How to: Anki SRS + Learning Shorthand from a Manual = Magic

I’ve wanted to learn shorthand for a long time. In the mid-oughts, I bought a physical copy of The Gregg Shorthand Manual Simplified – Second Edition by John Robert Gregg, Louis A. Leslie, and Charles E. Zoubek. At the time, I tried following the book but it didn’t take. The book sat on my bookshelf for more than 15 years and moved across the country twice in that time.

Discovering Anki

I read Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever last Autumn. This book provides specific instruction on how to leverage spaced repetition systems (flashcards with a system for how often you should see each card) for learning languages. I am in the midst of rebuilding my French language vocabulary using Anki, a computer-based spaced repetition system mentioned in Gabe’s book. While I was adding my first cards to Anki, it occurred to me that I might be able to use Anki to finally learn shorthand at the same time, so I loaded in the first lesson and gave it a shot. I now have a shorthand “vocabulary” of about 250 words and brief forms and have entered all of the individual words & brief forms in the Gregg book up to and including Lesson 11, with over 250 words & brief forms (566 cards) not yet seen.

The purpose of this post is to go into detail on how I set up my Gregg shorthand Anki deck. You could use any shorthand system you like, but you will need access to images of letter, word, and brief form outlines to compare against.

Setting Up Anki for Learning Shorthand

Let me begin with an important bit of Anki terminology: a note is an information pair – a question and an answer. From one note, you can have Anki generate one or more cards, which is what you’ll see when you review. If your question/answer pair is structured to allow reviewing in reverse (so you see the answer and have to recall the question), you can have Anki automatically create a second card from the same note that does this.

Repurpose as Needed

In card templating, I am cheating a bit and using the “Picture Card” templates that are available for free download from the Fluent Forever website’s “Gallery” page. These card templates are set up to produce two to three cards per vocabulary item “note” (letters, words, brief forms, practice sentences, etc). The note creation template has five fields: word, picture, information, pronunciation, and spelling-check. This template can create the following cards: a card that shows you the word and you must recall what is in the “picture” field and speak the word correctly; a card that shows you the picture and you must recall what is in the word field and speak the word correctly, and; a card that shows you the picture and plays a recording of the word being spoken (you provide the recordings here) and you must correctly spell the word. The “check spelling” field is a y/n question that defaults to no.

Let’s Get Down to Brass Tacks

So how did I leverage this card template for shorthand?

  • I extracted images of the example shorthand outlines in the book:
    • I used my phone to take photos of the shorthand outline examples in the book, starting with lesson 1
    • I copied the photos over to my computer and used the Windows Snipping Tool to collect grabs that only include the shorthand outlines – one for each long-hand vocab item.
    • For letters that are similar (s/f/v, r/l, k/g, etc), I took a grab of the entire example row, blotted out the alpha identifiers, and saved multiple copies, each with an arrow pointing at one of the shorthand outlines.
    • Save yourself some future headaches and name your snipped images after the words they represent, and put them into either a single folder or a set of folders organized by lesson.
  • I sat down with Anki and my book and added notes in the order that letters/words/brief forms appear in the book. You can drag/drop images from a folder into any Anki field if that makes it easier.
  • I put the long-hand letter, word, or brief form in the “word” field. Letters and brief forms are labeled as such in this field to differentiate cards (because most letters are also used as brief forms). I add the same label to the picture field as well because I also need to know this information when shown the reverse card.
  • I dropped the matching image into the “picture” field
  • In the “extra info” field, which only appears on card backs, I included a glyph of the letters/sounds used and any section notes for that outline type. I formatted the glyphs like this:


[th-e-r-o] the e represents the obscure o/u sound

  • Each individual letter/sound in the glyph is separated from the others either by a dash (most of the time) or a space (for disjointed strokes).
  • And finally, I add some tags at the bottom.
    • Each note in this deck is tagged “gregg”
    • Each word is tagged “words”
    • Each letter/sound is tagged “letters-sounds”
    • Each brief form is tagged “brief-forms”
    • Each item from a particular lesson is tagged with that lesson number.
    • Each comprehension sentence is tagged “reading-comprehension”
    • Each non-alpha symbol (numerals & punctuation) is tagged “symbols”

Time to Learn!

Once you’ve loaded a bunch of notes, it’s time to study! I have this deck set to introduce 10 new cards each day I study. Because it’s spaced repetition, I also review the cards that are due at the same time. On average, I see 5 reviews each day (but remember I’m studying other decks, too).

If you add notes in book order, you’ll also see them, new, in the same order. If you mess up and add them out of order, you can reorder them in the browse view. This is where having lesson number tags is valuable.

For each due item, I am either presented with longhand or shorthand. If I see shorthand, I must correctly identify the letter/word/phrase (and remember, if it’s a letter or brief form I’m supposed to be identifying, there’s a label with the shorthand image indicating that). Conversely, if I see longhand, I must take a pen and paper and accurately write out the shorthand. As I progress, I increase the threshold at which I find my shorthand outlines acceptable – because this involves learning new penmanship, not unlike learning calligraphy.

Be the Judge of Your Own Work

After I give or write my response, I click the answer button and am shown the reverse, which includes my letter/sound glyphs and notes about how certain sounds are written. I rate the card’s difficulty: if I got it wrong, it gets reviewed again the same day; if I had to think about it or my penmanship wasn’t great, it gets rated “hard”, if I got it close enough, it gets rated “good” and if I got it quickly and very right, it gets rated “Easy”. Those ratings determine when I will next see that card (Anki shows how much wait time each button adds) and you should do it in whatever way works for you because you are the only person who matters in this situation.

At first, I was also including the reading practice sentences, but that became tedious both in adding new cards and writing out the sentences, so I suspended the writing cards, left the reading comprehension cards, and haven’t added any more – especially as the comprehension examples grow in size from sentences to entire passages.

What I Might Do Later

For reading comprehension exercises, I may just create single cards that reference exercise numbers and keep the book nearby. I might record or download clips of vocab words being spoken and enable “spelling test” card creation to help train myself to write what I hear. Or, I might go find some podcasts with spoken English recorded at a slower pace intended for English-language learners and use them to practice writing what I hear – and then set a delay timer on those transcriptions for me to use for reading comprehension later on (because it’s important that you can read what you’ve written, amirite?). Lesson 11 isn’t even 1/4 of the way through the Gregg book, so I may hold off on transcribing live native speakers speaking at normal speeds, and before I start practicing on those, I might go and transcribe uncaptioned videos played at half-speed – and after I transcribe my transcription into longhand, I might just post the transcription as a comment on the video, because why not also do some volunteer work that helps people?