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Program aims to make reading easier, more fun, for children in China

Craig Chamberlain, Education Editor


Richard Anderson
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Richard Anderson has led a research project at Illinois since the early 1990s on the process and psychology of learning to read Chinese. He also is the director of the U. of I. Center for the Study of Reading.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — What could an English-speaking American reading expert hope to discover from studying how Chinese learn their language? And what might he and his colleagues have to offer as a result?

For one thing: A new program to make books and reading more fun for Chinese children, and a publishing company started in order to produce the materials and train teachers how to use them.

The company is just 4 years old, but its “shared book” program already is in use with 250,000 children ages 3 to 5 in more than 8,000 kindergarten classrooms across urban China. There are about 60 million Chinese in that age group.

“Chinese is not an easy language to learn to read,” says Richard Anderson, who has led a research project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since the early 1990s on the process and psychology of learning to read Chinese. He also is the director of the U. of I. Center for the Study of Reading.

For most Chinese children, Anderson said, the process of learning to read begins in the first grade with the hard work of learning Chinese characters, largely through drill and practice. They are expected to memorize 1,200 characters by the end of the second grade and 2,500 by the end of the sixth grade.

And the Chinese don’t have a strong tradition of reading to their preschool-age children or doing other activities connected with books, said Anderson, who also is a U. of I. professor of educational psychology. Their books for young children tend to be heavily moralistic and “not designed to be really exciting fiction,” he said. They are not books young children can learn to read themselves.

Anderson and his research colleagues, from both the U. of I. and Beijing Normal University, sought to design a program that would not only lay the foundation for literacy, but also would encourage young children to read more and to read for pleasure.

“We wanted them to feel it was worth the trouble. We wanted to build in them an intrinsic motivation for reading. … We wanted children to become really excited by reading so that they can hang in there during those tough first several years of school.”

China is fertile ground for a program such as this because literacy is becoming essential for many jobs in the nation’s growing economy. In addition, most couples now have only one child, the result of the country’s population policies, Anderson said. “Making sure your child gets a good education is a very, very high priority.”

The seeds for the research project in China were planted in the early 1980s, as the nation was opening up to the West. Anderson visited China with a group of educators. Connections made then eventually led to doctoral students and researchers from Beijing Normal coming to work with Anderson and his Illinois colleagues.

Over more than a dozen years, the “Learning to Read Chinese” project, with sites at Illinois and Beijing Normal, has done extensive work on the psychological processes involved in learning the language. “We’re among those at the leading edge of cross-cultural studies of learning to read,” Anderson said.

The project has researched issues related to how children perceive and process speech and the structure of written characters, as well as the factors that might hold back some children from learning to read.

What they’ve found, along with other researchers in the field, are surprising similarities in the way children learn to read each language, Anderson said. “It’s amazing the extent to which the fundamental processes are the same, or at least highly similar, between Chinese and English, considering that everything is different,” he said.

Researchers, for example, have found that Chinese children who have trouble with phonological awareness – hearing the significant units in their spoken language – are going to have significant trouble learning to read, Anderson said.

They also have found that Chinese children with “mushy” speech – in which they drop out or mix up syllables in long words – also will have a lot of trouble learning to read.

In both cases, the findings echo the results of research on learning to read in English, Anderson said.

The shared book approach being promoted by the publishing company, which Anderson started with Chinese investors, grew out of another line of research studying Chinese schools and their approach to teaching reading. They saw some strengths in the Chinese approach, but were concerned about an over-reliance on rewards and punishments, and too much emphasis on intensive reading aimed at learning fundamentals, Anderson said.

“We discovered not much extensive reading,” he said, meaning reading for pleasure and practice.

Through the shared book approach, “we want to lay a foundation for reading in an easy, natural way – one that will build children’s excitement about reading,” Anderson said. “In this approach, we’re trying to make progress on all aspects of Chinese reading, but we’re especially trying to build oral language facility, which is very important.”

The program involves significant time spent reading stories with students, using large illustrated books. Children are able to learn quite a few Chinese characters simply from reading the stories again and again, he said.

In one key activity, each child is encouraged to do his or her own “book,” which requires the child to create a story, do the drawings, and then explain the story to a parent (usually the mother), who writes out the story below the pictures.

In doing these activities, “we get a huge amount of parent collaboration, which is also good for the development of literacy,” Anderson said.

Parents also are key to spreading the shared book program, Anderson said. In fact, they’re the ones paying for it.

The kindergartens, which in China are separate schools serving 3- to 5-year-old children, have no discretionary money, Anderson said.

So representatives of the company, most of them former educators, have to sell the program to the teachers and head mistress, or principal, who then sell the program to the parents.

The representatives try to start with the best classrooms in the best schools, and then count on word of mouth to help spread the program from there, he said. “No school that has adopted this has dropped it, so far.”

Among the principal researchers for the “Learning to Read Chinese” project have been Janet Gaffney, Wenling Li and Jerome Packard, with the U. of I., and Hua Shu and Xinchun Wu with Beijing Normal. (Li has since moved to a position with Touro University International in Cypress, Calif.)

Much of the project's past work was funded through grants from the Spencer Foundation of Chicago, which funds educational research and graduate student fellowships.