Mastering the thousands of Chinese characters can seem an incredibly daunting task, particularly given how fast they seem to escape one's memory.

But the task can seem less scary when it's broken down into its constituent pieces:

  1. Finding out how each character is pronounced and what it means.
  2. Learning how the character is used in context and some words that contain it.
  3. Building up the neural connections that allow you to recognize and recall the character quickly and persist that ability long-term.
  4. Continuing to practice so your character knowledge doesn't erode away.

Between our activities and drill-down tools, we're trying to offer ways you can work on all of these at WordSwing. But today I'd like to talk about a new game that helps with the last two.

Character Memory Grid game

This new little arcade game helps you practice your ability to quickly recognize characters.

I'll first introduce the game, but keep reading if you want to find how we've designed the game to maximize how many distinct characters you can review.

Character memory grid game screenshot

The game shows a 3x3 grid of Chinese characters with the pronunciation of one of those characters above. The game is very simple. You simply tap on the character with that pronunciation before you run out of time.

If you are correct, that character is removed and a new one slides into that column or row and the game keeps going. Also, two other characters slide out and two new ones slide in, causing the characters to shift locations.

If you'd like to get a better sense of how the game works, you can watch this short video:

Give it a whirl!

Fast practice

One way to measure how much recognition practice you're getting is to consider the number of characters you are recognizing per minute.

Hands down the highest throughput activity is reading; all you are doing is just recognizing characters as fast as you can go. Reading is probably also the best activity in other respects too. For example, you see the characters in the context of words, and the words in the context of thoughts and situations and behaviors.

Unfortunately, reading is not very fast if the material is too difficult for you. It can also be very demoralizing. Any student who has tried to read a Chinese newspaper before they have mastered a few thousand characters can attest to this.

This is why we created our text adventure games, like Escape and Into the Haze. A student who knows 500-800 characters can read this game text at about 60 characters per minute (based on timing one individual), which includes time to look up unfamiliar words in the built-in dictionary.

In contrast, when reviewing words using one of our most popular activities, Frequency-ordered SRS, students on average only review words at a rate of about 5.8 characters per minute (based on actual student review data). And the Pronunciation Recall is not much better, which has a rate of 5.9 characters per minute.

An important difference between reading and spaced-repetition is that when reading, you're seeing many of the same characters over and over, and you don't get much of an opportunity to practice the rare ones. If we go back to our reading experiment, which was based on Into the Haze, the individual read 360 characters in 6 minutes. Among these there were 147 distinct characters. And thus the reading rate of distinct characters was 25 characters per minute. That's still way above the 6 (mostly distinct) characters you would encounter in either of the two SRS activities.

But can we do something to speed up the practice of arbitrary subsets of characters?

This was the motivation behind this new game, Character Memory Grid.

In this game, given you need to move fast and new characters keep getting added to the mix, you end up recognizing about 24 distinct characters per minute. This is now right up there with reading. So although you don't get reading's many other benefits, you do get to practice arbitrary subsets of characters.

Just to recap the rates at which you'll come across distinct characters in various activities:

  • Text adventure games: 25 characters/minute
  • Frequency-ordered SRS: 6 characters/minute
  • Pronunciation Recall: 6 characters/minute
  • Character Memory Grid: 24 characters/minute

Learning through the grid game

Racing against the clock in this activity will exercise your ability to recognize characters and recall their pronunciation. But if you don't know a character or forgot it, you're stuck.

Not to worry, once the timer has run out, you can check the pronunciations of the characters in the grid, and learn more about the characters you got right or wrong.

Between episodes (when the grid is gray) you can tap the "Show" button to view pronunciations of all of the characters:

Also, the game keeps track of all the characters you answer correctly, and your incorrect answers (including the solution when you run out of time):

Any of those hyperlinks (in the game) can be clicked on to open those characters in the drill down tool. You can also click on any of the squares (between episodes) and open the character that way.

You can then use the many drill down tools that WordSwing offers to help you explore the characters and words formed by these characters. Here are three views of drill down tools you could use to learn about the character 错.

Word List play

The game is free to play for both guests and WordSwing students. By default, the game lets you practice the 500 most common Chinese characters. But if you're a WordSwing Backer, you can also practice the characters of any subset of your own Word Lists. Once you're a subscriber, you'll see a tool that can be expanded to let you select from which word list you'd like to practice characters:

This mode is particularly useful because it can serve as a stepping stone between identifying words you want to learn and gaining enough facility to easily read text containing those words. This is particularly important once you start trying to learn characters that are less common. If you only count on naturally encountering them in your daily life you may go long periods of time between exposures and they will be hard to learn. But if you've saved a bunch of characters you want to learn in a word list, then you can focus on the lot until you can recognize them easily.

For example, suppose you find our Into the Haze game too challenging. Then you could start with a word list for the game that you've pruned based on your own knowledge of Chinese, use this grid game to improve your recognition of those characters, and then enjoy Into the Haze with a higher level of reading fluency, transforming characters that you merely have the ability to recall into characters you really understand in context.

Give it a whirl!


Naturally, you'll want to pursue many different practice strategies, but if you'd like one of those to allow you to quickly test your character recall in a challenging, fun, and addictive way, perhaps our Character Memory Grid game will be one of your practice strategies.


Kevin & Olle