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A small corner of the iceberg: changing trends in early school literacy in China.


Literacy practices and sociocultural contexts have greatly defined and influenced each other. The role language plays in mobilizing both revolution and progress is well delineated in Congchao Hua's article comparing language learning curriculum in China over three decades, from the 1970s to the 2000s. The universality of the social and political dimensions of literacy education becomes evident in any context of time and place. Hua's study encourages further debates and discussions of issues around language, education, society, and culture.


In 1975, a group of American scholars toured China and investigated the philosophy and aims of education in China as well as its curriculum practices. They reported that educational practices at all levels in China were dominated by the Maoist ideology and closely combined with manual labor (Karlson, 1976). Since the publication of their report, almost 40 years have passed. During those decades, China has experienced great social transformation, which can be seen manifested in school literacy. The study reported here examined the primary school language arts curriculum in 1978 and 2000 to cast light on the changes that have taken place and to uncover the changing trends in early school literacy in China.


Literacy and the Language Arts Curriculum

As "the vehicle of education" (Hladczuk & Eller, 1992, p. ix), literacy enables individuals to express and exchange ideas, information, knowledge, and wisdom so as to "function fully in society" (Feret & Smith, 2010, p. 38). To achieve this goal involves the four literacy elements (Feret & Smith, 2010) of reading, writing, speaking, and listening--all of which are related to language. As pointed out by Braunger, Lewis, and Hagans (1997), language development and literacy development are closely related, especially during the period of time between birth and age 8 (Schickedanz, 1999). Research has shown that delay in language learning in early childhood may increase difficulty in learning literacy skills in later years (Paulson et al., 2004). This strong connection between language and literacy development lends support to the central position of the language arts curriculum in primary school education in China.

As a major means for achieving literacy, the language arts curriculum teaches primary school children more than just language. According to Apthorp, Bodrova, Dean, and Florian (2001), a standards-based language arts curriculum should balance between learning about language (learning components of language); learning through language (understanding the world through language); and language learning (learning the four language skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing). These purposes of the language arts curriculum do not simply lie in the acquisition and use of language, but also in the acquisition of world knowledge (including factual information and ideology). Moreover, another purpose of the language arts curriculum is to build personality, specifically developing reflective, aesthetic, and emotional dispositions (Eisner, 1976). Consequently, becoming literate goes beyond simply mastering the four literacy processes of reading, writing, speaking, and listening, to acquiring processes that are considered valuable in a particular society or context (Tanriverd & Apak, 2010).

Dynamic Nature of School Literacy

School literacy always reflects the power ideologies and beliefs (Campano, 2007) of a particular nation at a particular time. This social and political nature of school literacy is revealed through curriculum emphases, which are dynamic and vary according to the economic, cultural, and nationalistic factors (Wei & Thomas, 2006) that are influential at a specific time and the literacies and pedagogies relevant to a specific cultural context (Medina & Rocio Costa, 2010).

Concerning the changing tendency of school literacy, Fterniati and Spinthourakis (2006) and Wei and Thomas (2006) have found that school literacy is moving from the traditional higher-end closed paradigm to the more flexible lower-end open paradigm. However, Fterniati and Spinthourakis' (2006) study focuses on the language arts curriculum in Greece, whereas Wei and Thomas' (2006) study examines the changes of the chemistry curriculum in junior high schools in China. So far, reports on the changes affecting early school literacy policy in China are lacking. The current study addresses this research gap by investigating the language arts curriculum in China.


This qualitative study investigated the changes to early school literacy approaches in China, as revealed by the rationale, general purposes, and specific objectives of primary school language arts curriculum over the past three decades. The curriculum documents studied revealed particular features of early school literacy, both explicit and implicit.

The particular curriculum documents analyzed were two versions of the syllabi of primary school language arts curriculum released by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in 1978 and 2000. The 1978 syllabus states the rationale of the curriculum, general purposes of the curriculum, and specific objectives for each grade (Grades 1-5). The 2000 syllabus, still in use today, clearly states the rationale and the general purposes of the curriculum, but specifies objectives for lower and higher grades instead of for each grade. To solve this problem, the teaching guides for Book 1 and Book 2 (textbooks for Grade 1) were analyzed to complement the 2000 syllabus.

To reveal the changing trends in early school literacy in China, three analytic comparisons were conducted. The first was between the prefaces of the two syllabi to find out the changes to the rationale for the curriculum. The second was between the "Goals and Requirements" (1978) and "Goals of Teaching" (2000) to find out the changes to the general purposes of the curriculum. The third was between the specific requirements for Grade 1 (1978) and the specific objectives for lower grades (2000) plus the teaching guides for Books 1 and 2 to pinpoint changes to the specific objectives of the curriculum. Here, only specific objectives for Grade 1 were compared, recognizing that the changes to specific objectives may follow the same pattern for all grades.


Changes to Rationale

Rationale of the 1978 Language Arts Curriculum. In the preface of the 1978 syllabus, the rationale of primary school language arts curriculum is expressed as follows:

Language arts is an important subject in the primary school. According to our great leader Chairman Mao, once students have learned to read and write, they have mastered the most useful basic tool, which is important for learning revolutionary theories and all other sorts of knowledge as well as doing revolutionary work ... the students should learn language arts well so as to meet the needs of the four modernizations. (Ministry of Education [MOE], 1978)

This rationale from the 1970s reveals that the Chinese language was viewed as a basic tool of revolution, which was the major political concern of the time. Learning the Chinese language was linked to the four "modernizations" of industry, agriculture, national defense, and science and technology, which were key to the economic goals of China in the 1970s.

Rationale of the 2000 Language Arts Curriculum. In the preface of the 2000 syllabus, the rationale of primary school language arts curriculum is found in the following statements:

Language is the most important tool of communication and a significant part of human culture. The primary school language arts curriculum is a basic subject during the nine-year compulsory education in that it nurtures pupils' morality and literacy, promotes their learning of other subjects and their continuous learning, spreads the national culture, and improves citizenry. (MOE, 2000)

Obviously, in the new century, the Chinese language has a different role to play than was pursued in the 1970s. It is no longer a tool of revolution, but rather is a tool of communication and a part of human culture. While the 1978 rationale linked the curriculum with political and economic concerns only, the 2000 rationale takes the potential functions of language into full consideration. Consequently, the language arts curriculum is associated with morality, continuous learning, national culture, and citizenry.

Changes to General Purposes

General Purposes of the 1978 Language Arts Curriculum. In the "goals and requirements" section of the 1978 syllabus, the general purposes of the primary school language arts curriculum are presented as follows:

The language arts curriculum must entail the teaching of Maoism in a complete and accurate manner throughout the primary school:

The goal of primary school language arts curriculum is to enable pupils to know Chinese characters, read, and write articles in an accurate, clear, vivid style;

The requirement of primary school language arts curriculum is to get pupils to master the most commonly used Chinese characters to lay a foundation for reading and writing. (MOE, 1978)

The first purpose from the 1978 document centers upon the political function of language and emphasizes the instillation of Maoist ideology, the dominant ideology in China in the late 1970s. This conforms to Karlson's (1976) finding that the teaching of Maoism began in primary school in the 1970s. The second and third purposes stress reading (mainly reading aloud) and writing; in the 1970s, there was a high illiteracy rate in China yet political propaganda in written language was quite common and important in everyone's daily life. It is worth mentioning that the requirement for writing was rather high and possibly even over-demanding for primary school pupils. Only a small number of Chinese people received school education in the 1970s and many of those who did ended their formal education after primary school. Therefore, high-demanding tasks more suitable to a middle-school level were shifted to primary schools.

General Purposes of the 2000 Language Arts Curriculum. In the 2000 syllabus, the general purposes of the curriculum are expressed in the "goals of teaching" section as follows:

The aim of primary school language arts curriculum is to promote individual development and lay a foundation for their future life, work and life-long learning;

This curriculum also aims at cultivating pupils' love for the national language and culture, cultivating their ability to understand and use the national language, developing their basic skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing as well as helping them form proper language learning habits. This curriculum entails the teaching of patriotism, socialist morality and scientific thinking, and cultivates creativity, aesthetic disposition and healthy personality. (MOE, 2000)

Unlike the 1978 syllabus, the 2000 syllabus puts individual development as a primary purpose for literacy. All four language skills (i.e., listening, speaking, reading, and writing) are equally stressed and language use is emphasized. This is another sharp contrast with the 1978 syllabus, which only stresses the development of reading and writing skills. Moreover, political instruction no longer dominates the curriculum; patriotism and socialist morality share equal status with other personal qualities, such as scientific thinking, creativity, aesthetic disposition, and healthy personality.

Changes to Specific Objectives

Specific Objectives of the 1978 Language Arts Curriculum. The objectives for Grade 1 are presented in the 1978 syllabus as follows:

Master the onsets, rhymes and tones in pinyin; learn Mandarin;

Be able to recognize and understand about 700 characters and use most of them;

Be able to read aloud and recite texts and understand them under teachers' guidance;

Be able to answer teachers' questions correctly and say or write a few sentences describing pictures. (MOE, 1978)

The first objective includes the rather vague goal to "learn Mandarin." The reason for the vagueness is that Mandarin was not popular in the 1970s. As radios were generally a luxury and few households owned TV sets, a lack of communication restricted the spread of Mandarin. Even Chairman Mao spoke his Hunan dialect on all occasions. The second objective emphasizes the recognition and understanding of Chinese characters, but does not emphasize use of the characters. The third objective, which stresses reading aloud and recitation, assumes the central role of textbooks and teachers. The fourth objective addresses the development of speaking skills, but limited to answering teachers' questions and describing pictures. It can be inferred that learning in the 1970s was generally passive; classes were teacher- and textbook-centered, and pupils had little chance to express themselves.

Specific Objectives of the 2000 Language Arts Curriculum. In the 2000 syllabus and teaching guides for Books 1 and 2, the specific objectives for Grade 1 are stated as follows:

Master the onsets, rhymes and tones in pinyin; be able to read syllables correctly and recognize upper case letters; remember the Chinese Pinyin Alphabet;

Be able to recognize about 950 characters and write 350 of them;

Learn word and sentence meanings in context and real life; learn to read aloud accurately, fluently and with feelings; learn to read silently and think at the same time; be able to recite at least 30 poems and articles; be able to read simple child readers and understand the main idea; know common punctuations;

Develop an interest in writing sentences and writing down their own words;

Be able to listen to others attentively and recount a short speech or a simple event; learn to speak Mandarin; be able to talk coherently; be willing to communicate with others in a confident and polite manner. (MOE, 2000; Primary School Language Arts Office, 2008; Yan, 2008)

Compared with the 1978 syllabus, the 2000 syllabus has a higher requirement on Pinyin. Apart from the ability to read Pinyin, Grade 1 pupils are also required to remember the whole Chinese pinyin alphabet. This is because Pinyin has been gradually popularized since the 1970s and is now used widely. Also, the 2000 syllabus requires Grade 1 pupils to learn more characters (950 instead of 700). For reading, Grade 1 pupils are encouraged to learn the meaning of words and sentences as related to context and real life, instead of passively reading and reciting texts. In the new century, the illiteracy rate is much lower and media much more developed. As a result, family support and resources are easily accessible, which makes it possible for pupils to learn words and meanings outside of the school environment. Moreover, thinking and out-of-class reading are included in the 2000 syllabus. In comparison with the 1978 syllabus, the requirement for writing is lowered to merely developing pupils' interest in writing. However, speaking and Mandarin are highlighted, in that pupils should not only learn to speak Mandarin, but also learn to use it to express themselves and communicate with others effectively. In short, with emphasis on the development of reading, speaking, and thinking abilities, the 2000 syllabus offers Grade 1 pupils more opportunities for self-expression and more freedom in linguistic development.

The Changing Trends

Based on the above comparisons, early school literacy in China has undergone significant changes in terms of Apthorp et al.'s (2001) framework of literacy curriculum--learning about language, learning through language, and language learning.

In terms of learning about language, there has been a shift of focus from static knowledge about language to its dynamic, everyday use. Although the comparison of specific objectives stated in the two syllabi reveals that pupils in the new century are required to learn more about Pinyin and characters, a more significant change in the 2000 syllabus is the far greater emphasis on language use through silent reading, talking, and thinking. As far as Mandarin is concerned, the 1978 syllabus requires pupils to learn it, which is a rather vague objective; the 2000 syllabus, by contrast, specifies that students should speak Mandarin and use it effectively in communication.

As for learning through language, the focus has shifted from political concerns to individual development, as is revealed by comparisons of the rationale and the general purposes of the language arts curriculum presented in the two syllabi. While Maoism dominates the 1978 rationale and general purposes, individual development, interest, creativity, scientific thinking, aesthetic disposition, healthy personality, and communication are the keywords of the 2000 syllabus.

As regards language learning, there is a tendency toward lowering requirements about writing, while raising requirements for reading and speaking, as revealed in the comparison of specific objectives for Grade 1. The 1978 syllabus mainly focuses on reading aloud, reciting, and writing, with little mention of speaking; by contrast, the 2000 syllabus has lower requirements on writing, but much higher requirements on reading (both reading aloud and silent reading) and speaking.

In summary, these changes reveal that literacy is no longer considered something sacred that requires painstaking efforts to attain (as Mao Zedong's words, quoted in the 1978 syllabus, indicated), but has become commonplace in the Chinese people's everyday lives. Similarly, Fterniati and Spinthourakis (2006) and Wei and Thomas (2006) also found that school literacy is changing, becoming a more flexible, open paradigm. Despite the above-mentioned changing trends, however, teaching socialist ideology remains an important part of early school literacy in China, as claimed by Karlson (1976), although the connotation of the ideology has changed over the years.


No curriculum changes happen in a social vacuum (Wei & Thomas, 2006). It is widely known that dramatic social changes have affected the Chinese people's material and spiritual lives since implementation of the reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s. This might explain the changes to primary school language arts curriculum over the three decades under investigation. Another explanation for the changes might be the introduction and application of influential language teaching approaches, especially the communicative language teaching approach. As the language arts curriculum is a core component of early school literacy, the changes identified in this study reflect changes in early school literacy in China during the same period of time. However, such changes in early school literacy do not take place overnight.

As this study investigated only two syllabi, the results reported here do not reflect all the changes that have taken place in early school literacy between 1978 and 2000, but rather show the changing trends. Further efforts are needed to investigate the syllabi released in 1986 and 1992, as well as the corresponding textbooks, to trace the changes. In addition, it is also necessary to explore other curricula during the same period to gain a better view of the changes to early school literacy. Taking everything into consideration, this small-scale study reveals only a small corner of the iceberg. Nevertheless, this small portion offers some significant insight regarding the texture of the whole.


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Congchao Hua is Lecturer in the English Department, Hubei University, Hubei, China.
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Author:Hua, Congchao
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:May 1, 2013
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