'Read First, Write Later' for Chinese Programs, Immersion and Beyond

Exploring new avenues for literacy in 21st century American classrooms

By Andrew W. Corcoran,
Executive Director, CAIS Institute
Head of School, Chinese American International School


One of the major problems in Chinese immersion programs for English speakers is how to address the problem inherent in reading and writing. Our experience at the Chinese American International School (CAIS) has been frustrating in this area. andrewIn the third or fourth grade, students begin to get frustrated with reading in Chinese because their developmental level surpasses their reading level. Although they are beginning to read chapter books in English, they are forced to read passages and short stories in Chinese that are notable for their simplicity.

This is particularly important when students are asked to read subject matter material in Chinese. Since this ability is central to an effective immersion program in any language, it must be fully developed. Likewise, students in immersion programs need to reach writing levels that allow them to present complex and sophisticated ideas. It is impossible to write at those levels if a student is not able to read at them.

It was interesting to learn that the Ministry of Education in Singapore was concerned about the same problem. A 2004 report titled “Report of the Chinese Language Curriculum and Pedagogy Committee” written for the ministry identifies this problem in its Chinese “mother tongue” program. A footnote in the report refers to a new program designed to address the same problem in Shanghai. Referred to as “Recognize First Write Later (1),” this program was developed to address the same concerns being echoed in schools in Shanghai. As students neared middle school, they were not able to write with the desired complexity or sophistication. The Shanghai education bureau was facing the same problem we were facing at CAIS and in Singapore. There was a disconnect between the level of sophistication in students’ writing in Chinese and their level of intellectual development.

We decided to investigate “Read First, Write Later” to see if it had application to our program.

The Concept

Traditionally, students learn to write characters at the same time they learn to read them. As a result, reading and writing levels advance together. The problem rests in the fact that learning to write characters takes much longer than learning to recognize them and much longer to learn to write with an alphabet.

Learning to properly form all the strokes, in their specific stroke order, without missing any of the strokes that are present in each character takes much longer than being able to recognize the same character when reading. This slows a student’s progress in reading to the same pace as her progress in writing. If there were some way to disconnect reading from “replicating(2)” characters, it would seem that reading levels could advance at a much faster rate.

Our writing is heavily influenced by what we read. By extension, students who read more complex and sophisticated material also write more complex and sophisticated material. An approach to improving reading and writing lay in our ability to have students read more sophisticated material. The problem is finding a way to decouple learning to read and learning to write. Technology provides us a way to separate those two activities.

Goals for Graduates and the Role of Technology

Trying to address this problem of improving reading and writing levels requires that we first identify our goals. We need to consider the destination before focusing on the starting point.

When students are ready to enter high school (3) they should be able to read and write at a relatively sophisticated level. At this age, students submit papers that are written on the computer. As students progress through high school and into college, the amount of writing that is done on the computer continues to increase to the point where the overwhelming amount of academic and professional writing is done on the computer. The advent of email, text messaging and online chatting now makes it true for much informal writing as well.

The key to decoupling reading and writing (or recognizing and replicating) in Chinese is to take advantage of the computer. This requires a willingness to step away from traditional ways of teaching those skills.

It is much easier to recognize a character than it is to replicate it. Writing in Chinese with a computer depends on accuracy in pronunciation, knowledge of Hanyu Pinyin (4) and being able to select the correct character from a pop-up list. This is a dramatic departure from the skills that are required to write in Chinese without the aid of a computer.

The ability to recognize a character from a list is closely related to the ability to read. The computer provides an important tool for improving reading and writing in Chinese that was not available until very recently. The power of this tool requires that we rethink our approach with a focus on what we are trying to achieve in the end rather than on how we have done it in the past.

This discussion assumes that the bulk of any writing done by advanced learners of Chinese will be on the computer. This includes formal academic papers, business proposals, and business emails. It also assumes immersion programs are fertile ground for these advanced learners. The informal use of electronic writing adds to the urgency of taking advantage of the technologies available.

It is also important to note that the approach discussed here will not prevent accelerated learners from being able to write Chinese by hand. In fact, this approach may provide an effective way of differentiating in a classroom that includes students with different proficiency levels in Chinese. Those with higher levels of proficiency can spend time focusing on handwriting, formation of characters, using more traditional dictionaries, etc. that will enhance their experience. Simultaneously, those with lower levels of proficiency can focus on reading and writing/composing at higher levels and concentrate on learning practical and more commonly used vocabularies.

Back to the Beginning

Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten should be focused on speaking and listening (5). As students progress, they will also learn to recognize characters with no attempt to have them learn how to write them. This recognition will result in students being able to read very simple books by the end of Kindergarten.

Once students begin to recognize characters and read short, simple stories, they may begin to try and write stories of their own. This could entail trying to copy characters they are able to recognize. During this stage, there should be no effort to get the students to use proper stroke form or order. This stage is akin to the stage of creative spelling in English.

The Difficult 2nd Stage

The most difficult stage is the early writing/pinyin stage. This often occurs in the first and second grades in immersion programs (6). The first semester of the first grade provides the introduction to proper stroke formation and an introduction to stroke order. By the end of the semester, students should be able to form all strokes correctly, know the names of the strokes, and be able to replicate a limited number of characters. During this time they will also be learning to recognize more characters although they will not be able to replicate them.

Students will begin to write more during this period but may continue to use creative characters. Since students will not have yet learned pinyin, this will be the most difficult time for students to create short written stories or narratives. The actual writing of characters should not be stressed during this period. Different approaches such as dictating stories to an adult who writes them down for the student, having small boxes of characters for the students to chose, having character walls as guides for the students, or having stamps and ink pads for the students to use.


In the second semester of the first grade, students will learn pinyin (7). This tool will give students the ability to transcribe stories that are spoken in Chinese onto paper, although it should not be confused with writing stories in Chinese. Students will still practice proper stroke formation and order with a limited number of characters while increasing both oral Chinese and character recognition, but adequate progress in pinyin is very important so students can begin to transcribe Chinese conversations, stories, etc.

Second grade shows a continuation of the areas presented in first grade but the emphasis changes. Students should have a strong grasp of strokes (including formation, order and name) and a solid grounding in pinyin. More focus will be given to the latter in second grade. In addition, students should begin to write in increasing number of characters with pinyin replacing the former use of created characters.

Characters that have been learned should include proper basic form and order. It should be expected that students will begin to write characters they have not learned to write but have learned to recognize. This should be encouraged and might be accompanied with pinyin if the student realizes he may not know the character with complete accuracy.

There will be a significant increase in what the students read (8). This will include a focus on increasing the range of characters the student recognizes. Students might have some self made book of characters that provides the sound (pinyin), the properly formed character (although not practiced to solidify in memory in most cases), and a definition. They can be arranged for ease of access by group or alphabetically by pinyin.

With the increasing use of pinyin based dictionaries, these should be available for student use. More advanced students may have a greater understanding of the different elements of the character and could use more traditional dictionaries.

Becoming More Advanced

In the third, fourth and fifth grades, students continue with many of the same approaches, although at increasing levels of difficulty. Pinyin should be used as a tool rather than being taught alongside characters. Students should be learning “character” attack skills (9) that will enable them to become more independent readers. These include such things as identifying the part of speech, anticipating what meaning is expected, using the radical as an indicator of the meaning, establishing any phonetic hint that is included, etc.

During this period the students will also be introduced to electronic devices such as dictionaries and the computer. This will enable the student to draw more effectively on character recognition and enable the student to write and read more sophisticated texts. Students should demonstrate they know how to enable a computer for Chinese and use Chinese word processing software. They also need to be able to use both an electronic and a pinyin based dictionary. Advanced students may demonstrate they are able to use more traditional devices.

The Middle School

It is during middle school that students should be writing and reading at a much higher level than under the previously used system for teaching Chinese. The majority of the written Chinese work produced by the student will be in Chinese at this grade level. Major assessments such as the AP and STAMP tests are computer adapted already. While students will still write simple stories and papers by hand, the most important work will be with the computer.

At this level the student should be reading at a much higher level as well, this goal being the focus of the program. If students are able to read more sophisticated material they have a chance to write more sophisticated material. Students can be assessed in authentic ways. They may be required to carry on an email conversation (or some other system such as texting or chatting). Students can write a major paper and use it as the centerpiece of a presentation with power point or some other visual aid. Advanced students can be required to write by hand more often.

Implications for Foreign Language Programs

Immersion programs are based on the student learning content in the target language. As a result, high levels of reading and writing are essential elements for a successful program and provide the basis for adapting “Read First, Write Later” to the CAIS immersion model.

While the urgency may not be as great in Chinese foreign language programs, there are indications that this approach is beneficial within the context of foreign language programs as well. In fact, it may prove to be an advantage. Since this approach is designed to facilitate higher levels of reading earlier in the program, students can be introduced to a broader range of materials earlier. This can enable students to read authentic materials such as graphic novels which can enhance interest in Chinese.

In addition, many high school foreign language programs progress to the study of literature in the upper levels. This approach would enable those programs to offer similar opportunities in Chinese (10). In those situations, the similarities between immersion and literature based foreign language programs are very similar.

One advantage to this approach in higher grades (middle and high school) is that students are already computer literate. While early elementary students in immersion programs can benefit from this approach, they are often not able to work with computers (11). Older students come to the Chinese class already in command of the skills necessary to input hanyu pinyin in the computer. Once computers are enabled for Chinese it takes very little instruction to become proficient in the mechanics of inputting Chinese.

What are the Drawbacks?

This radical approach carries with it certain drawbacks. Some elements of the language that were traditionally taught will be lost. It is important to question whether it is the responsibility of immersion programs to maintain some of the elements that will be lost or whether it is really necessary to maintain them at all (12).

Students will not be able to replicate as many characters from memory. On the other hand, they will probably be able to write most of their own high frequency words because doing so will make their life easier. This will allow for handwritten notes when necessary.

Students may lose the origin of the characters. Is this a necessary benchmark for all students? One of the problems in Chinese classes is often how to meet the needs of students who are at very different levels of Chinese. If we can get all students to read and speak at relatively high levels, the more advanced students can still continue to study the more traditional aspects of Chinese writing.

Footnotes: Read First, Write Later

(1) The report refers to the Shanghai program “先读后写” as “Recognize First, Write Later.” In CAIS it is also referred to as “Read First, Write Later.”

(2) Throughout this paper the term “replicating” refers to copying or writing a single character by hand. The term “writing” refers to composing sentences, paragraphs, essays. Etc.

(3) Students graduate from CAIS at the end of the 8th grade. Therefore the goal is identified as students’ preparation for high school in this case.
(4) Hanyu Pinyin will be referred to as pinyin from this point on.

(5) For simplicity, henceforth I will use the term speaking to include both speaking and listening. Speaking also implies accurate tone replication when speaking.

(6) The model used here is from Chinese American International School in San Francisco. Other programs may use slightly different models. The important point to consider here is when pinyin is introduced.

(7) This fits with the CAIS model. Students learn English phonics in first grade so pinyin is held until much of English phonics is mastered. This is done to help avoid some confusion over the same symbols that have different sounds in both English and pinyin.

(8) At CAIS students are introduced to traditional characters first. The rational for this is beyond the scope of this discussion. Whatever character set is introduced, students should be familiar with both traditional and simplified systems by the 8th grade to be considered literate in Chinese.

(9) Character attack skills are analogous to word attack skills in English while taking into account different clues that exist in characters.

(10) Several schools have indicated a hesitancy to offer Chinese specifically because the philosophy of the foreign/world languages department was based on introducing literature in the target language in the upper grades. Information they received when investigating Chinese indicated that was not possible.

(11) This inability to use computers is often based on something as simple as their hands being too small to use the keyboard. We are currently looking for some technological solutions to this problem, but in the short term it is probable that students below grade 4 will have difficulty using the standard computer to input Chinese efficiently.

(12) At one time the slide rule was master of the engineering department. It has now been completely replaced by the calculator which is more accurate and faster (and less expensive). There are still archaic societies that promote saving the slide rule, but its role as a necessity in engineering is over. This raises the question: what is the role of the computer in writing Chinese?