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.