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What Visibilising Pedagogical Approaches do the Chinese as a Foreign Language (cfl) Teachers Adopt in the Teaching of Chinese Characters?

Visiblising Pedagogies

In: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy
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Jinghan Yu PhD candidate, School of Teacher Education, Faculty of Education, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Jo Fletcher Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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John Everatt Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Chris Astall Senior lecturer, Faculty of Education, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Abstract

Chinese can be considered as one of the more challenging languages to learn for many non-native learners. Its complicated visual script, the Chinese characters, demands that teachers be proficient in utilizing diverse visual pedagogical approaches, coupled with different digital visual tools, to enhance their teaching effectiveness. Adopting a descriptive qualitative analysis method, interview transcripts from fourteen cfl teachers were examined. There were five online teachers, four university teachers and five pre-service teachers. The findings revealed that: 1) all the teachers use various visual pedagogical approaches, such as pictures, videos, Chinese character digital image files, Chinese character studying applications, and websites, to enhance the effectiveness of Chinese character learning, as well as motivate and engage learners; 2) teachers choose different pedagogical approaches to help students visualise characters as a whole unit or as several separate radical components; 3) the use of Pinyin to input characters on digital devices has been widely taught in class; and 4) online teachers, and some pre-service teachers, have replaced traditional handwriting methods with digital character input methods, whereas university teachers have not made this shift. The ways in which these perspectives relate to the form of Chinese characters and developing teaching practices are discussed.

Feature
Feature

This article comprises a video, which can be viewed here.

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10049

  1. This article is part of the special topic ‘Visiblising Pedagogies’, edited by Andrea Delaune and Toni Torepe.

1 Introduction

Chinese can be considered challenging to learn due in large part to its relatively unique and, some might argue, visually complex scripts. The basic unit of the Chinese orthographic system is the Chinese character. According to Liu and Olmanson (2016), Chinese characters, as the standard orthographic form, do not readily represent how Chinese characters should be pronounced. This makes learning Chinese characters more challenging, especially for learners whose first language uses an orthography that more closely aligns with an alphabetic form (Allen, 2008; DeFrancis, 1986). To master Chinese characters, learners need to establish connections between their graphic (the shape), semantic (the meaning), and phonetic (the sound) forms right from the beginning of learning. Recognizing how Chinese characters differ in terms of lines, shapes, and overall form is a necessary component of learning Chinese characters.

Thus, it can be argued that it is essential for Chinese language teachers to embrace diverse visual pedagogical approaches to enhance students’ Chinese character learning and memorization. In the field of teaching and learning Chinese as a Foreign Language, many studies have focused on improving the learning experience by introducing Chinese characters to learners through technology applications (Chen et al., 2014; Lai et al., 2010; Lam, 2014; Yan et al., 2013). However, little attention has been paid to investigating Chinese teachers’ direct experiences and perceptions of utilizing digital tools regarding demonstrating Chinese characters. Their experiences and reflections may offer valuable insights into the effectiveness and practicality of incorporating visual pedagogical tools for Chinese character demonstration in the classroom.

2 Chinese Characters

The Chinese character is the basic unit of the Chinese orthographic system. A character is the smallest unit combining sound and meaning. The most distinctive feature of Chinese characters is their pictographic nature (as seen in Figure 1). Chinese ancestors drew representations of objects from nature, and gradually these images became symbolic and evolved into the characters we use today.

Figure 1
Figure 1

A demonstration of characters generated from objects in nature

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10049

Over 80% of the commonly used Chinese characters are compounds that include both a semantic radical and a phonetic radical. The semantic radicals provide meaning cues to the character, while the phonetic radicals provide pronunciation cues to the characters. Figure 2 shows a semantic-phonetic character example: the character ‘猫’ is pronounced ‘mao1’, which means ‘cat’. Its left semantic radical ‘犭’, which originally means ‘dog’, is used to indicate that this character is related to ‘a wild animal’. Meanwhile its right phonetic radical ‘苗’, pronounced ‘miao2’, provides part of the sound cue for the entire character ‘猫, mao1’ (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2

An example of a semantic-phonetic Chinese character

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10049

2.1 Handwriting for Chinese Characters

Chinese characters are usually difficult to present in writing due to their complex configurations. Writing a Chinese character by hand requires an appreciation of their layers (see Wong et al., 2011). The first layer comprised strokes, which are the basic lines that make up each character. The second layer is the radical components, as discussed above, and which are made of different combinations of strokes. The final layer is the characters themselves, which are the smallest meaningful units in the Chinese writing system. For beginning learners, they not only need to learn to write individual strokes, but also memorise each character by following a certain stroke writing order (as seen in Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3

An example of the writing order of a Chinese character

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10049

According to Huang and Liao (2015), there are 28 distinguishable types of strokes and the number of strokes in a given character can vary from one to 30. Thus, practicing writing Chinese characters can be a challenging task for most non-native learners. Chinese language teachers usually invest a significant amount of time correcting students’ handwriting in the beginning classes.

To sum up, its more pictographic feature makes Chinese characters distinctive from many other orthographies, particularly alphabetic-based scripts. Video 1 was developed by the first author in order to demonstrate the rationale of this written system.

Video 1
Video 1

What are the Chinese characters? (See here.)

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10049

2.2 Incorporating Typewriting

Advances in language processing technology, and writing on digital devices, have become an integral part of everyday life in the digital era. Typing Chinese characters has adopted a Pinyin input system, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4
Figure 4

An illustration of typing with the Pinyin input method

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 8, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10049

Pinyin uses an adapted form of the English alphabet, so an English-orthography keyboard can be used to represent the sound of the ‘typed’ word to a Pinyin-character conversion system. Learners are required to master a reasonable number of Chinese characters before using this input method. This is because after typing the pronunciation of the character via the keyboard, the system will provide users with a list of characters that share similar pronunciations and the correct one needs to be selected from memory. However, typing may require users to recognise only the rough outlines of characters, making character production process easier. In essence, learning to type via this Pinyin to Chinese characters conversion process equips learners with a practical skill that enhances their communication and productivity. However, it still requires a level of character recognition learning prior to its effective use.

3 Visual Pedagogical Approaches in Chinese Character Teaching

To assist students in overcoming the multiple challenges involved in the process of learning Chinese characters, language educators and researchers have collaborated to develop and investigate the effectiveness of a range of visual pedagogical approaches aimed at supporting Chinese character learning. For example, using Pinyin as the primary input method for producing characters within digital media helps students to strengthen the link between the written form and the pronunciation (Chang et al., 2014; Chung, 2003; Guan et al., 2011). Moreover, game elements incorporated into technological applications can not only motivate students to engage and persist in Chinese character learning, but also reinforce the connections between configurations (visual aspects) and meanings and sounds (Hao et al., 2010; Lai et al., 2010). In addition, using stroke animation to demonstrate the writing order of the characters can elicit better performance in character writing (Chen et al., 2014). Integrating handwriting practice can strengthen sensory-moto memory via the act of physical writing (Guan et al., 2011).

The effectiveness of a variety of visual pedagogical tools in improving the teaching of Chinese characters has been examined (see, for example, Chang et al., 2014; Chung, 2003; Guan et al., 2011; Hao et al., 2010; Lai et al., 2010;). However, only a few studies have focused on understanding teachers’ perceptions and reflections regarding the use of these visual pedagogical tools to teach Chinese characters (Thang et al., 2015; Moloney & Xu, 2011). So far, no studies have compared the perceptions of Chinese teachers from diverse teaching contexts regarding the adoption of visual pedagogies in the teaching of Chinese characters. The aim of this study is to determine the teaching strategies, visual pedagogical tools and approaches various groups of Chinese as a Foreign Language teachers adopted when teaching Chinese characters. These teachers’ experiences and reflections will offer a rich source of information that can help refine teaching methods. Therefore, the following two research questions were developed:

  1. 1.What teaching strategies do Chinese teachers adopt in Chinese character instruction?
  2. 2.What visual pedagogical tools and approaches do Chinese teachers use in Chinese character instruction?

4 Research Methodology

This study is situated in the broader context of teaching Chinese characters in Chinese as a Foreign Language Education, exploring the teaching strategies employed by different types of teachers—online teachers, university teachers, and pre-service teachers. The primary focus is on discovering experiences and reflections related to the visual tools and pedagogical approaches that Chinese teachers adopted in their Chinese character instruction. By delving into the reflections and strategies of Chinese teachers from diverse educational settings, the study aims to contribute empirical evidence to the field of Chinese as a Foreign Language. Specifically, it seeks to enrich our understanding of Chinese character teaching by investigating the utilization of visual pedagogies.

4.1 Research Design

This study employed a qualitative research design within an interpretive paradigm, recognising that knowledge is constructed through subjective experiences and interpretations (Crotty, 1998). This interpretivist epistemology allows researchers to further understand the lived experiences of those who are in the environment (Creswell & Clark, 2018). Specifically, as researchers, this standpoint provided us with an opportunity to explore and interpret the complex, context-specific experiences of Chinese teachers with teaching strategies, particularly those related to visibilising pedagogy in Chinese character instruction.

4.2 Research Participants

To gain an in-depth and diverse understanding of Chinese teachers’ perceptions and meanings attached to adopting teaching strategies in Chinese character instruction, fourteen teacher participants from three instructional contexts were selected via emails through their work institutions. This group included five online teachers from a one-on-one based online language education platform, four university teachers from tertiary institutions in China, and five pre-service teachers from Chinese as a Foreign Language teacher postgraduate training programs. Most of these teachers had at least one year of teaching experience, and all had online teaching experience due to the covid-19 pandemic. They were all teaching adult learners who were non-native speakers of the Chinese language.

4.3 Data Collection and Analysis

Qualitative data were collected through semi-structured interviews via Zoom meetings, each lasting approximately one hour. The focus of the interviews was on eliciting detailed insights into teaching strategies through the fourteen Chinese teachers’ elaborations on the instructional process of their Chinese character classes. The subsequent descriptive qualitative analysis involved carefully reading interview transcripts and code development to identify specific areas of practice, particularly related to the use of visual tools. These were then considered across the three groups of teachers in the study. Common patterns were identified to present the researchers’ understanding of the teachers’ experiences.

The results reported in this article focus on the interpretation of the teachers’ reflections on the employment of visual pedagogical approaches in teaching Chinese characters. These reflections are categorised into three general ideas: (i) incorporating multiple visual pedagogical tools into the Chinese character instruction; (ii) teaching students view Chinese characters through decoding and recognising; and (iii) making decisions in teaching handwriting or typewriting.

5 Results and Discussion

5.1 Incorporating Multiple Visual Pedagogical Tools into the Chinese Character Instruction

Teachers frequently mentioned pictures, videos, animations, gif s1 PowerPoints, Zoom Whiteboard, and games as integral components of their Chinese character teaching process. This indicates that these teachers tried to incorporate a diverse range of digital pedagogical tools to engage and motivate students in their Chinese character learning. For example, Pre-service teacher Ren and university teacher Liu (pseudonyms) shared that they adopted different visual tools in their Chinese character introductions.

I use pictures to teach pictographic characters; use gif s to demonstrate stroke orders. I also found that the animation function of PowerPoint is very useful in breaking down characters into radical components, and then I ask students to combine them into characters. Sometimes, I also use Zoom whiteboard for students practising handwriting. This allows me to check their writing orders on the screen.

ren, pre-service teacher

I provide students with pictures to aid their understanding of pictographic characters like 日,月,休. We also watch animations about introducing the evolution of pictographic characters. For handwriting, I use gif s to demonstrate writing orders and recommend an online platform for practice.

liu, university teacher

Given the complexity of the Chinese writing system, many students have found the process of learning of Chinese characters to be both tedious and time-consuming (Lian et al., 2016). However, through the incorporation of diverse visual pedagogical tools, these teachers intended to infuse their classes with fun and motivation. Animations and videos provide contextual stories and cultural insights behind the characters, while gif s strengthen memory retention of character writing. Graphical-based pictures depicting characters aid in establishing connections between script and meaning. Furthermore, PowerPoint presentations that break down characters into radical components contribute to an effective approach to memorization. As a Chinese teacher who has had the same experience as these interviewed teachers, the first author has seen these visual tools play a crucial role in improving students’ competence in recognising Chinese characters.

However, it should also be noted that teachers may differ in their utilization of visual pedagogical tools. This variance seems to be primarily dependent on the resources and platforms accessible to them. For instance, Shu mentioned that she used to teach an online course to students located in Africa. Due to the challenges posed by poor internet quality, this teacher was unable to employ some digital tools on a shared screen when instructing Chinese characters.

I have students who are studying online courses with me in Africa. The internet there is very poor, making it very hard for me to play videos, or use these good apps and online tools in the class.

shu, pre-service teacher

In Shu’s case, the substantial challenge of poor internet connectivity in Africa hindered the implementation of some visibilising pedagogical methods, such as the incorporation of videos or online applications in the classes. This highlights the evident inequality in both student access to, and teacher utilization of, visual resources in online environment when facilities are limited.

5.2 Two Ways of Recognising Chinese Characters: Decoding and Recognising

In terms of teaching Chinese characters recognition, there are two general approaches: viewing the character as a holistic unit or decoding it into its radical components. All the teachers focused on the importance of students being able to recognise and understand a Chinese character efficiently, rather than concentrating solely on its radical parts.

I think the current trend is that the requirements for international students should be able to read, recognise characters, and use Pinyin to type on keyboard. Therefore, in my class, I emphasise that they should be able to read and recognise more characters.

wang, university teacher

To be able to recognise characters, of course, has always been the primary goal in my class.

ann, online teacher

In their book on Teaching Chinese Characters to Foreigners, Shi and Wang (2020) provided a set of guidelines for teachers. They explained the rationale behind emphasising learners’ ability to recognise characters, rather than solely focusing on the details or the act of handwriting. Recognising a Chinese character does not require students to remember every detail of it. For example, students sometimes may only recall a portion of the entire character during the process of reading. However, based on this fragment’s ‘trait’ etched in their memory, they can infer the character’s meaning and pronunciation. Conversely, if we were to ask students to handwrite a character purely from memory, this would require them to recall every detail of the character in order to produce the correct character.

However, this is one area where differences between the groups of teachers emerged. When it comes to decoding characters, university teachers attached greater significance to the practice of deconstructing Chinese characters into their individual radical components compared to the online and pre-service teachers. University teachers believed that by instructing students to view or analyse Chinese characters through their radical components, students can develop a systematic understanding of the composition of Chinese characters. As this teacher stated:

Learning characters is like playing with Legos, where each radical is like a Lego brick. If you want to see your Lego building tall and sturdy or you want to assemble your Lego creation quickly, then you need to be familiar with every piece.

liu, university teacher

By using an analogy, Liu illustrated that understanding and recognizing radical components can be an important part of learning Chinese characters. Students can derive benefits from mastering these radicals, particularly those that are encountered more frequently and which convey a conceptual or sound-based cues more reliably. Hence, seeing the radical for ‘wild animal’ can lead to focusing in on the meaning of the whole character, thereby associating the character with a Chinese word and meaning. The same would be true for phonetic radicals that can focus ‘decoding’ processes on a certain set of words with a related sound. Both types of radicals can then give clues that the learner can use to decipher the characters and/or text.

5.3 Handwriting and Typewriting

Typewriting has received increasing attention among Chinese teachers, and has been integrated into teaching practice by a majority. Among the fourteen teachers, the five online teachers clearly indicated that they preferred teaching typing over handwriting in class. On the other hand, the four university teachers emphasised the importance of students mastering both typing and handwriting skills. The perceptions of the five pre-service teachers regarding handwriting and typing were largely influenced by their internship institutions, whether within a university setting or a private language educational platform. Typing, being one of the effective visual tools, has many benefits as suggested by teachers. For example, this online teacher explained:

We will specifically teach students typing because it is more important and efficient. It can also improve their abilities in reading and recognising Chinese characters, as well as their text reading fluency. Nowadays, even the opportunity for Chinese people to write by hand has become relatively rare, not to mention foreigners. Students learning Chinese are driven by business requirements. They need to learn how to send emails and reply to messages, making typing more targeted and essential. Typing is easy to learn and can be immediately put into use. Additionally, learning to type can give students a stronger sense of accomplishment. While handwriting might be perceived as difficult, typing provides a greater sense of achievement.

cheng, online teacher

As Cheng pointed out, typing characters on electronic devices can enhance students’ interaction with Chinese characters. Consequently, students’ reading fluency and character recognition abilities can be improved through typing practice. Moreover, in the digital era, learning to type is more attuned to the practical needs of students in their daily lives and work. Most importantly, the teacher believed that learning to type could give students a sense of achievement and accomplishment within their language studies. Because of the use of the typing input system, students are able to easily and quickly produce characters on screen. To some extent, this can reduce the difficulties and anxieties associated with handwriting practice.

In contrast to the consistent perceptions of the usefulness of typewriting, teachers’ views on handwriting exhibited inconsistency. While all the teachers acknowledged the crucial role of handwriting in reinforcing students’ memorization of Chinese characters, there were varying perspectives in practices. All the five online teachers revealed that they abstained from handwriting in classes due to the complex nature of handwriting itself and the challenges associated with organising teaching in an online environment. Conversely, the four university teachers indicated their commitment to teach handwriting and facilitating handwriting practices in their classes.

I think my teaching priority is to ensure students can recognise the characters, use Pinyin to type characters on phones or computers and know how to use them. As for handwriting, I don’t really teach in the class.

chen, online teacher

I teach students how to write characters. In each class, we have a character dictation exercise. I also teach students how to type characters on phones, and I assign homework for them to chat in Chinese (using Pinyin typing in WeChat groups).

lu, university teacher

Typing characters on digital devices is more practical and useful for learners in this digital era. However, handwriting may contribute to the development of a visual-spatial memory that includes a motor memory trace. This may support character recognition processes as it provides a further set of information that can be used in recognition, but writing also requires the need to explicitly produce the components and strokes within a character that can support learning (Zhang & Min, 2019). Such hypothesised interactions between visual, spatial and motor aspects of character learning can foster lasting memory retention and explains why university teachers continue to insist on making handwriting an integral part of their classes.

6 Conclusion

In an era of rapid technological development, the educational landscape has undergone a fundamental transformation due to a proliferation of visual pedagogical tools and online teaching forms. These advancements have led to a significant evolution in the way teachers impart knowledge to students. In the context of teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, the perceived complex visual-spatial configurations of Chinese characters within the writing system argues for learners to constantly engage with these features during their studies, and for teachers to find innovative ways to support the learning of these features. Interviews conducted with the 14 Chinese teachers have revealed that they integrated multiple visual pedagogical tools during the process of their teaching. The perceptions of the teachers suggest that these visual aids not only alleviate some of the difficulties of learning Chinese characters and improve character recognition efficiency, but also bolster students’ learning confidence and infuse a sense of joy into their learning experience. Furthermore, using Pinyin to type on electronic devices has emerged as a powerful pedagogical tool in the teaching and learning of Chinese characters. Hence, teachers should consider how to maximise the use of such digital-based tools to enhance the effectiveness of their teaching. In contrast, the more traditional view of using handwriting as a way to support character learning was still taught to students, primarily by university teachers who considered handwriting practice as useful and effective. Hence, teachers might consider a blended approach that combines both decoding and recognising, along with handwriting and typing in Chinese character instruction.

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1

gif is a lossless format for image files that supports both animated and static images. Software developers made each Chinese character into a gif form, which means learners can view the writing order of the character like watching an animation on the screen.

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