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Developing Literacy in Chinese: Varying Views on How We Learn to Read Chinese

September 3, 2013

By Lelan Miller 孟乐岚

Founder of Mandarin Matters in Our Schools in Texas (MMOST) and master’s candidate in Chinese Language Pedagogy

This article is the last in a three part series about developing literacy in the Chinese language. While written primarily for non-Chinese parents with children in primary through high school who are in various stages of developing Chinese literacy, this article may benefit administrators, teachers, and other professionals engaged in Chinese language learning in immersion settings.

Parents and professionals who are involved in Chinese immersion programs often wonder if the approach to learning to read Chinese is the same as learning to read in English. Since English is based on Latin letters, some assume that since pinyin is based on Latin letters, therefore pinyin is essential to learning to read Chinese characters.

The truth of the matter is the early stages of Chinese literacy may take on several different approaches depending on the needs and ages of the learner.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese language learners in the United States simply mastered each character’s meaning and pronunciation by sheer rote memorization. Especially in universities, there were rarely attempts to teach radicals and character components that provided clues to the pronunciation and meaning. Only occasionally would the historical development of a character be introduced in order to understand how past forms of characters influenced present day semantics.

Towards the year 2000 there was a paradigm shift away from this sheer rote memorization approach and moved towards analyzing how children in China and Taiwan approached reading and literacy and then applying it to learners in the U.S..

Chinese speaking children outside the U.S. learn to read with support from pinyin and zhuyin (also called Bopomofo, the syallable-based writing system used in Taiwan instead of pinyin). Instructor-guided analysis of radicals and components of characters also assisted in understanding and retaining characters in both short and long term memory. As the study of Chinese became popular in the U.S,, experts became concerned with the use of pinyin in Chinese literacy instruction. Teachers observed growing over reliance on pinyin among students who struggled with “breaking down” characters to understand how each character’s meaning was “built up” with various components.

Experts in the field of Chinese literacy began to examine more closely how Chinese children learn to read. They noticed that students there learned to associate the visual and graphic properties of Chinese characters with lexical meaning. The use of pinyin reduces and eliminates the dependence on visual and graphic properties of characters which are extremely important to developing literacy in Chinese. Researchers also suggested that the emphasis on pinyin actually hindered Chinese reading and writing development because pinyin decreased study and attention to radicals and reduced the dependence on the visual graphic information contained within characters.

Many immersion programs for this reason do not introduce pinyin in the early grades. Pinyin tends to be introduced in the later grades after a strong foundation of Chinese literacy is built using the logographic nature of the language. Some textbooks will begin with an introduction to pinyin and use pinyin to support words lists at the beginning of a chapter, but the pinyin does not accompany the texts contained in lessons. The instructor then designs lessons and exercises that appropriately instruct the use of radicals and character components as tools for expanding Mandarin literacy.

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