Bulletin No. 1, 2014

30   Chinese University Bulletin No. 1, 2014 Enhancing Children’s Literacy R esearch by Prof. Catherine McBride of the Department of Psychology found that rapid automatized naming (RAN) and morphological awareness are useful cognitive tasks for distinguishing Chinese children with dyslexia from those without. 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 don’t seem 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. 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 飛機 (flying machine). What would we call a machine that runs? In this case 跑機 (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. 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 the role of parental mediation is crucial in younger children’s literacy development.’ But Professor McBride found that copying strategies such as asking kindergartners to trace the 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 has developed a website ( http://chineseearlyliteracy.co.nr/) to provide parents and teachers with some practical tips on Chinese.