Alphabet headaches Hong Kong's English literacy challenge

  • Pauline Daphne Bunce

    Student thesis: Professional Doctorate - CDU


    Hong Kong’s language education goals include the achievement of biliteracy in two very different writing systems: traditional Chinese characters and the alphabetic English script. Each of these orthographies poses a completely different cognitive challenge to its learners, yet both are introduced, side-by-side, to pre-school Cantonese-speaking children in the territory’s kindergartens. In the case of English, such premature literacy instruction often occurs without a conversational familiarity with the language, and usually in the complete absence of any pre-literacy phonemic awareness skills. As a consequence, most Hong Kong students have learned to read the English alphabetic script in inefficient, non-phonological ways.

    In a variety of teaching and testing situations, this study explored the nature and the extent of these phonological skill-deficits in 778 high-school students from a wide range of schools. The vast majority of them found difficulty in either reading or spelling pseudowords - a giveaway indicator of a poor grasp of alphabetic principles. Word Wizards©, an action-research teaching intervention programme, was devised to address this apparent paucity of phonological knowledge in a group of 79 fifteen- and sixteen-year-old Hong Kong learners of English. This three-week word-study programme was designed to heighten the students’ meta-linguistic awareness of the internal structures of English words.

    This study has illuminated a largely unrecognised, but absolutely fundamental problem in language education in Hong Kong – that the government’s espoused goal of biliteracy for all will require two distinctly different pedagogical pathways. The majority of the territory’s English language learners are being taught to follow an inefficient, overly visual, memory-based approach to alphabetic language literacy, which leaves them with very few phonological insights and a widespread inability to decode new words. Such problems have started to come to the attention of language researchers in those overseas universities which have significant numbers of students from Hong Kong.
    Date of AwardApr 2007
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorBrian Devlin (Supervisor)

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