In Chinese, it is usually the case that one character is equal to one morpheme. In English, morphemes are often single words making up compound words (e.g. mudslide has two morphemes, mud and slide), but they can also be long (lettuce is one morpheme) or short (the s in cats is one morpheme indicating the plural of cat). Other games aimed at distinguishing among homophones can also be useful, especially in promoting vocabulary knowledge in young children.
In a recent study to appear in Early Education and Development, Ms. Yanling Zhou, a former primary school teacher and current Ph.D. student in psychology, Professor Catherine McBride-Chang, a professor of developmental psychology, and colleagues trained kindergarten teachers to use games focused either on morpheme combinations, homophones, or phonological awareness to facilitate children’s Chinese reading skills over an approximately 10-week period with 88 kindergartners.
In the last 5 weeks of training, the teachers combined the words they used with printed Chinese characters so that the children could see how the oral language combinations looked written down. Compared to a control group who got either no training or training in mathematics skills, the children who were trained in combining morphemes made the most progress in word reading over time; their vocabulary skills improved somewhat as well. The children who were trained to distinguish homophones showed the fastest improvement in vocabulary knowledge compared to the control group. Children who received training in phonological skills showed no improvement in either reading or vocabulary (see tables and graphs 1 and 2).
This result is an important contrast to English: Usually in studies of English-speaking children, phonological awareness training yields the best results because children learn to connect speech sounds to letters of the alphabet and they get better in recognizing words this way. However, in Chinese, a focus on how characters are pronounced without a focus on their meaning is not as useful as a focus on sound and meaning together, as shown in this study. These results with teachers are similar to those published in a study published by Professor McBride-Chang and other CUHK researchers in Developmental Psychology in 2008 showing that Hong Kong Chinese children whose parents were trained to play language games involving both combining morphemes together and identifying homophones at home, along with reading storybooks together, tended to make greater progress in word reading over time than did children whose parents read stories with them without playing such games.
These language games seem to work because they focus children on what morphemes make sense together in what combinations in the Chinese language. For example, in games or in very casual speech, it makes sense to say fast dog, slow dog, or black dog, but dog fast, dog slow, or dog black by themselves do not make sense. Once children understand how morphemes can be combined just by speaking Chinese, this may help them to identify which characters in print go in which positions within words they have to learn to read, especially words that are made up of 2 or more characters. For example, in the (Chinese) word child (siu peng yau小朋友), if children can recognize the first and third characters by themselves, they may also be able to predict what the second character is even if they cannot identify it in isolation. Thus, understanding of how morphemes fit together in the Chinese language can help children as they begin to read. Other studies by Professor McBride-Chang and colleagues have demonstrated that children who score particularly low in this skill are more at risk for reading difficulties in Chinese.
This research demonstrates that games you may have played as a child, such as 詞語接龍, a Chinese game in which morphemes must be repeated across new words or phrases in a pattern (e.g. lightning bug–bug bite—bite mark—mark up—upside—sideswipe, etc.), are not just fun, but they really might be important for setting your child up for a bright future in learning to read Chinese. Practically speaking, parents who play such games, highlighting how morphemes fit together in language and distinguishing morphemes that are the same in different words (e.g. the ball morpheme in basketball, football, and volleyball is always the same morpheme) vs. different in different words (e.g. the bank morpheme in riverbank and piggybank differs in meaning across words; no as in no one vs. know as in know-how highlight showcase morphemes that sound the same) will facilitate their child’s early vocabulary growth and, ultimately, reading development.
Attachment: Supplementary information