Explicit teaching and implicit learning of Chinese characters

Lily CHAN, Terezinha NUNES

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapters


To read and write Chinese require an ability to recognise more than 1,000 basic graphic units. Very few studies have looked into the perceptual learning process of these graphic units at the initial stage when young children are being introduced to the script. Two tasks were developed to tap children‘s understanding of graphic properties of written Chinese. In the name writing task, we investigated whether preschool children, aged 3-5, (1) would differentiate drawing from writing, (2) used a correspondence between character and syllable in their writing, (3) used multiple units within one character or across characters, and (4) respected some of the supra-segmented properties of written Chinese. In the graphic acceptability task, we examined if 5-9 years old children could make orthographic judgements based on positioning and graphic properties of the stroke-patterns. Our results indicated that preschool children could already demonstrate some knowledge of the properties of graphic units in Chinese by using strokes or made-up stroke-patterns in their name writing. Five and six-year-olds rejected words with illegal graphic features and seven- and eight-years-olds distinguished nonwords from pseudowords based on illegal position of stroke-patterns. We conclude that Chinese children implicitly learn graphic properties of the writing System which arc crucial in the learning process, the possibility to shift perceptual learning of graphic properties of written Chinese from implicit learning to explicit teaching deserves further investigation. The aim of this chapter is to analyze children’s developing knowledge of the graphic units that arc related to speech units in Chinese and the difference between what children arc explicitly taught and what they learn implicitly about these graphic units. The term ‘implicit‘ is used here to indicate that both Chinese children and adults are usually unaware of those formal characteristics of their script that are analyzed in this paper (see, for example, Berry & Dienes, 1993, for a conceptualization of implicit learning). In the introductory section, we consider briefly the development of children‘s recognition of graphic units in alphabetic scripts and explain some of the difficulties in the identification of graphic units in written Chinese. In the second section, the basic approach to the teaching of these units in Hong Kong is succinctly presented. The third section contains results of investigations about Chinese children‘s knowledge of graphic Units in written Chinese. In the final section, we consider implications of these results for the teaching of written Chinese and examine the connection between explicit teaching and implicit learning in a more general way. Copyright © 2001 Kluwer Academic.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDevelopmental aspects in learning to write
EditorsLiliana TOLCHINSKY
Place of PublicationDordrecht, the Netherlands
PublisherKluwer Academic
ISBN (Print)9780792370635, 0792369793, 9789401007344
Publication statusPublished - 2001


Chan, L., & Nunes, T. (2001). Explicit teaching and implicit learning of Chinese characters. In L. Tolchinsky (Ed.), Developmental aspects in learning to write (pp. 33-53). Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.


  • Preschool children
  • Chinese characters
  • Perceptual learning
  • Stroke patterns
  • Strokes
  • Implicit learning
  • Children's writings


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