What? Stroke-order does not matter (that much anyway)?

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Stroke-order is taught in all Chinese reading and writing classes, and has made its appearance in all software, APPs and flashcards teaching Chinese characters. It is often regarded as the most important thing that students must learn.

My explanation of this phenomenon is that, Chinese characters appear to be the building blocks of Chinese text. Therefore, if students learn enough characters, they will be able to read Chinese text. To learn these characters means students are able to write them. To write these characters means students follow character stroke-orders. In this logic, Chinese text is reduced into individual characters, and individual characters were subsequently reduced into stroke-orders. Thus, stroke-order becomes the most important thing.

I honestly did just that many years ago. I taught stroke-orders of each character and wondered why students struggled so much trying to read Chinese text.

The reality is that, sooner or later, students will lose sight of stroke-orders and come up with their own orders which are more or less the same as the prescribed stroke-order, and teachers will inevitably relax the requirement that students must follow the stroke-order. Looking from the hindsight, it is advisable that teachers start from the beginning not to emphasize stroke-order too much. Rather, they direct students to focus on more writing exercises. An article I came cross recently prompted me to write this.

This article is "Effect of Stroke-Order Learning and Handwriting Exercises on Recognizing and Writing Chinese Characters by Chinese as a Foreign Language Learners" (Hsiung & others, Computers in Human Behavior 74, 2017, 303-310).

The authors used 18 Chinese characters to test the effectiveness of learning stroke-order. One group of students was shown repeatedly the stroke-order animation and the other group was not, while the computer taught them pronunciation, pinyin, and English translation of the target Chinese characters one by one. The result shows that stroke-order animation had no significant effect on learning the meaning of Chinese characters, did not improve the recognition of Chinese characters, and demonstrated no significant impact on writing Chinese characters. So, what does stroke-order do? It should not come as a surprise that stroke-order helps students memorize stroke orders. Dah!

This study's finding supports that handwriting practice had a significant effect on learning the meaning of Chinese characters, and by practicing writing, students could determine the most precise method of writing - "as long as learners practiced Chinese writing, they could correctly generate the form of Chinese characters regardless of whether they followed a specific stroke-order rule."

In my experience, students do sometimes refer to stroke-order charts, especially those beginners. Stroke-order chart takes away their anxiety on how to approach these foreign looking things. And as writing exercises kick in and they get a feeling of characters, they hardly ever look at stroke-order charts. Also there is a disappointing fact for stroke-order lovers that there are sometimes more than one accepted stroke orders around.

Therefore, stop spending too much time on following stroke-orders. It's high time to channel this energy into more writing exercises.

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