It’s hard for outsiders to understand the challenge Chinese characters pose for learners. Some people think that it’s akin to learning a new alphabet, so similar to learning to write Korean or Russian.
This is not the case, because learning to write in Chinese is not a matter of learning to combine a few dozen symbols in more or less complex ways, it’s about learning 3000-4000 characters that are only indirectly linked to pronunciation, a link which only becomes truly useful once you already know a lot of characters.
So, how can an adult foreigner learn and remember thousands of characters while busy with work, family and life?
The route taken by Chinese children is not open to us, because it means writing characters for hours every day for more than ten years. Who has time for that?
I certainly don’t. But I have learnt to write Chinese well-enough to pass handwritten exams in graduate school in subjects like teaching pedagogy, which involved writing non-stop by hand for three hours.
The good news is that by combining the best learning methods with the best learning tools, learning to read and write in Chinese is easier than ever. In this review, I will introduce the only learning tool I use on a daily basis, Skritter, but before doing so, I will go through the basic principles of learning.
I’ve recorded an audio version of this if you prefer listening instead of reading:
Disclaimer: I started using Skritter in 2012 and I still use it for my own learning daily, eight years later. Through the years, I’ve become involved in the Skritter team, starting with blogging, then moving on to Chinese language support, and currently focusing content management and pedagogical matters. As such, I have an interest in promoting Skritter beyond the fact that I think it’s the best tool for learning characters (I wouldn’t have joined the team if I didn’t think the product was good). I have tried to write a balanced review and don’t pull my punches in the downsides and room for improvement section. Now, let’s get on with the review!
Research-based language learning
A lot of research has gone into how we learn and forget things, but most of this hasn’t really reached the general public. The two most important principles are active recall and spaced repetition:
- Active recall means that when reviewing, you do so by actively searching your long-term memory for the right answer. It’s a well-established fact that just seeing the right answer is a bad way of reviewing. Similarly, writing a character while looking at a model character does very little for your long-term memory. So, instead of just staring at the character 我 and hoping you will remember it, you need to ask yourself a question: How do I write the character that means “I; me” in Chinese? Then you write it from memory.
- Spaced repetition means that rather than asking yourself how a certain character is written over and over again in a short period of time, you space (spread) the reviews out over days, weeks and months. This has been shown to be many times more efficient than massing repetitions together. You can further boost efficiency by gradually increasing the spacing between each review, so the better you know a character, the less often you review it.
This shows the principle of spaced repetition. You first learn something in the top left corner, but if you don’t review, you follow the dotted grey line to oblivion. If you review according to a certain schedule, you make sure that you review those characters and words at risk of being forgotten. The more solid your knowledge becomes, the flatter the curve and the longer you can wait between reviews. Surf that top curve!
The best tools for learning and remembering Chinese characters
The principles of active recall and spaced repetition are not secrets. Indeed, they have been thoroughly researched over decades and there are many apps that make use of them to help you learn anything you want, from chemistry to anatomy.
However, apps that help you learn anything don’t have very good support for learning specific things. Learning Chinese characters is not like learning chemistry or anatomy. It’s not even like learning Korean or Russian, let alone Spanish or French.
Specific challenges require specific solutions.
I have tried all solutions I can find that combine both active recall via flashcards and spaced repetition, but the only one I’m using daily for learning and remembering characters is Skritter. If I could send a tool back in time to when I first started learning to write characters more than a decade ago, it would be Skritter.
Skritter combines the power of active recall and spaced repetition with unique features for learning to read and write Chinese characters.
Personally, I’m lazy and don’t want to spend more time than necessary to remember the roughly 6000 characters I’ve learnt over the years. Skritter offers the most efficient solution to do this.
Lazy is just another word for efficient, after all.
Chinese-specific learning and reviewing done right
Here are a few reasons why I think Skritter is the best tool available for learning and reviewing Chinese characters, regardless if you’re a beginner or a Chinese teacher like me (more about that later):
- Smooth on-screen handwriting enables you to actively recall how to write the characters wherever you are. This is as close as you can get to writing on paper while still retaining all the benefits of writing on a screen. Stroke order ceases to be a problem and the step to writing for real is very small.
- Purpose-written example sentences, curated definitions and human audio mean you will learn much more than just writing the characters. Many other services use computer-synthesised audio and automatically generated definitions and sentences, which might work for advanced students, but certainly not for beginner and intermediate learners.
- Synchronised, global handling of what you have learnt allows you to access your account from both iOS and Android, as well as your computer. Your data is always synced and kept up-to-date. Furthermore, Skritter keeps track of your learning, both of individual characters and words, using all this information to schedule reviews to boost your learning as much as possible.
- Tons of high-quality decks ready to study. While research shows that you’re better off creating and curating your own word lists, not everybody has the time to do that. In Skritter, you can study the vocabulary for hundreds of textbooks or choose among hundreds of other lists, both those created by the Skritter team and those created by other users. For example, you can study my 100 most common radical list in Skritter.
- Extended content for embedded learning. To widen the scope a bit and include characters and words in a meaningful context, Skritter publishes weekly videos and associated lists you can learn from. Many of these are available for free on YouTube! One of my favourites so far is this one about working out in Chinese.
- Fun and addictive. Skritter offers measurable progress on your journey towards literacy; every character and word you learn is registered and visible. Even though the app doesn’t offer much in terms of gamification (time trial is an exception), it’s still fun and addictive in a way that pen and paper never is for me.
Skritter has a completely free guest experience, so if you want to check it out for yourself, just download it, pick a list appropriate for your level and try it out! For example, you can try this video about Chinese stroke order rules and follow along in the app.
Please use this link to sign up on the website, which will automatically grant you 50% off the monthly price for six months if you decide to subscribe. Signing up is free, though, so you don’t need to commit to anything! Once you’ve signed up on the website, you can then study on iOS, Android or keep using the browser version.
If you want a more in-depth guide to the app, you can check this video where Jake goes through basically every feature in the app:
Skritter: Who is it for?
As I mentioned earlier, Skritter really is for all levels of learners, but since we all have different needs, here’s a quick breakdown on what I think is the biggest utility with Skritter for different learners:
- As a beginner, learning characters can be very confusing. You’re probably frustrated and maybe even annoyed by stroke order. Isn’t it hard enough to learn characters and now you tell me I have to care about stroke order too? Yes, you do need to care about stroke order, but if you use Skritter, you will learn the rules more or less automatically. Like mentioned earlier, there is a featured deck with an accompanying video that is completely free, you don’t even need to register an account!
- As an intermediate learner, you’re passed the initial hump. You know the basics of how characters work and stroke order isn’t a big problem anymore. But there are so many characters to learn! You need maybe 3500-4000 just to be able to read normal text freely. This is not something that can be conquered quickly, the only thing that works is building daily routines, batten down the hatches and never give up. Skritter makes sure you don’t forget what you’ve learnt.
- As an advanced learner, I find Skritter immensely useful. It’s part of my minimum-effort approach to writing Chinese characters by hand, which in essence consists of reading, typing, Skritter and some communicative handwriting (such as writing notes or chat messages on your phone by hand). I teach Chinese and want to be able to write things by hand on the whiteboard when I need to. Skritter stops me from worrying about that too much.
Naturally, Skritter is focused on vocabulary in general and Chinese characters in particular. If you’re not interested in the written language, Skritter is not for you. I suggest you check out Anki instead.
Skritter: How do you get it?
The best thing with Skritter is that you don’t have to commit to anything to try it out. The guest experience actually contains a lot of content, completely free without an expiry date. As mentioned before, please use this link to sign up on the website, which will automatically grant you 50% off the monthly price for six months if you later decide to subscribe.
Please note that there is an old, unsupported version for iOS that is still floating around in the App Store. For the newest app that this review talks about, make sure you get the one called Skritter: Write Chinese. There’s only one app for Android, so no risk for confusion there!
Skritter: How should you use it?
How to learn and review characters for the best long-term result is a topic that goes well beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll give some advice specifically for using Skritter:
- Drill down – Most Chinese characters are made up of combinations of the same few hundred components. Skritter shows you the breakdown for each character, allowing you to make sense of the chaos. You can also add the components as items to learn and review in their own right. My own 100 most common radical list is available for study, for example.
- Make mnemonics – Using clever memory techniques can boost learning and retention a lot and also makes learning fun. In Skritter, you can either rely on existing mnemonics or add your own. As usual, research suggest that putting in the extra effort and creating your own is better than relying on those created by others. Make it personal!
- Take your time in learn mode – Spaced repetition is just what it says, repetition. It’s not very good for making sense of new things or deeply processing information so it sticks. When in learn mode, take your time to understand the character (drill down above), create a mnemonic and look up further information if necessary. While you can hammer away at characters until they stick, I’ve found this to be a poor method in the long run.
- Pleco integration – I usually call Pleco the only app I recommend to all learners of Chinese. Integration with Skritter is great, because all your favourite dictionaries are just a tap away. I particularly recommend the Outlier Linguistics dictionary, which offers excellent information on character etymology and composition
- Enable raw squigs – Normally, Skritter will register each stroke you make, and if it’s correct, it will draw an idealised version of that stroke. This is neat because rather than looking at my own, ugly handwriting, it shows me a good model character. However, this obviously doesn’t happen when you write on normal paper and is at best a crutch, but can also be regarded as a kind of cheating. I suggest that all non-beginners turn on raw squigs. It will show you exactly what you write until you finish the whole character, then it will show you the right answer.
- Cram when you need to – As I said in the introduction to this article, spaced repetition massively outperforms massed repetition in long-term learning, but research shows that cramming does work well in the short term. If you have an exam, make use of Skritter’s test mode, which allows you to drill a set of characters until you’re confident you know them really well. Naturally, if you review diligently, you should know most of them already, but why risk your grades?
There is of course more to character learning than this, but instead of making this article even longer than it already is, I will again refer to my own character learning guide:
Skritter: How do I use it?
I’ve been learning Chinese characters for more than a decade and seldom have problems with remembering tones or pronunciation.
However, everybody forgets how to write characters, even native speakers! If you’ve taken a Chinese course, you have probably noticed that even your native teacher forgets characters sometimes.
I don’t write Chinese by hand much these days, but I value the ability to be able to write any character when I need to. At the moment of writing, I have 5877 unique characters active in Skritter.
I focus only on writing single characters and rely on reading and listening for word-level review, but please note that this is not a feasible approach for beginners and intermediate learners! Your primary concern should be to learn words.
Skritter review: How does it handle traditional characters?
I started out with simplified Chinese characters in 2007, but switched to traditional characters after about a year of full-time studying when I moved to Taiwan. I’m used to traditional characters being neglected or even omitted from learning tools and resources. If you’re not sure what the difference between simplified and traditional Chinese is, and which one you should learn, then I suggest you read this article: Learning simplified and traditional Chinese.
Skritter covers traditional characters better than any other similar app I’ve seen. You can study simplified, traditional or both. If you choose to study traditional, everything works as you would expect, including things that might seem minor at first, but which actually are quite important, such as stroke order.
In case you’re not familiar with the topic, there are actually differences in stroke order between simplified and traditional Chinese, even for character components that look identical! Skritter will allow you to write the traditional version and still mark it as correct. All other apps I’ve tried will force you to write simplified standard.
For example, I’m used to writing 忄from left to right, dot, vertical, dot, but the officially correct stroke order in simplified Chinese is dot, dot, vertical. In many other apps, only one of these is acceptable (usually the simplified standard), but in Skritter, both are accepted. I don’t think most users even notice this, but when trying out other apps, this can be really painful.
That being said, Skritter’s handling of traditional characters isn’t spotless. For example, some characters that are actually the same, but where different styles prevail in different regions, are only available in simplified standard.
To show you what I mean, in simplified Chinese, the small box inside the other box in 骨 is normally written on the left, but in traditional Chinese, it’s on the right (please refer to the picture on the right).
Since 骨 was not simplified, they are essentially the same character that happens to be written slightly differently. This is not really Skritter’s fault, but it is annoying sometimes. For example, it took me more than ten years to realise that the bottom-right part of 拔 is written differently (又 in the Mainland standard, but 乂 in Taiwan). I wish Skritter could handle these differences!
Other downsides and room for improvement
No learning solution is perfect and Skritter is no exception. While Skritter does handle character writing satisfactorily, there are a few things I would like to see:
- Rather expensive, even if it’s worth it – In this day and age when everybody expects everything to be free, paying $15 a month for a learning app will come across to some students as being a bit pricey. It’s fair to say you get a lot for that, though, and that cheaper or free alternatives lack severely in one or more areas. That being said, paying that much for an app is not on the menu for all students. To make it more bearable, you can use this link to sign up on the website, which will automatically grant you 50% off the monthly price for six months if you decide to subscribe. This is essentially the same as getting the two-year discount rate for each month, without committing to anything. There are also institutional subscriptions, so check if your school has one or can apply for one!
- Better handling of traditional variants and pronunciation – Like I said above, Skritter does a good job with traditional characters, but it’s not perfect. Apart from the annoying problem with characters like 骨, pronunciation also follows Mainland standard. In maybe 95% of cases, this is not a problem because the pronunciation is the same, but that still leaves 5% where it is an issue. While it can handle differences in neutral tones, so both shíhòu and shíhou are correct for 时候, it will insist on xīngqī for 星期, even if the standard Taiwan pronunciation is xīngqí.
- Increased support for goal setting and progress tracking – One thing I love about fitness apps is how good they are at handling your goals and showing your progress towards those goals. Skritter has some basic goal tracking and can show you how much time you spent, but that’s about it. I like numbers and graphs, but Skritter doesn’t have enough of them! The data is clearly there, it just needs to be used more.
- Broadened scope to include more listening and speaking – Skritter is great for learning to read and write characters, but if your goal is to practise listening or drill sentence patterns, it doesn’t do a very good job. I realise that an app can’t do everything at once (and if it does, it’s probably not good at all parts), but if I could put all my vocabulary learning into one app, that would make it even more valuable.
- Improved drill-down features – At the time of writing, Skritter does show you character breakdowns and tailor-written example sentences, but I would like to see more features that support zooming in, zooming out and panning. This helps the user to put characters into context and understand them better.
- Better error checking and follow-up – One of my favourite features in Anki is leech detection. In essence, the program keeps track of what you get wrong and when you get something wrong often enough, you need to do something with it. Maybe delete it if you don’t need it, but otherwise buckle down, do your research and make sure you never forget it again. Skritter knows what you get wrong, but this information is not used to its full potential.
There are of course more minor things that could be improved, just like with any app, but none that I consider serious enough to bring up here. Of course, I could always say I want more of the good stuff: more detailed breakdowns of characters, more example sentences, more high-quality vocabulary lists and so on, but there’s already enough of that to satisfy most users and more is published every week.
I also know that some of the things I listed above are in the pipeline, so hopefully there will be a reason to update this review later!
Conclusion and summary of my Skritter review
Skritter is a modern tool for learning ancient characters. It combines research-based methods such as active recall and spaced repetition with great Chinese-specific tools and content. While it’s not a free resources, it has enough edges over more generic, free programs to be worth it, at least in my opinion.
Trying it out is completely free and you can learn quite a lot without even signing up for an account, so it isn’t hard to form your own opinion. When you do sign up, don’t forget to use this link to sign up on the website, which will automatically grant you 50% off the monthly price for six months if you later decide to subscribe.
Note: This is an updated version published in 2020. The old review from 2013 can still be found here, but it is horribly out of date. The fact that I still use Skritter seven years later is testament to its usefulness.