How Character Reading Can Be Different from Word Reading in Chinese and Why It Matters for Chinese Reading Development

  • Tong LiEmail author
  • Catherine McBride-Chang
Part of the Literacy Studies book series (LITS, volume 8)


Both characters and words in Chinese are related to meaning, and it is interesting to consider the ways in which children process the two. Both phonetic and semantic radicals are essential for character identification. At the same time, within multi-character words, the association(s) of each character to the other(s) are additionally important for children to master. Lexical compounding is a particularly salient aspect of this process. In this chapter, we will elaborate on how characters and words might be considered to be somewhat different Chinese acquisition processes for young children and the developmental association between the two. We will begin by distinguishing these two concepts and explaining why the concepts of “character” and “word” warrant unique focuses in Chinese. We will also highlight what is meant by “reading,” i.e., the inclusion of both oral recognition (i.e., just saying the character or word aloud) and understanding of meaning of the character or word and metalinguistic skills which are important for children’s character and word learning. Next, we will highlight research on the acquisition of each, with particular attention to orthographic structure in characters and the role of morphological awareness in words. We will conclude by addressing the relations among context, words, characters, and radicals in learning and development.


Radicals Morphology Compounds Basic units of processing Eye movement Code-related skills Phonological awareness Orthographic skills Morphological awareness 



We are grateful to the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (project reference# 451210) for support of this research. Please address correspondences regarding this manuscript to Catherine McBride-Chang, Psychology Department, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong Kong; Tel 852–26096576; Email:


  1. Academia Sinica Taiwan. (1998). Academia Sinica balanced corpus (Version 3) [CD-ROM]. Taipei, Taiwan: Academia Sinica, Chinese Knowledge and Information Processing Group.Google Scholar
  2. Andrews, S., Miller, B., & Rayner, K. (2004). Eye movements and morphological segmentation of compounds: There is a mouse in mousetrap. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 16, 285–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bai, X., Yan, G., Liversedge, S. P., Zang, C., & Rayner, K. (2008). Reading spaced and unspaced Chinese text: Evidence from eye movements. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 34, 1277–1287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bloomfield, I. (1926). A set of postulates for the science of language. Language, 2, 153–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Carlisle, J. F. (1995). Morphological awareness and early reading achievement. In L. B. Feldman (Ed.), Morphological aspects of language processing (pp. 189–209). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  6. Chan, D. W., Ho, C. S.-H., Tsang, S.-M., Lee, S.-H., & Chung, K. K. H. (2006). Exploring the reading – writing connection in Chinese children with dyslexia in Hong Kong. Reading and Writing, 19, 543–561.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chao, Y. R. (1976). Aspects of Chinese sociolinguistics: Essays. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Chen, M., & Ko, H. (2011). Exploring the eye-movement patterns as Chinese children read texts: A developmental perspective. Journal of Research in Reading, 34, 232–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chen, H.-C., Song, H., Lau, W. Y., Wong, K. F. E., & Tang, S. L. (2003). Developmental characteristics of eye movements in reading Chinese. In C. McBride-Chang & H.-C. Chen (Eds.), Reading development in Chinese children (pp. 157–169). Westport, CT: Praeger.Google Scholar
  10. Cheng, C.-M., & Huang, H.-M. (1995, December). The acquisition of general lexical knowledge of Chinese characters in school children. Paper presented at the 7th international conference on the Cognitive Processing of Chinese and other Asian Languages, Hong Kong.Google Scholar
  11. Chow, B. W.-Y., McBride-Chang, C., & Burgess, S. (2005). Phonological processing skills and early reading abilities in Hong Kong Chinese Kindergarteners learning to read English as an L2 (as a Second language). Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 81–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chow, B. W.-Y., McBride-Chang, C., Cheuk, C., & Cheung, H. (2008). Dialogic reading and morphology training in Chinese children: effects on language and literacy. Developmental Psychology, 44, 233–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chu, M. M.-K., & Leung, M.-T. (2005). Reading strategy of Hong Kong school-aged children: The development of word-level and character-level processing. Applied Psycholinguistics, 26, 505–520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. DeFrancis, J. (1984). The Chinese language: Fact and fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.Google Scholar
  15. Fan, K. Y., Gao, J. Y., & Ao, X. P. (1984). Pronunciation principles of the Chinese character and alphabetic writing scripts. Chinese character reform, 3,19–22. Beijing: National Commission of Chinese Character Reform. (In Chinese).Google Scholar
  16. Feldman, L. B., & Siok, W. W. T. (1999). Semantic radicals in phonetic compounds: Implications for visual character recognition in Chinese. In J. Wang, A. W. Inhoff, & H. C. Chen (Eds.), Reading Chinese script: A cognitive analysis (pp. 19–35). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  17. Fiorentino, R., & Poeppel, D. (2007). Compound words and structure in the lexicon. Language and Cognitive Processes, 22, 953–1000.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Goswami, U. (1986). Children’s use of analogy in learning to read: A developmental study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 42, 73–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Goswami, U. (1988). Orthographic analogies and reading development. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 40A, 239–268.Google Scholar
  20. Goswami, U. (1990). A special link between rhyming skill and the use of orthographic analogies by beginning readers? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 31, 301–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Goswami, U., Ziegler, J. C., Dalton, L., & Schneider, W. (2003). Non-word reading across orthographies: How flexible is the choice of reading units? Journal of Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 235–247.Google Scholar
  22. He, Y., Wang, Q., & Anderson, R. C. (2005). Chinese children’s use of subcharacter information about pronunciation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 572–579.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Ho, C. S.-H., & Bryant, P. (1997). Learning to read Chinese beyond the lographic phase. Reading Research Quarterly, 32, 276–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ho, C. S.-H., Wong, W.-L., & Chan, W.-S. (1999). The use of orthographic analogies in learning to read Chinese. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 393–403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Ho, C. S.-H., Yau, P. W.-Y., & Au, A. (2003). Development of orthographic knowledge and its relationship with reading and spelling among Chinese kindergarten and primary school children. In C. McBride-Chang & H.-C. Chen (Eds.), Reading development in Chinese children (pp. 51–71). London: Praeger.Google Scholar
  26. Hoosain, R. (1991). Psycholinguistic implications for linguistic relativity: A case study of Chinese. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  27. Hoosain, R. (1992). Psychological reality of the word in Chinese. In H.-C. Chen & O. J. L. Tzeng (Eds.), Language processing in Chinese (pp. 111–130). Amsterdam: North-Holland.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hsu, S.-H., & Huang, K.-C. (2000a). Effects of word spacing on reading Chinese text from a video display terminal. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 90, 81–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hsu, S.-H., & Huang, K.-C. (2000b). Interword spacing in Chinese text layout. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 91, 355–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hu, C.-F., & Catts, H. W. (1998). The role of phonological processing in early reading ability: What we can learn from Chinese. Scientific Studies of Reading, 2, 55–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Institute of Language Teaching and Research. (1986). Modern Chinese frequency dictionary. Beijing, China: Beijing Language Institute Press.Google Scholar
  32. Kang, J. S. (1993). Analysis of semantics of semantic–phonetics compound characters in modern Chinese. In Y. Chen (Ed.), Information analysis of usage of characters in modern Chinese. Shanghai, China: Shanghai Education (In Chinese).Google Scholar
  33. Katz, L., & Frost, R. (1992). The reading process is different for different orthographies: The orthographic depth hypothesis. In R. Frost & L. Katz (Eds.), Orthography, phonology, morphology, and meaning (pp. 67–84). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lei, L., Pan, J., Liu, H., McBride-Chang, C., Li, H., Zhang, Y., et al. (2011). Developmental trajectories of reading development and impairment from ages 3 to 8 years in Chinese children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52, 212–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Li, W., Anderson, R. C., Nagy, W., & Zhang, H. (2002). Facets of metalinguistic awareness that contribute to Chinese literacy. In W. Li, J. S. Gaffney, & J. L. Packard (Eds.), Chinese children’s reading acquisition: Theoretical and pedagogical issues (pp. 87–106). Boston: Kluwer Academic.Google Scholar
  36. Li, H., Peng, H., & Shu, H. (2006). A study on the emergence and development of Chinese orthographic awareness in preschool and school children. Psychological Development and Education, 1, 35–38 (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  37. Li, H., Shu, H., McBride-Chang, C., Liu, H. Y., & Peng, H. (2012). Chinese children’s character recognition: Visuo-orthographic, phonological processing and morphological skills. Journal of Reserch in Reading, 35, 287–307. Google Scholar
  38. Li, C. N., & Thompson, S. A. (1981). Mandarin Chinese: A functional reference grammar. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  39. Liu, P. D., Chung, K. K. H., McBride-Chang, C., & Tong, X. (2010). Holistic versus analytic processing: Evidence for a different approach to processing of Chinese at the word and character levels in Chinese children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 107, 466–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. McBride-Chang, C., Bialystok, E., Chong, K. K. Y., & Li, Y. P. (2004). Levels of phonological awareness in three cultures. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 89, 93–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. McBride-Chang, C., & Ho, C. S.-H. (2000). Developmental issues in Chinese children’s character acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 50–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. McBride-Chang, C., & Ho, C. S.-H. (2005). Predictors of beginning reading in Chinese and English: A 2-year longitudinal study of Chinese kindergartners. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9, 117–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. McBride-Chang, C., Lam, F., Lam, C., Chan, B., Fong, C. Y.-C., Wong, T. T.-Y., et al. (2011). Early predictors of dyslexia in Chinese children: Familial history of dyslexia, language delay, and cognitive profiles. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52, 204–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. McBride-Chang, C., Shu, H., Zhou, A., Wat, C. P., & Wagner, R. K. (2003). Morphological awareness uniquely predicts young children’s Chinese character recognition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 743–751.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Pollatsek, A., Reichle, E. D., & Rayner, K. (2006). Test of the E-Z reader model: Exploring the interface between cognition and eye-movement control. Cognitive Psychology, 52, 1–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Radach, R., & Kennedy, A. (2004). Theoretical perspectives on eye movements in reading: Past controversies, current issues and an agenda for future research. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 16, 3–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Rayner, K. (1979). Eye guidance in reading: Fixation location within words. Perception, 8, 21–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Rayner, K., Li, X., & Pollatsek, A. (2007). Extending the E-Z Reader model to Chinese reading. Cognitive Science, 31, 1021–1033.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Rayner, K., Raney, G. E., & Pollatsek, A. (1995). Eye movements and discourse processing. In R. F. Lorch & E. J. O’Brien (Eds.), Sources of coherence in reading (pp. 9–36). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  50. Reichle, E. D., Pollatsek, A., & Rayner, K. (2006). E-Z Reader: A cognitive-control, serial-attention model of eye-movement behavior during reading. Cognitive Systems Research, 7, 4–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Reichle, E. D., Rayner, K., & Pollatsek, A. (2003). The E-Z Reader model of eye-movement control in reading: Comparisons to other models. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 26, 445–476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Shen, D., Bai, X., Zang, C., Yan, G., Feng, B., & Fan, X. (2010). Effect of word segmentation on beginners’ reading: Evidence from eye movements. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 42, 159–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Shoolman, N., & Andrews, S. (2003). Racehorses, reindeer, and sparrows: Using masked priming to investigate morphological influences on compound word identification. In S. Kinoshita & S. Lupker (Eds.), Masked priming: The state of the art (pp. 241–278). New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  54. Shu, H., & Anderson, R. C. (1999). Learning to reading Chinese: The development of metalinguistic awareness. In J. Wang, A. Inhoff, & H. C. Chen (Eds.), Reading Chinese script: A cognitive analysis (pp. 1–19). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.Google Scholar
  55. Shu, H., Chen, X., Anderson, R. C., Wu, N., & Xuan, Y. (2003). Properties of school Chinese: Implications for learning to read. Child Development, 74, 27–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Shu, H., McBride-Chang, C., Wu, S., & Liu, H. (2006). Understanding Chinese developmental dyslexia: Morphological awareness as a core cognitive construct. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 122–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Shu, H., Peng, H., & McBride-Chang, C. (2008). Phonological awareness in young Chinese children. Developmental Science, 11, 171–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Siok, W. T., & Fletcher, P. (2001). The role of phonological awareness and visual-orthographic skills in Chinese reading acquisition. Developmental Psychology, 37, 886–899.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Su, Y.-F., & Samuels, S. J. (2010). Developmental changes in character-complexity and word-length effects when reading Chinese script. Reading and Writing, 23, 1085–1108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Taft, M., & Zhu, X. (1997). Submorphemic processing in Chinese. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 23, 761–775.Google Scholar
  61. Tan, L. H., & Perfetti, C. A. (1999). Phonological activation in visual identification of Chinese 2-character words. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 25, 382–393.Google Scholar
  62. Treiman, R., Mullennix, J., Bijeljac-Babic, R., & Richmond-Welty, E. D. (1995). The special role of rimes in the description, use, and acquisition of English orthography. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 124, 107–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Walton, P. D. (1995). Rhyming ability, phoneme identity, letter-sound knowledge, and the use of orthographic analogy by prereaders. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 587–597.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Wang, L. (1953). Problems with the boundary between words and word groups. Chinese Language (Zhongguo Yuwen), 15, 3–8.Google Scholar
  65. Yan, M., Kliegl, R., Richter, E., Nuthmann, A., & Shu, H. (2010). Flexible saccade-target selection in Chinese reading. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63, 705–725.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Yan, G., Tian, H., Bai, X., & Rayner, K. (2006). The effect of word and character frequency on the eye movements of Chinese readers. British Journal of Psychology, 97, 259–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Yang, H.-M., & McConkie, G. W. (1999). Reading Chinese: Some basic eye-movement characteristics. In J. Wang, A. W. Inhoff, & H.-C. Chen (Eds.), Reading Chinese script: A cognitive analysis (pp. 207–222). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  68. Yang, J., McCandliss, B., Shu, H., & Zevin, J. D. (2009). Simulating language-specific and language-general effects in a statistical learning model of Chinese reading. Journal of Memory and Language, 61, 238–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Yuan, C., & Huang, C. (1998). The study of Chinese morphemes and word formation based on the morpheme data bank. Applied Linguistics (in Chinese), 3, 83–88.Google Scholar
  70. Yin, B. Y. (1984). Quantitative analysis of Chinese morpheme. Chinese, 5, 338–347 (In Chinese).Google Scholar
  71. Zhang, B., & Peng, D. (1992). Decomposed storage in the Chinese lexicon. In H. C. Chen & O. J. L. Tzeng (Eds.), Language processing in Chinese (pp. 131–150). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Zhou, Y. L., McBride-Chang, C., Fong, C. Y.-C., Wong, T. T.-Y., & Cheung S. K. (2012). A comparison of phonological awareness, lexical compounding, and homophone training for Chinese word reading in Hong Kong kindergarteners. Early Education and Development, 23, 475–492.Google Scholar
  73. Ziegler, J. C., & Goswami, U. (2006). Becoming literate in different languages: Similar problems, different solutions. Developmental Science, 9, 429–453.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Zwitserlood, P. (1994). The role of semantic transparency in the processing and representation of Dutch compounds. Language and Cognitive Processes, 9, 341–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ConnecticutStorrsUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyThe Chinese University of Hong KongShatinHong Kong

Personalised recommendations