Characters — in Chinese or Japanese (or Korean Hanja) — can be learnt in various ways, and it is plausible that paying attention to radicals helps memorization and retention. But is there any hard evidence for this?

Are there any studies on the effectiveness of character learning or teaching methods that pay attention to semantic radicals? (By "semantic radicals", I mean those that carry meaning, as opposed to phonetic parts or even single strokes.)

PS: Wikipedia has a few lists and articles that are related to radicals:


  • On Japanese SE, a question about learning radicals was closed in October 2014. The only available answer there (as of August 2017) is based on experience rather than clear evidence.

I previously asked a similar question about Chinese: Evidence that learning radicals speeds up character learning in Chinese? Comments and answers went on to focus exclusively on Chinese, and the situation for Japanese may be different for the following reasons:

  • The Japanese strongly reduced the number of kanji after World War II. (See Tōyō kanji on Wikipedia. This list of Kanji from 1946 was replaced by the Jōyō kanji in 1981, which was revised again in 2010.)
  • Kanji have more different readings than hanzi (see e.g. Why do kanji have several different pronunciations?).
  • Kanji have on average a higher number of different meanings than hanzi.
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    If we assume that the number of characters is the only significant difference between Chinese and Japanese here, the study you referred to in the other question should be applicable for both. After all, if we make conclusions from learning 24 characters, it shouldn't matter too much if it's 24 out of ~6000 characters, or 24 out of ~2000 characters.
    – michau
    Jan 13, 2017 at 15:48
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    @michau The number of characters is not the only difference, since kanji can have different readings (see e.g. Why do kanji have several different pronunciations?). The studies about Chinese characters may be relevant if you look at characters as shapes, without considering their pronunciation. And I don't know whether kanji have more meanings on average than hanzi.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 14, 2017 at 18:11

1 Answer 1


Learning radicals and paying attention to them facilitates memorization, recognition, and retrieval of kanji since it reduces the number of elements to remember inside each character.

Psychologists and educators often talk about information chunking as a learning strategy. The gist of it is building bigger units and memorising them instead of trying to memorise individual pieces of information.

Radicals work as these bigger units. Instead of memorising 5 strokes for 田 or 用, or 9 for 飠, one needs to remember just one radical and its position. In doing so one reduces the number of information units to just two that are easier to keep in memory. It also makes writing and reading kanji easier because recognition and retrieval are faster.

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    This sounds like a credible story as to why learning radicals would be helpful. Is there any experimental work to this direction?
    – Tommi
    Nov 20, 2017 at 12:55
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    @TommiBrander, for example, this experimental study showed that teaching about radicals facilitates memorisation and retention of Chinese characters. There is also this article on JLS kanji teaching that suggests greater attention to radicals.
    – Olga
    Nov 21, 2017 at 14:40
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    Could you edit the references to your answer?
    – Tommi
    Nov 22, 2017 at 7:21
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    I would encourage you to integrate some information from the study about JSL kanji teaching into your answer. You can ignore the study about Chinese characters, or use it for an answer to a related question about Chinese characters.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 2, 2017 at 18:14
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    @ChristopheStrobbe, if you read the JSL teaching article, you would notice that it does not mention the information chunking at all. It was my mistake to mention those studies in the first place since they are not related to my answer. They will not add anything to it. You are still welcome to write your own answer from the perspective of those articles.
    – Olga
    Dec 3, 2017 at 2:24

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