Toddler writes numerals

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She doesn't write the numerals the same way I do, but she certainly has a consistent system of stroke order that she follows.

I think there are many different ways to write the numerals, not only among different cultures, but idiosyncratically within cultures as well.


Selected readings

[h.t. Antonio Lopez Banderas]


  1. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    January 31, 2021 @ 7:08 pm

    That child's eye-hand coordination is really very mature, even if she's not nearly as young as she looks. Also the fact that most of the numerals are in order is very very mature!

    What lovely skills to have, she looks so happy with her accomplishments.

  2. Laura Morland said,

    January 31, 2021 @ 8:38 pm

    I agree with Lucy Kemnitzer that — we could both be wrong — but this little girl is probably be a bit older than she looks. Nevertheless, her hand-eye coordination is indeed remarkable. Further, I've just watched the video for the third time, and ALL of her numerals in order!

    Victor Mair, would you please tell us what her mother (I presume) is saying to her when she gets stuck just before "16"? (I think she's stuck for the next numeral as well, which is why she keeps re-doing the "6" in "16". Moreover her mother cut off the video after that….)

  3. David C. said,

    January 31, 2021 @ 8:46 pm

    I have wondered how the "stroke order" for numerals and letters of the Roman alphabet varies across educational systems, or whether it can be attributed to, as is said above, idiosyncrasies of individual students and teachers.

    How others handwrite the letter "E" fascinates me. I start from the top horizontal line, then move to the vertical. But I have seen it written many other ways, including those that violate traditional "stroke order" by going right to left.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 31, 2021 @ 10:44 pm

    One Chinese graduate student, who guesses that the little girl is about 2 years old, thinks that the mother says:


    Nǐ xiǎng shà nǐ xià yīgè shì shénme bǐ ná cuòle zhège fàng xiàmiàn āi xiě ba āiyā mā ya zhège 6 xiě dé zhēn kēchěn chóng xiě gè 16

    你想啥 你下一个是什么 笔拿错了 这个放下面 哎 写吧 哎呀妈呀 这个6写得真磕碜 重写个16

    "What are you thinking, what do you want to do next, you are holding the pen in the wrong way, put this down. Go ahead, this 6 has been written so clumsy, write it again."


    Another Chinese graduate student says:


    When the toddler was stuck her mother said:

    Nǐ xiǎng shà? Xià yīgè shì shénme? Bǐ ná cuòle. Zhège yào fàng xiàmiàn. Éi! Xiě ba!

    “你想啥?下一个是什么?笔拿错了。 这个要放下面。诶!写吧!”

    "What are you thinking? The next is what (referring what’s the next #) The pen is held wrong (in a wrong position) This should be put lower (referring to the positioning of the pen tip). 诶 was more like yah! Confirming her position is now right. (Now you can) Write!"

    From 00:49

    Āiyā mā ya zhège liù xiě de zhēn kēchěn ń… Chóng xiě ba shíliù

    “哎呀妈呀 这个六写的真磕碜 嗯…重写吧十六”.

    “Aya mom (equivalent to OMG) This 6 is written so ugly/not good looking (kēchěn 磕碜 is a phrase used by Northern region Chinese). Hum ok, Rewrite sixteen”


    Based on her coordination and action/movements I would guess she is maybe somewhere between 3-4?


    kēchen 磕磣

    (Northeastern Mandarin, colloquial) ugly; unattractive
    (Northeastern Mandarin, colloquial) unpresentable; bad; shoddy; shocking

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    January 31, 2021 @ 11:52 pm

    @ David C.
    Being a (British) Army brat, by the age of ten I had attended seven different schools in the UK educational system (two of them being in the Far East). To my recollection, every new one attempted to change my handwriting style in some way, resulting in (a) my handwriting being erratic and (b) a resolution to write in whatever way _I_ found preferable.

    One outcome of (b) was that I decided the conventional ways of writing 'E' were inefficient, and henceforth wrote it as a capital 'C' plus a 'middle' horizontal, reducing the number of strokes from four (or three if one counts 'L' as one) to two.

    Another was that, having encountered the numeral 7 handwritten with a central bar to differentiate it from 1 with a prominent upper serif, as is common outside the UK, I adopted that form.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 12:11 am

    Graduate student #3:


    The mother says:

    Nǐ xiǎng shà ne, xià yīgè shì shénme? Bǐ ná cuòle, zhège fàng xiàmiàn. Éi! Xiě ba!


    "What are you thinking of? What's the next one? You're holding the pen wrong. Put this below. Ai! Write it!"

    I think the little girl is two or three years old (still too young to learn to write I think).


    Graduate student #4:


    I checked the video several times. I believe that when the girl got stuck, the mom first said:

    Nǐ xiǎng shà ne xià yīgè shì shénme? Bǐ ná cuòle, zhège fàng xiàmiàn, āi xiě ba


    "What are you thinking, what's the next one? The way of holding a pen is wrong, put this (one of her finger) under the pen. Right, go ahead."

    Then after the girl said "16", her mom said (in Northeastern topolect):

    Āiyā mā ya zhège 6 zhēn kēchěn


    "OMG this '6' looks so ugly".

    Then the last sentence she said is:

    Chóng xiě zhè 16


    "Rewrite this '16'".

    I think this girl is around 3-4 years old and I got the same answer from my mom! My mom said kids under 2 years old are often too young to sit still for a while and do writing.

    I have a question for you too! You mentioned that this girl does not write the numerals the same way as you do, I feel quite interested in this and would like to know what's the difference in the way you look at it. Because, to my sense, most of the Chinese kids are learning numerals in this way. It turns out that this "consistent system" caught your interest as well!


    I told this student:


    Almost every numeral she writes is different from the way I write them. For example, I write the top horizontal stroke of "5" first, and she writes it last.


    To which the graduate student replied:


    I never thought about how I write 5, so I did one with my finger on the table and discovered that I write the horizontal stroke last!!!! That is actually quite interesting. I did not realize this difference before, I thought it is just an individual difference of habit. Now I see that It seems to be a cultural difference.


  7. Philip Taylor said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 12:34 am

    Never having had children of my own, but based on my experience of two youngsters, one Vietnamese, one Aotearoan, she looks somewhere between 15 & 18 months to me. But very impressive skills, as others have observed.

    "Éi!" (as in "Éi! Xiě ba!") was new to me — is this a recognised Pinyin spelling of an attested word in Putonghua, or is it a Pinyin spelling of a topolectal interjection ?

  8. Thomas said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 5:30 am

    It always struck me as very odd if not wrong when my Chinese teacher wrote an "f" on the blackboard and started with the horizontal stroke.

  9. Emil said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 6:39 am

    Writing the top stroke of 5 first feels very odd to me. Writing it last feels like it actually follows the flow of the previous stroke (i.e. you lift the pen for a bit but continue the circular motion until you're at the top).

  10. jaap said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 7:36 am

    I went to school in the UK and the Netherlands, and in both was taught to write the 5 with the top stroke last. The biggest difference in the numerals was the digit 8. In the uk it is started at the highest point, moving left (so the top loop is drawn anti-clockwise but in two parts, the bottom loop is drawn clockwise). The Dutch way starts in the centre, and goes in the opposite direction around the bottom loop first (anti-clockwise around the bottom loop, clockwise around the top, usually with the start and end point not quite meeting each other).

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 7:57 am

    My father worked in a large factory as a highly skilled machine tool operator. He was always the most efficient, most productive worker out of hundreds of others in the factory. Because of his extraordinary productivity, the company had motion study and time study experts examine his work habits, and they discovered that he naturally chose the most efficient routines in whatever tasks he encountered.

    I think the same types of analyses could be applied to the writing of numerals, letters, and characters as well. Since one repeats the same motions thousands of times in the course of writing a lengthy document, using inefficient sequences could add up to a lot of wasted energy and time.

    The same holds true for washing dishes, mowing lawns, and practically any other activity that involves numerous goal-directed repetitions.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 8:11 am

    "The biggest difference in the numerals was the digit 8. In the uk it is started at the highest point, moving left (so the top loop is drawn anti-clockwise but in two parts, the bottom loop is drawn clockwise)" — not if one is taught draughtsmanship. For a draughtsman, a figure 8 consists of two separate horizontally-aligned circles, one above the other, touching tangentially. The direction in which the circles are drawn depends on whether the draughtsman is left-handed or right-handed. In some organisations (maybe all, I have no way of knowing), the upper circle is drawn a little smaller than the lower.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 8:44 am

    Vaguely relevant to Thomas' comment above, I find that if I write my wife's given names (Lệ Khanh) in the canonical order (letter-diacritic [circumflex] immediately following letter "e", tone marker [dot-under] added only when the word is complete), the under-dot sits nicely balanced under the "e". If I write her given names in non-canonical order (tone marker added immediately after the letter "e", followed by the circumflex), the dot almost invariably appears displaced to the right by half an em or more …

  14. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 9:07 am

    i was thought an experimental sort of handwriting that was closer to print than traditional handwriting in my third year of school. It was apparently never widely adopted, and by my fourth year we hade move across the country, and my teachers at my new school considered making me relearn handwriting the "proper" way. Eventually they decided not to, one the logic that my handwriting was "ugly but legible".

    My handwriting continued to attract variants of that judgement for as long as I regularly wrote by hand; these days I rarely writing anything but grocery lists and post-it notes by hand, and those consist of a mixture of debased handwriting, print letters, and illegible squiggles.

  15. bks said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 10:25 am

    I changed schools in the middle of the second grade. In the first we had reached only P in cursive capitals, in the second they had already finished the alphabet. To this day when writing cursive capitals Q and Z I use the block letters.

  16. Martha said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 12:45 pm

    On stroke order: I teach English to adults. I had a class playing hangman once, and a Chinese student was at the board leading the game. Without having heard the letter her classmate had called out, I watched her write an unrecognizable symbol on the board. I asked her what letter it was. She told me it was a P, and I realized she had written a perfect P. But she had drawn the loop first, so I had no idea what she was doing while she was doing it.

  17. Daniel Barkalow said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 5:05 pm

    I first learned to write cursive, which I reportedly did quite well. Then I went to a school that thought that students had to learn to print before they could be taught cursive, so I had to learn to print and not do cursive, and I changed schools again before they taught me cursive, leaving me with the idea that cursive is some weird thing people don't do any more. 15 years later, I realized that while printing quickly and trailing the pen on the paper, I had almost entirely replicated cursive, only with variable line weights. Then I started using Palm graffiti and lost the ability to get a sequence of normally-formed letters next to each other on paper at all.

    The thing that startles me is when people write "x" with two semicircles. I am always amazed that this results in an unexceptional letter when the strokes are unlike any I use.

  18. L. said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 6:48 pm

    She is smug and thinks she is better than I am.

  19. Michael Watts said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 7:19 pm

    "Éi!" (as in "Éi! Xiě ba!") was new to me — is this a recognised Pinyin spelling of an attested word in Putonghua, or is it a Pinyin spelling of a topolectal interjection ?

    Well, the interjection is common as dirt and not regionalized at all. It might be more traditionally spelled ai. I see some conflicting data points: ABC says 诶 is "ai". CC-CEDICT says "ei". Google pinyin input and Microsoft pinyin input both seem to agree that it is ei and isn't ai.

    I have no idea how pronunciation is chosen, but you can hear 冯提莫 using "ei" here – – where the official lyrics say 哎. I tend to assume people use the pronunciation that comes to them in the moment.

  20. Julian said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 8:43 pm

    I write X with two straight strokes crossing normally, but as two semicircles in mathematics.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    February 2, 2021 @ 3:47 am

    " two semicircles in mathematics" — to clearly differentiate an "x" from a multiplication sign, I assume.

    Incidentally, when I first was taught mathematics (or "sums", since this was primary school in the 1950s), I was taught to write a decimal fraction with a middle dot (3·14159 …). Once keyboards gained traction, and lacking a centered dot, people started typing such numbers with a full stop (U+002E), i.e., 3.14159. Being very reticent to accept change in my own lifetime, I still write decimal fractions with a middle dot (U+00B7). Am I alone ?

    Michael, yes, it was purely the spelling about which I was asking — I am very familiar with the sound of "Éi!"

  22. chris said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 11:19 pm

    I'm surprised to see the discussion of which stroke to write first for 5, because I write a 5 as one stroke, starting at the top right. Is that just me?

    Maybe that's why I feel like it can be hard to distinguish from capital S, although in actual use you usually know whether to expect a letter or a number.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    February 5, 2021 @ 5:16 am

    I too write a "5" as one continuous stroke, Chris, starting top-right, but as I make the upper line intentionally concave [1] there is little risk of it being read as an upper-case "S".
    [1] So curve, point of inflection, near-vertical straight line, point of inflection, curve.

  24. Kate Bunting said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 2:49 pm

    Yes, I still write the decimal point as a middle dot.

  25. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 4:28 pm

    Back in university, my statistics teacher, who was English and ought be around seventy by now, used a mid-dot as decimal separator. I thought it was confusing because I was used to the mid-dot as a multiplication sign.

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