Early teaching of Chinese literacy skills and later literacy outcomes

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Chicago Library]On: 20 November 2014, At: 21:19Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Early teaching of Chinese literacy skillsand later literacy outcomesHui Li a , Loraine F. Corrie b & Betty Kit Mei Wong ba The University of Hong Kong , Hong Kongb The Hong Kong Institute of Education , Hong KongPublished online: 22 May 2008.

    To cite this article: Hui Li , Loraine F. Corrie & Betty Kit Mei Wong (2008) Early teaching of Chineseliteracy skills and later literacy outcomes, Early Child Development and Care, 178:5, 441-459, DOI:10.1080/03004430600789365

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  • Early Child Development and CareVol. 178, No. 5, July 2008, pp. 441459

    ISSN 0300-4430 (print)/ISSN 1476-8275 (online)/08/05044119 2008 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/03004430600789365

    Early teaching of Chinese literacy skills and later literacy outcomesHui Lia*, Loraine F. Corrieb and Betty Kit Mei WongbaThe University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong; bThe Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong KongTaylor and Francis LtdGECD_A_178884.sgm10.1080/03004430600789365Early Child Development and Care0300-4430 (print)/1476-8275 (online)Original Article2006Taylor & Francis0000000002006HuiLihuili@hkucc.hku.hk

    This study followed 88 children in Beijing and Hong Kong for three years to investigate therelationships between the early teaching of literacy skills and later literacy outcomes. The childrenwere administered the Preschool and Primary Chinese Literacy Scale at the age of five years, andthree years later. Their parents and teachers reported on their involvement in literacy teaching, thehome/classroom literacy environment and their beliefs about language learning. Findings showedthat the Hong Kong cohort significantly surpassed their Beijing counterparts in literacy attainmentsat age five and age eight. After controlling for age, site, maternal education and teacher qualification,formal literacy activities in early childhood significantly contributed to literacy attainment atprimary school, whereas informal literacy experiences did not. Results suggest that the complicatednature of Chinese orthography may make early instruction particularly valuable in Chinese literacyacquisition. The psycholinguistic, pedagogical and sociocontextual accounts and implications ofthese findings are discussed.

    Keywords: Chinese literacy; Early teaching; Later outcomes

    Introduction

    This study investigated the progress in literacy skills of young children living inBeijing and Hong Kong. Children in these two Chinese contexts need to acquireknowledge and skills of the complicated orthography in order to become literate, andyet contrasting approaches to pedagogy are evident in early childhood settings inBeijing and Hong Kong. Hong Kong teachers believe that an early start to formalliteracy teaching is necessary and should begin when children enter early childhoodsettings at the age of two years and eight months. Teachers in Beijing maintain thatinformal literacy practices are best for young children, and the government bans

    *Corresponding author. Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road,Hong Kong. Email: huili@hkucc.hku.hk

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  • 442 H. Li et al.

    formal teaching until the children start primary school at age six (Li & Rao, 2000,2005). The findings of the current study might contribute to the debates concerningthe merits of informal and formal teaching approaches (Snchal et al., 1998;Snchal & LeFevre, 2002), and the age that children may develop literacy skillsthrough formal teaching (Elkind, 2001; Whitehurst, 2001).

    Formal literacy versus informal literacy activities

    Literacy is regarded as an emergent phenomenon that can be facilitated by providingchildren with enriched experience and an environment with printed matter before theyenter school (for example, Teale & Sulzby, 1986). There are two predominant defi-nitions of literacy, each of which has, inevitably, its own ideological basis (Li, 2000).The first definition of literacy, which is the most conventional, popular and common-sense view of the process, embraces literacy as a set of skills, consisting almost exclu-sively of the abilities to read and write in a basic, mechanical sense of these words. Incontemporary dictionaries such as the Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary(Sinclair, 1995), literacy is typically defined as the ability to or being able to read andwrite a designated language. However, the alternative definition of literacy is morerecent and represents a challenge to the orthodoxies of the first one. The new formu-lation stresses the sorts of social practices in which reading, writing and talking areembedded, and out of which they develop, rather than the private, cognitive skills ofindividuals. Over the past two decades, a new body of literature delineating a socio-cultural approach to literacy has emerged, combining work in linguistics, socialpsychology, anthropology and education, and, accordingly, literacy is conceived as aplural set of social practices and as a cultural tool (Carter, 1995; Li, 2000).

    Consequently, a dichotomy is now evident in literacy pedagogies reflecting the twodefinitions of literacy: formal literacy versus informal approach. The formal teachingof literacy is defined as the implementation of a teacher-directed, structured programdesigned to teach specific elements of literacy. The main teaching methods in formalapproaches are instruction, drill, practice and rote learning of written Chinese char-acters. Formal literacy activities focus on the print itself, the written words, and thenames and sounds of specific letters (Smolkin & Yalden, 1992). Informal approachesinclude the frequent use of printed materials for pleasure and information gathering,the arousal of childrens interest and pleasure in books and printed materials, and theheightening of childrens motivation to be involved in literacy experiences. Informalliteracy activities stress the message contained in the print, rather than the print itself(Snchal et al., 1998; Snchal & LeFevre, 2002).

    However, research conducted in western contexts has not established whether ornot formal literacy teaching in early childhood has beneficial effects on childrenslong-term literacy development. Recent debate about whether young children can(Whitehurst, 2001) or cannot (Elkind, 2001) benefit longitudinally from early formalliteracy experiences reflects the dichotomy evident in current literature (Juel, 1988;Rescorla et al., 1991; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998;Lonigan et al., 2000; Whitehurst & Fischel, 2000).

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  • Early Chinese literacy 443

    Elkinds (2001) argument against the early start to formal reading instruction drewon theories formulated by Piaget and Vygotsky, who asserted that reading skillsrequire syllogistic reasoning abilities that typically develop around the age of five orsix. Elkind (2001) maintained that the results of longitudinal studies indicated thatearly academic programs did not support advanced later learning. For example,Rescorla et al. (1991) found that the children attending an academic program did notoutperform the children attending a developmentally appropriate program inacademic performance, but that the children were more anxious and had lower self-esteem. Schweinhart and Weikart (1997) compared the long-term effectiveness ofthree typical preschool curriculum models and concluded that the participants in thenursery school and High/Scope programs had significant advantages over the partic-ipants in the direct instruction program at the age of 23.

    Conversely, Whitehurst (2001) asserted that longitudinal data established thatchildren experienced many benefits from academically oriented kindergartenprograms. For example, Lonigan et al. (2000), Whitehurst and Fischel (2000), andWhitehurst and Lonigan (1998) found that pre-reading skills such as knowledge ofprint, phonological awareness and writing were strong predictors of reading successwell into primary school. Similar findings resulted from a large-scale longitudinalstudy of 22,000 kindergarten children conducted by the National Centre for Educa-tional Statistics (West et al., 2001) that found a strong link between childrenspre-reading skills when they entered school and their later academic performance.Research indicated that direct teaching at kindergarten resulted in gains in pre-reading skills, and the guidance of a parent or older sibling was necessary to helpchildren acquire specific literacy skills at home (such as Crain-Thorson & Dale, 1992;Whitehurst et al., 1994; Evans et al., 2000; Snchal & LeFevre, 2002). In a word,early reading instruction is necessary because the pre-reading skills are not acquiredthrough typical oral interactions, or through enriched literacy environments(Snchal et al., 1998).

    Educators in Beijing and Hong Kong are cognisant of the debate concerning theteaching of literacy in early childhood settings. Informed by western research,Hong Kongs policy-makers have sought to incorporate the best of western peda-gogy into accepted practices in early childhood settings, and informal literacyactivities are promoted repeatedly in the governmental guidelines for pre-primarycurriculum (Li & Rao, 2005). However, there are some particular aspects ofChinese contexts such as Confucian values that may render problematic a simpletransposition of western practices without further investigation, which will bediscussed in the next section.

    Learning and teaching of Chinese literacy in Beijing and Hong Kong

    Chinese is a morphosyllabic writing system in which each character reflects a syllableas well as a unit of meaning or morpheme (Shu, 2003). The character is the basic unitin the writing system and has three levels of orthographic structure: the stroke, strokepattern and character structure. Each character is made up of between one and over

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  • 444 H. Li et al.

    20 different strokes, with the average number of strokes being 11 for the complexcharacters used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and nine for the simplified charactersused in mainland China (Chan, 1982; Seidenberg, 1985). Like the grapheme in thealphabetic system, the stroke does not carry information concerning meaning, but thechange of a stroke changes the meaning and sound of a character (e.g. lost; arrow; husband; and sky).

    The term literacy does not easily translate into Chinese as there is no literalChinese equivalent of English sense of the word. In China, officially, literacy is trans-lated into a Chinese word [shao3 mang2] whose literal translation is eradicat-ing illiteracy (Li, 2000). From an ethnographic perspective, G. A. Postiglione(personal communication, 16 October 1999) translated literacy into [xue2wen2 hua4] meaning learning to be culturalized. However, in the present study wedefined this term in a conventional perspective and used [shi2 zi4] as itsChinese equivalent, which means being able to read Chinese characters. Being liter-ate in Chinese has been defined by the number of characters known, with the bench-mark in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan set between 2500 and 3500 characters(Butcher, 1995; Taylor, 1999). This vast number of characters makes literacy acqui-sition difficult for young children. Worse than that is the complicated orthography ofChinese, which has 600 basic stroke patterns that distinguish the characters, andthere are many homophones and no graphemephoneme correspondence rules (Han,1994; Ho & Bryant, 1999).

    The tremendous challenges in learning to read Chinese have been recognised byeducators and policy-makers in Beijing and Hong Kong. However, interestingly,despite the similarities between the two Chinese contexts, there are many differencesin the linguistic environment, language policies and literacy practices. Beijing is amonolingual society where children are immersed in Putonghua (as the spokenlanguage) and simplified Chinese characters (as the written form). By contrast, HongKong was a colony of Great Britain for many years until 1997, and as a result Chineseand English are the official languages. Cantonese is the spoken Chinese language, andcomplex Chinese characters are the written form. Over 90% of the population speakCantonese and 10% speak English, Putonghua or a minority language (Li & Rao,2000). In addition, the complex Chinese characters are more complicated than thesimplified characters (Chan, 1982; Seidenberg, 1985), and the trilingual environ-ment in Hong Kong is remarkably more complex than the monolingual context inBeijing (Li & Rao, 2000, 2005). Therefore, one would assume that Hong Kongchildren in such a difficult language environment will have more difficulties in acquir-ing Chinese literacy, and, accordingly, their attainments will be lower than theirBeijing counterparts.

    The Beijing educational authority subscribes to a readiness approach to literacydevelopment...