SenseiOnline presents 21st Benkyoukai (Study Forum)

By Scott Alprin
© April, 2002

Teaching Kanji with Components:
Using An Element-Based Approach in Class


My experience with the Japanese language began in January, 1989 at Colby College in Maine. I had taken French in high school, and intended to continue in college, but overslept my French placement test one fateful day. A special intensive Japanese course was offered in January, so I took it. The rest, as they say, is rekishi.

I was at once fascinated and befuddled by the study of kanji, which are the Chinese characters used by the Japanese in their writing system. Kanji was taught at Colby utilizing a "frequency-based approach," which is the way it is taught throughout the United States, and the world. I will explain what I mean by this term below. I graduated in 1992 after four years of Japanese, unable to read a Japanese newspaper, unable to identify the meaning of or read at least half of the kanji that I was supposed to know, and unable to write most of the kanji I was supposed to know. I do not mean to lay blame upon the Colby program, which I believe is excellent. I believe that the problem is not Colby, but the "frequency-based approach" itself.

I moved to Nagoya, Japan in 1992, and began studying kanji on my own under an "element-based approach." By early 1994, I was able to read and write nearly all of the two thousand common-use kanji (jyouyou kanji, or p), and could read a Japanese newspaper with ease. I learned the kanji through a course in a book by James Heisig called "Remembering the Kanji" (Japan Publications Trading Co., Ltd.). I thought at the time, and still do, that the "element-based approach" is more effective, efficient, and logical than the "frequency-based approach."

In 1999, I developed my own variation of the "element-based approach." This "method" is not yet unpublished.

In this paper, I will discuss certain advantages of the "element-based approach" over the "frequency-based approach," and will advocate the use of the "element-based approach" in the classroom through a method that I created based on the Heisig method.

"Frequency-Based Approach" Defined

I use the term "frequency-based approach" to mean the following: the order in which the kanji appears in textbooks or kanji workbooks when chosen based on the kanji's perceived fundamental importance in (a) society or (b) the particular textbook chapter. An example of (a) is the order of the kanji as it appears in the Educational Kanji Grade Breakdown Kanji Allotment Chart (犿̊wNʊz\) of the Ministry of Education (Monbusho). Monbusho is concerned with placing kanji in an order based on "importance," in light of the age of the learner. Therefore, the 76 kanji taught to first graders carry meanings that are easily understandable to children, for example: "flower" (), "sky" (), "school" (Z), "left" (), "correct" (), "village" (), and "town" (). It is my belief that the way that Monbusho prioritizes kanji has greatly influenced the way in which textbooks choose the order of presentation of kanji. Therefore, American college students are being taught kanji based on a system tailored for Japanese children.

As an example of (b) above, that is, "importance" of kanji in the particular textbook chapter, I would like to cite the kanji presented in Chapter 7 of "Yookoso! An Invitation to Contemporary Japanese" by Yasu-Hiko Tohsaku. These kanji come from a story in the chapter about "My Fashion (}CEt@bV)," and are as follows: "same" (), "long" (), "market" (s), "place" (), "main" (), "electricity" (d), "sell" (), "buy" (), "wear" (), "cut" (), "yen" (~), "pull" (), "inexpensive/comfort" (), "a shop" (X), "employee" (), "color" (F), "black" (), "white" (), "blue" (), "red" (), "yellow" (), "clothing" (), "return" (), "flower" (). These kanji were chosen not for their structural simplicity, but their semantic simplicity. As an example of how the Monbusho list affects the presentation of kanji in textbooks, please note the grade in which Japanese students are taught the kanji in the Yookoso chapter mentioned above: "yen," "white," "blue," "red," and "flower" are taught in the first grade; "same," "long," "market," "place," "electricity," "sell," "buy," "cut," "pull," "shop," "color," "black," and "yellow" are taught in the second grade; and "main," "wear," "inexpensive," "employee," "clothing," and "return" are taught in the third grade.

It is my opinion that textbooks generally follow the Monbusho example, and do not usually dare to teach a kanji that is not considered "important" in beginning levels. It is my contention that this makes sense for Japanese children, but not necessarily for Western teenage and college students. It seems unfortunate to me that the "frequency-based approach" is so mainstream that very simple kanji that could act as building blocks for "important" kanji are virtually ignored under the "frequency-based approach."

"Element-Based Approach" Defined

An "element-based approach" emphasizes the learning of the building blocks of kanji. Under such an approach, all of the parts of a kanji are identified and assigned a meaning. Students become very familiar with the components of a kanji, and therefore are able to create mnemonic devices for remembering the kanji as a whole. I am familiar with two books that feature the "element-based approach": Heisig's book, mentioned above, and "Kanji ABC," by Andreas Foerster & Naoko Tamura (published by Tuttle).

A look at three of the 76 Monbusho first grade kanji illustrates the stark difference between a "frequency-based approach" and an "element-based approach. "Flower" () is taught in the first grade under Monbusho, but its component, "change form" (), is not taught until the third grade. Under an "element-based approach," however, would be taught before . "Sky" () is taught in the first grade, but its component, "construction" (H) is taught in the second grade. Again, this order would never occur under an "element-based approach." Likewise, "school" (Z) is taught in the first grade, while "exchange" () and "father" () are taught in the second grade. Similarly, under Monbusho, "pull" () is taught in the second grade, but "bow" (|) is taught in the sixth grade. As stated above, teaching (|) after () would never be permitted in an "element-based approach."

The key, then, for teachers in teaching kanji under an "element-based approach" is, first and foremost, knowing what the "elements" are. This topic is addressed below.

Identifying the Elements

Steps for Implementing "Element-Based Approach"

First Step: Know Your Curriculum

The teacher that uses an "element-based approach" should be aware of all of the kanji that appear from the first level to the last level of the curriculum. Many high schools programs require fourth year students to be able to read and write 300 to 500 kanji by graduation, while college programs may require 1000 to 2000. So, what should be done if "bow" (|) is not in a high school curriculum, but "pull" () is? I would say that "bow" should be taught to the students, which would essentially add the kanji "bow" to the curriculum. However, if a kanji such as "beg" () never appears in the curriculum, is it necessary to teach the kanji "second rank" ()? The answer is that it is probably not necessary to teach "second rank," assuming, of course, it appears nowhere in the curriculum.

Second Step

Next, the teacher can have the students vote on the meanings of each open element as a class. I have found that this process may take a few classes. Therefore, if time is limited, it may be necessary for the teacher to limit class discussion of the open elements.

assign their own meanings

Third Step: Teach the Basic Pure Kanji

There are about 50 pure kanji (i.e. "mouth" (), "big" (), "river" (), and "complete" ()) when using a 2000 kanji curriculum, however, this number may be significantly reduced depending on the number of kanji in the curriculum. It is my belief that the meanings of these 50 or so kanji should be introduced to the students right after the open elements, and the pure kanji should be tested almost immediately, to assure retention.

Fourth Step: Mnemonic Stories

Now that all of the shapes of the kanji (in the curriculum) have been taught, the students are ready to start memorizing the meanings (and reading, and writing?) of more complex kanji. Because each component of a kanji is identified, it is not difficult, with the correct guidance, for students to use the components to spark an image in the mind that triggers the meaning of the kanji. The student can build up a whole network of stories in their minds by using their imagination. This method systematizing mnemonic stories, was devised by Heisig, and is best described in his aforementioned book. The great thing about the Heisig book is that he teaches students how to remember the kanji after they know the components. The Foerster and Tamura book falls short in this respect, as their book merely presents the components, and introduces the kanji in an order based on the components, but does not teach the student how to remember the kanji using the components.

Empirical Data

I have attempted to use the "element-based approach" in two class settings: elementary school and high school, and have used the approach with individuals of all ages, as well. My experience has been that students can easily learn the components, that is, pure kanji and open elements. Memorizing more complex kanji with mnemonic stories is more difficult and takes more time. I have never, however, integrated the method fully into a Japanese class curriculum, and do not think that such a strategy has ever been tried.

Advantages of the "Element-Based Approach"

The biggest advantage of using an "element-based approach," as opposed to a "frequency-based approach," is that the students can avoid the overwhelming feeling of being confronted by many unfamiliar structures all at once. The advantages of the "element-based approach" are best summed up by the following quotes:

"The sequence in which kanji are introduced is crucial. When graphically simple kanji are introduced first, they can be used as components for more complicated kanji. This is not possible when the sequence of introduction is determined by the importance of a kanji." (Kanji ABC, by Foerster and Tamura, Page x).

"[T]he most critical factor is the order of learning the kanji. The method is simplicity itself. Once more basic characters have been learned, their us as primitive elements for other kanji can save a great deal of effort . . . ." (Remembering the Kanji, by Page 9-10).

"The etymologically-based graphemes are powerful memory aids. Abstract stroke combinations suddenly become combinations of terms familiar to the student. A feeling for each kanji can be created. This method is similar to the natural process of remembering: new information is linked to existing impressions and feelings." (Kanji ABC, Page xi).


Adopting an "element-based approach" for learning kanji requires the teacher not only to reorder the actual introduction of kanji to the students, but to rethink many basic assumptions regarding kanji. First, teachers must acknowledge that the Monbusho strategy for teaching kanji is not the most efficient and effective way for teaching Western students. Second, teachers have to acknowledge that the time spent in assigning meanings to open elements and teaching obscure kanji before "important" kanji, though time-consuming at the beginning, will bear much fruit in the long run. I would suggest that using an "element-based approach" allows students to learn and retain a greater number of kanji than the "frequency-based approach." Why? Because learning kanji from basic to complex simply makes more sense than the other way around. <1-- -->

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