Making and Using Flashcards


Learn how the character is made, and so make it make sense.

Learning to read and to write Chinese characters is not a matter of brute force. It is possible to make the learning process much easier by using a good strategy. The key to the strategy is that Chinese characters are not random collections of little straight lines. At the earliest time, many Chinese characters were little line drawings of things such as the sun, the moon, a horse, a sheep, and so forth. When students understand the original forms it is easier to understand the more stylized forms that have evolved from them. It helps, for instance, to have the idea that the present character for horse, 馬 mǎ, has an eye, a mane, a back, a tail, and four legs in it. Having at least that much of an idea of how to write the character will give students a kind of hook by which they can hold onto the image of the character or recover it from memory.

It is important to have memory hooks for things to be memorized. It is almost completely useless to stare at a model character and copy it over hundreds of times, and it is very useful to use a somewhat vague memory of the character, write down the best approximation of that memory, and only then look at a model character. The reason is that humans memorize things by reproducing them based on some flickering memory of them, checking the result against a standard, and then depending on the corrected memory to make another try at reproducing the thing that is to be learned.

Four-sided flashcards give students alternatives to simply looking at the answer when one cannot remember how to write a character. One might look at the Chinese character and then try to recall its pronunciation, and if one were unable to think of it one might then look at its meaning to see whether that additional prompt would aid in recalling the pronunciation Usually it is easier to go from Chinese characters to English meanings or to Chinese pronunciations than it is to go from the meaning of some word in English to the pronunciation and writing of it in Chinese. Here is how the four-sided flashcards can be used:
bright, page one
Looking at the first "page" or side of this four-sided card, students will see the meaning of the character in English. The next task will typically be to try to remember how to say this word in Chinese. The student might write down "ming," which is only partly right. Then the student will open the "book" slightly to take a peek at page 2:
bright, page two
At this point the student should note that the correct way to write the pronunciation is "míng," not "ming." Tones are important in Chinese.

The next thing the student will probably do is to try to write the character. However, the student may not be able to recall how to write it. So the next step will be to open the "book" and look at page three:
bright, page three
Now the student must depend on having earlier learned how to write the character for "sun," which is: 日 and the character for "moon," which is: 月. Even if the student writes these components in the inverse order, or puts one above the other, doing so is better than simply looking up the answer. Once the student has written down a response it is time to look at page four of the four-sided flash card, which shows:
bright, page four
So the total process for learning to write "bright" is to learn to write日, learn to write 月, and then put them together to write 明. Doing things this way there is very little likelihood of confusing similar characters such as 明  and 門.

Do not try to do too much at one time.

Remember that students have to be able to recall at least part of the desired response in order to be able to improve and consolidate their memories of the characters they are trying to learn. What would happen if a student had 100 flashcards, tried to write the first one, failed, put it at the bottom of the deck of flashcards? That character would not come up again until an hour or so later, by which time it would have been completely forgotten again.

The strategy that works best for most students is to work on three to five flashcards at a time. That way the first character in the deck come back within a couple of minutes, i.e., while the student still remembers the previous attempt.  After a few groups of three to five flashcards have been learned the stacks of flashcards can be made larger because the work will go faster. Also, characters which no longer pose any challenge can be put aside temporarily to make room for the ones that are harder to learn.

 Folding and Pasting after Printing

The printed sheet
The printed sheet will look like the above sample.
Making the first fold
First fold the printed sheet along the center line, and make the printed side be on the outside.
Making the second fold
Fold the sheet one more time, making the English meaning appear on the outside.
Getting ready to paste.
Open the page up flat again, and cover the unprinted side with glue from a glue stick.
Fold back up and prepare to cut
Refold the sheet as you did before. Then trim the outside of the sheet before cutting the cards apart horizontally.
Cut the cards apart.
When you cut the cards apart, each sheet will yield five flashcards, folded as shown.

The adhesive from the glue stick will make the paper into a stiffer two-ply product that should be more durable and easier to use.