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Write or wrong: Children struggle with characters

By Xinhua in Wuhan | China Daily | Updated: 2012-12-04 07:58

A campaign is afoot in Chinese schools to improve children's literacy, as educators have warned that young people are increasingly having problems writing and reading Chinese due to their extensive use of electronic devices, as well as a lack of attention paid to traditional culture.

Beginning this fall, elementary schools in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, have required 420,000 of their students to read classical texts for 20 minutes every morning, as well as practice writing Chinese characters for 20 minutes in the afternoon each day.

The "Get Close to the Mother Tongue" campaign began in the city's Wuchang district in 2010 and caught the eye of the Ministry of Education earlier this year. Now the ministry plans to roll out similar campaigns elsewhere in the country in an attempt to counteract a widespread problem referred to by some as "character amnesia".

"Pinyin", a writing system that transcribes Chinese characters into Latin script, is the most widely used input method for phones, computers and other electronic gadgets. Pinyin only requires users to recognize characters; users do not have to physically write out characters.

Children who have been raised with computers and mobile devices have become less reliant on handwriting. As a result, some children have trouble writing some characters, particularly those not used frequently.

As consoles and iPads replace books, educators worry that children's language skills are becoming feeble.

When writing essays for school, some students omit regular characters in favor of symbols and English abbreviations that are popularly used in web forums and text messaging.

"When you read their writing or listen to what they say, you realize what a limited vocabulary they have," said Zhang Jiguang, headmaster of the Wuchang Experimental Elementary School.

A survey by the education bureau of the Wuchang district indicated that the campaign has been successful, with more than 75 percent of 50,000 students aged 6 to 12 able to write Chinese characters correctly.

The survey also showed that a number of children have started studying calligraphy and poetry.

"I practice calligraphy every day and everybody says my handwriting looks much better now," said Li Zemei, a fifth grader at Wuchang Experimental Elementary School.

Educators said factors other than the expanding use of technology can be linked to the phenomenon.

"Chinese students are overloaded with English and math exercises because of the exam-oriented education system," said Chen Longhai, a professor of Chinese literature at Central China Normal University.

In China, students spend a great deal of time completing repetitive exercises to get high scores on entrance exams.

"We have hundreds of Confucius Institutes overseas promoting Chinese language and culture, but our own children feel it unnecessary to study them and are losing interest in them," Chen said.

"The mother tongue is in a state of crisis," he said.

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