According to the self-teaching hypothesis (Share, 1995), phonological decoding is fundamental to acquiring orthographic representations of novel written words. However, phonological decoding is not straightforward in non-alphabetic scripts such as Chinese, where words are presented as characters. Here, we present the first study investigating the role of phonological decoding in orthographic learning in Chinese. We examined two possible types of phonological decoding: the use of phonetic radicals, an internal phonological aid, and the use of Zhuyin, an external phonological coding system. Seventy-three Grade 2 children were taught the pronunciations and meanings of twelve novel compound characters over four days. They were then exposed to the written characters in short stories, and were assessed on their reading accuracy and on their subsequent orthographic learning via orthographic choice and spelling tasks. The novel characters were assigned three different types of pronunciation in relation to its phonetic radical – (1) a pronunciation that is identical to the phonetic radical in isolation; (2) a common alternative pronunciation associated with the phonetic radical when it appears in other characters; and (3) a pronunciation that is unrelated to the phonetic radical. The presence of Zhuyin was also manipulated. The children read the novel characters more accurately when phonological cues from the phonetic radicals were available and in the presence of Zhuyin. However, only the phonetic radicals facilitated orthographic learning. The findings provide the first empirical evidence of orthographic learning via self-teaching in Chinese, and reveal how phonological decoding functions to support learning in non-alphabetic writing systems.
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