YingWei Fu (Anna) is a recent graduate of the Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition course in 2017. She has studied in China, Malaysia, the U.S. and the UK and is interested in multilingual and immersion education. She is particularly keen in young learners’ foreign language acquisition in multilingual societies such as Malaysia, Singapore, and the U.S. Her recent master’s thesis focuses on electronic book’s effect on American CFL kindergarteners’ vocabulary gain as she explores the ways technology implements and enriches language education.

Video Abstract

Written Abstract

This exploratory study examined the impact of the story book format (print book vs. e-book), on easy and difficult Chinese vocabulary acquisition. Thirty-two five- and six-year-old, typically-developing American kindergarteners from middle Social Economic Status (SES) family were pre-tested in their L1 English receptive vocabulary and L2 Chinese vocabulary knowledge to investigate which factor would predict their L2 vocabulary learning outcome in the Target Vocabulary Test (TVT). This was a with-in subject experimental design where each child was exposed to both the experimental (e-book) and control (print book) condition. Children in the experimental condition would read BetterChinese e-book (which includes exercises, videos and games) on a computer for four days in a week and they were tested with TVT to assess their L2 vocabulary learning outcome on Friday. The control condition would participate in an adult-shared-reading session of a BetterChinese print storybook for the four days the next week and tested on TVT Friday. It can be observed from the results that to learn easy words (two-character compound words) the print book was more effective, but to learn difficult words (two-character compound words) the e-book provided more scaffolding and was more effective.

Introduction

Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the international community has responded to the rising economic superpower with increasing educational investment in Chinese language and culture. Despite a rising interest in the learning and teaching of Chinese as a foreign and heritage language, there is a serious shortage in both CFL research and teaching materials, especially for vocabulary acquisition (Shei & Hsieh, 2012; Fu, 2005; Simončič, 2015). Yet the best way of teaching vocabulary has been a matter of debate.The grammar-translation method (Fries, 1945) and the audio-lingual method (Lado, 1957) have been popular in the past, teaching vocabulary via lists of isolated words to be memorized and translated from first language (L1) to second language (L2) or vice versa, or listening to difficult texts to reproduce the words in correct usage. Some researchers also encourage learning vocabulary acquisition through extensive reading (Suk, 2017; Horst, 2005). Furthermore, shared book reading activities have been proven to be vital and beneficial to young children’s language development and vocabulary size in both L1 and L2 (Roberts, 2008).

Gap in E-book Research

With technological advances of the 21st century, electronic storybooks (e-books) quickly emerge as a popular form of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) tool, and as a supplement to—and possible replacement for—the print storybook. Yet, very little research has been done on the effects of e-books’ versus print books on CFL kindergarten learners’ vocabulary acquisition. Previous e-book studies have been focused on e-book’s effect on kindergarteners’ L1 language acquisition in Hebrew (Korat & Shamir, 2008) or L1 acquisition of Dutch (Smeets & Bus, 2012) or L2 Dutch (Segers &Verehoven, 2002), reading comprehension (Grimshaw, Dungworth, McKnight & Morris, 2007), literacy (Ihmeideh, 2014), special effects on children of lower socioeconomic status (Shamir, Korat & Barbi, 2008; Korat & Shamir, 2008) or children with learning difficulties (Shamir & Shlafer, 2011). Furthermore, much of the current research in reading and vocabulary have not taken variables such as L1 knowledge, L2 proficiency, book formats, different types of target vocabulary, and age into account and examined their interaction on vocabulary acquisition.

Literature Review

Chinese Writing System

There are two kinds of Chinese script: simplified characters that are used in mainland China and traditional characters that are used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Children in this study were learning the simplified Chinese characters. The biggest category (82%) of character is the standard compound character or phonetic-semantic compounds (Shu & Anderson, 1999). Standard compound characters have two parts: radical and phonetic. The radical is the semantic element that communicates a word’s meaning while the phonetic hints on the sound. For example, the character 骑 (to ride) is made up of two parts, the radical马(horse)and the phonetic element奇(strange, new)which is pronounced qi . The character 骑 is also pronounced as qi, as its phonetic element indicates. According to Shu (2003), 67%  of frequent compound characters are like 骑above and are called transparent characters which means the radical provides semantic information to the meaning of the character. Therefore, learning radicals is very important for Chinese second language learners. Chinese teachers often incorporate the learning of radicals to facilitate character learning during book reading sessions as part of the standard curriculum.

Compound Word Processing

Studies in Chinese character and word reading have mostly focused on single character and two-character compound word differences without including multi-character compound words such as three-character words and four-character words/idioms (Wang & McBride, 2016; Huang, Lee, Huang & Chou, 2011; Huang, Lee, Tsai, & Tzeng, 2011). The studies that compared one-character to two-character compounds contributed to the debate of Chinese word representation and processing: whether the brain naturally processes compound words as a single unit (word-level processing/holistic representation) or separate character entities (character-level processing/decomposed representation)? This study seeks to provides more background understanding the distinction between Chinese character and word processing.

E-book Studies

Among e-book studies on L1 vocabulary acquisition, de Jong and Bus’s (2002, 2004) comparisons between print and e-book showed that e-book was equally effective as print storybook reading for low literary ability children and more effective than print book for high literary ability children. Among different types of e-books, Smeets and Bus’ (2012, 2015) more recent studies showed that e-books that ask vocabulary questions during reading were more effective than e-book reading alone, and an interactive, animated e-book was more effective than a non-interactive, animated e-book or static e-books. In Seger and Verhoeven’s study (2002, 2003) on the interactive static e-book’s effect (with games that ask students to click and label objects in the picture) on L2 vocabulary acquisition, it was shown that curriculums that included e-books were more effective than regular curriculums without e-books. However, some studies such as Terrell and Daniloff (1996) and Segers, Takke and Verhoeven’s (2001) showed that when children simply listen and read the e-book, the live reading of print book with an adult has slightly better effect on vocabulary outcome. Lee’s study (2017) showed there was no difference between e-book reading’s effect on novel words and control condition where targets words were not exposed to children in any way. Therefore, the findings are not conclusive and different types of e-book with different additional post-reading activities can greatly influence vocabulary learning outcome.

My Study

Unlike previous vocabulary research that did not categorize difficulty of target vocabulary, this study has differentiated between easy and difficult Chinese words by word length (two-character compound words versus three-character compound words) and distinguish between book formats (print versus e-book). Thus, this produced a 2 (difficulty levels) X 2 (book formats) design that examined vocabulary outcome of four reading conditions: Easy Print, Easy E-book, Difficult Print, and Difficult E-book. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to examine the e-book versus print book’s effect on CFL kindergarten learners’ acquisition of easy and difficult vocabulary, which appears to be a gap in the research.

Research Question

To learn easy and difficult Chinese words, is an e-book-assisted learning experience more effective than participating in a traditional shared-reading of storybooks with an adult/teacher?

Methodology

Participants

The participants were Chinese immersion kindergarten students aged five to six in an elementary school in Minnesota. There were three classes of 22 students which made up 66 students in total. However, only 45 students’ parents consented to the study and only 32 students participated throughout the four weeks of intervention without absence due to sickness or family vocation. There were 32 participants in the study, gender ratio is 1:1. There were 11 five-year-olds, 20 six-year-olds, and 1 seven-year-old.

Material

 Physical Storybook

This study used the established school curriculum of BetterChinese textbook series and utilised the same specific storybooks normally used for the time in the academic semester. The presentation or order of the books ideally should be counter-balanced to eliminate the possibility of a book-order effect. However, using different books in the same week may interfere with the art and related classroom activities. Therefore, to ensure minimum interference with school curriculum (since each week’s curriculum is built on the textbook material such as art projects, homework, class activities), this study did not counter-balance for book order. The book order is provided in Table 1 below.

Schedule Week 1 (Easy Print) Week 2 (Easy E-book) Week 3 (Difficult Print) Week 4 (Difficult Ebook)
Book Title What is in the Sea? Big and Small Well-done! What is the Monkey Doing?

Table 1 BetterChinese Curriculum/textbook

The E-book

The e-book is developed by the same textbook company (BetterChinese) and is the same as the print version except the images and main characters in the book are animated and perform an action that is related to the target word. A narrator reads the text out-loud in the background with music and special sound effects such as drum rolls. These e-books are non-interactive animated e-books with post-reading activities according to Lee’s categories (2017).

Figure 2: BetterChinese E-book Sample

Testing Instruments

Target Vocabulary Test/TVT (Self-made by researcher)

There are existing vocabulary measures of Mandarin-speaking children such as Chinese versions of the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory (CCDI; Tardif, Fletcher, Zhang, Liang, Zuo, & Chen, 2008) and a Mainland Chinese version of the receptive vocabulary test such as Chinese version of PPVT (Gong & Guo, 1984), but they are designed for Mainland and Taiwan L1 Chinese children instead of CFL learners. Moreover, the standardized norms, items and illustrations are outdated (Murphy & Davidshofer, 1991). Therefore, there is no published Chinese receptive vocabulary measure for CFL learners at the pre-school level.

Moreover, since this study seeks to explore specific target vocabulary gain after the storybook intervention, a pre-intervention 24-item target vocabulary test will be designed and given in a 35-item vocabulary test (to mix target with non-target vocabulary to reduce the multiple exposure effects where children learn the vocabulary from the exposure to the test instead of intervention) to students individually to make sure they do not know the words. Since these students are in kindergarten learning Chinese for the first year, these test-book vocabularies are usually not introduced or presented to students before lessons. However, the test is still necessary to ensure they have not encountered these words before. Also, if the students know the target vocabulary before the experiment, the target word will be taken out in the grading process and the scores will all be converted to percentage for comparison. The post test is the very same test used in pre-test given to students at the end of each week.

Test Sample (Full Test See Appendix A)

星期一    星期天      太大        太小              太肥        太瘦            太长            冬天

Sunday   Monday   Too big   Too small    Too fat   Too thin     Too long     Winter

太短            正好            穿新衣                       画画      爬高山                       学写字

Too short  Just right   Wear new clothes    Draw    Climb a mountain   Learn to write

 

Q1: Have you seen this word? (1 point each)

Q2: What does it mean? (1 point each)

Q3: Can you read it out-loud please?

(1 point each; 0.5 point for right sound + 0.5 point for right intonation)

Scoring

This study counts receptive and productive vocabulary scores together to compute a score for a single condition such as Easy Print (for Week 1) or Easy E-book (for Week 2) and so on. The reasons for grouping two types of vocabulary knowledge together were (1) children were learning very little productive vocabulary through the brief four days of intervention per week, there would be too little data points to be statistically significant if one more layer of variable were to be added; and (2) the aim of the study was not on distinguishing receptive and productive vocabulary knowledge but rather focused on Chinese compound character acquisition.

Difficulty of Target Vocabulary

The four books have been divided into two levels of difficulty, easy versus difficult. Two easy books each containing seven target words (or eight characters) which have 57 and 85 strokes in total. They are made up of two-characters compound words such as 太大 (too big), or 海星 (sea-star). Whereas two difficult books each contain nine and seven target words made up of seventeen target characters each, which have 144 and 154 strokes in total. The majority of them are three character compound words such as 上街溜 (walking on street), or 去跳舞 (go dancing). The strokes per character in easy and difficult books are quite similar which ranges from 8.7 strokes per character in easy books to 8.8 strokes per character in difficult books. Therefore, difficulty in this study refers to the number of target characters presented in the story (eight versus seventeen) and the length of each word (two-character compound words vs. three-character compound words) which results in different cognitive load (Jia, Wang, Zhang & Zhang, 2013).

Procedure

This study compares shared story reading versus e-book reading. The intervention took place on May 1st 2017 to May 26th 2017. The experimental and control condition were provided for all 32 students. For Week 1 and Week 3, students were divided into a small group of five or six at a table and were read a storybook by the researcher for about five minutes daily for four days. Students were then tested on Fridays. For Week 2 and Week 4, students were also divided into a group of five or six and each had an e-book on the computer and they listened to the e-book and read-out-loud just like in a shared reading session. Then the students could choose whatever e-book post reading activities to work on. The e-book condition took about nine minutes daily for four days and students were tested on Fridays.

Results

Since the data was not normally distributed nor symmetrically distributedit violated the assumptions of both paired-samples t-test and Wilcoxon signed-rank test. Therefore, their non-parametric alternative—the sign test is used to determine whether there is a median difference between paired or matched observations.

Below is the descriptive statistics of students’ weekly mean scores of the four conditions in Table 4. These data points were then plotted in a line graph in Excel to observe the effects of book difficulty (Easy vs. Difficult) and book format (Print vs. E-book). Since there were outliers in the data set, means would be easily affected by extreme data-points. Therefore, medians were also considered for a more accurate reflection of test scores of the learning outcome.

Easy Print Easy E-book Difficult Print Difficult E-book
Mean 15 7.46                  5.34 10.5
Median 13 2.5 2 6.5
SD 20.87 10.23 9.56 9.9

Table 2:  Descriptive Statistics on the Weekly Scores of the Four Conditions

 

Figure 2: Weekly Mean Scores of the Four Conditions

Figure 2 illustrates a change (at a descriptive level) between the means of the condition (Print vs. E-book) and the level of difficulty (Easy vs. Difficult). Furthermore, it can be observed that when the target vocabulary had fewer characters to master, students performed best with print book (Mean=15, Median=13, SD=20.87) compared to Easy E-book scores (Mean=7.46, Median=2.5, SD=10.23). However, when the target vocabulary was more difficult, students performed better with e-books (Mean=10.5, Median=6.5, SD= 9.9) than print books (Mean=5.34, Median=2, SD=9.56). Since the data violated normality and similarity of distribution, mean and median should be approached with caution and an interaction effect could not be directly analysed. Therefore, four sign tests were used to calculate whether there were significant differences of scores between conditions and levels of difficulty.

On easy books, does the print versus e-book condition make a difference?

An exact sign test was used to compare the differences between weekly scores of students in the Easy Print and Easy E-book condition. There was a difference of median of nine points, but it was not statistically significantly different, p>.05.

On difficult books, does the print versus e-book condition make a difference?

An exact sign test was used to compare the differences in test scores of two conditions (print vs. e-book) of difficult books. Participants do better in the Difficult E-book (Med=6.5±9.925) than the Difficult Print book (Med=2±9.547), a statistically significant increase in the median of the differences of 4.5, p < .05.

On print books, does the difficulty level (easy vs. difficult) make a difference?

Difficulty level does not make a statistically significant difference between print books. An exact sign test was used to compare the differences between weekly scores of students in the Easy Print and Difficult Print conditions. There was a difference of median of nine points, but it was not statistically significantly different between the scores of two conditions in the easy books, p>.05.

On e-books, does the difficulty level (easy vs. difficult) make a difference?

A sign test with continuity correction was used to compare the differences in test scores of two difficulty levels (easy vs difficult.) of e-books. Participants do better in the Difficult E-book (Med=6.5±9.925) than the Easy E-book (Med=2.5±10.245), a statistically significant increase in the median of the differences of 4, z= 2.694, p <.05.

Upon a closer examination with the sign test above (non-parametric alternative of one-way ANOVA) of the conditions and levels layer by layer, it could be observed that there were statistically significant differences between weekly scores of Difficult E-book and Difficult Print book (difference of med=4, p=.001) and between Easy and Difficult E-book (difference of med=4, p=.007). When the book was difficult, students did better with the Difficult E-book than the Difficult Print book. The reverse is true for easy books—students do better in print book than e-books, however, the difference was not significant (difference of med=2.77, p=.23). This indicated that the level of difficulty increased, e-book was more effective than print book. However, when difficult decreased, there was no difference between print book or e-book.

Discussion

The impact of vocabulary difficulty and book format on vocabulary learning outcome shows a pattern of interaction based on the descriptive statistic of mean comparisons, yet upon closer evaluation of t-tests, some relationships were not statistically significant. The relationship between vocabulary gain and book format depends on the type of vocabulary. For easy vocabulary (two-compound words), although the print book condition had a higher score than the e-book, it was not a significant difference. This could mean that the print book and the e-book were both equally effective for learning easy vocabulary. Yet when learning difficult vocabulary (three-compound words), scores in the e-book condition were statistically significantly higher than print-book condition, indicating that e-book is much more helpful than print book in helping children learn difficult vocabulary. Within the e-book condition, children performed statistically significantly better in the learning outcome of difficult vocabulary than easy ones, which confirmed that e-book seems to be more effective in teaching difficult vocabulary than teaching easy ones. Within print book, there was no difference in the outcome between easy and difficult words, which means print book were equally effective in teaching both types of vocabulary.

To sum up, the e-book is the better format to teach difficult vocabulary than print book and all other three combinations (Easy Print book, Easy E-book, Difficult Print book) did not show a significant difference between them. This seems to confirm most of the research that showed the e-book’s advantage over the print book on vocabulary acquisition, such as Smeets and Bus’ study on L1 (2012, 2015), Segers and Verhoeven’s study on L2 (2002, 2003) and Korat’s study on L1 (2010). However, these studies were done in other languages such as Dutch and Hebrew and did not account for vocabulary difficulty of any sort. Therefore, based on this study, does it mean all previous studies that showed e-book’s advantage were because the vocabulary level was actually more difficult while comparison studies that showed equal effectiveness could mean the vocabulary difficulty in these studies was easy? Further examination on difficulty of vocabulary should be accounted for in future comparison research to explore such intricate interaction.

Also, if the e-book was effective in teaching difficult vocabulary, why did it not also be more effective in teaching easy vocabulary? A possibility is that print book’s positive effect on vocabulary acquisition has long been established and it is so effective that a ceiling effect is reached and e-book by comparison made no statistically significant difference in the easy vocabulary acquisition. It is true that the Easy Print book condition had the highest outcome score out of the four condition, indicating that print was quite effective in teaching easy vocabulary.

However, when the difficulty increases, print book may not have provided any scaffolding that e-book can provide with animation, interaction, and post-reading activities. The BetterChinese e-book is considered a non-interactive animated e-book with post-reading activities. This is not the most effective category of e-book, yet it has appeared quite effective in teaching difficult vocabulary. This is possibly due to its well-designed and pedagogically sound CFL post-reading activities that effectively scaffolded for difficult vocabulary acquisition, which the print book could not provide (Verhallen & Bus, 2010; Biemiller & Boote, 2006; Segers & Verhoeven, 2002). The e-book’s post-reading activities included (1) multiple choice question that asked children to match a spoken sentence to a picture used different input channels for faster dual processing assumed by the Dual Coding Theory, (2) rhyme and songs that lowered children’s affective filter for learning difficult vocabulary (Zhou, 2013; Krashen, 1981), (3) radical finding exercise to promote orthographic and morphological awareness (Wang & McBride, 2014; Yin, 2003), and (4) videos that showed how a word evolves from a picture to its current logographic representation with an interesting animated story which helped children to make form-meaning connection as well as cultivating orthographic awareness (Zhu, 2010). These activities provided extra support for children to interact with and acquire new vocabulary.

 Compound-Word Processing. When comparing the acquisition of easy and difficult vocabulary, it is obvious that students scored more in total for easy books (22.46 points for Easy Print + Easy E-book) than they scored for difficult books (15.84 points for Difficult Print + Difficult E-book). This means students acquired more easy words than difficult words at the end of the intervention involving both book formats. One could tentatively interpret that students processed and acquired easy and difficult words at different rates (different amount of acquisition in the same amount of time: one week) because two-character compound words were processed and acquired faster and easier than three-character compound words. This could further imply children process two-character compound words differently from three-character compound words even though the number of words they need to learn is roughly the same (14 easy words and 16 difficult words). Since word length (two-character word vs. three-character word) made a difference in the rate of acquisition, which means these words were not processed and acquired as one single unite regardless of word length, thus this could be seen as evidence for the theory for character-level processing and decomposed representation of Chinese words.

Conclusion

This exploratory study has examined the impact of the book format and text difficulty on CFL vocabulary learning. More specifically, its 2 (book formats) X 2 (difficulty levels) design have observed a tentative interaction between book formats and vocabulary difficulty, which is novel finding for CFL e-book and vocabulary study. It can be interpreted from the results that to learn easy words (two-character compound words) the print book was more effective, but to learn difficult words (two-character compound words) the e-book provided more scaffolding and was more effective. The implication for classroom practice is that teachers should use different book formats to better facilitate different word learning. This provided empirical evidence for the decomposed character representation theory since two character-words were easiest to learn compared to three-character-words and different book format was best suited for words of different word length, which suggested that inherently compound words were processed and acquired differently. Overall, the finding is inconclusive on whether the e-book could eventually replace adult-shared reading activity and transition from the role of a tool to a tutor since print book and e-book were both very effective for different types of vocabulary learning. This study, however, shows promise that the e-book was effective for difficult vocabulary learning and could be improved to be effective for easy words acquisition as well.

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