DIY tools: make your own tracing sheets for DELF/HSK/JLPT writing practice

With a strip of  rainbow-coloured carpet weaving a path up the stairs and onto the wall around the whole store, it’s not hard to understand why any kid would love to spend a few hours hanging out in a bookstore like the Poplar Kid’s Republic Bookstore in Beijing (蒲蒲兰绘本馆).   Located right next to a cafe I used to visit in the Jianwai SOHO area, it had lots of great origami paper and Japanese (as well as Chinese and Korean) books. I picked up some books for my son the last time I was in Beijing but, if anyone knows of a similar kind of international children’s bookstore in Canada *please* let me know!

Tracing Practice

One book that I picked up from that shop is called (えんぴつで書いて読む日本の童話), which you might translate as “Penciling your way through Japanese children’s stories”.  The concept of the book is remarkably simple: famous pieces of children’s literature printed in an large font (I’d guess 36pt?), the font colour is probably about 35% grey so, as kids read it aloud, they trace over each character with their pencil.  One can assume that their parents would also read the story to them at the same time—neat way to experience a story, eh?

In searching for the online link, I see there is another book that is similarly titled, “Penciling through famous Japanese Literature“, with excerpts from Japanese literary giants such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Miyazawa Kenji.

But tracing is just for kids, right?

For both the Chinese HSK test and French DELF, I was surprised to find that both my wrist and my brain were tired by the end of the writing section.  After I thought about it, I realized that I rarely take time to write in other languages *by hand*.   Much like you might find that your English spelling has gone to pot because you now rely on spell checkers and auto-correct, your foreign language ‘penmanship’ might benefit from some practice and attention.

Several language tests that include a section that requires you to write a short passage in pen or pencil.  While the DELF writing section is a full-blown “write a letter/memo/etc. on a predetermined subject”, the HSK also contains a clever section that requires you to put sentence fragments together into the correct order, and then transcribe the correct sentence onto the answer sheet.  Writing takes on an additional level of challenge when it comes to Chinese characters— it’s very common to find learners who can type the pinyin into the conversion software and then ‘recognize’ the correct chinese character, but it’s a different story when they’re stuck holding a pencil….”let’s see… how does that character go again?– I’d recognize it if I saw it…hmmmm”

Writing practice vs. composition practice

Some people find the stress of “thinking about what to write” to be a little overwhelming— maybe you’re worried about making mistakes?  Perhaps you’re just not sure about the best way to describe your day in your second-language diary?  Using tracing or, at the very least, copying by sight can be a way to concentrate on your penmanship and generally increase your familiarity with common sentence structures.     I agree that it’s also important to practice our own composition skills but if you’re not working closely with a teacher or tutor, writing as a whole can often become an area of neglect.

Most bookstores in China actually contain a section with tracing pads like this– the books aren’t aimed at language learners, but those folks who are trying to practice better penmanship or ‘commonly confused characters’, etc.   The pages alternate between onionskin paper and grids of characters in bold print.


Save your money: DIY is the way to go!

Like many things these days, however, there’s no need to buy books in order to do this kind of practice–if you have access to a printer, then you’re set!  All you need to do to make your own tracing sheets is surf the net for some content that might interest you.  Since I’m trying to memorize more Chinese family names, I can google for the text of the classic Chinese text “百家姓” (100 family surnames), or anything else online.  When I copy the materials into Pages or Word, I simply highlight the text, change the font size and colour to something that works for me and then push ‘Print’ et voila!

DIY 100 family names tracing

If you’re practicing for the DELF, then we can definitely anticipate being asked to compose a piece of text that conveys our opinion on something— why not grab an article from Le Monde?

Tracing Le Monde article


I know this won’t work for everyone, but facts is facts: if you’re planning on taking the DELF B2, you’re going to have to be able to write a 250-word composition in a limited amount of time (and then 1000 words for the DALF c1).  If for no other reason than exam time management, It’s probably worth knowing how long it will take you to recopy your final draft, n’est-ce pas?  Go on, try it!  See how long it takes you to copy a 250 word article; imagine adding the same time + 30% for the penultimate draft and you’ll have an idea of how long you should spend on preparing an outline and initial ideas for the written section of the DELF B2.

It seems like a new digital language-learning tool is released every day.  Make no mistake about it—I’m an extremely enthusiastic user of audio/video editing for language learning, but sometimes we forget about the simple tools that are available to us—give tracing a try!

8 thoughts on “DIY tools: make your own tracing sheets for DELF/HSK/JLPT writing practice

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    • cheers! I think you could probably try playing with the brightness/contrast settings on the Arabic handwriting samples you shared—the printouts could be something to trace over to reinforce the patterns..

      • Yes, they’re probably too gray. But I might also need some “perfect” examples to trace from, rather than these who are more like examples from “the wild” I’ll definitely look more into tracing!

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