Below: News from English Plus+

English Plus+ News, September 2000

What Can We Learn about English from Chinese?

The Challenge of "Whole Language" Reading

Greetings newsletter readers! School has started with a sprint here in Connecticut. I feel fortunate to be able to find time to do this small English Plus+ newsletter. I hope those of you who are students and teachers will have a great school year, and may all your anguish be vanquished.

We Left Off Last Time...

Those of you who received our last newsletter may recall that I had the opportunity of teaching English for a month in China. I had a wonderful time with very hospitable Chinese hosts and some highly motivated middle school English teachers. (Middle school in China is the same as high school in the U.S.)

In the last newsletter I reflected on one significant difference between the Chinese system and the American system and how American schools might learn from this difference. This time, as promised, I want to reflect on one thing that I learned to appreciate about English from my month in China.

The Level of Studies in China

I observed a little about Chinese schools and what they taught. I teach high schoolers mostly aged 15 to 18 years. In China, most of the classes I worked with had students of the same age. I was able to take a look at their English curriculum as well as some of their other curricula.

The level of the English curriculum was very similar to the level of American French and Spanish texts. The goal in Chinese middle schools is to have graduates who can speak English fairly well and begin literary studies in college. That is very similar to the goals set by most high school foreign language curricula in the United States.

As best I could tell, the level of science courses was also similar to that in the United States, though China may put more emphasis on Chemistry and Physics than many schools in the U.S. History was different because of the obvious geographical and cultural differences; but Chinese students seemed to have a level of knowledge of their history commensurate with a students from a high school that takes U.S. History seriously.

One Surprising Difference

However, there was one startling difference. The Chinese students in their Chinese classes were at a significantly lower reading level than what most American high school students read in their English and literature classes. There were poems, essays, short stories, and traditional tales, but the students seemed to take more time reading them. The level reminded me of a fifth or sixth grade reading text in the U.S. When I considered the level of study in other courses, this surprised me.

At "my" school, English was required, so most students could speak it with some comfort. I was able to discuss these things with students and others there. I learned why the Chinese classes were not at a level comparable to our English classes. One brave adult suggested that most modern Chinese writings are shorter because of the government control of the presses. That may be a factor, but I was thinking more about the level and depth of the material, not the specific subject matter.

The Reason Why

The reason is more simple than that. Chinese takes a long time to learn to read. The modern Simplified Chinese of mainland China still has a core of 6,800 characters which a reader has to memorize. Traditional Chinese script contains about 80,000 different characters. These characters are not phonetic, but are pictorial or ideograms. For example, the character for "hill" or "mountain" looks a little like and upside-down lower case "m" with the middle stem longer than the side stems. It resembles or carries the idea of a mountain peak. Other characters are combinations of characters placed together in an artistic manner. The traditional Chinese character for "boat" is made up of the character for "vessel" or "container" and "eight" and "men," perhaps alluding to the Ark of Noah.

Written Chinese is Essentially "See and Say"

It takes a long time to memorize all these different characters. There is no particularly easy way to decode them. It is sheer memorization. It is really quite impressive how much the average middle school student in China has to memorize. But what does this mean as far learning to read in China? It takes much longer to learn to read in Chinese than it does in English.

By fourth grade (age nine), the average Americans who have learned phonics have learned to decode most standard English. If they see a familiar word, they are normally able to read it even if they have never seen it written before. In most cases, if they see an unfamiliar word, they can pronounce it. Children who learn to read at home before school can attain such a level much earlier. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne read "Pilgrim's Progress" in one sitting when he was six.

Imagine English as a Ideogrammatic Language

Imagine what learning English, or another alphabetic language, would be like if we had to learn each word by what it looked like instead of just learning what twenty or thirty odd letters look like and sound like? It would take far longer to learn. In a real sense, teenagers in China have just learned to read. They are at the same place a fourth grader would be in the U.S. It is a good illustration of how "whole language," "see and say," "sight reading," or whatever you want to call it, would retard the ability of Americans to learn to read English.

I am reminded of the chapter in the American classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird in which the six-year-old Scout tells of being bored in school because the teacher "was waving cards at us on which were printed 'the,' 'cat,' 'rat,' 'man,' and 'you.' No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill [a friend]. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me." 1

One Advantage of Ideogrammatic Writing

It is interesting to note that in the 1970's the Chinese government recognized that a phonetic system worked faster and attempted to create a workable alphabetic writing system for Chinese. This system is still in place, but is not the standard. There are two reasons why the system was not fully adopted. First, simple resistance. People already knew one system and had been comfortable with it for a long time. Second, and more significant, it could not be read throughout the country. The Chinese speak three mutually unintelligible languages--Cantonese, Mandarin, and Manchu--but they all use the same characters. In addition, there are numerous minority languages in China that have adopted the characters.

Actually, the Korean and Japanese character systems are based on Chinese, and the Chinese can read much of those writings as well (and vice versa). The spoken languages are quite different, but the writing is the same or similar. The the system of characters makes it possible for disparate languages to communicate via writing. In an age of ethnic chaos in many places, such a system brings a certain amount of unity.

Interestingly, while English does not have the character system of China, students in English-speaking countries still spend a lot of time in classes studying the structure native language. This is true of most other national language, too. Most written languages have grammatical and spelling standards so that their writing can be widely understood among various dialects. English is no different.

For Earlier and Increased Literacy, the Phonetic Method is Superior

The lesson from observing reading in China? Alphabetic language and phonics works best for learning how to read in the shortest time. This can mean a higher level of reading in a shorter amount of time. Young Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird had a right to complain about whole word recognition teaching techniques.

1Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Warner Books, 1982) 23.

News from English Plus+

We spent our summer tweaking and tinkering and have upgraded Grammar Slammer again. This time the changes are in the toolbar rather than the Help file--we have a dockable toolbar, tray icon feature, run at start option, better "Stay on top" ability, and other minor changes.

We have also changed the name of Language Vanquish to Grammar Slammer Deluxe. We did this because of confusion among some customers about the features of each program. We had originally named the two programs differently at a time when "suites" like Microsoft Office and Lotus Smart Suite had become popular. We saw Language Vanquish as a "suite" containing Grammar Slammer and Spelling Slammer. We were never able to make that very clear, so we decided to rename it Grammar Slammer Deluxe--a version of Grammar Slammer with the extra Spelling Slammer feature.

To check out a trial copy of version 3.2 of Grammar Slammer, download it from or

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Once again, may you have a great autumn, and may all your anguish be vanquished,

Your friends at English Plus+

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