the “new” level, put it into another bin or box. Come back to these kanji a little bit later. And a little bit less often. I like to use 5 piles for this box.
  • Easy: This is the last level! You want to make sure you really know your kanji before you stop practicing them, so use 7 or 10 piles for this level. But you’ve probably got these down, so just come back to them after a week or two.

How to Max out Your Learning with Your Flashcards

This 3-pile approach is a great way to practice writing kanji. But there’s a lot more to kanji than just stroke order…

Remember how I said to leave space on the back of your card to write more stuff?

Once you’ve got the hang of stroke order, you’ll be able to use this same strategy for building vocabulary, learning kanji sounds, kanji meanings, and so on.

Here are a few tips for maxing out the potential of your flashcards.

  • Don’t be afraid to “repeat a grade.” If a character graduates the Medium Level and still needs some work, send it through again. And again. And again. Until you get it.
  • Be systematic and disciplined. This type of approach will really work…if you put in the time. Set aside a certain number of hours per day or per week, then sit down with no distractions. Turn off cell phones and TVs.
  • Set goals. If you’re enrolled in a class, focus on the kanji you’ve got to learn for class. If not, pick a certain amount of kanji per day or per week, depending on how ambitious (or crazy) you are. Don’t go overboard or you’ll get overwhelmed.
  • Once you’ve got stroke order down, practice sounds, meaning, and vocab. The best way to do this is to add vocabulary to the back of a card – both compound nouns and verbs. This will help you learn on and kun readings, plus the meanings and vocabulary words.
  • Chunk out the kanji. I think it’s best to start with no more than 20 kanji. Keep your levels small and push those kanji through. When piles get too big, they’ll start to get scary.
  • Focus on the short-term. One good way to get discouraged is to focus on how slow you’re going. Don’t think about being able to read a Japanese newspaper or write a Japanese email just yet. It’s a recipe for losing heart. Keep your eyes on the kanji in front of you.
  • Create a reward system. Can’t stay disciplined? Trust me, I know how hard it can be. That’s why I like easy stuff like kanji apps. But another way to keep yourself on task is to create a reward system: don’t watch that anime until you’ve finished this set of kanji. Or give yourself a special treat each time your study session is done.

This simple method will help you learn to write kanji in no time. But if there’s anything that needs tweaking – by all means, tweak! There’s no one right way for everyone. If you need more piles or more levels, then throw them in there.


The most important thing is practice. Hopefully this approach will give you a little bit of structure and move your studies forward so you can ace that test or write that email.

And One More Thing...

If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.

FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.

FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:


FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.


All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.


And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.


The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.

Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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