Flash Cards -- Do they really work when learning to read?

A buddy of mine has been pushing me to go hardcore with
the flash cards to learn to recognize, read and recall chinese characters.

My questions are as follows:

  1. What is the best way to use the cards, method, frequency…?
  2. How many of you have used them with success? Tips?
  3. Is there software for Windows that I could download and print out my own cards?

Any advice would be appreciated. I have been speaking chinese for several years, but need to rely on pin yin. Would be nice to be able to read some signs and hopefully, the newspaper one day.

Thanks. :wink:

I never bothered with flash cards. I just used the sit down and write out the characters many times method.

If you live in Taiwan and already speak Chinese I would suggest the following way to learn. Learn the name of all the streets and districts in the city you live in. You will see these characters often and they will be easily reinforced.

Also learn the basic characters such as I, you, with, this, that, what, etc.

After you have done this you should know 200-300 characters which is a good starting point for building up your knowledge.

Another thing. It’s very useful to learn the names/meanings of the common radicals. That way instead of thinking “box with a horizontal line in the middle”, you just have to think “sun” and so on…

I had a different experience than wix99. I found flashcards to be extremely helpful in learning to read Mandarin.

My advice:

Find a set of 1000-1500 of the most common characters, take a portion of them out each day (20-30) and review them throughout the day. There are many short periods of time throughout the day (e.g. riding on bus, waiting in line, using the bathroom) when you can review the day’s characters. Review them once more before you go to sleep at night. When you have gone through the entire box, review them again. By the third cycle, they should all be pretty familiar.

This works best in conjunction with daily reading, even if only for a half hour in the morning. The ShiDa texts are good for this, and they will give you a systematic program of reading. You can also pick up a set of xiaoxue guoyu keben (Elementary School Readers). Start with first and second grade, and work your way through the sixth grade. You can buy the supplemental writing book that accompanies each set of readers, if you want to practice writing as well. I went through a set of readers, a set of flashcards, and the Elementary School Readers through sixth grade over the course a year, and could handle the newspaper and most anything I ran into after that.

Good luck.


Tomas, you say you were learning to recognize 20-30 characters a day. Were you able to keep up this herculean pace everyday? For how long? And were you already familar with the meaning of the words before you started learning the characters. I can’t imagine anyone learning the meaning of 20-30 new vocabulary items in a day and having any kind of real comprehension of them.

Can you give some more details? I’m just starting to get back into studying characters and am interested in hearing more about your experience. Before, I used to only study 5 a day. I never realized what a slacker I was.

Thanks guys,

Your ideas are useful.

Being able to print out the cards would be
better as my written characters look pretty rough.

Did you write the chinese and pin yin on one side and english on the other?

Keep the feedback coming…

It helped that I had already worked through John DeFrancis’ first Chinese Reader before I began working through the flashcards. I had a background of four or five months of listening and speaking practice in Taiwan. Many of the characters were putting into visual form things I had been hearing and saying.

Yes, I was a very intense dude when I first learned Chinese. I hated ignorance (in myself), and was hell bent on not being illiterate in this country. I remember being regarded as some kind of weird linguistic nerd by my peers, but that didn’t bother me much. I just wanted to know what the hell was going on, and I was willing to pay the price. Most aren’t.

although my chinese is limited (absolute beginner in sept) i still know about 600 characters from speaking reasonable japanese. it didnt take very long to learn the chinese readings of these characters but as for learning new ones…im a fast learner but i find that 6 per day is enough for me , otherwise it becomes a chore and i dont take it in. also, i do it in a systematic way…either by grouping subjects e.g. colours, foods etc… or by using them in the order in which they are presented in the mcnoughton and li book, it gives you a radical and then follows a few characters with that radical…often this way you will find that the characters have a similar sound…or the radical is indicating the meaning…and you can therefore remember them easily.
i think

…but i dont use flashcards for this because im to lazy to make them…however if you are that way inclined…it is a very simple and effective way to learn. when i first learned japanese , i bought a ‘key ring’ style set of flash cards…so that they were small enough to carry around all the time. ive seen that some of the stationary shops sell them here…useful

While we’re on the subject, is there any place in Taiwan to buy pre-made flash cards with characters and pronunciation on them? I have some I bought years ago from the childrens section in a bookstore, but these not only have the character they also have a picture and the bo po mo fa. They weren’t really that cheap either and they only gave you about 20 in a box. They were topically like transportation, fruits, etc.

First, if you’ve got the money, get a Palm OS PDA and “SuperMemo” with a Chinese operating system. Instant flashcards. Plus, the algorithm on this program is very, very effective for learning. I’ve got about 2000 cards on this system that I review daily (er, in theory!) based on which ones the program presents on any given day, and I’m adding new ones all the time.

For Windows, before I had the PDA, I used to use quite an effective flashcard program called “WordLearn”. It’s available via Internet in English or German versions. I don’t feel that the algorithm behind it was as elegant as that for “SuperMemo” (from http://www.mapletop.com, before I forget), but it was effective.

I strongly support the use of flash cards for increasing sight recognition vocabulary in Chinese. The key things about flash cards versus writing on a piece of paper over and over is that flash cards are randomizable. Many of us (myself included) get to where we know what the next character is going to be on a list, just from knowing its position. With a truly randomizable presentation, that doesn’t happen.

I also support something Tomas mentioned in passing above – that he already had a considerable vocabulary and learning the characters was putting written form to what he already knew in many cases. This is key. Most of the Chinese pedagogy going on here makes the student learn all 4 skills simultaneously, and this is (IMHO) ridiculous, especially for a non-phonetically written (for the most part) language. In fact, if I were designing a Chinese course for any of these places, you would have separate teachers for speaking/listening, reading and writing Chinese, completely separate classes for each of the 3, so that students could really consider their personal goals and choose to use their time in the manner that most benefited them. Also this would eliminate the lockstep that means that you only learn to recognize the smaller number of characters you learn how to write – this greatly holds people back in reading skills. You could conceivably learn to recognize many more words in reading (OK, we’re also assuming that there exists some kind of reasonable reading practice material, which there does NOT – elementary school textbooks are written for native speaking children, not 2nd language learners, but I digress) in the time it takes you to learn to write a lesser number of characters.

There also needs to be a much greater emphasis placed on top-down processing skills (context in guessing, scanning/skimming, and all the other good skills that we hear about in ESL but NEVER in “CSL” teaching). Chinese language pedagogy to date seems to be mired in “memorize this” and “if you’ve seen it you should know it but if you’ve never seen it forget it” ideas. If you taught ESL that way you’d soon be thrown out of the classroom.

Just my NT$0.66 as usual, your mileage may vary. But if you can afford it, do buy yourself a Palm OS PDA and try “SuperMemo”. It also functions as quite a nice bidirectional (or tridirectional, with Pinyin or whatever) dictionary, fully searchable. Nice for those trips out.

Oh – somebody mentioned how to write flash cards – I recommend writing the Chinese character on one side, then the Pinyin on the top edge of the other side, (actually, tonal spelling [TOP] would be better! :laughing: ) and the English meaning on the bottom edge. This allows you to check the comprehension of the character from one side to the other, and also to test yourself prompting yourself with only Pinyin or only English meaning to produce either of the other two. I did paper flashcards this way for many years and it seemed to work well for me.

I also recommend the use of color for visual learners…if you have trouble with tones, write all the first-tone stuff in RED, and the second tone in BLUE, or whatever…use tonal spelling to help yourself remember, too. Associate a directional gesture with each new word (directional in the sense of following the tone contour of the word you’re memorizing). Muscle memory is a great help in these things, too. For straight vocab (not necessarily characters) you can also use an MD player, record one word with its translation and a repetition on one track of your MD, then set the player on “shuffle” and you have instant randomized audio flash cards of your vocabulary. It’s nice if you can’t get the headphones at the gym to work right to watch a movie on the treadmill. :laughing:

ironlady, I’m sold! I already checked to see if it’s 5.0 compatible (it is). I want to get this setup today. what do I do about getting a chinese os installed? The palm came with this card that had a registration number and a link to http://www.youbesoft.com/ubc. Do I need to set that up some how? If not that is there something else I need to setup? It’s all in chinese (go figure :unamused: ).


I’m not sure what Chinese OS that would be, but why not install it and see how it works? I use CJKOS myself, and am quite happy with it, but I wouldn’t mind one that would handle both simplified and traditional characters (the CJKOS I’ve got installed now handles traditional only). The Oxford dictionary has its own font files so I can display both simplified and traditional in that program with no problem. The CJKOS is really only for the other programs (SuperMemo and entering Chinese characters in the built-in apps or my own ridiculous apps.)

If you can’t figure it out, let’s try to meet up (are you in Taipei?) and I’ll take a look at it for you (then we’ll BOTH be confused! :laughing: )

ironlady, I must thank you for that supermemo link. I haven’t been so excited about something in a long time. Not only will this help with character learning, but also with anything else it is I want to learn/remember (and there’s a lot). Actually here’s the supermemo link http://www.supermemo.com.

I got the Chinse OS and the supermemo demo installed. I’m gonna order supermemo for palm and start getting that all setup. I plan on making databases based off of the Shida books. The OS I used doesn’t have pinyin either, but there are third party programs that will do it (I think).

It’s been really useful to me. Supermemo + tonal spelling and I’ve seen great improvement in the effectiveness of my memorizing efforts. At leaste it’ll do until they figure out the implantable native speaker brain chip thing. :laughing:

Milty, or Ironlady, where’d you get your Palm, and how much was it? Also, how exactly, or where exactly do you get characters you want for a database? Oh, and is it time-consuming to create a database?

Flashcards on a Palm sounds like something I’d really find useful too. It takes me almost 50 minutes to get to work everyday and I’d love for something to do besides count how many pretty girls check me out (not that isn’t a noble way to spend your time on public transportation). I tried studying my Chinese books on the MRT but I don’t like all the stares I get from people around me (the pretty girls excepted). Also, too many weird old men take this as an opportunity to try to strike up a conversation with me. I feel like I’m back in junior high trying to avoid the perverts on the buses. Having a discreet little Palm to read would make me feel like I was making good use of my time and also block out the weirdos.

“Chinese (simplified and traditional)/Pinyin/English cards. 1375 Basic Chinese Characters with 6,000 words and expressions.” This set has been around for a long time. I’m not sure if it’s Gubo and Palanka or even pre-Gubo vintage. It certainly has stood the test of time! Some things you just can’t get in Taiwan. Better order it on line or try and find it on your next trip to Hong Kong.

Personally I find the ‘writing the character 50 times’ method totally ineffective. I absolutely need flashcards.

I recommend not buying premade flashcards or using a palm or whatever. You need to make flashcards for the characters you want to learn. You should start off trying to learnt he characters you know how to say, but you should break each one down into it’s radicals and components and also learn the meanings for each of the parts. Eg if you are learning the character

For me, the Palm does everything you have mentioned automatically, and I always know where ALL my cards are. I have the option to put all or some of them into the day’s pack at will. Plus, the program asks me insultingly “Are you sure this is today’s date?” if I haven’t used my flash cards lately! :shock:

The only difference I can see is not getting to physically write the character once when putting it on the card, since you are entering it with a computer or on your handheld. But you could as easily use a handwriting recognition input method if you want the writing practice.

BTW, “SuperMemo” will allow you to write the radical by hand as one field of your flashcard if you want; you could write out the stroke order as another field if you wanted to as well. Best way to do this is to do your “normal” Chinese entries first then loop back and add the fields that will require “handwriting”.

1000 Flashcards will cost you about 300NT.

What does a palm cost? :smiley:

Some people just might not want a palm.