Literacy Interventions for Chinese Children
The awareness of the sound structure of oral language and includes the ability to break words into syllables, syllables into onsets and rimes, and onsets and rimes into individual sounds (e.g., cat is made up of k-a-t).
The ability to break words into their individual morphemes (smallest meaningful units) and derive meaning from them (e.g., ‘projects’ breaks in to ‘project’ and the plural –s, meaning there is more than one project).
Smallest meaningful unit in a word.
A single sound in a language.
When the letter or symbol is always pronounced in the same way (English does not have a regular letter-sound correspondence).
The onset of the word is the initial sound and the rime is the rest of the word (usually vowel + consonant). For example, in the word ‘bird’, the onset is /b/ the rime is /ird/.
Is a word that is pronounced the same as another word but has a different meaning.
A form of book reading between an adult and a child involving a shared discussion.
Recent years have seen a rapid increase in research on Chinese children’s literacy development. By contrast, research on reading disability in Chinese children is just beginning to emerge. Compared to many alphabetic languages, the number of intervention studies in Chinese is small, and most intervention studies target normally developing children rather than children who are dyslexic or at risk for reading difficulties. This paper discusses Chinese literacy interventions among normally developing and at-risk/dyslexic children. It addresses three areas where research evidence is available: phonological awareness
(PA), character structure, and morphological awareness
Recent Research Results
Interventions on Phonetic Coding Systems and Phonological Awareness
Chinese uses a logographic orthography wherein characters represent syllables and morphemes
rather than phonemes
, as in alphabetic languages. Thus, the letter-sound correspondence that exists in alphabetic languages such as English does not apply to Chinese. Beginning Chinese readers use phonetic coding systems (i.e., Pinyin in Mainland China and Zhu-Yin-Fu-Hao in Taiwan) to learn character pronunciations. Both systems have completely regular letter-sound correspondence
. Pinyin is a Romanization system used to teach the standard pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese in Mainland China. Tone marks placed over vowels are used to represent the four tones in Mandarin. For example, the syllable /ma/ can be combined with each of the four tones: high level (mā ), rising (má), falling rising (mǎ), and high falling (mà). Zhu-Yin-Fu-Hao consists of alphabetic symbols that are printed on the right side of a character to represent the pronunciation. For instance, the Zhu-Yin-Fu-Hao for the character
. Children in Mainland China and Taiwan receive concentrated instruction on the phonetic coding systems as soon as they enter Grade 1. These systems then serve as tools to teach the pronunciations of new characters.
Because the letter-sound correspondence in the phonetic coding systems is completely regular, learning these systems facilitates PA among Chinese children (e.g., Anderson & Li, 2006; Siok & Fletcher, 2001). A number of studies have found that children in Mainland China or Taiwan develop more advanced PA than children in Hong Kong, who learn to read Chinese characters without the help of any phonetic coding systems (Huang & Hanley, 1995; McBride-Chang, Bialystok, Chong, & Li, 2004). Research has also shown that Chinese children in Mainland China experience a big boost in PA, particularly phonemic awareness, from Kindergarten to Grade 1, because of the Pinyin instruction they receive at the beginning of Grade 1 (e.g., Lin & Chen, 2008; Shu, Peng, & McBride-Chang, 2008).
Only a small number of intervention studies have examined the effects of phonological awareness instruction on the development of PA and character reading in Chinese readers with reading difficulties (Chung, 2004; Lin, 2004; Wang, 2000). These studies, all conducted in Taiwan, provided children with typical PA exercises such as sound discrimination, categorization, deletion, and blending. In addition, they offered activities to improve children’s Zhu-Yin-Fu-Hao skills and to strengthen the correspondence between characters and their pronunciations. All the intervention studies significantly improved children’s PA. The effect on character reading, however, was weak. Only one study (Chung, 2004) reported that the treatment group made more gains in character reading than did the control group.
There may be several reasons why PA interventions do not have a strong facilitating effect on Chinese character learning. As mentioned earlier, Chinese is a logographic writing system where characters represent syllables rather than phonemes. Although PA is related to word (character) reading in Chinese, the relationship is generally weaker than that in alphabetic languages (McBride et al., 2005). In a study identifying the subtypes of dyslexia among Chinese children, Ho, Chan, Chung, Lee, and Tsang (2007) did not find any cases of phonological dyslexia. This study suggests that a phonological deficit is not the main cause of reading difficulties among Chinese children. Furthermore, the length and intensity of PA interventions may also be a factor. Chung (2004)’s intervention was the most intensive among the three studies, offering twenty two 40-minute sessions in seven weeks.
Among different aspects of PA, syllable awareness seems to be most strongly related to character reading (e.g., Chow, McBride-Chang, & Burgess, 2005; McBride-Chang et al., 2005; Siok & Fletcher, 2001). This is consistent with the fact that the syllable is the most salient phonological unit in Chinese. Thus, a PA intervention that focuses on syllable awareness and considers the developmental sequence of PA, moving gradually to onset-rime awareness
and to tone awareness may be most beneficial. PA training alone may not effectively enhance character reading. A literacy intervention in Chinese should also include other components, such as character structure and morphological awareness, as we will discuss in the following sections.
The majority of Chinese characters (about 80% to 90%) are semantic-phonetic compound characters that consist of semantic radicals and phonetic radicals. The former provide information about meaning and the latter offer clues about pronunciation (Chow et al., 2008; Ho & Bryant, 1997; Shu et al., 1997). For example, the character
/xún/ (ask) is comprised of the semantic radical
(talk) and the phonetic radical
/xún/. In a fully regular compound character, the phonetic radical supplies information about all three of the phonological elements (i.e., onset, rime, and tone) required for the pronunciation of a Chinese syllable (e.g.,
/yiú/). There are also many semi-regular characters, in the sense that the phonetic radical offers partial information about pronunciation (Shu et al., 2003). For example,
/jīng/ and the phonetic radical
/qīng/ have the same rime but different onsets. Finally, some compounds are irregular, wherein the phonetic radical provides no useful information about pronunciation.
Chinese children use phonological information to read semantic-phonetic compound characters (Anderson, Li, Ku, Shu, & Wu, 2003; Ho & Bryant, 1997; Ho, Wong, & Chan, 1999; Shu, Anderson, & Wu, 2000). In particular, they employ two phonological strategies: they read a semantic-phonetic compound character (e.g.,
/bàn/) by directly using information in the phonetic radical
/bàn/, or by indirectly making an analogy to another compound character with the same phonetic radical (e.g.,
/bàn/). The latter is also used for characters with bound phonetic radicals. The phonetic radical is helpful even when it only provides partial information, as in semi-regular characters (Anderson, et al. 2003; He, Wang, & Anderson, 2005; Ho & Bryant, 1997). Similarly, information in the semantic radical helps children infer the meaning of Chinese characters (Chan & Nunes, 1998; Ho, Wong, & Chan, 1999; Shu & Anderson, 1997).
Training in phonological strategies has been reported to improve children’s reading and writing skills. Ho and Ma (1999) provided 15 Chinese dyslexic children whose mean age was 8 years and 8 months with five training sessions. The children were taught structures of compound characters and the function of the phonetic radical in regular, semi-regular, and irregular characters. After the training, the experimental group outperformed the control group on Chinese word reading and character reading.
Wu et al. (2009) conducted a large-scale intervention study involving 169 Chinese first and second graders in Beijing, China. Children learned to identify and analyze the meaning and pronunciation of the semantic and phonetic radicals within target characters and use these characters to make words. The one-year intervention had substantial positive effects on reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. A similar one-year intervention study conducted by Packard et al. (2006) with 144 first graders in Beijing, China, improved children’s ability to write Chinese characters from memory. Taken together, these studies suggest that systematic instruction on character structure improves the literacy skills of dyslexic as well as normally developing children.
Morphological Awareness Intervention
Morphological awareness, or the ability to reflect on morphemes (the smallest unit of meaning) and word structure, is particularly important for learning to read Chinese (e.g., Ku & Anderson, 2003; Shu, McBride-Chang, Wu, & Liu, 2006). The majority of words in Chinese are compounds composed of two morphemes. Chinese morphemes are highly productive. For example, the morpheme pen
/bĭ/ forms many compound words including pencil
/qiānbĭ/, red pen
/hóngbĭ/, and calligraphy brush
/máobĭ/. If a child understands that a word that ends with the morpheme
/bĭ/ is some type of pen, the meanings of these words become easier to grasp. Another salient feature of Chinese is that it has a large number of homophones
. One syllable often corresponds to a number of different morphemes and characters. For example, the syllable /xī/ can mean west
and is represented by
Chow, McBride-Chang, Cheung, and Chow (2008) conducted a 12-week intervention study among 148 Hong Kong kindergarteners. The children were divided into four conditions: dialogic reading
, dialogic reading plus morphology training, typical reading, and control. The morphological training taught children to identify morphosyllabic properties of words by making morphological analogies. For example, children learned the word carrot king
/luóbōwáng/ in a story, and were asked to construct a new word to describe a big watermelon. The answer was watermelon king
/xīguāwáng/. Children were also taught to distinguish homophones. Results showed that children in the dialogic reading plus morphology training condition made more gains in morphological awareness and word recognition than the other conditions.
Two studies described in the Character Structure
section above (Packard et al., 2006; Wu et al., 2009) also contained a morphological awareness component, designed to help children understand the meaning of compound words. For example, children were required to form new words with a target character and analyze the relationship among these words. These studies indicate that Chinese children benefit from an intervention combining character structure and morphological awareness training. Based on limited research, it seems that successful morphological interventions teach children to analyze character and word structure and distinguish homophones.
Research conducted in other languages sheds light on how to conduct an effective morphological awareness intervention in Chinese. Arnbak and Elbro (2000) engaged dyslexic Danish children in various morphological activities, including segmenting compounds into morphemes, analyzing the semantic relation between root words, and producing existing and novel compounds. In particular, one activity was designed to help children understand that the meaning of a compound word is affected by how its constituent morphemes are combined together. Compound structure affects word meaning in Chinese in a similar fashion (e.g., tears
/yǎnlèi/- eyes with tears
/lèiyǎn/), and so morphological activities such as this are likely to be beneficial for Chinese children.
Conclusion and Future Directions
Literacy interventions for Chinese children have focused on PA, character structure, and morphological awareness. The available research seems to indicate that interventions on character structure and morphological awareness are more effective in enhancing children’s reading skills than interventions on PA, probably because the Chinese orthography is morpheme-based. However, any conclusion made at this point is tentative, because the number of intervention studies is very small. Furthermore, the morphological inventions have only involved normally developing children. It is not clear whether the same results can be extended to at-risk or dyslexic children. Future research needs to address this issue.
Due to lack of research, even less is known about reading problems and interventions in Chinese immigrant children acquiring English as a second language. PA skills have been shown to transfer between bilingual children’s two languages (e.g., Durgunoglu, Nagy, & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993). For bilingual Chinese-English speaking children, PA developed in Chinese is related to literacy skills in English, and vice versa (e.g., Gottardo, Yan, Siegel, & Wade-Woolley, 2001). Thus, a PA intervention can be given in either a child’s first or second language. By contrast, transfer of morphological awareness is more restricted and is dependent upon many factors such as children’s vocabulary levels in the two languages (Ramirez, Chen, Geva, & Kiefer, 2010). It is not clear whether morphological awareness developed in Chinese is related to English literacy skills. In any case, Chinese-English bilingual children’s reading problems and treatment are a new research area waiting to be explored.
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