Sample from Chapter 9. Learning Hanzi, Pinyin and Putonghua

How Reading is Taught in School

Teachers of Chinese characters, Hanzi, can try any of the various methods described above. They might also explain the six categories of characters: pictograph, indicator, meaning composite, semantic­phonetic composite, phonetic loan, and mutually defining (table 3-2). In Ai's (1950) old study, beginners who were taught by a method based on the six categories scored three times higher than the control group, who were taught by a method that did not pay any attention to the categories. They scored higher than the control group whether they were tested immediately after learning or three months later. Some contemporary textbooks of characters now explain the six categories, especially pictographs (see fig. 9-2 later).

Nowadays, Hanzi tend to be taught by means of the phonetic script, Pinyin, which is needed to indicate the sounds of logographic characters directly, simply, and precisely. In China in 1989 I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to visit several grade-one classrooms in Shanghai, Nanjing, and Beijing. Each class was large, having about 50 children, all neatly dressed and well behaved, as shown in Figure 9-1. The class is learning Pinyin.

Figure 9-2. The pictographic nature of some Hanzi is exploited in early teaching (Lessons 5 and 6 of "Recognizing Hanzi" pages 32-33 from volume I-1 used in China. People's Educational Publications, 1989)

Figure 9-2 shows one of the early lessons in Hanzi. Each Hanzi is accompanied by its pictographic origin and a picture of the object it represents, its Pinyin, an example of its use in a two syllable-morpheme word, and the order of writing its strokes. Hanzi for each lesson appear to be chosen because they occur in a common context, not because of their relation in shape or sound.

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