Effects on Learning Logographic Character Formation in Computer-Assisted Handwriting Instruction

Article excerpt


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. …