The influence of different instructional presentations upon meaning and pronunciation acquisition in character learning was examined. High school students learned to identify a series of characters in terms of their associated pinyin and English translation prompts. Acquisition was shown to proceed more rapidly when the Chinese character was presented before rather than after the prompts. The addition of colour‐coded prompts led to superior learning. Retention over two weeks was greater in the case of characters presented before prompts with colour‐coding. These data are interpreted in terms of split attention, which arises when learners attend to multiple inputs simultaneously, and the beneficial effects of attending to a character prior to its prompts. The presentation of the Chinese character first and then its pinyin and colour‐coded English translation is recommended. Copyright © 2007 Taylor & Francis.