The building of a systematic knowledge of the Chinese characters and the enhancement for text reading habits for CFL beginners

– some experiences


Sun Lam

Universidade of Minho, Portugal



1. Introduction


Due to the particular nature of the Chinese characters – its lack of phonetic access, its tendency for visualised semantics, its categorization logic of knowledge of the world reflected in the lexicography as well as its relative autonomy for acquisition in relation to the audio-lingual process, the pedagogic design of the TCFL task in an university undergraduate course – especially in the very beginning - is extremely important. How should we successfully combine the functionality of the written language for daily communication with an introduction to the general knowledge of the Chinese writing system? The first method 随文随语识字法alone does not reflect the inner-logic of the system which can serve as a “Net of mnemonic reference”, and the second method 集中识字法,系统识字法 is theoretic and not practical.


The first 4-year degree course in Modern Chinese in Portugal at Minho University tries to give the teaching of the Chinese characters a maximum autonomy, in parallel to the teaching of other language skills.           In order to cultivate learning by rational knowledge of etymology and categorical organization of the Chinese characters on one hand,  and learning by intuitive perception (the appearance of characters provided by communicational need and their knowledge by use) on the other hand, we synchronize these two aspects of acquisition through a distribution of the time: 40% to the former and 60% to the latter for the Intensive Reading (discipline for basic vocabulary and grammar), with a systematic explanation of the characters and a frequent presentation of small texts of a slightly shifted level, with the objective of stimulating the students for the habit of using their linguistic, ethymographical and cultural knowledge from the beginning of their learning.  


This paper intends to show some methods for this practice and its results.


We also expect to raise the following question: does acquisition by rational knowledge lixing xuexi 理性学习involve the use of the CFL learner’s mother tongue, while the acquisition by intuitive perception ganxing xuexi 感性学习depends more on the use of the target language? If it is the case, how could we, teachers of CFL with the students’ mother tongue, complement the work of our colleagues from China who do not master our mother tongue? And even in a larger scale, how should we target the different tasks of CFL teaching in Europe and in China within an undergraduate Course?



2. Two kinds of approaches in textbooks


From the very beginning, the students will deal visually with a new writing system, unless only the Romanization pinyin is used for the first period[1]. There are two methodologies in practice: 1, to learn the most simple sentences written in characters, presented according to the oral communication need (as listed in Column A); 2, to give the beginners a systematic knowledge of the characters, in which the presentation of characters are provided according to their graphic semblance and semantic categorization, usually with an introduction to the rule of simple characters that are also used as radicals (as listed in Column B).




Column A                                                                   Column B

Presentation of characters in oral communicational need

Presentation of characters with semantic and graphic  categorization系统学习

Liu xun1986实用汉语课本

1/5in the list of “New words”



Deng Yi邓懿1987初级汉语教程

Lesson 16

老师 你好 人不 对不起 没关系 谢谢 再见 学生 比尔 安娜 山本 美国英国 中国 日本

Lesson 17

什么书 画报 同学咱们 留学生 东西 杂志 我们 也你们他们


Bellassen J., Zhang P.P. 1991汉字启蒙

1中国王大小日本 很小

2你我他们人法美 李田也是哪





Bellassen J., Wong W. 1995

Les Idéogrammes Chinois ou l’Empire du Sens.  



止企出返回徙 足走奔登交跌页首面鼻目见觅眉盲口舌齿牙古


张朋朋2001: 集中识字


2 王先位非常有经验男老师在北京大学工作他专教留习现代汉语和书法




张朋朋 2001: 常用汉字部首







2002: 部首三字经


 一火灭 二儿元 八刀分 人王全

女子好 田力男 日月明  小大尖 

竹毛笔 白水泉 爪木采 舟皿盘


柳燕梅  2001 汉字速成课本

1 十工上千午生人八个下不主丰文土木大太天

2 本六少开斤口五山出车云小手东了买我心日田画业中子火白百自厂广尸户

Advantage and disadvantage:

Practical and communicational, one can write down what he can say, but does not give an idea how the system of characters works, in such a way, the memorization of characters fails more easily. Uneconomical in the learning effort because of the lack of an overall knowledge of the semantic-graphical net-work logic.


Advantage and disadvantage:

The student can get the logical architecture of the whole system, thus being conscious of a metacognitive structure and slowly turning it into a mnemonic device in his memorization and reading.  But this knowledge is not so compatible with the basic language ability for the immediate daily need.


From this list, we can find out that compared with the 90s, TCFL in our new century has been given much more attention to the methodology of teaching of characters as a graphical/semantic system.  


3. The language styles 语体and comprehension of characters


There are two kinds of text books that are commonly used at the elementary level: those that give priority to speaking capacity and the learning is conducted by dialogues (刘珣,实用汉语课本), those precede the learning with text (王砚农,阎德早,汉语读写课本1991), and some that locate a text of the same content after the dialogues at each lesson (汉字启蒙Bellassen and Zhang Pengpeng初级汉语课本尹润芗魏继东董明) 

Recently, we can find some text books aimed for training the reading ability for the beginners of CFL, like 初级汉语阅读 (刘世涛 ), 初级汉语读写教程(宋乐永),etc. Somehow, we can notice the differences between these two styles in what concerns the character acquisition at the elementary level. From the lexical point of view, characters are presented in two different language styles, and according to the usual practice of giving priority to the oral communication need, a student gets to know first the extended meaning of most characters without knowing their original meaning, until a higher level in which written language style is presented:


Characters       extended meaning                                             Original meaning


口语交际语境The oral communicational context where the characters are introduced

书面阅读语境 The written context where the characters are introduced










对, 错


,没儿。(Yes, its right.)








老师,您身体好吗? (helth)




4. Two principals for understanding: visual-semantic perception understanding vs auditive perception


In our own experiences of foreign language learning, we can tell that reading and speaking are two skills. The audio-oral channel for communication and the visual-semantic channel for communication mobilize different cognitive devices. When dealing with audio-visual stimulus, our working memory is more active, we often use the strategy of capturing the main sentence structure and pattern expressions learnt in the class, judging constantly the meaning from the communicational situation and the expression of the speaker. While reading a written text, we can use a larger scale of strategy: the theme and the main ideas, the key characters that are associated to these ideas, the coherence the lexical choice of the author, the judge of the meaning of new characters with their radical-led semantic processing and their relation with the context.

As teachers of CFL, we must be aware of the difference between the oral form and the written form of the Chinese language. The following example aims to show some




Audio/oral perception口语

    Visual logical support for understanding 书面语的视觉逻辑


They all ate and drank well, and then each one went back to his dormitory.


They all ate and drank well, and then each one went back to his dormitory.


Two of the boys got very drunk.



Two of the boys got very drunk.



The next day, in the class, everybody looked sleepy. Staring at the Chinese text book, they wonder if they were reading some heavenly symbols.


The next day, in the Chinese class, everybody looked sleepy. Staring at the text book, they were just feeling flying somewhere.

Visual association of and

李教授看起来很不高兴,他对大家说, 以后除了星期六晚上以外,不可以一起喝酒,不然的话,老师就没办法上课了。

Prof. Li seemed rather angry. He warned them that they should not have cups together except Saturday nights; otherwise, the teacher could not carry out their classes in conditions.


Prof. Li seemed rather angry. He warned them that they should not have cups together except Saturday nights so that the teacher could carry out their classes in conditions.


We can notice that in the written form, on the right column, the lexical choice for expression is richer and elaborated in its visual-semantic composition than the writing in the left column. The reason is that in using the written style, the writer of texts is more careful in rhetoricwhich does not concern only the symmetric structure, the rhyme and rhythm in the phonetic domain of phrases (as, for example, the use of four-character based 成语, but also the choice of characters that can provide visual/semantic coherence. These two characteristics for written Chinese style are from the classical poetic traditions which we can easily find in Tang poetry and wenyan texts, and they are not present in the speaking style bases texts.


Unfortunately, this difference between the speaking Chinese and written Chinese has been neglected by many of our colleagues. In most of our text books for elementary level, the authors (who are teachers of CFL) are guided by the oral communicational principal and the use of oral style, 口语体 (or大白话), dominates the presentation style of reading materials. As a result, when students come to a more literally and rhetorically written text, they would feel awkward to manage their knowledge. In other words, banding the teaching of oral Chinese and written Chinese together, or even giving priority to speaking skill before reading characters and texts,  are the main reason why TCFL in the reading and writing still has been far from efficient.


5. Some experiences


The University of Minho, Portugal, created the first degree course in modern Chinese. As the first course in the country, we took the opportunity to use a new methodology in which we try to develop separately the visual-semantic domain and oral-auditive domain of the language ability. From the beginning, the Chinese language is introduced at three simultaneous divisions: 1. the visual-semantic organization of the Chinese characters; 2. the pinyin system and the speaking Chinese; 3. the simple sentence structure and grammar. Students will be able to read and write actively the sentences that are based on the communicational use, and they also read texts which develop their knowledge of each communication topic by knowing characters presented in a more elaborated text.   


Example 1:

When learning “What is your name?” the following text is provided for comprehension:





从前有两个人一个姓李一个姓姜。姓李的没有儿子姓姜的没有女儿。姓姜的常常叫姓李的老木姓李的开始不知道是什么意思想了半天才明白: “他是说我没有儿子啊


第二天他就开始叫姓姜的老羊。姓姜的问他为什么姓李的回答说: “你笑我没有儿子我就不能笑你没有女儿吗?”





Example 2:

After learning about the family members, the student will know more, by reading the following text:







Example 3:

In the lesson about time and hours, and as an enhancement to the student’s knowledge of comparison, this text comes after the dialogue:  




在一个小小的盒子里,住着三兄弟,它们的样子长得差不多,只是,有的个子高一些, 有的矮一些。每天,它们都围着一个圆圈跑啊,跑啊,最小的弟弟比两个哥哥跑得快,三兄弟里,大哥哥跑得最慢。可是,它们跑了一圈儿又一圈儿,一年又一年,比赛还是没有结果。







Example 4:

In Lesson 17, “My Chinese teacher”, we gave the students a very short text:




爷爷和小孙子在河边散步。 爷爷想教给孙子一些道理,就说: “ 你知道吗?  溪没有河大,河没有江大, 江没有海大,海没有洋大。。。小孙子自以为是地接着说: “ 羊没有牛大,牛没有象大,象没有恐龙大,爷爷,对吗? ”



The reading comprehension practice is a group work in the class, guided by the teacher. The students are not allowed to use dictionary.



1. The text is read aloud by the teacher, the students mark the breath group. This will help the learners at the elementary level to avoid the wrong grouping of characters (读破), because unlike European languages, there is not a space between compound words

 2. Students are encouraged to figure out the main elements of the text: who, what, when, how, etc., the teacher gives the hints by drawing their attention to the graphic characteristics of the key characters, reminding them what they learnt already (for example, in Text No. 3, ,, are new to them, but they learnt the radical in 国,园 and, so that they will reason out the meaning of these characters in the context;

3. The teacher explain the syntactical structures that are new to them, like 才, 就不能。。。吗,自以为是地, that are difficulties at these level. In this way, students’ attention and effort remain in the semantical-graphical comprehension;

 4. Students are asked to translate the sentences into their mother language, while others are encouraged to correct.

 5. At the end, the teacher comments by pointing out the key characters for the topic, how should we proceed the understanding by picking up the logic in the use of character category, for example, in Text 4, 溪河江海洋 are five subjunctives that belong to “water” category, and as they are in a series of comparison, in the grammatical structure of  “A 没有B” (A is not as big as B), and as the students know already two characters, , river and sea, they can calculate by their own knowledge that these are different forms of water in the earth.


Attention should be given to avoid the habit of going instantly to dictionary, and not to ask the students to read the text aloud, since phonetic effort would interfere with the attention given in this comprehension task.


Some reflections

Audio-oral communication and reading perception are two capacities, associated with each other but can be developed at different pace and methodology. They belong to two different intellect domains: oral-auditive intelligence and visual-semantic intelligence. That is why we can often see people who can read or even write a foreign language, without fluency in speaking it.

With this experimental method, we enhanced the reading ability of the first year students, leaving them prepared to work with text books at intermediate level from the beginning of the second year. At this level, the introduction to the lexicography and to classical poetry will give them more sensibility in the use of characters from a semantic and lexical point of view, and the reading of newspapers at the 2nd semester will train their comprehension ability in real context.






Bellassen J., Wong W. Les Idéogrammes Chinois ou l’Empire du Sens.  Editions You Feng, Paris, 1995.

Bellassen J., Zhang P.P. 1991汉字启蒙. 华语教学出版社,2001

柳燕梅: 汉字速成课本. 北京语言文化大学出版社2001

宋乐永,  林宇, 刘明. 初级汉语读写教程。北京语言文化大学出版社,2000

Sun Lam, Luís Cabral, Wang Jiangmei: Compêndio de Chinês. Centro de Línguas e Culturas Orientais, Universidade do Minho. 2005.


张朋朋: 集中识字. 华语教学出版社,2001

张朋朋: 常用汉字部首. 华语教学出版社,2001

张朋朋:  部首三字经.  北京语言文化大学出版社,2002

张世涛: 初级汉语阅读教程。北京大学出版社,2003


[1] In Europe, unlike some American universities, characters are used at the very beginning.