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Title: Developmental stages in reading Chinese as a second language

Author: Kim Suna-A

Degree and Year: Doctor of Philosophy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2010. 


This dissertation investigated whether adult second language (L2) learners of Chinese go through stages when learning to read Chinese characters. A study conducted with preschoolers to 6th graders in China (Chen, 2004) had demonstrated that children whose native language (L1) is Chinese pass through three reading stages (i.e., visual, phonetic, and orthographic) when they learn to read Chinese. These stages are interpreted as analogous to the developmental stages of L1 English readers (i.e., logographic, alphabetic, and orthographic) posited by Ehri (1991).

The two research questions of this study are as follows: (a) Do adult L2 learners of Chinese undergo stages in learning to read Chinese? (b) If so, do the reading stages of adult L2 learners parallel those of L1 Chinesechildren? These questions were examined by conducting two computer-based experiments with 70 college students enrolled in beginning/intermediate Chinese classes in a major US university. In experiment 1, participants learned to read 18 novel Chinese characters divided into three levels of visual distinctiveness of characters: distinctive, normal, and similar sets. In the distinctive set, individual strokes of characters were enhanced to make the characters visually distinctive. The normal set consisted of normal characters, and the similar set consisted of character pairs whose members were visually similar to each other. Experiment 2 required participants to learn 18 new Chinese characters that belong to three different levels of phonetic family consistency: consistent, semi-consistent, and inconsistent.

Logit mixed modeling (Jaeger, 2008) analysis of the data revealed effects of individual participants' working memory spans in experiment 1, such that subjects who had higher working memory spans were better able to learn characters. In experiment 2, an interaction effect between character knowledge and phonetic consistency was found, in which subjects who knew more characters learned the consistent families better than the semi-consistent or the inconsistent families.

The results suggest that adult L2 learners of Chinese go through reading stages in learning to read Chinese, but that the stages are different from those of Chinese children learning to read. It is proposed that when learning to read Chinese characters, adult L2 learners bypass the visual stage and start from the phonetic stage, and then proceed to the orthographic stage as their character knowledge base increases. The absence of a visual stage in the adult L2 learners of Chinese can be explained by positing different character knowledge and/or a cognitive difference between child L1 readers and adult L2 readers. The existence of the phonetic and the orthographic stages in adult L2 reading development dispels a long-held belief that writtenChinese is processed as a whole, and confirms that the phonetic principle plays a significant role in learning to read Chinese. Pedagogical implications of these findings are (a) explicit instruction on the phonetic principle in reading Chinese would be beneficial to the learners, and (b) repetition of simple practice with seeing, hearing, and speaking aloud is effective in learning to read Chinese characters.