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, UKEarly Child Development and CarePublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/gecd20Early 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:10.1080/03004430600789365To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03004430600789365PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLETaylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (theContent) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis,our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as tothe accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinionsand views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors,and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Contentshould not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sourcesof information. 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Terms &Conditions of access and use can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionshttp://www.tandfonline.com/loi/gecd20http://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1080/03004430600789365http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03004430600789365http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionshttp://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionsEarly Child Development and CareVol. 178, No. 5, July 2008, pp. 441459ISSN 0300-4430 (print)/ISSN 1476-8275 (online)/08/05044119 2008 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/03004430600789365Early 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.hkThis 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 outcomesIntroductionThis 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.hkDownloaded by [University of Chicago Library] at 21:19 20 November 2014 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 activitiesLiteracy 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).Downloaded by [University of Chicago Library] at 21:19 20 November 2014 Early Chinese literacy 443Elkinds (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 KongChinese 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 overDownloaded by [University of Chicago Library] at 21:19 20 November 2014 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, and maintains that physical and neurological maturation is necessaryto allow children to benefit from instruction in reading and writing (Liang et al.,1997). Reminiscent of Elkinds (2001) position, the government has ruled that formalteaching of reading and writing is a waste of time and potentially harmful until chil-dren mature at six or seven years of age. Therefore, the formal teaching of literacyDownloaded by [University of Chicago Library] at 21:19 20 November 2014 Early Chinese literacy 445skills is not allowed in Beijings early childhood settings, and parents and teachers donot expect it to be part of the curriculum (Li & Rao, 2000). The young childrentypically receive informal literacy experiences, as all of the teachers have completedthree years of preservice teacher education, which have equipped them with adequateknowledge of informal literacy practices and the skills to implement them appropri-ately (Li & Rao, 2005).In Hong Kong, young children start to read Chinese characters in their first year ofpreschooling when they may be as young as two years and eight months old (Li &Rao, 2000; McBride-Chang & Ho, 2000). And a deeply entrenched Confucian beliefheld by parents and teachers is that young children must begin their learning as earlyas possible to be well educated. Anecdotal evidence suggests that parents, who payfor early childhood education, demand the formal teaching of literacy skills from thetime the young child begins preschooling (Li & Rao, 2005). It seems that both parentsand teachers value the role of direct teaching in literacy acquisition at home andpreschool. However, the teachers do not have adequate knowledge of language orliteracy development or the skills they need to implement strategies that help childrenbecome literate (Rao & Koong, 1999; Li, 2000). Although informal literacy practicesare promoted in teacher education courses, it seems that teachers are most influencedby the established practices in the field, and the teacher-directed formal teaching ofliteracy skills remains a prominent part of the daily curriculum (see Li & Rao [2005]for classroom observations).The studyThe present study was designed to investigate the effects of formal literacy instruc-tion on childrens later literacy outcomes. Specifically, it examined whether earlyinstruction in literacy skills in preschool correlated with higher literacy achievementsthree years later in primary school. The children from Beijing and Hong Kong wereselected to compare their progress in literacy skills because they had the expectedsimilarities and differences in the Chinese contexts and early Chinese literacy expe-riences.An earlier study (Li & Rao, 2000) compared the literacy skills of these childrenwhen they were three, four and five years of age in Beijing and Hong Kong. Thestudy found that the literacy skills of the Hong Kong cohort were in advance of theBeijing cohort. The current study followed up some children from the Hong Kongand Beijing cohorts of Li and Raos (2000) study, to ascertain whether the HongKong cohort who had received early formal literacy instruction were still in advancethree years later, when compared with the Beijing cohort without formal literacyinstruction. It was possible that the Hong Kong childrens early bloom had faded orthat the Beijing children gained skills rapidly at primary school so that little differ-ence would be evident between the cohorts three years later. If the two cohorts werefound to be equal in literacy skill development, then support would be found for theposition that espouses delay of Chinese literacy instruction until children are aboutsix years of age.Downloaded by [University of Chicago Library] at 21:19 20 November 2014 446 H. Li et al.MethodParticipantsThe target groups for the current study were the 160 children aged four years and sixmonths to five years and six months in the initial study (time 1) by Li and Rao (2000)(mean age = five years, standard deviation = 12 months). Eighty-eight children fromthe original cohort were successfully recruited to participate in the current study (time2). The Beijing children were drawn from four randomly selected early childhoodsettings catering for middle-class families in the Western District, and the Hong Kongchildren were from four early childhood settings catering for middle-class familieslocated in three different areas (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territo-ries). Five children from each class were selected at random to participate in the studywith their parents permission (Li & Rao, 2000).The cohorts in the current study consisted of 44 children in Beijing and 44 in HongKong. The participants in the current study were aged between seven years and sixmonths and eight years and six months (mean age = eight years and one month,standard deviation = 12 months). Accordingly, age differences between the childrenof seven years and six months and eight years and six months were analysed andcontrolled in the data processing. In Beijing, the cohort of 44 children was drawnfrom 23 classes in 12 schools, which made the ratios of student to class 1.9 and ofstudent to school 3.7. In Hong Kong, the cohort of 44 children was drawn from 27classes in 15 schools, which made the ratios of student to class 1.6 and of student toschool 2.9. The children were assessed again and, for most of the current analyses,data were complete for 88 children.The other participants of the initial study were not included in the current studybecause we were not able to trace them back. As shown in Table 1, however, thoseincluded had non-significant differences in mean literacy scores from those in theoriginal sample, and there were no other significant differences between the groupsTable 1. Means and standard deviations for the PPCLS scores at time 1 and time 2 in the Beijing and Hong Kong samplesTime 1 Time 2Sample nAge (years) MeanStandard deviationAge (years) MeanStandard deviationBeijing 44 5 14.91 4.86 8 47.45 21.43Original sample 80 5 15.30 5.76 Compare means t = 0.53 P > 0.50Hong KongOriginal sampleCompare means 44 5 22.10 11.50 8 96.65 41.6780 5 24.13 14.43 t = 0.94 P > 0.10Downloaded by [University of Chicago Library] at 21:19 20 November 2014 Early Chinese literacy 447with regard to the home and school literacy practice and the basic demographic vari-ables; thus the sample attrition was not a major source of bias in the current study(see Li & Rao, 2000 for further details).Parental education attainment in the two societies varied widely. Over 50% ofBeijing mothers received university-level education whereas only 10% of Hong Kongmothers did, which reflects the significant but similar difference in the universityentrance rate between Beijing (52%) and Hong Kong (16%) (Li, 2000). Over 90%of Beijing mothers spoke Putonghua at home; most Hong Kong mothers spoke eitherCantonese (over 70%) or both Cantonese and English (over 25%). Teacher educa-tional attainment in the two societies ranged from completion of junior secondaryschool to undergraduate degree. The teachers in Beijing are better than those in HongKong in the nature, level and time spent on professional training. The mean years ofeducation and professional training for Beijing and Hong Kong teachers are 12.72/4.63 and 11.19/2.24, respectively.MeasuresPreschool and Primary Chinese Literacy Scale. Children were tested with thePreschool and Primary Chinese Literacy Scale (PPCLS) in the first two weeks ofMay by the research assistants who had been trained to be reliable examiners. Theinstrument is comprised of four subscales: subscale A, PictureCharacter Matching(character identification); subscale B, Listen-and-Point (visual and auditorydiscrimination); subscale C, Point-and-Read (word recognition); and subscale D,Read-and-Say (expressive vocabulary). Two hundred testing items were generatedfrom the Chinese language syllabuses for primary schools in Beijing, Hong Kongand Singapore. Subscales A and B each consisted of 25 multiple-choice items. Everyitem had one target character and three distracters chosen for graphic, phonetic andsemantic similarities. Subscales C and D comprised 150 testing items presented ingroups of five according to the rate of utilisation and degree of difficulty. ThePPCLS was found to be a reliable and valid measure of Chinese literacy in otherstudies (Li, 1999; Li & Rao, 2000, 2005; Chow & McBride-Chang, 2003). ThePPCLS also has characteristics of a developmental scale as older children obtainedsignificantly higher scores than younger children. Therefore, the total PPCLS scorewas regarded as the indicator of a childs Chinese literacy attainment and was useddirectly in the data analyses. A full description of these subscales is available in Liand Rao (2000).Home Literacy Environment Index. The Home Literacy Environment Index (HLEI)was developed to elicit information on home reading resources, quality and quantityof parentchild interactions, parental beliefs about and involvements in Chineseliteracy. It consisted of 27 questions and most of the items were rated on a five-pointscale. At time 1, one parent of each of the children completed the HLEI (seeAppendix).Downloaded by [University of Chicago Library] at 21:19 20 November 2014 448 H. Li et al.Classroom Literacy Environment Index. The Classroom Literacy Environment Index(CLEI) was developed to tap teachers beliefs and practices related to Chineseliteracy, classroom literacy resources, reading strategies and teacherchild interac-tions. Most of the items were rated on a five-point scale. At time 1, altogether 32 classteachers (16 for each society) of the 160 children completed the CLEI. As shown inthe Appendix, the HLEI and CLEI contain 22 items that are identical in nature.ResultsUsing 2 (society) 2 (age) 2 (child gender) as between-subject factors, weconducted a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) with the subscale scores ofthe PPCLS at time 1 (age five) and time 2 (age eight) as dependent variables, follow-up analyses of variance (ANOVAs) with the subscale scores as dependent variables,and an ANOVA on the total PPCLS score. The MANOVA and ANOVAs on thePPCLS total score and subscales scores at time 1 and time 2 showed the same patternof results. There were significant main effects for age and society. Unlike the othersubscales, Expressive Vocabulary did not differ across either age or society. Wedecided to focus on the total PPCLS score to examine the influences of early teachingon later literacy attainment, and follow-up tests are reported for this variable. As therewere no gender differences on the PPCLS, the data for boys and girls were pooled forsubsequent analyses.Societal differences in Chinese literacy attainments at time 1 and time 2The descriptive statistics for the 88 children on the measure of Chinese literacyattainments at time 1 and time 2 are reported in Table 1. Using 2 (society) 2 (age)as between-subject factors, a MANOVA was conducted with the PPCLS total scoresat time 1 and time 2 as dependent variables. Overall, the MANOVA results indicatedthe following: there were significant main effects of age at time 1 [F (1,86) = 39.29,p < 0.001, 2 = 0.329, power = 1.00], and time 2 [F (1,86) = 90.01, p < 0.001, 2 =0.704, power = 1.00]; and there were significant main effects of society at time 1 [F(1,86) = 10.18, p < 0.005, 2 = 0.113, power = 0.89] and time 2 [F (1,88) = 68.24,p < 0.001, 2 = 0.460, power = 1.00]. Further t tests indicated that older childrendiffered significantly from younger children in both samples, and the same group chil-dren did significantly better in PPCLS at time 2 than they did at time 1. Specifically,the Hong Kong children significantly outperformed their counterparts in Beijing attime 1 and time 2 (see Figure 1).Figure 1. Mean PPCLS scores at time 1 and time 2 in the Beijing ( n = 44) and Hong Kong (n = 44) samplesSocietal differences in Chinese literacy practicesInformal literacy activities. The majority of teachers in Beijing (95.0%) and HongKong (70.5%) did set a definite time for reading Chinese stories to their children,whereas few parents in Beijing (34.1%) and less in Hong Kong (15.0%) did so athome. The majority of teachers (75%) and parents (70.5%) in Beijing indicated thatDownloaded by [University of Chicago Library] at 21:19 20 November 2014 Early Chinese literacy 449the typical duration of each reading session was 1530 minutes, but most of theteachers (87.5%) and many parents (45.0%) in Hong Kong reported that their eachreading session lasted less than 15 minutes. Significant societal differences werefound between Hong Kong and Beijing teachers [F (1,86) = 15.02, p < 0.001].The children in Beijing (77.3%) and Hong Kong (75.0%) had the same opportu-nity to witness their parents reading at least once a day. But there were significantsocietal differences in the number of Chinese books available for children both athome [F (1,86) = 25.72, p < 0.001] and in the classroom [F (1,86) = 28.98, p 11.03, p values < 0.001].A two-tailed Spearman correlation analysis was conducted to explore the possiblerelationships among the age of child, maternal education, teachers qualification,home and school literacy and childrens literacy attainments. As shown in Table 3 allother correlations were significant (p values < 0.05), except for the correlationbetween maternal educational attainment, home reading resources, home and schoolreading strategies and time 1 and time 2 literacy scores for both samples; the correla-tion between time 1 and time 2 PPCLS scores, between the age of child and time 1scores, between teachers qualification, exposure to reading in classroom and directliteracy teaching in classroom and time 2 scores for Beijing sample; and the correla-tion between classroom reading resources and time 1 and time 2 PPCLS scores forthe Hong Kong sample.No significant correlation was found in Beijing or Hong Kong between exposure toreading and direct literacy teaching, indicating that parents/teachers who frequentlyread books to their child did not necessarily teach their child to read and write. Inter-estingly, two patterns of correlation emerged in the intercorrelations of PPCLS scoresat time 1 and time 2 in Beijing (r = 0.28, p = 0.668) and in Hong Kong (r = 0.84, p< 0.001). Besides, a significant correlation between the age of child and the years ofschooling was found in Beijing (r = 0.79, p < 0.001) and Hong Kong (r = 0.72, p


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