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As the number of people interested in learning a certain increases, so do does the demand for tools and resources related to that language. A quick search on online offers a plethora of different websites, computer programs, apps and other services that all promise to radically improve your Chinese. However, over the years, I’ve found very few products that I actually find worthwhile enough to recommend to others.

skritterMy review policy here on Hacking Chinese is that I only write about products I like (which is why I call it recommendations instead of reviews). I usually accept offers to review products, but I always require the right to simply not write anything at all about the product if I don’t think it’s good enough. If I think it provides genuine help with learning Chinese, preferably in an area where there is little help to find elsewhere, I’m more than happy to write a recommendation

Enter: Skritter

Skritter is just such an example. I started using Skritter roughly eight months ago and I have been using it regularly ever since, with only occasional periods of laziness when exams and major reports are due.

To put it very briefly, Skritter is a software (for your phone or computer) that allows you to practise writing Chinese characters by hand and offers you feedback on your writing. Skritter is a spaced repetition software, which means that it will give you the words you need with carefully calculated intervals to maximise your learning efficiency. Unlike any other software I know, Skritter is (mostly) able to tell you if you’re correct or not and will guide you through the standard stroke order and character composition if you forget how to write a character.

The main reason I recommend Skritter

I will go into slightly more detail below, but before I do that, I’d like to state briefly the main reason I’m recommending Skritter. I’m a fairly advanced student myself, but even if I’m enrolled in a master’s program taught entirely in Chinese for native speakers, I still use a computer to write Chinese 99% of the time. This is very bad if you have in-class exams that require you to write long answers by hand. I’m also a teacher of Chinese and as such, I need to remember how to write characters by hand. I also think that knowing how to write characters is an integral part of knowing Chinese, but that’s my personal opinion and not something I’m going to force either on you or my students.

The reason I want to recommend Skritter is that it’s part of the most efficient solution to build and maintain the ability to write Chinese by hand. Most foreign adult learners can’t walk the long road to written proficiency and mimic the learning process of native speakers. That requires more than twelve years of language heavy education (grades 1-12) and most of us simply can’t do that. I believe that Skritter, mnemonics and sensible character learning is the way to go.

Another important point is that Skritter is fun and not a little addictive. It’s probably bad to be addicted to StarCraft 2 (even if you play only in Chinese) if you have tons of other things you ought to do instead, but if the addictive activity helps you overcome a major problem when learning Chinese, slight addiction is a huge benefit. Learning should be fun and Skritter is definitely more fun than writing lots of characters on a blank sheet of paper. Part of the fun is that Skritter offers direct feedback and measurable progress. It’s not a game, but it feels like one at times. How many characters can you learn this week? Can you you get the number of correct answers higher than last week?

Who is Skritter for?

If you look at the official material, Skritter seems to be for everyone because that’s the way it’s marketed. That is mostly true, but I would like to add that you should have access to one of the following to make Skritter worthwhile:

  • A writing tablet for your computer
  • An iOs device with a touch screen

Of course, you can write character with your mouse or a trackpad or whatever, but I feel that that defeats the purpose of handwriting a bit. If you plan to use your computer, buy a writing tablet (it’s not that expensive); if you have an iPhone or iPad, use that. I’ve heard people say that you can use your phone to control the mouse on your computer, which might work for Skritter, but I haven’t tried that myself (if you have, please leave a comment to let us know what you did).

I would say that Skritter is equally useful for beginner, intermediate and advanced students, or at least I find it very useful now (I know around 5000 characters) and I would be very happy if I could send Skritter back in time to when I started learning Chinese.

However, if you are at the beginner or intermediate level and study traditional characters, I don’t recommend using Skritter. The program is mostly geared towards the mainland and simplified Chinese. Of course, it has a traditional version, but there are several problems. For instance, the pronunciation is always Mainland Chinese and you can’t change that, not even manually. This will be very confusing for beginners in Taiwan, but as soon as you reach a more advanced level, you probably want to learn both anyway.

Furthermore, some stroke orders (and sometimes components of characters) don’t match the standards in Taiwan or Hong Kong. I study traditional characters myself, but I have a fairly good grasp of what I’m doing and I don’t feel that this is problem for me. If you don’t have a good understanding of characters in general, I would advice against using Skritter for learning traditional characters. The rest of you will be fine!

Minor problems and inconveniences

Naturally, no product is perfect and Skritter is no exception. Apart from the problem with traditional characters mentioned above, I have two complaints about Skritter:

  • Coming from Anki (another spaced repetition software), I must say that the vocabulary browser and editing functions are very weak indeed. In Anki, you can do almost anything you want, but in Skritter you’re limited to using a fairly awkward interface.
  • There is no Android version. This has been requested a number of times, but the developers seem to think that it’s not worthwhile. I can’t really comment on the reasons for it, but not having an Android version when the smart phone market is dominated by Android isn’t good.

How does Skritter work?

Note: For the duration of the current (2014) character challenge, you will get a 21-day trial period and a 33% discount if you sign up before June 30th. The new code is SENSIBLE2014. Click here to sign up and here to read more about the challenge!

The goal with this article isn’t to reproduce either the programs feature list or the manual, so rather than talking about how the program works, here are a few videos that show you how it works much more effectively. Also, if you want to know how it works, it’s much better to try it out on your own. If you use the coupon code (SENSIBLE) from the sensible character challenge, you get an extended 15-day free tutorial if you register before June 30th, which should tell you much more than any video. Still, here are some videos.

First, an official video just to show you what it looks like:

And another official one for the app:

And finally a demo of the web interface I use most of the time (I have no iPhone):

Are there any extra features worth mentioning?

Apart from the core functionality of Skritter, there are a number of useful features, including user-created vocabulary lists, mnemonics you can share with others, detailed statistics of your own studying (key for the game-like feel), example sentences and an excellent blog about learning Chinese.

How do I use Skritter?

I only use Skritter for handwriting. I think Anki is a far superior program when it comes to SRS in general and the only reason I would recommend people to use Skritter for anything but handwriting is if you want to keep everything in one place. At the moment, I only do single character writings in Skritter; any cloze tests, recognition or other types of reviewing are still done in Anki. These don’t overlap often, so it’s not a big problem. So, in essence, I do single characters in Skritter and everything else in Anki.

How should you use Skritter?

The obvious way of using Skritter is to supplement your normal studying. You can probably find the vocabulary to your textbook online (it’s probably already available in Skritter) and that’s a logical place to start. What you want to do next is up to you. If you want to do only single character writing like I do, fine, if you want to include listening, character recognition and so on, do that. Whatever you do, though, remember the limits of SRS and my call for more sensible character learning!

How do I get it?

You can download Skritter from the official website and use it for free for a week. If you use the coupon code from the sensible character challenge (the new one is valid until June 30th, 2014), you will get an extra week to be able to make up your mind. If you decide to go keep using the program after than, you will also get a substantial discount, but you need to use the code upon registration for it to work (this also gives me a small bonus if you want to support Hacking Chinese). A two-week trial should be more than enough to give you an idea of what the program is like.

Conclusion

Skritter is a genuinely useful program. It’s part of the most efficient way of learning characters that I know of and I wish that I’d started using it earlier. It’s a valuable resource for anyone who wants to boost their character knowledge, including the full range from complete beginners up to Mandarin teachers.  Skritter is a program I use daily and I think it’s likely to remain so for a very long time.

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27 Responses to Boosting your character learning with Skritter

  1. Dan Poole says:

    I think Skritter is great! I don’t think that I would pay for it myself, though (my University pays at the moment). Due to my small amount of disposable income, it wouldn’t really be feasible to pay for both ChinesePod and Skritter, and I’d choose ChinesePod any day.

    I do use Skritter, though, albeit not religiously. I generally prefer to just listen and read, beacause, although this may lack somewhat in efficiency (this is also debatable), I find it more fun.

    What I can say about Skritter is that, in my experience, unless I actively write out characters I get wrong on a physical piece of paper – there’s no way I’m going to learn them. New characters, too, generally need to be written out by hand at first, but can then be consolidated with Skritter. Skritter obviously has a huge advantage in terms of convenience, in that it is not always practical to whip out a notebook and pen and start scrawling away.

    Olle, do you have a regular time every day you devote to Anki and Skritter? Or do you just use them whenever you get a chance?

    • Olle Linge says:

      It sounds to me like you don’t need Skritter! If you do mostly listening and recognition, you could use free programs like Anki, who apart from being free are superior in other ways (but don’t have handwriting). To answer your last question, no, I don’t have any specific time for using Skritter or Anki, I do it whenever I have some time to spare.

  2. Kevin says:

    My main problem with Skritter, it currently for me only works as a refresher. I cannot “learn” via Skritter the setup on the iPhone is just not equipped for that IMO. Going through the “information” going to example sentences in Pleco is just not feasible. I wish it was there in the screen already! like the webversion!

    Olle, I may have missed it somewhere, but how do you use a touchscreen to write on the web version?

    • Nick says:

      You may be in luck: example sentences as part of the prompt are included in the Skritter build I just sent out to the App Store for review. Look for it in the next couple weeks. ;)

    • Olle Linge says:

      This sounds like a flaw in the app, I suppose. In the web version, you have most of the information you need displayed to one side and you can see some of it before you answer the question and all of it after. Works pretty well! I’m using a writing tablet, Ubuntu and Chrome for the web version.

  3. Tyson says:

    Used Skritter every day for almost a year now. 1 hour a day on average, worked through Heisig books 1 and 2, learned to write 3000+ simplified characters in 1 year, with 80% recall rate. Recommended.

    Skritter was also very good in learning stroke order overall feel of the characters – my writing on paper is much clearer and better looking now, and I have a pretty good feel for the correct stroke order of new characters I meet. I was making quite a few mistakes at first, and Skritter chips away at them with constant reminders.

    BTW I believe all Windows 8 touch screen devices will work with Skritter web version – I have used the Surface RT for example, which works fine.

  4. Lan says:

    I use Skritter for Japanese and can highly recommend it for that as well. I only use the iOS version, usually on my iPad.

    It does have a bit of issues with stroke recognition sometimes. Sometimes it’ll be much too strict in accepting a stroke, requiring me to redo it when it was actually fine, and sometimes I’ll make a stroke that’s completely wrong and it’ll auto correct it and blithely carry on. But you get used to the quirks and they mostly don’t get in the way.

    I use a Nomad brush stylus. I’ve found this to be much superior to writing with the fingertip. It does a pretty good impression of writing with brush and paper. That brush is a bit big for the iPhone screen though; I wish they made a fine tipped one.

    I’m working my way through Remembering The Kanji again, using Japanese keywords. (I shared the list on Skritter if anyone else wants to as well.) I’d been trying before with Amki and brush and paper, but didn’t get past about 300 words – now after using Skritter for about two months I’m over half done, well over a thousand words in. It really is the answer for learning characters.

    • Olle Linge says:

      I should have mentioned the strictness/leniency in the article. For instance, 巛 is extremely hard to write in a manner that is acceptable by Skritter, while some other strokes can be completely off, placed incorrectly and in the wrong direction, and the program still accepts them. This is why I suggest people use the “raw squiggle” function so you can’t cheat by looking at what the computer guesses that you want to write.

  5. Fearchar says:

    The defects of Skritter – that it is only an effective solution on Apple products (which are both overpriced and extremely poorly integrated with most computer users’ desktops) and the way that full-form characters are inadequately handled – made me decide not to use Skritter. I’ve looked in vain for an improvement, but none has ever looked like appearing. There are alternatives, both for a range of platforms and for full-form characters. Skritter is a bit like Pleco: it’s widely praised by people who happen to fall into the categories it’s designed for, but if you have other needs, you won’t be satisfied.

    • Did you ever see my response to your earlier Pleco comment? (from the dictionaries article)

      Your two main complaints – that you couldn’t find an option for traditional-character-only and the interface felt too cluttered – can actually be addressed pretty well by settings (the first one certainly can), and if there’s something else you find lacking, we’d love to hear about it so that we can try to improve on it in future updates.

      • Olle Linge says:

        I must say I find Pleco’s interface quite tidy and I use traditional only without any problems. I have almost nothing bad to say about Pleco except that it costs money, which is acceptable. :)

  6. George says:

    Skritter looks like it is finally taking the Chinese user interface for writing to the next level…. integrated for the whole universe of input devices.

    I have been hanging onto a Palm Zire72 with Pleco Dict for ages as it was one of the few good early user interfaces. They have kept up and moved to iPad, iPhone, and Android platforms… but one has to own one of those devices to reach the WWW in Chinese.

    If Skritter can break out of the Apple product box, it may be very appealing to a wide audience.

    With the old Palm Zire72, I’ve been shut out and have to go to other methods to create Chinese input on the Internet… all rather tedious: BPMF, Zang Jie, and a special pen pad.

    Sadly, I am NOT interested in becoming an Apple product dependent user. I’ve even given up Windows, and turned to Linux.

    So I get I will have to struggle with what I have.

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    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  8. nommoc says:

    Here are the Skritter pro’s I see as a personal Chinese learner and user:

    1) Encourages learning to write Chinese! Nice, we need as many folks and tools for this as possible! The more the merrier!
    2) Includes proper stroke order information for each character.

    The Skritter cons and the reason I wanted http://www.nommoc.com developed:
    1) Free hand writing is paramount to learning to write Chinese or any language for that matter. Replacing my hand writing with pre-built standardized animation is not a win for me. No hand written character looks like that and it is essential to master the size, shape and proportion associated with true free hand writing. Likewise the model character is a stock image, not the real hand writing of an actual Chinese person.
    2)Too complex and too expensive. I felt I spent more time learning to use Skritter than practicing to write characters. On a students budget, Skritter simply did not fit in. : (

    Two pros, two cons.

    All the best to the Skritter folks though and great job on encouraging/helping others to learn to write Chinese!

    PS: Olle, your comment above caught my eye…

    “Most foreign adult learners can’t walk the long road to written proficiency and mimic the learning process of native speakers. That requires more than twelve years of language heavy education (grades 1-12) and most of us simply can’t do that.”

    Made me think of your post on self experimentation: http://www.hackingchinese.com/?p=3423

    Particularly is your hypothesis above accurate, would it really take “more than twelve years of language heavy education” for an adult learner to use the “the Chinese method” of learning to write charcters? hmmmm….

    As for step 4, that is “test the hypothesis” any volunteers? haha…

    • Olle Linge says:

      I don’t agree that Skritter is hard to use. It takes a few minutes to figure out how things work and most is intuitive. You just register, choose a word list and start studying/reviewing. Sure, there are many other things you can do, but the very basics aren’t that hard to figure out. Of course, the cost is a major disadvantage for people on a tight budget, but I think we need to accept that programs like Skritter will cost money.

  9. Nathan says:

    I have enjoyed your posts. In fact it has inspired me to blog about the approaches I have used (tried) in learning Chinese and (unlike your website which only reviews what it recommends) I will review everything I have tried. Books, CD/DVDs, web-based approaches, Skype instructions, SRS, etc.

    There are a lot of excellent ways to go about studying Chinese and frankly the problem for adults (especially those who, like me, work for a living) is the time commitment and prioritization. Sure, I like Chinesepod, but I also like Anki, Skritter, and many other books and lesson materials. I do always seem to have time to read your observations. Thanks, maybe once I get a few more things reviewed it will be worthwhile for some people (especially beginners) to benefit from my misadventures in learning Chinese. Keep up the good work.

    http://adultslearningchinese.blogspot.com/

  10. Nathan says:

    Well I signed up for a year using the nice discount you provided and I will share my progress on http://adultslearningchinese.blogspot.com/

    Thanks and have a great vacation

  11. Shlomo says:

    Let me join the request for an android version and raise awareness to this request. Hopefully will convince the amazing skritter team to do it.

    I event wrote a post about this:

    Why Skritter App Makes me Spend $518.49?

  12. […] don’t know what flashcard program you use (I suggest Anki or Skritter), but there are some things that are universal and applies to all programs. First, even though this […]

  13. Susan says:

    You Say in the above –

    Who is Skritter for?
    … ‘If you don’t have a good understanding of characters in general, I would advice against using Skritter for learning traditional characters. The rest of you will be fine!’

    So if you are at a basic level and working with traditional characters what would you recommend as an alternative

  14. Dan Gilles says:

    I use Skritter on Android. After downloading Flash as described here, the website works! It’s somewhat awkward on the phone but better than having to use a mouse all the time.

    • Olle Linge says:

      I was under the impression that it was quite hard to get flash to work at all on some Android phones? Perhaps that’s been fixed, but it didn’t work for me when I tried it a while back.

      • Dan Gilles says:

        Might be, I don’t have any experience other than with my own phone (Droid Razr with Android 4) which worked when I installed the update.

        • Olle Linge says:

          I gave it another try and actually succeeded in getting it running, but it’s so slow that it’s not fun. I write perhaps ten times faster using a writing tablet. Still, if I don’t have my computer and writing tablet around, this is a good backup!

  15. […] you will learn them sooner or later. If you want to practise handwriting characters with feedback, I suggest using Skritter, which combines responsive feedback and spaced repetition, making learning characters a more […]

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