About this article

From Components to Compounds:
Learning to Identify Chinese Characters

by Chou Sing Chu Foundation


Based on the syllabi from Primary One to Primary Six, every primary school student in Singapore has to learn to read and write about 1,600 to 1,900 Chinese characters. Among these, many characters look or sound similar, causing students difficulty in identifying them. Yet, learning these Chinese characters is an unavoidable part of learning Chinese and is crucial to the students’ success in examinations. Without the ability to distinguish different Chinese characters, students may lose interest in reading, and their performance in “Reading Comprehension” and “Composition” assignments, as well as the “Reading Aloud” component of the oral examinations, may be negatively affected too.

Many students have resorted to rote memorisation in learning these words. But rote memorisation not only result in the students’ inability to appreciate the elegance and beauty of Chinese words, it is likely to make them resent learning Chinese. How can we help them to learn how to differentiate these words?


Simple Techniques for Learning Words

In fact, Chinese words are developed from the basis of pictograms, and the structure of Chinese characters includes radicals. In general, apart from a minority that are independent of radicals (also known as discrete words), most Chinese words are compound words that are formed by combining discrete words, and include phono-semantic compounds and compound ideograms. Phono-semantic compounds are characters typically comprising two parts: a character (the semantic indicator) denoting the general meaning of the compound word and another (the phonetic indicator) suggesting the pronunciation, with the semantic indicators often being the radicals. Phono-semantic compounds account for more than 90% of modern Chinese words. Hence, we can deduce the meaning of the character by inferring from the semantic indicators or the radicals. In this way, we can also learn differentiate words easily without having to resort to rote memorisation.

By adhering to the following two points, it is possible to identify and understand the basic meaning behind each character:

  • Take note of the different structural parts or radicals that form the character
  • Based on the structure of the character or the radicals, infer its meaning


Using Graphically-similar Characters as an Example

Graphically-similar words pose a challenge for primary school students learning Chinese. Typically, they feature similar radicals (such as “栽” and “裁”) or differ by the addition of a stroke (for example, “太” and “大”) or the length of corresponding strokes (for instance, “土” and “士”). These Chinese characters may look very similar, but the smallest difference in appearance can mean a great difference in meaning. For example:

Chinese Character xiū

Differing Component




木:Refers to wood or woody plants.

A person(“亻”)leaning against a tree(“木”).

本:Meaning fundamental (as in 根本).

The body (“身体”) is fundamental (“根本”) to every person(“亻”)



To rest





Using Homophonic Words as an Example

Some homophonic words are not only sound similar, but they resemble each other in appearance as well (for instance, “根” and “跟”). On the other hand, some homophonic words do not look similar at all (such as “在” and “再”). Many students have trouble differentiating between these words, because they only recognise the words by sound and not from the written characters. Hence, in order to learn to distinguish them, we should begin from the structure of the words. For instance:

Chinese Character gēn gēn

Differing Component



木:Refers to wood or woody plants.

Thus, the roots of a plant are called “根”.


足:Refers to the legs.



Tree roots


To follow

In summary, as long as we understand the characteristics of word structure and start with the radicals, differentiating words will become much simpler. With more reading and practice, we can enhance our visual memory and deepen our impressions of these Chinese characters, improving learning efficiency and results.