SuiWah Chan

Paper Presented at 2011 Chinese Language Association of Michigan (CLAM) Conference at Wayne State University Confucius Institute

The skills for recognizing, understanding and writing of Chinese characters are secondary to speaking. Chinese writing by nature is graphical forms signifying meanings intended and requires pedagogy other than that for teaching an alphabetic language. In this paper we shall present one pedagogy based on etymology research, improving the rate of recall by helping students understand the authentic meaning of the roots of the words instead of hard rote learning.


When it comes to teaching student learn those hundreds of Chinese characters from those textbooks rote is the one method that most teachers used. Rote learning means repeatedly handwrite a character until it stays in your memory. That is memorization by repetitions. It is the traditional way and it is the modern way. It is practiced in schools in China today as well as in other countries for foreign students to learn Chinese writing.

At the CLAM conference last year we argued for more attention given to the teaching of Chinese writing in addition to speaking mandarin or putonghua in Chinese language courses.


In this paper we would like to present an alternative pedagogy that is based on the etymology of the characters. Since the teaching of Chinese characters is the substance of gaining literacy competence it has to be integrated with the teaching of speaking. In fact, writing and speaking should be mutually reinforcing to help students achieve more solid recall and better comprehension of those words learned in conversation mode.

The aim of teaching Chinese writing is well-known: the learner shall be able to recognize both the form and the true meaning of each character in addition to pronunciation, to recall the stroke order in writing each character and to reproduce the character in writing.

In other words, the students shall be able to read and write the characters learned in those language lessons and retain this writing knowledge in their long-term memory. The students shall be able to recognize those characters in Chinese newspapers or story books or any literary articles and be able to remember how to write out those characters learned in the regular language class.
Our etymology pedagogy is characterized by the following principles:

  • The students will receive instructions on how each character is analyzed by the elementary characters called the graphemes.
  • They will be taught all the basic production rules for structuring these graphemes into the composite character.
  • They will learn the original roots of the graphemes and the relevance to the composite character based on authentic research findings on the origins of these characters. Most likely the original characters are rooted in either the earliest oracle script or the bronze script and are not given in arbitrary mnemonics.


  • The students will learn the true meaning of each character and the reason why and how it was written. Instead of hard rote memorization, they now have meaningful reason for recalling these characters directly from the genuine origins of the characters.
  • Since each character is composed of one or more elementary characters picked from a fixed set of graphemes there is very significant multiplier effect that can accelerate learning as the learning progresses.
  • Each character is found from our research to have no more than 7 component graphemes the skill the student learn in analyzing each new character into their parts will enhance their recall in accordance to memory science.(Miller’s magic number) In analogy, for example, we all find it so much easier to remember a ten digit phone number by breaking it down to three chunks.
  • It is only right to teach Chinese writing as a graphics art since the very nature of Chinese writing is graphics art. It appears to students’ sense of visual aesthetics and let them have fun learning those characters.
  • As a bonus students shall learn more about traditional cultural values from etymology by understanding more about how the early Chinese people understanding their life and world.

  • Evidently to learn two to three thousand items of anything is a huge chore. Chinese characters are no exception. The search for a better way to teach and learn a couple thousand characters can only help both the teachers and the students in their pursuit of Chinese literacy. Although using roots to teach a language is not new, our approach is another attempt to push that envelop further. Hopefully, this method using roots shall supplement and enhance students’ performance in reading and writing Chinese in the future.