When I first heard about Skritter, I had been using Memrise intensely for several months. I was frustrated by what felt like my very low retention rate of characters, pinyin, tones, and sounds. Perhaps it is because I’ve been hit in the head too many times, my age – turning 40 shouldn’t hurt my memory that much, or a low intellect. I’d heard people boasting of memorizing the entire HSK1 on Memrise in two months. Of course now that seems trivial, but I didn’t even know pinyin yet.
It’s difficult to say how much it has helped me. Learning new skills is a series of steps where sometimes old learning methods that seem to fail are replaced by new, superior ones with much better response – when in fact,it is the result of achieving mastery in some base skills and thus building readiness for the follow up ones. I am not sure how that works for vocabulary though.
Skitter was free to try, so as we all do I gave it a go. It seemed reasonable to believe that adding a tactile and kinetic element to learning characters could improve my retention. Believe me – it did. It really was worth the money. Every cent I spend on it, but it’s not perfect.
I’ll explain where it vastly improved my knowledge, and where it didn’t – remember it’s one tool out of a tool box.
Skritter is an app that adds an entirely new dimension to SRS
Not sure what SRS is? (http://www.hackingchinese.com/an-introduction-to-spaced-repetition-software/). It’s a “hack” that helps us memorize facts. I don’t believe it is some magical memory mastery method – just a method that helps build a habit through intelligent repetition (taking advantage of what is known about how we retain information). Not some deeper learning, and certainly no substitution to practicing the language.
In the past, I had mostly used Memrise (it was where I first started learning Mandarin). I tried out Anki as well (now it’s a daily habit). At some point, I encountered Skritter when searching for software that might help me learn how to write 汉字.
I downloaded the demo, a few libraries – I loved it. I was hooked. There was only one catch – it’s not free, and has a short (7 day) demo period. The thing is – it works. Tracing out the characters in stroke order was exactly what I needed to make that vocabulary stick. Almost as good as speaking, and really helpful for reading.
It has modes to practice writing, reading, tones, and definitions, but I generally only concerned myself with tones and writing – the writing was good enough for reading.
How it works
Though you can use Skritter on a desktop computer, it is difficult. Don’t try writing the characters with a mouse at all. It’s a little better with a touch pad or a Wacom tablet. However Skritter’s strength is as a mobile app. I really love using it on my iPad mini, but it is great on the phone as well. Tracing out characters is simple – touch response is fantastic. I don’t need to worry about delay on my old Android phone, or current iPhone and iPad.
Startup and menus
Once you load up a list of characters (see below), and click “Study”,
it will begin giving you Characters one by one to begin practicing. You can also choose advanced study for a more comprehensive list of study options, such as the lists you want to study from, what type of studying, and emphasis on the favourites you have selected.
Also on the startup screen is the progress report that shows how well you are doing – some great statistics. A lot. you can see your daily, weekly, monthly and annual progress and share it on twitter.
There are also the settings menu and help menu on the startup screen. In settings you have a plethora of options – style (simple or traditional), parts (writing, reading, tone, definition), retention rate, frequency of new words, audio, stroke order, account options and more. The help menu takes you to a basic tutorial but also links to the online FAQ or to replay the intro tutorial (shown when you first add a list).
Lists, Lists, and More Lists
The lists menu is powerful. Here you can choose what character/word lists you want to add and review from. Search through the preexisting lists from textbooks and other sources, or even create custom lists. I haven’t done so yet, but I suspect this might solve some of my difficulties listed later. There are a staggering amount of lists available to choose from. Like Memrise and Anki, it’s huge, and you won’t need them all of course. I’d start out small – if you are beginner, maybe HSK 1 and radicals, or your textbook. Did I mention how useful this was for learning characters fast?
One of the greatest things about Skritter is the huge amount of word lists available. As a supplement to a classroom textbook, graded reader and more there are numerous lists available that allow you to practice your vocabulary and writing from there sources. I installed the Integrated Chinese Level 1 Part 1 list last year, and within 2 months I had almost mastered the entire vocabulary of the text studying less than an hour a day – I was way ahead. I have since noticed that lists exist for my graded readers as well (which I had better get started on, been procrastinating).
Finally you can choose to purchase or renew the software from the bottom of the screen.
Studying is just a matter of tracing out the characters with you fingers. You can adjust how precise in the settings. I recommend keeping at least strict stroke order on. While writing, you can tap the screen to get the next stroke displayed if you forget or double tap to see the entire character, quickly swipe up to start the character again. There are also mnemonics that you can access near the top of the screen by tapping on a little circle under (and you can define your own – I didn’t even realize this until now).
When you get a character wrong or too much time has elapsed it will tell you and a red X appears in the bottom left. Green check mark if you get it right. You can double tap on these to change the selection to one of four levels (forgot, so-so, got it, and easy) – useful for cheating, or if you felt you were closer or lucky.
When you are studying, you have a few nice options as well. You can view the character in full (useful if it is new) to see the definition and tones as well as the character. Favourite / Star it, ban it and even link to the Pleco dictionary.
The status bar on the top of the main study screen gives you time of use (and if you have the audio on, nice little comments after certain time periods of play). Also how many reviews are left in the queue and how many new words.
Like any learning tool – there are some drawbacks. The cost was a huge hurdle. It is not a cheap app. I paid about $85 for a six-month subscription. That is getting close to Adobe Creative Cloud pricing. If I really wanted it – then it needed to be incredibly worth while. I felt that after one week it was. My reading vocabulary had increased significantly and rapidly in seven days so I took the plunge and paid the six months (there are also other plans – monthly, annually, and bi-annually).
As mentioned above, over first few months I probably learned several hundred characters, but as with all things SRS I started to get behind. Pretty soon I was unable to keep up, and that becomes quite the hurdle. It’s not Skritter’s fault – I encounter this with all spaced repetition software. Something I have since learned to get around by limiting reviews, though in this case, I was really not sure how to keep up on any of the repetition software once reviews get too high. I was able to spend upwards of an hour a day on it, but you miss a day and things go crazy – so advice – for any SRS – be ready to adjust review amounts when you get behind, or just accept that there will always be too many.
My solution was to not renew after the six month subscription. What I should have done is activate the vacation mode. This allows you to freeze your subscription while you take a break. No charge during that time. When have unsubscribed you can at least review existing words. I continued to do so but found it difficult to pair down the amount of words to review, so I deleted a few lists. I would really like to see an easier way to limit my reviews as in Anki. Perhaps I am missing it, but that means it is likely buried deep – that or the existing option aren’t really tailored to the way I want to use them, I don’t think Star Emphasis gives enough control. It would be nice to limit to a specific group of words to review and only once those are mastered to move onto new ones.
Another thing that throws me off is retention rate. How does that work? Is it a percentage of how many characters I am expected to remember after a certain amount of time? Even with a certain percentage chosen, I seem to consistently have a lower value. Does that mean I am learning less than expected? I feel stupid (memorizing isn’t my strong point anymore). I’ve read the explanation, but for me at least, I don’t quite understand the math behind it.
If I have to come up with a conclusion – I would say if you have a budget and are very interested in learning how to read (and write) Mandarin or Japanese – as it is available in both formats), Skritter is probably the best app out there for this. It’s fun, challenging and incredibly successful at achieving it’s goal – learning characters. Absolutely worth the money. Just remember, like any SRS out there you will get bogged down if you study to much early on like I did. if you take some time off those reviews are insane. Learn how to limit them, and use the vacation option if you need a break – sometimes the brain just needs to heal.
If you can’t afford it – get it anyway – try the trial, and download a few dictionaries and remember that after a week you can still review any words you have been presented. Maybe a one month subscription will be better.
If you are only interested in listening and speaking, it has less value. I feel I could learn tone and definitions well with Anki or Memrise for less money if not for free. Speaking is something you can do without an app, but since vocabulary is so critical, this still helps. Still – it got me further than other apps and more rapidly.
I wouldn’t use Skritter alone. It’s my favourite app for learning Mandarin. Paired with Anki and Pleco, it’s a great tool for building your vocabulary to complement your “real” speaking, listening and reading in the field.
Give it a try, and let me know what you think.