Skip to main content

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

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

This is why worksheets like the following are so popular:

Unfortunately, the importance of stroke orders is greatly exaggerated. Chinese teachers should feel guilty if they assign a constant flow of worksheets like this one to students.

Here is why.

Students usually start with a wish that they want to read Chinese newspapers and novels. But for a very long time, what they are actually taught is to follow stroke orders. 

The actual connection can be broken down as the following: 

  1. In order to read Chinese texts, one must learn Chinese characters;
  2. In order to learn Chinese characters, one must be able to write them;
  3. In order to write Chinese characters, one must follow stroke orders.

In this logic, Chinese text is reduced twice and stroke order becomes the most important thing. I’m sure that’s what many student are thinking when they practice stroke orders: to read Chinese newspapers and novels. 

Many years ago when I first tried to teach Chinese, I honestly did just that. I taught stroke orders of characters and wondered why students struggled so much trying to read Chinese text. 

Looking from the hindsight, it is advisable that Chinese teachers start from the beginning not to emphasise stroke orders too much. Instead, they direct students to focus on doing more writing exercises.

For a long time, this was only my personal experience until some researchers proved it. 

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 orders. 

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 memorise stroke orders. Dah!

This study supports that handwriting practice has 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 other words, the act of handwriting is the most important thing when learning reading and writing Chinese. This is also my own observation. If you’re interested, read this article “Do you need to use your hand to write Chinese characters?where I compare writing with hands with playing a music instrument.

Another reason that not emphasising stroke orders too much is that sometimes more than one stroke orders are accepted. For example the following character :

When both stroke orders are correct, it is odd to tell students to follow one and discard the other.

Having said all that, I must make it clear that I’m not saying that stroke order should not be taught to students. In fact, it is the first thing to teach in the Chinese Reading and Writing series and I’ve made a video about it.

The reason is that providing information about character stroke orders is important for beginner students. This takes away their anxiety.

When beginner students just start learning how to write Chinese, all characters look foreign and strange. Therefore, it is good for them to know that any character, even a complicated one, can be broken down into a number of strokes, and can be reproduced again and again by putting these strokes together one by one. 

But I’m against asking students to do stroke order exercises like the one earlier, as their main writing exercises. It’s too repetitive and boring. 

A variety of reading and writing exercises should be provided to help students build their reading and writing skills from the start. When such adequate exercises kick in and when students become more confident and comfortable with writing, they will no longer need to learn any character stroke orders. 

Therefore, stop spending too much time on stroke orders when learning Chinese characters. It’s better to channel this energy into more constructive writing exercises.