It may sound old-fashioned, but many people (including myself) still think that writing characters repeatedly by hand is one of the best ways to commit them to memory (this works by developing muscle memory). Normally, practice paper is divided into squares, each of which is subdivided with guides to help the student maintain the correct proportions of each character.
In the past, I used to make my own practice grid sheets with a word processor template, but nowadays there are much better options, such as the two web tools: Hanzi Grids and Hanlexon. Both of these allow you to paste a text into a box, choose some options, and output a pdf with the characters from your text printed as a model for copying into empty squares on the sheet.
Hanzi Grids is the newer of the two
and is currently a beta release (Feb 24, 2012 update: Hanzi Grids is out of beta and now costs $10 AUD; mention email@example.com as a referrer to get a discount), but nevertheless, it is already very sophisticated. With Hanzi Grids, the precise appearance of the sheet itself is more customizable: for example, you can adjust the size of your model character independently from the size of the square that it is in (Zoom option) and space out the squares on your sheet (notice how the squares do not share borders in the screenshot below).
You can also choose from several styles of guide within your squares: cross (results in a 2 x 2 grid), grid (3 x 3 grid), bar (1 x 2 grid), star (the square is divided into eight, sort of like a pie), or no guidelines at all. The color and opacity of everything is user-adjustable in Hanzi Grids.
As you can see in the screenshot above, Hanzi Grids has a nice interface that gives fine-grained control over most options via sliders. One very nice feature is the dynamic preview of your pdf that updates immediately as you adjust the settings.
Hanlexon works somewhat differently. First you create a “worksheet” by pasting in your text. Then there are a number of things you can do with it. The tool that generates practice sheets is labeled “Write” (we’ll look at the other Hanlexon tools in a future post). Hanlexon offers fewer options (see the screenshot of “Worksheet Options”) than Hanzi Grids, but Hanlexon can optionally include pinyin and stroke order diagrams. The stroke order diagrams are limited to certain characters, as can be seen in the screenshot below, and seem not to be available for traditional characters (unless the simplified character is the same). Hanlexon does allow you to have traditional characters on your sheet, as does Hanzi Grids. Finally, if you register with Hanlexon, you can save your worksheets for later use.
The following table compares the features and options of both Hanzi Grids and Hanlexon. One feature that both lack is the ability to remove duplicate characters. I would like to only have one row for each character of the text; words that occur more frequently in a given text do not necessarily need to be practiced more.
|Adjustable size of squares||✓||✓|
|Adjustable spacing between squares||✓||✗|
|Character size independently adjustable||✓||✗|
|Guides in squares||✓+, choice of styles||✓, star style only|
|Adjustable opacity for guides||✓||✗|
|Adjustable opacity for tracing||✓||✗|
|Choice of font style||✓, Kaiti and Songti||✗, Kaiti only|
|Choice of color for font, squares, guides||✓||✗|
|Stroke order||✗||✓-, but not for all|
|Removes punctuation||✗||✓, when one character/row option is selected|
|Removes English||✗||✓-, but not necessarily other non-roman alphabets|
|Removes duplicate characters||✗||✗|
|Removes whitespace||✓, optionally||✓, always|
|Choice of one character/row or continuous text||✓||✓|
|Choice of paper size/orientation||✓||✗|
|Customizable page header||✓, custom text at left, center, & right; also adjustable size||✗, always “姓名”, user-specified title, page number|
|Saves your sheets||✗||✓|
Both Hanzi Grids and Hanlexon allow you to create practice sheets that have the characters from your text printed down the leftmost column, leaving the rest of the row for the learner to fill in (“single character” or “one character per line”). With this option, the pdfs produced by the two tools can be nearly identical (depending on the other options chosen).
Both tools also allow you to print your text continuously from left to right. The results of the latter option differ more from one another. The screenshots below show how Hanzi Grids prints the model characters in the writing squares, while Hanlexon prints the model characters between the writing squares. Both are potentially useful, but in this mode Hanzi Grids is really only good for tracing, whereas Hanlexon is good for copying. My ideal tool would combine the two: show the model inside squares, but alternating with rows of empty squares.
On the whole, I feel that most of Hanzi Grids’ unique options (such as opacity, color, adjustable spacing between squares, paper orientation) are aesthetic refinements that do not significantly improve the learning experience, whereas the unique options that Hanlexon provides (pinyin, stroke order diagrams [when possible], removal of punctuation and roman letters) actually make the practice sheet more useful from an educational standpoint. I prefer the interface of Hanzi Grids, however, especially the live preview, and I look forward to further development of Hanzi Grids bringing it onto a par with Hanlexon in terms of educational value. There is a lively discussion about Hanzi Grids on www.chinese-forums.com, where the developer is an administrator.
Both Hanzi Grids and Hanlexon are great tools for self-motivated learners and for teachers wanting to prepare custom practice sheets for their students. The choice between them at the moment comes down to which features are more important to you.