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 teaching Chinese characters. It is often regarded as the most important thing that students must learn.

One explanation of this phenomenon could be that, Chinese characters appear to be the building blocks of Chinese text. To get to the Chinese texts, students must first learn characters. To learn these characters means students must learn each individual character and the pre-given stroke-order of that character. In this logic, Chinese text is reduced into characters, and characters were subsequently reduced into stroke-orders. Thus, stroke-order becomes the most important thing to learn.

April Zhang, the author of this article, honestly did just that many years ago. She printed out tons of worksheets with stroke-order practices, and asked her diligent students to write each character in the "correct" way. And she tried to "teach" them as many new characters as possible, hoping they could reach this magical 1000 Chinese character mark soon. So much time was allocated to stroke-order practice, which students only do mechanical copying work, while less time was devoted into the really important stuff, reading and writing Chinese texts. No wonder that students struggled trying to read and write Chinese text.

This is a mistake she made, and she hopes other Chinese teachers and Chinese learners learn from her mistake! The reality is that, sooner or later, students will lose sight of the prescribed stroke-orders and come up with their own orders which are more or less the same as the prescribed ones, and teachers will inevitably relax the requirement that students must follow the given stroke-orders. Therefore, it is advisable that teachers does not emphasise the stroke-order too much from the first day of the Chinese reading and writing class. Rather, they direct students to focus on more writing exercises.

This is the reason that April moved the stroke-order charts from the centre stage of each lesson into the back of each Chinese Reading and Writing book. This change of location signifies a change of priority. The prominent space of each lesson is covered with Chinese texts and more texts. The stroke-order charts are still there, but at the back of each book.

And she found some support in an article she read.

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."

At MSL Master, we noticed that students do sometimes refer to stroke-order charts, especially beginner students. Stroke-order charts take 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. And that is also a starting point that they really love learning Chinese reading and writing!

Therefore, stop spending too much time on following stroke-orders. And we have not dealt into a disappointing fact that there are sometimes more than one accepted stroke orders around. It's high time to channel Chinese learning energy into more writing exercises.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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