Some may be scared off to learn that at one point there were as many as 50 000 different Chinese characters (by some estimates). Fortunately, this number has been whittled down to about 6500 for simplified computer fonts (double that for traditional fonts). That is still a big number for anyone to tackle, so the question becomes how many characters should a Chinese learner learn and how do you know which characters to learn?
The common standard to answer this question is to use a typical newspaper in Mainland China. Studies are regularly conducted to note which characters are most commonly used in printed media. To achieve 100% recognition of the characters used in a newspaper, you would need to know about 3000 characters (4000 for traditional characters in Taiwan). It is common to find dictionaries that only focus on these 3000 characters. So now that you know what the goal is, the question becomes how do you go about learning them? Do you just turn to page one of the dictionary and start learning a few characters per day? You could, but there is a much easier (and more efficient) way.
You only need to learn the 400 most commonly used characters to get to the level of 67% recognition. So it makes sense to study these 400 characters first, before moving on to the lesser used ones. Each time you see a character you know again, you are reinforcing that recognition pattern in your mind. Additionally, the process becomes easier, since in the process of learning, you will also be learning the radicals involved, so new characters will just involve modifying characters you already know, rather than having to learn them from scratch. Once you get to this magic 400 mark, you can then work on learning the next 600 characters, which will get you all the way to 88% recognition level.
As easy as this sounds, many study materials out there DON’T use this concept. A quick glance at a couple of textbooks teaching how to write characters showed one teaching the character for dragon (the 659th most common character), another teaching the character for fire (427th most common) and another teaching the character for busy (672nd most common). And this was the first lesson! It is easy to see why many students may give up learning how to read and write, when having to use methods like this.