Nearly done with Skritter - progress report

Below is a summary of where I’m at with Skritter, partly as a note to self, partly because I thought it might be of interest for people starting out with Skritter to have an idea of a possible end goal and what it’s taken for me to get there with the majority of my Chinese study being with Skritter. Sometime last year I posted on a similar subject regarding what happens next after Skritter, but it’s taken me rather longer than I expected to get my Skrittering to a point where I’m thinking about this again. It’s a long stream of consciousness, so please feel free to skip if not of interest. The amount of time I put into Chinese it’s hard not to get a bit analytical about it from time to time.

Skritter has been an amazing tool to help with Chinese and I doubt I would have made it as far as I have without it. There’s still a long way to go, but Skritter has been an enormous help in laying a solid foundation in characters and pronunciation over the several years I’ve been using it. Big thanks to the Skritter team for all your hard work over the years.

I passed the 10k word mark around midnight on the 31st of December last year. I only study writing / tones and not definitions / readings, mainly because I started Skritter before the latter two existed and never picked them up. I’ve mostly finished all the big lists I wanted to study (e.g. Chinese movie word frequency lists 1-5000, TOCFL 2013, All HSK lists, Top 3000 Characters, Mandarin Idioms, Place Names, “Chinese People, one should know”), and various other small ones.

After finishing the lists I was up to around 13,000 words learned. My technique was to add words a 100 at a time for maximum efficiency, then clear out the review and add another 100. This is because adding the words one-by-one can be quite slow if you add a lot of overlapping lists, as Skritter needs to search for individual gaps when you’ve already studied many of the surrounding items.

For the last six months or so I’ve been gradually chipping away at the review queue, without adding any new characters or words. This has gone from around 6,000 items to review at peak to around 3,000 now. If I consistently do around an hour a day, it drifts downwards, if I do much less than that it goes up pretty quickly.

Skritter says there are >16,000 items to review coming up in the next 8 weeks. Today’s stats are 67 minutes, 1207 studied, 1 learned. So 16,000 items is around 16 hours worth, excluding repeats due to errors and rescheduling. It’s a few hundred new items a day at the moment, and down to around a couple of hundred at the end of the eight weeks.

Skritter has been my main study method for quite a while, I do occasionally read, watch movies and join in conversations in Chinese, but mostly just study Skritter when I have free time. This has left me in a good position when reading, but weaker conversationally and when producing written text.

Towards the end of this year if all goes well, I’ll hopefully have the queue under control, and might even start adding a few more items. I’m a bit surprised having gone through those lists how often I see new characters and words when reading newspapers or other native level materials. A short article will often have three or four new words or characters at the moment to add into Skritter. I’ve also got a lot of starred items to review for various reasons, for example chengyu that I don’t fully understand, or neutral tones and sandhi that I want to double check.

I expect with reviews and eventually adding a few new characters, I’ll still need to keep about an hour a day in Skritter to maintain my level and keep up with new material I find. That’s basically what I can do on commute twice a day and a little in the day time in breaks. However I expect as the time goes down in Skritter, I’ll naturally have more time to start exposing myself to more native level materials. I’m also planning to start taking some classes again.

As of now, my total stats are 1114 days studied, 1171.7 hours, retention 89.1%. Real time is undoubtably a lot more than that, as Skritter time is somewhat compressed. I’d guesstimate that other exposure to Chinese (e.g. classes, reading, dictionary work, conversations, movies, podcasts) as well as the additional time studying Skritter not captured in the number above, the real study time is somewhere between 500 and 1000 hours more, i.e. around 1,800 to 2,300 hours.

Added / Learned (why is this higher than added?) / Reviews / Retention are as below:

Character Writings: 4685, 4790, 396410, 92.3%
Character Tones: 3840, 3926, 234218, 94.1%
Word Writings: 13230, 13689, 158665, 77.1%
Word Tones: 12094, 12384, 92454, 81.7%

I target 87.5% retention, the lowest possible setting, for maximum efficiency. I expect word retention will drift up if I keep practising and clear the review backlog. To end of September Skritter says I have studied 350/365 days (532 hours), so even though I’ve been using Skritter since 2009, about half of my study has been in the last year.

As I’m assuming the character writings make up the word writings, I guess that’s around 400k characters written and 230k characters toned, or around 600 reviews per hour which sounds about right. You can see the value of the tool here - a 1% drop in review efficiency (e.g. if the app glitches for a second or two every couple of minutes), and that’s more than a full working day of study extra needed over the course of getting to the final 13,000 or so words in Skritter. Without Skritter the efficiency would I’m sure be much lower, so it really is saving several days of time if you’re serious about getting to a high level with Chinese.

13,000 words is enough to make good headway through most day-to-day reading materials. With the number of characters I have, it’s quite unusual for me to see a word or character that I really can’t make a good educated guess at with context. Certainly enough to get the gist of everyday reading materials without a dictionary, although I still miss out on some nuances. My reading speed is also not too fast, and I am often not confident choosing a word with the correct and idiomatic meaning to use when speaking or writing.

If I look through the Skritter vocabulary lists, there are many words I still haven’t covered (how many words are there in Skritter? it must be a large number), but I feel most of these are ones I’ll be able to pick up relatively easily passively. They’re not a priority to learn for me at the moment.

All-in-all I expect to keep using Skritter for a while longer for retention and review, but that I’ll need to try to find more diverse ways to keep moving forward with Chinese. I’m not too hopeful to find something as efficient for studying as Skritter for other aspects of studying Chinese. I do hope to improve rapidly in many of the areas such as speaking and writing texts that have been relatively neglected through focusing on Skritter as my main means of revision and learning new vocabulary.


Wow, thank you for the awesome report. It is great to know how a high-level Skritter user feels about their level / time spent.

You mentioned you were doing other studying along side Skritter, but I’m curious exactly how much you were reading. Personally my main goal is to be able to easily, quickly, and enjoyably read novels (Japanese), and Skritter has been helping massively so far with that (I had been reading every day for a few months before I started Skritter ~2 months ago, and having been continuing to read, and wow has Skritter caused a massive jump in easiness, though I’m still a long way off). Naturally, I worry about being able to read quickly, since Skritter doesn’t really make you overlearn words to the point where you can read them effortlessly. I’m hoping my regular reading will complement my Skrittering in that regard, but maybe I should focus more on the reading – what do you think given your retrospect?

1 Like

Wow congratulations! I just started using skritter this summer, and I spend approximately 30 skritter minutes per day studying. Some days it just feels so slow.

I recently passed the 500 character mark after 4 months. I learn a little more than 100 characters per month. Which means it’s going to be a long, long journey to reach my goal of 6,000 characters. I might have to start spending more time, but sometimes it’s so hard to learn that many new words at a time.

But if you were able to learn so much in one year, it gives me some inspiration to try harder. I just checked my total time studied and it’s 67 hours. XD That’s not even a fraction of your time studied. So I better get on it.

1 Like

djahandarie, in short, I think you need to read, but having a basis of Skritter will really improve efficiency when reading, and at the beginning Skritter is a great way to build vocabulary. As you get more advanced Skritter becomes less useful to pick up new vocabulary. For a longer answer which gives an idea of problems reading even with a large amount of vocabulary covered in Skritter, see below. Skritter is still very helpful to get to a level where this kind of material is mostly understandable even without a dictionary.

To give an idea of how my Chinese level is when reading some native level material I tried a few different articles. Conclusion from reading a couple of these is that even with my 10k+ words in Skritter, there’s a lot of new words when reading these materials, and this slows me down. Based on this I think Skritter is good for studying the initial lists and building a foundation of vocabulary, but at a certain point (e.g. where I am now), there are diminishing returns from this as it gets harder to find suitable lists and words to add in Skritter, and easier to read texts and learn relevant new vocabulary from that. Detailed examples below…

I read the first two paragraphs of the article on Singapore in simplified Chinese in Wikipedia. I basically know all the characters apart from one (叻, used in place names). Looking up characters and words is the biggest slow down I find, although better with a mouse over dictionary. Studying characters used in place names has helped with recognising names, but there are a few new ones here which slow me down, like the Chinese for Straits of Malacca and Johor. Unlikely that Skritter would have helped much here, but knowing the characters means I’m going to learn those words pretty quickly if I see them used.

The only word that really caught me was 苏丹 for Sultan, partly as it’s linked incorrectly to the country Sudan, which is the meaning I know from Skritter. Also the usage of 相隔 for be separated from I’m not too familiar with.

Looking at the first two or three paragraphs of an online copy of 三体问题, the novel, as another example, there are several words not in my Skritter. I can mostly guess the meanings, but there are one or two new characters or ones I need to look up. Here are ones I added to Skritter reading this: 躁动 (agitated), 火种 (figurative: spark), 稚嫩 (soft and immature), 烈性 (ferocious), 雷管 (detonator cap), 磁石 (magnet), 玉石俱焚 (to destroy indiscrimately), 造反派 (rebel faction), 火炭 (burning embers), 娇小 (petite), 抢夺 (take by force), 愈演愈烈 (grow in intensity), 浓缩 (concentrated), 近现代史 (modern and contemporary history), 挥舞 (wave around), 弹雨 (hail of bullets), 全身而退 (escape unscathed), 战旗 (war flag), 挥动 (to wave), 灰烬 (ashes), 陶醉 (be intoxicated with), 柔嫩 (supple and tender), 减速 (reduce speed), 啾 (chirp), 轻盈 (slim and graceful), 眷恋 (long for). Quite a lot for just two or three paragraphs!

Even with a dictionary I’m not too sure about 大检阅, 大串联, 八月社论, 揪军内一小撮, 武斗. These all look to be related to the cultural revolution but getting the exact meaning would probably need some reading to be done in Chinese.

Then there’s some weapon names, like 卡宾枪 (carbine rifle), 捷克式机枪 (Czech machine gun), 三八大盖 (a colloquial term for a Japanese bolt-action rifle used in WW2, the type 38 rifle), 制式步枪 (service rifle or standard-issue rifle), 冲锋枪 (sub-machine gun), 枪支 (firearm), 梭镖 (spear). Here there are some terms that I don’t know in English either as well as not having studied in Skritter, although I do know e.g. 捷克 for Czech and can guess 卡宾 for carbine.

Even having added a lot of lists to Skritter, I haven’t covered these words. I can mostly guess the meaning and recognise the characters, but it does slow me down not having studied them specifically. I think there’s probably not relevant lists for e.g. weapon names and cultural revolution terms, however the current list search mechanism is limited so there might be ones I’m missing. E.g. I don’t think it’s possible to see what lists a word appears in or to find lists that have a lot of unstudied words, which might make it easier to find relevant lists to study these words.

It’s hard to use Skritter to fill in the gaps without good lists, and I think that’s one limiting factor here. Another limiting factor is difficulties in understanding sentence structure and word usage, but I don’t find that as much of a problem, perhaps I’ve already read enough to get past that for the most part as an issue. The only example here was a section of phrases at the end, part of a long sentence where I lost track of the subject the first couple of times I read through:


The girl that came out this time obviously believed herself to have that kind of luck, waving her war flag, waving her burning youth, enemies would becomes ashes in the flames, and an ideal world would be born tomorrow in her boiling blood…

1 Like

Thanks so much for the great reply!

This is a pretty interesting phenomena.

Regarding your points on suitable lists: one would think frequency lists would be the “ideal” way to order learning of new words, but I guess there are a few reasons they aren’t. One being that the corpus they are generated from might be distributed considerably differently from what you will end up reading. When you learn from reading, you in some sense learn from the ideal corpus: the type of content you’re interested in!

But, I think there’s another lingering point. Skritter trains for a very different type of recall than the type you get when learning words from reading. When reading, you learn words from repeated exposure to them in context. In the brain, I think words that have only been encountered a small number of times are mostly inaccessible except when looking them up with a key that includes some pretty relevant context. Eventually, you encounter them enough for them to start having an existence of their own, where you can explain, or give a definition for them. I think the large majority of infrequent/advanced vocabulary do not make it to the point where they are so crystallized in the brain. Yet, I think studying via Skritter directly builds the resulting crystallization of a word; in other words, the end result of what you’d have from encountering it frequently reading. For high-frequency words, this is probably more efficient than learning them from reading, but for low-frequency words, where you probably wouldn’t end up with this sort of understanding anyways, it probably amounts to investing too much time on a given word.

I think this is encouraging me to continue using Skritter like I have been so far: not as a way to learn vocabulary, but as a way to learn characters. That is, for every reading of a character, the most common few words. Using Skritter to get over the annoying barrier of the logographic writing system, and transform the logographs into nothing more than a helpful key for memorizing new words. Then, the actual vocabulary learning will hopefully come from reading. Other than the note I made on low-frequency words above, learning from reading also helps you with using the right word for a given context (i.e., nuance), as well as helping you learn collocations as opposed to words. This is all a bit obvious perhaps. Maybe someone will find it useful!

Thanks again for your thoughts. I hope to someday to have spent as much time as you on practicing my writing! :smile:

For studying medium frequency words, I think Skritter is very useful. E.g. even though I might not study 玉石俱焚 through a list of chengyu, I’ll have studied the form of a lot of chengyu and all the characters, often with some minimal context. This means my building blocks for studying new chengyu are better from having gone through in Skritter.

Another example is studying a list of countries or city names. By doing this in Skritter first it makes reading texts that use these quicker. If aiming for fluency, I know I’m likely to want to know these words at least to recognise.

For lower frequency words, Skritter is less useful. I worry about whether they’re going to be relevant, in some cases the less-common variant of two variants might be in a list, or there be a slight error (although this will become less of a problem over time as Skritter improves). It’s difficult to know if a word is used regularly from Skritter, so there’s a chance to add obscure words without realising.

The major benefit for me of Skritter is the efficiency. I’d like to read more, but I find Skritter is more efficient that reader apps on my phone. In reader apps or browsers, looking up new vocabulary is a lot slower that in Skritter. By adding a large list of words in Skritter, if I’m confident that I’ll actually want to know them (e.g. HSK lists) I still think Skritter is the most efficient way to study.

You’re right that you can only get to a certain level with Skritter, but even low frequency words that I come across in texts I often have a pretty good idea if I’ve studied in Skritter before, so the words definitely are crystallising as you say. It makes reading a text much less frustrating if you know 90% of the words rather than 80%.

Also might be worth noting that I mostly study the writing in order to be able to read better. I don’t anticipate spending too much time actually writing, but it’s a good way to recognise characters more effectively. Also doesn’t hurt on the rare occasions I need to handwrite characters, but that’s not the primary goal for me.

1 Like