Learning the role of radicals in reading Chinese

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Summary Table

  • Node Title: Semantic Radicals Study
  • Researchers: Susan Dunlap, Ying Liu, Charles Perfetti, Sue-mei Wu
  • PIs: Charles Perfetti, Ying Liu, Min Wang
  • Others who have contributed 160 hours or more:
  • Graduate Students: Susan Dunlap
  • Study Start Date Sep 1, 2005
  • Study End Date Dec 31, 2006
  • LearnLab Site and Courses , CMU Chinese Online
  • Number of Students: 20
  • Total Participant Hours for the study: 60
  • Data in the Data Shop: in progress


Does providing reliable semantic information help second language learners acquire new words? Two experiments investigated whether adult learners of Chinese benefited from explicit instruction of semantic information when learning new characters. We manipulated whether semantic information was a reliable cue to word meaning and whether predictability was taught explicitly. We measured learning outcomes with translation and semantic judgment tasks.


Semantic radical; Explicit instruction; Implicit instruction; Cue validity

Research Question

Does providing reliable semantic information help second language learners acquire new words?


A background and significance section that briefly summarizes prior work on the research question and why it is important to answer it

Previous research has shown that non-native learners of Chinese do not discern the presence of helpful cues in the orthography unless such relationships are taught explicitly (Taft & Chung, 1999). But because semantic cues in Chinese are not always reliable predictors of word meaning (Hanley, 2005; Shu, Chen, Anderson, Wu, & Xuan, 2003), it may actually be more confusing for a beginning learner to be taught these relationships. The aim of this study was to determine how reliability of cues can affect learning. As in every language, Chinese has rules and exceptions to those rules. The written form of Chinese contains a high percentage of compound characters, which are single, one-syllable words made up of semantic and phonetic radicals. These radicals, or linguistic subcomponents, often provide cues to the character’s meaning and pronunciation. However, a reader cannot rely solely on using this strategy to decode new words in Chinese. Therefore, we wanted to ascertain whether it is helpful to teach the sometimes ambiguous relationship between linguistic subcomponents and whole word definitions.

Dependent variables

The dependent variables, which are observable and typically measure competence, motivation, interaction, meta-learning, or some other pedagogically desirable outcome

Normal post-test measures: - accuracy and response time on a semantic category judgment task with previously learned items (Experiment 1)

- accuracy of translating previously learned Chinese characters into English (Experiment 2)

Transfer measure: - accuracy on a multiple-choice translation task with new Characters (Experiments 1 and 2)

Independent variables

The independent variables, which are typically include instructional environment, activity or method, and perhaps some student characteristics, such as gender or first language

Training condition was either explicit (information was provided about the semantic radical’s meaning in relation to meaning of the character) or implicit (no additional information was provided). Being explicit about the radical is an instance of feature focusing instructional method. Each semantic radical was either reliable (its meaning was associated with the meaning of the characters) or unreliable (its meaning was unrelated to the meaning of the character in which it appeared).

== Hypothesis The hypothesis, which is a concise statement of the relationship among the variables that answers the research question

We predict an interaction between reliability and explicitness, such that learners will perform better on items studied in the explicit condition compared to the implicit condition, and this effect will be greater for characters with reliable semantic radicals than characters with unreliable semantic radicals.


Preliminary analyses show that providing semantic cues promoted retention of target characters and aided in transferring knowledge to new characters. Reliability of cues had no additional effect on retention or transfer.


An explanation, which is short (a paragraph or two) and typically mentions unobservable, hypothetical attributes of the students (e.g., the students’ knowledge or motivation) and cognitive or social processes that affect them

We theorize that learners benefit from being taught the connection between semantic subcomponents of words and the meanings of words, and they adopt this strategy in learning new vocabulary.


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