How children's use of knowledge about the structure of Chinese characters helps them learn novel characters
The main organising feature of Chinese characters is the structure of ideophonetic compound characters. In this structure, two components are identified: a semantic radical and a phonological component, which provide essential information for meaning category and pronunciation. Recent research has shown that knowledge of this structure is involved in the reading and writing processes of Chinese readers. This study investigated children's knowledge of the structure in their learning of novel characters. A structualist model of learning was proposed in this study: learners learn the structure, which underlies the Chinese characters and apply this knowledge generally to new characters with the same structure. This hypothesis was tested using a learning paradigm where 480 children, in grades 2-5 (aged 7-10) in Taiwan were asked to learn pseudo characters in a series of experiments. In Studies 2 and 3, the children were given two types of pseudocharacters, sensible (which followed the structure of ideophonetic characters) and nonsensical (which violated the structure). The effect of visual complexity of the stimuli was controlled. The results showed that the children in all four grade levels learned sensible stimuli significantly better than nonsensical ones. In Studies 4 and 5, the children were given the pseudocharacters that embedded different degree of regularity in relation to the semantic and phonological aspects of the structure of ideophonetic compounds. The regularity was defined as two levels of semantic transparency (transparent vs. opaque) and two levels of phonological regularity (regular vs. irregular). The results showed that the children learned significantly more semantic radicals when those radicals provided transparent semantic information than when they were opaque. The children also learned more phonological components when those components were regular than when they were irregular. With the two regular phonological principles, by derivation and by analogy, there was no difference between the two types of principles in children's learning. These findings were independent of the response modes in the experiments: this was true both when the children were asked to write down the characters they had learned and to identify the characters and read them. It is concluded that children use the knowledge about the main structure underlying the Chinese writing system in learning new characters. The semantic radicals and phonological components both play a significant role in children's knowledge of ideophonetic characters. The children use the phonological principles of both derivation and analogy equally well in their learning of new characters.