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.
我們過往於中國內地進行的研究發現，拼音知識對於學習中文字特別有用。JINGER PAN教授及其研究團隊一份刊登於教育心理學學術期刊的報告顯示，當控制（statistically control）內地兒童的中文字彙知識水平後： 5歲的拼音知識仍然與十歲的中文閱讀能力有正相關關係。這意味著早期的拼音知識似乎對內地兒童的中文學習有著獨特的影響。此影響不但獨立於兒童的識字能力，而且效果非常顯著。為什麼呢？
過往針對字母語言（alphabetic language, 如:法文、德文、西班牙文及英文）的閱讀研究顯示， 語音意識（phonological awareness，即是操控及辨認語音的能力）往往最能預測兒童早期的讀字表現。我們相信，中國內地的中文教學法令語音辨識能力變得尤其重要。此能力可以透過連繫拼音和字型，來輔助孩子學習更快地識別文字。此外，拼音不僅能透過分割聲母韻母來迫使孩子注意音節，還能讓孩子更有意識地運用拼音系統。此拼音系統能影響整個文字的接收模式。, Clare Wood教授, Lesly Wade-Woolley教授及其團隊的研究發現，兒童對重音(stress)的意識能獨立地預測閱讀能力的發展（重音的例子：英文小提琴－violin的重音位於第一個音節/vio/）。此發音處理過程稱為超切份處理（suprasegmental processing）－因為我們處理單字的發音時，不但把單字的切份（音節）合成，還得考慮重音輕音如何影響發音。粵語以及普通話中的聲調都牽涉超切份處理。張謙教授過往一篇於內地合作的研究結果顯示，讀寫障礙的兒童會有辨別聲調的問題。相比之下，能夠輕鬆辨別聲調的孩子的閱讀過程則較為輕鬆。