New ideas about literacy learning

How is Pinyin useful?


Above: Pinyin forces children to consider small speech segments as represented by letters and rhymes (e.g., fan4--f (onset) -an (rhyme))

We have carried out a few studies in Mainland China that show that Pinyin knowledge is useful for learning Chinese characters. In fact, in one study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology by Jinger Pan and colleagues, we showed that Pinyin knowledge at age 5 was uniquely related to Chinese word reading at age ten, even when we statistically controlled for Chinese character knowledge at age 5. This means that early Pinyin knowledge seems to be independently useful for Chinese learning among Mainland Chinese children. This effect is beyond Chinese character learning, and is also strong. Why?

In studies of alphabetic reading (e.g., of French, German, Spanish, English), the best predictor of early word reading tends to be phonological awareness, the ability to manipulate speech sounds. We think that for Chinese as it is learned in Mainland China, awareness of speech sounds is also important. It helps children learn to identify characters faster if they can link the alphabetic labels with the characters via Pinyin. Moreover, Pinyin not only forces children to consider small speech segments as represented by letters and rhymes (e.g., fan4--f (onset) -an (rhyme)), but it also helps children to become explicitly aware of the tonal system of Mandarin. This tonal system influences perception of the whole character. In English, Clare Wood, Lesly Wade-Woolley, and others have shown that awareness of stress (e.g., we pronounce the word violin as vioLIN and not as VIolin) is an independent predictor of reading success. This is called suprasegmental processing because it covers the whole word. Tonal attributes of words in Chinese is somewhat analogous to this but probably even more important for learning Chinese. Previous studies by Him Cheung and colleagues in Hong Kong and by Wenli Liu, Hua Shu, and Yufang Yang in Mainland China have shown that Chinese children with dyslexia tend to have specific difficulties in identifying lexical tones in Chinese. Those who are skilled in identifying lexical tones tend to have an easier time reading.

Simply put, Pinyin is a system of representing sounds that is easy to master, which in turn makes the sound system of Chinese explicit for children. Children who can understand and use the system easily tend to show a pattern of Chinese character learning that is relatively efficient, even several years later. Thus, parents and teachers who highlight the sound system of Pinyin are helping children to learn Chinese maximally efficiently. It is likely that Zhuyin-Fuhao, a system that looks very different but teaches similar phonological principles of Chinese sounds in Taiwan, has a similar positive effect on children.