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Locating the Building Blocks of Literacy

Prof. Catherine McBride

In recent years, kindergarteners in Hong Kong are being taught difficult words at increasingly young ages. According to Prof. Catherine McBride of the Department of Psychology, this may have negative consequences. She said, 'Children have huge differences in their developmental readiness. A lot of children may not be ready to start reading at such a young age.'

Professor McBride is a developmental psychologist who studies literacy development across cultures. One of her research areas is early predictors of dyslexia in Chinese children. She found that rapid automatized naming (RAN) and morphological awareness are useful cognitive tasks for distinguishing Chinese children with and without dyslexia. A RAN task measures how quickly a child can name blocks of colour, pictures or symbols presented randomly in different orders across columns.

Unlike RAN, the test of morphological awareness is a screening tool developed by Professor McBride and her colleagues specifically for understanding reading, including dyslexia, in Chinese children. She explained, 'Morphological awareness in Chinese is based on the fact that the Chinese language has many compound words. Children who have difficulty learning compound words tend to be poor readers. This is partly because they seem not to have the ability to take the same morpheme from a compound word and apply it in other contexts.'

Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language. For example, in the word 大学 (university), 大 (big) is a morpheme. This morpheme can be found in many other compound words, such as 大陆 (mainland) and 大哥 (eldest brother). Morphological awareness refers to awareness of and access to the meaning structure of language. One task that Professor McBride has developed to test morphological awareness involves asking children to combine familiar morphemes to produce strange compound words for describing novel objects. She said, 'One example in Chinese would be: we call the machine that flies 飞机 (flying machine). What would we call a machine that runs? In this case 跑机 (running machine) would be good answer.' Children who are better at that skill tend to be better readers because most Chinese words are compound words, and understanding how morphemes can be compounded to create new words is essential for learning to read and for building vocabulary.

Morphological awareness is especially important in Hong Kong because there is no phonological coding system for Cantonese commonly used here like the Pinyin system used for Putonghua in mainland China. This makes the speech sound aspect less important as a predictor of reading success. And for the same reason, Professor McBride said that the role of parental mediation is crucial in younger children's literacy development. In Hong Kong children often learn to read and speak both Chinese characters and English words with the 'look and say' method. Professor McBride said, 'Here in Hong Kong, there is no way for you to know the sound of a word unless your teachers or your parents tell you. So you need a lot of parental scaffolding.' When it comes to reading and writing, parents may have different approaches to helping their children. But Professor McBride found that copying strategies such as asking kindergartners to trace lines of a character were not very effective in getting them to read better. Instead, if parents focus on the meaning units of Chinese, namely, the semantic radicals, to teach their children to write Chinese characters, their children tend to read better. She explained, 'For example, there is a mouth radical (口) in a lot of characters. If they say: “Oh, there is a mouth radical in the character for eat (吃)”, that may help their children to identify new words with the same radical, like the characters for sing (唱) or shout (叫) .'

Professor McBride gave a tip on helping Hong Kong children to learn English—motivation. 'When we learn our first language, it's for communication. We're motivated. If you want a cookie, or you want to go outside, you can say that and you'll get it. Learning English here is more like homework. That's not really motivating children in any way.'

Professor McBride has developed a website to provide parents and teachers with some practical tips on Chinese. Please visit here.