Logographic character handwriting, such as Hanzi in Chinese, Kanji in Japanese, or Hanja in Korean, is notoriously difficult for foreign language learners. Fortunately, computer-assisted learning systems for handwriting are being improved to meet the needs of teachers and learners in foreign language education. The use of this developing technology, however, has not been well explored. The aim of this paper is threefold. The first is to draw our readers' attention briefly to first language (L1) handwriting tradition and a common problem in second language (L2) handwriting instruction. The second is to explore the effects of theory-informed multimedia handwriting system compared to the prevailing worksheet method, based on participants' performances in learning handwriting and conventional stroke execution. The third is to provide pedagogical implications from a perspective concerning participants' learning achievements and perceptions, as well as the strengths of the learning tools.
The Role of Character Handwriting in L1 Learning
A character is composed of subset components that are constructed by unique sets of strokes ranging from one to many. The formation and sequence of these components and strokes are not random; the components must fit together internally while the strokes are executed in a conventionally proper manner in L1 handwriting learning. Native beginners are taught to follow established character formation to develop their handwriting skill. The learning of character formation and standard sequencing is reinforced through class instruction and teaching materials throughout elementary education (Taylor & Taylor, 1995), as seen in: China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Korea. Unlike the alphabetic system, the logographic character writing system places a high value in the conventional formation for cultural and practical reasons.
From a neuroscience perspective, the skill of logographic handwriting is associated with reading characters. Recent neuroimaging studies discovered that the premotor cortex, a region for handwriting in the brain, is crucially relevant to logographic character reading, and that the execution of finger movements during stroke counting of ideographic characters can lighten the neural loads in recognition of characters (Matsuo, Kato, Okada, Moriya, Glover, & Nakai, 2003). Additionally, the establishment of motor programs is one of the mechanisms that serve and mediate the formation of long-term memory of Chinese characters (Tan, Spinks, Eden, Perfetti, & Siok, 2005). The role of character handwriting in L1 acquisition involves both tactile learning and neural processes.
A Common Problem in L2 Character Handwriting Instruction
Character learning has been considered a challenging aspect for Chinese as a Foreign Language (CFL) students (Everson, 1998; Ke, Wen, & Kotenbeutel, 2001; Shen, 2004). The difficulty lies in the logographic writing system, which constitutes a barrier to memorization. For language learners, sheer rote learning is inevitable (Fan, Tong, & Song, 1987).
Although handwriting is a part of instruction, effective methods to teach this skill have not been given the attention they need. In an L2 setting, instructors usually reinforce it in a much more flexible manner, allowing learners to "draw" a character as a picture to form a similar shape. This, at least partially, is for two practical reasons. The first is that teachers do not want to overwhelm beginning level learners with the obstacles of handwriting that might generally frustrate them. Learning character handwriting consumes a great amount of time for students. A self-evaluation survey study by Allen (2008) reported that, on average, the first-year participants spent a third of their study time on this one skill; however, the time spent usually did not yield productive results. The second reason is because of time constraints related to teaching loads. It is difficult for teachers to evaluate each character and correct the errors that beginners make, even if the stroke errors are discernable simply by judging the appearance of the produced characters. It is very common to see L2 beginners assemble characters together like a puzzle, using small parts to complete the whole.
Learning of Stroke Sequencing Execution in Characters
Some L2 beginners might believe that the sequence and combination of strokes are of little consequence, so long as the final product looks approximately the same. This requires a clarification of the value of conventional stroke sequence. The first rationale is culture-oriented. For centuries, the learning of the conventional character formation has been considered an essential element in handwriting instruction. It is commonly reinforced in early handwriting education in character-using societies and is generally accepted to bring proper proportion to a character. Traditionally, it is argued to be an aid for correct reproduction of the characters, to facilitate better penmanship as well as easy memorization, and to save energy in writing (Shimomura, 1980). Furthermore, because the conventional execution, to a large extent, originates from Chinese calligraphy, it is easier for learners if they would like to further pursue Chinese calligraphy in the future.
The learning of conventional character formation also serves pedagogical needs. The formation of components in a character follows the general basic principle that a character is written: from left to right or from top to bottom. Each specific component is constructed by conventional strokes; that is, when the component appears in another character, its stroke execution remains the same. This knowledge of formation between and within components, once accumulated to a certain level, is transferrable to help beginners reduce their cognitive load when learning new characters, either from the motor aspect of handwriting or from the provision of clue-giving aids, in which a radical component can be utilized to give clues to the meaning or sound of another character that also shares the same component. For example, whenever the component [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (meaning, woman) appears on any position of a character, it is always written with a uniform three-stroke sequence, whether it be in the character [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (meaning, mother) or in another one [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (meaning, makeup). In the long run, this helps students to reproduce characters in proper sequence and proportion even if they have never seen the character before.
For L2 learners, the most practical benefit is probably that the knowledge of conventional character formation enables beginners to effectively use a dictionary. When it comes to indexing and retrieving in a dictionary, the logographic script has been noted as being less convenient than a Western (alphabetic) system (Chen, 1999). There are three major ways for learners to look up a character. The fastest one is the indexing of pronunciation, which requires a user to know the exact sound and the corresponding tone of a character. Since a character's sound is not immediately known from its shape for beginners, this method is actually not useful for them. The second one is based on the character's bushou (or, radical). A character's radical refers to the aforementioned distinguishing component of a character, and is arranged based on the number of strokes. A stroke is a complete movement of a handwriting action, beginning when a pen touches the paper until it is lifted. Although this sounds straightforward, it might not be as intuitive for beginning learners because of the architectural nature of characters. For example, the radical [??] (bow) is built with three strokes ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), not one stroke ([??]) as beginners might perceive. The third method is to search for the characters on a computer recognition program, but, in general, learners must know how to write the character correctly for effective recognition results to be obtained.
Computer-assisted Language Learning (CALL) in Character Handwriting
Over the past two decades, many advances have been made in computer-assisted character learning. With the developing technology of touch-screen devices, the design focus of educational software has shifted from simple visual aids to interactive interfaces. Some software has been designed to identify stroke production errors (Tonouchi & Kawamura, 1997; Tsay & Tsai, 1993) and some to analyze the global features of the handwriting (Kim, Kim, & Bang, 1997; Ozaki, Adachi, Ishii, & Koyazu, 1995); however, for the analysis to function well, the systems either required users to write a character in correct stroke sequence or required them to produce it in the correct shape. However, for beginners, these two skills are exactly the targeted abilities that need cultivation. This gap has been bridged by techniques that evaluate character qualities through stroke execution, and spatial relationships, check for multiple errors, and prompt learners with useful automatic feedback (See Tang & Leung, 2006a; Leung & Komura, 2006; Li, Leung, Lam, & Tsang, 2007; Hu, Leung, & Xu, 2008; Hu, Xu, Huang, & Leung, 2009; Kuo, Huang, Horng, Chen, Chen, & Wang, 2009 for more detailed reading on these techniques.)
Although multimedia methods have become more available and accessible for the teaching and learning of orthographic character writing, empirical investigation on the effects of character learning methods is scant. In L1 learning, some studies (Fang, 2000; Wu, 2002; Lin L., 2004) suggest that the multimedia method with interactive exercises and immediate feedback increased accuracy of character writing in elementary-handwriting education. However, C. Lin (2003) examined the effectiveness of a demonstration-only non-interactive multimedia program on character writing and stroke sequence and found that, in spite of the participants' positive perceptions of the demonstration tool, there were no observable statistically significant differences of the achievement test scores among the participants.
Related research on L2 learning is even more limited. Tang, Li, and Leung (2006) reported that it required less time for the multimedia group to learn Chinese handwriting. In a second attempt, Tang and Leung (2006b) suggested that the learning time was …