Ethnic Minority Children Learn to Read and Write in Chinese Using Different Strategies than Native Chinese Children

There has been a growing concern about ethnic minority (EM) children’s Chinese language learning in Hong Kong. Given the disadvantages EM children in Hong Kong suffer because of their relatively poor Chinese language skills, a research team led by Prof. Catherine McBride from the Department of Psychology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), conducted a study on how such children learn to read and write Chinese characters. Along with Professor McBride, the team consisted of Ms. Judy Leung from the Department of Psychology at CUHK, Dr. Yanling Zhou from the Department of Childhood Early Education at The Education University of Hong Kong, Dr. Ying Wang from the Department of Psychology, the University of Michigan, Prof. Malatesha Joshi from Texas A&M University, and Prof. Jo Ann Farver from the University of Southern California. The team compared different methods for teaching and learning Chinese characters and correlates of reading and dictation in Chinese. Their findings have been published in Language, Cognition and Neuroscience and the Journal of Research in Reading.

Two approaches to examine Chinese learning skills of EM and Chinese children

The study involved 34 EM children from Indian, Nepalese, or Pakistani backgrounds and 29 native Chinese (Cantonese-speaking) children from the second and third grades. In the first part of the study, children were tested in different cognitive and linguistic skills, as well as in word reading and word writing in both Chinese and English.

In the second part, children were trained to learn to read and write 16 Chinese characters in each of four different ways in order to determine whether any of the four yielded faster learning. These four ways were memorization (look-say), radical learning, copying, and phonological, which involved spelling the name of the character using the Roman alphabet under the character (similar to using Pinyin for Mandarin learning).  Each technique was selected for a particular reason. Memorization is a traditional method. Radical learning focuses children on components of Chinese characters to make them more meaningful. Copying is another traditional method for teaching Chinese, involving writing the character to remember it. Finally, the phonological technique is often used in mainland China for teaching Mandarin.

Correlates of word reading and word spelling in Chinese and English of the two groups were examined

The research yielded several findings. First, the Chinese children scored better than the EM children on Chinese word reading, dictation, and vocabulary knowledge, among other skills. However, the EM children scored higher on the English tasks. More importantly, the two groups showed different patterns of correlations among all skills. The Chinese group showed moderate to strong associations of both character reading and spelling with Chinese morphological awareness and visual spatial skills; the EM group did not. In contrast, the EM group showed moderate to strong associations of both character reading and dictation with phonological awareness, or awareness of the sounds of Chinese; the Chinese group did not show this pattern. However, both the EM and the Chinese groups showed strong associations of both word reading and spelling in English with phonological awareness. These results suggested that EM children might over rely on knowledge of speech sounds to learn Chinese, as well as English, whereas Chinese children rely on more analytic strategies focused on meaning and visual configuration for Chinese learning, but speech sounds to learn English.

EM children should practise copying and use phonological knowledge in learning Chinese

Results from the second part of the study revealed some differing patterns as well.  The copying condition best facilitated the writing of Chinese characters for both groups. However, the radical knowledge technique facilitated character recognition for the Chinese but not the EM children, whereas the phonological condition best facilitated reading Chinese for the EM children only.

The team suggested that teaching children Chinese should be geared toward the strengths of learners.  As with native learners, teachers can assist EM children to practise copying to facilitate character learning and also to use their phonological knowledge to help them learn.  For example, teaching jyutping and coding jyutping in textbooks can help EM children to memorize and pronounce the Chinese characters that they learn at school. In addition, special features of Chinese characters, including morphological (focused on units of meaning) patterns, should be emphasized early and explicitly to EM children.

There is a pressing need for more materials that are explicitly designed for non-native speakers of Cantonese to learn Cantonese effectively. While many such materials exist for the learning of Mandarin, there are few for Cantonese, a language that is already more difficult for many foreigners to learn than Mandarin anyway. The team hopes that these findings can help educators to design better materials to help teach Chinese as a foreign language in an effective way. Many of these ideas and techniques are discussed further on the team’s website on early Chinese literacy development, which can be found at

This research project is funded by the Public Policy Research Funding Scheme from the Central Policy Unit of the HKSAR Government.

Source from Communications and Public Relations Office at CUHK