Morphological Awareness and Learning to Read Chinese and English

  • Jie Zhang
  • Tzu-Jung Lin
  • Junli Wei
  • Richard C. AndersonEmail author
Part of the Literacy Studies book series (LITS, volume 8)


This paper presents a model of the process by which morphological awareness facilitates reading development, and evaluates the role of morphological awareness in learning to read Chinese and English. The central idea is that morphological awareness enhances reading development by increasing the efficiency of the working memory, which in turn facilitates vocabulary learning and reading comprehension. Theoretical and empirical supports for the relationships between morphological awareness, working memory, vocabulary and reading growth are reviewed. Whether morphological awareness is more important for learning to read Chinese than learning to read English and to what extent morphological information may be more important for Chinese children’s working memory capacity are discussed. The paper is the first to link morphological awareness to verbal working memory, which opens new areas for future research endeavors that have the potential of enriching understanding of morphological awareness in learning to read.


Morphological awareness Working memory Vocabulary Reading development 


  1. Adams, A.-M., & Gathercole, S. E. (1995). Phonological working memory and speech production in preschool children. Journal Speech and Hearing Research, 38, 403–414.Google Scholar
  2. Adams, A.-M., & Gathercole, S. E. (2000). Limitations in working memory: Implications for language development. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 35, 95–116.Google Scholar
  3. Alloway, T. P., Gathercole, S. E., Kirkwood, H., & Elliott, J. (2009). The cognitive and behavioral characteristics of children with low working memory. Child Development, 80, 606–621.Google Scholar
  4. Alloway, T. P., Gathercole, S. E., & Pickering, S. J. (2006). Verbal and visuospatial short-term and working memory in children: Are they separable? Child Development, 77, 1698–1716.Google Scholar
  5. Alloway, T. P., Gathercole, S. E., Willis, C., & Adams, A. M. (2004). A structural analysis of working memory and related cognitive skills in young children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 87, 85–106.Google Scholar
  6. Andersson, U. (2010). The contribution of working memory capacity to foreign language comprehension in children. Memory, 18, 458–472.Google Scholar
  7. Anglin, J. M. (1993). Vocabulary development: A morphological analysis. Monographs of the Society of Research in Child Development 58(10, Serial No. 238).Google Scholar
  8. Atkins, W. B., & Baddeley, A. D. (1998). Working memory and distributed vocabulary learning. Applied Psycholinguistics, 19, 537–552.Google Scholar
  9. August, S., Carlo, M., Dressler, C., & Snow, C. E. (2005). The critical role of vocabulary development for English language learners. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20, 50–57.Google Scholar
  10. Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Baddeley, A. D. (1997). Human memory: Theory and practice (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  12. Baddeley, A. D. (2000). The episodic buffer: A new component of working memory? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 417–423.Google Scholar
  13. Baddeley, A. D. (2003). Working memory and language: An overview. Journal of Communication Disorders, 36(3), 189–208.Google Scholar
  14. Baddeley, A. D. (2007). Working memory, thought, and action. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Baddeley, A. D., Allen, R. J., & Hitch, G. J. (2011). Binding in visual working memory: The role of the episodic buffer. Neuropsychologia, 49, 1393–1400.Google Scholar
  16. Baddeley, A. D., Gathercole, S. E., & Papagno, C. (1998). The phonological loop as a language learning device. Psychological Review, 105, 158–173.Google Scholar
  17. Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (1974). Working memory. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 8, pp. 47–89). New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  18. Barrs, B. J. (2002). The conscious access hypothesis: Origins and recent evidence. Trend in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 47–52.Google Scholar
  19. Blake, J., Austin, W., Cannon, M., Lisus, A., & Vaughan, A. (1994). The relationship between memory span and measures of imitative and spontaneous language complexity in preschool children. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 17, 91–107.Google Scholar
  20. Brown, G. D. A., & Hulme, C. (1996). Nonword repetition, STM, and age-of-acquisition versus pronunciation- time limits in immediate recall for forgetting-matched acquisition: A computational model. In S. E. Gathercole (Ed.), Models of short-term memory (pp. 129–148). Hove, UK: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  21. Burani, C., & Caramazza, A. (1987). Representation and processing of derived words. Language and Cognitive Processes, 3, 217–227.Google Scholar
  22. Carlisle, J. F. (2000). Awareness of the structure and meaning of morphologically complex words: Impact on reading. Reading and Writing, 12, 169–190.Google Scholar
  23. Carlisle, J. F. (2010). Effects of instruction in morphological awareness on literacy achievement: An integrative review. Reading Research Quarterly, 45, 464–487.Google Scholar
  24. Ceccagno, A., & Basciano, B. (2007). Compound headedness in Chinese: An analysis of neologisms. Morphology, 17, 207–231.Google Scholar
  25. Chen, X., Hao, M., Geva, E., Zhu, J., & Shu, H. (2009). The role of compound awareness in Chinese children’s s vocabulary acquisition and character reading. Reading and Writing, 22, 615–631.Google Scholar
  26. Cheung, H. (1996). Nonword span as a unique predictor of second-language vocabulary learning. Developmental Psychology, 32(5), 867–873.Google Scholar
  27. Chung, K. K.-H., & McBride-Chang, C. (2011). Executive functioning skills uniquely predict Chinese word reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 909–921.Google Scholar
  28. Clin, E., Wade-Woolley, L., & Heggie, L. (2009). Prosodic sensitivity and morphological awareness in children’s reading. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 104, 197–213.Google Scholar
  29. Cooke, A. E., Halleran, J. G., & O’Brien, E. J. (1998). What is readily available during reading? A memory based view of text processing. Discourse Processes, 26, 109–129.Google Scholar
  30. Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 19, 450–466.Google Scholar
  31. Daneman, M., & Case, R. (1981). Syntactic form, semantic complexity, and short-term memory: Influences on children’s acquisition of new linguistic structures. Developmental Psychology, 17, 367–378.Google Scholar
  32. Daneman, M., & Merikle, P. M. (1996). Working memory and language comprehension: A meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3, 422–433.Google Scholar
  33. Deacon, S. H., & Kirby, J. R. (2004). Morphological awareness: Just “more phonological”? The roles of morphological and phonological awareness in reading development. Applied Psycholinguistics, 25, 223–238.Google Scholar
  34. Ding, Y., Richman, L. C., Yang, L.-Y., & Guo, J.-P. (2010). Rapid automatized naming skills and immediate memory functions in Chinese Mandarin speaking elementary readers. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43(1), 48–61.Google Scholar
  35. Dollaghan, C. A., Biber, M. E., & Campbell, T. F. (1995). Lexical influences on nonword repetition. Applied Psycholinguistics, 16, 211–222.Google Scholar
  36. Ellis, N., & Sinclair, S. G. (1996). Working memory in the acquisition of vocabulary and syntax: Putting language in good order. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 49, 234–250.Google Scholar
  37. Ericsson, K. A., & Kintsch, W. (1995). Long-term working memory. Psychological Review, 102, 211–245.Google Scholar
  38. French, L. M. (2006). Phonological working memory and L2 acquisition: A developmental study of Quebec francophone children learning English. New York: Edwin Mellen Press.Google Scholar
  39. French, L. M., & O’Brien, I. (2008). Phonological memory and children’s second language grammar learning. Applied Psycholinguistics, 29, 463–487.Google Scholar
  40. Freyd, P., & Baron, J. (1982). Individual differences in acquisition of derivational morphology. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 21, 282–295.Google Scholar
  41. Garcia-Madruga, J. A., Elosua, M. R., Gil, L., Gomez-Veiga, I. G., Vila, J. O., Orjales, I., et al. (2013). Reading comprehension and working memory’s executive processes: An intervention study in primary school students. Reading Research Quarterly, 48, 155–174.Google Scholar
  42. Gaskell, M., & Dumay, N. (2003). Lexical competition and the acquisition of novel words. Cognition, 89, 105–132.Google Scholar
  43. Gathercole, S. E. (1995). Is nonword repetition a test of phonological memory or long term knowledge? It all depends on the nonwords. Memory & Cognition, 23, 83–94.Google Scholar
  44. Gathercole, S. E. (2006). Nonword repetition and word learning: The nature of the relationship. Applied Psycholinguistics, 27, 513–543.Google Scholar
  45. Gathercole, S. E., Hitch, G. J., Service, E., & Martin, A. J. (1997). Phonological short-term memory and new word learning in children. Developmental Psychology, 33, 966–979.Google Scholar
  46. Gathercole, S. E., Willis, C., Emslie, H., & Baddeley, A. D. (1991). The influences of syllables and wordlikeness on children’s repetition of nonwords. Applied Psycholinguistics, 12, 349–367.Google Scholar
  47. He, Y. (2007). Influence of reading proficiency on text representation in L1 and L2. Unpublished Dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.Google Scholar
  48. Henry, L. A., Messer, D. J., & Nash, G. (2012). Executive functioning in children with specific language impairment. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53, 37–45.Google Scholar
  49. Hu, C., & Catts, H. W. (1998). The role of phonological processing in early reading ability: What we can learn from Chinese. Scientific Studies of Reading, 2, 55–79.Google Scholar
  50. Hulme, C., Maughan, S., & Brown, G. D. A. (1991). Memory for familiar and unfamiliar words: Evidence for a long-term memory contribution to short-term memory span. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 685–701.Google Scholar
  51. Institute of Language Teaching and Research [of China]. (1986). A frequency dictionary of modern Chinese. Beijing, China: Beijing Language Institute Press.Google Scholar
  52. Jenkins, J., & Dixon, R. (1983). Vocabulary learning. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 237–260.Google Scholar
  53. Jenkins, J., Stein, M., & Wysocki, K. (1984). Learning vocabulary through reading. American Educational Research Journal, 21, 767–788.Google Scholar
  54. Juhasz, B. J., Inhoff, A. W., & Rayner, K. (2005). The role of interword spaces in the processing of English compound words. Language and Cognitive Processes, 20, 291–316.Google Scholar
  55. Just, M. A., & Carpenter, P. A. (1980). A theory of reading: From eye fixations to comprehension. Psychological Review, 87, 329–354.Google Scholar
  56. Kane, M. J., Conway, A. R. A., Hambrick, D. Z., & Engle, R. W. (2007). Variation in working memory capacity as variation in executive attention and control. In A. R. A. Conway, C. Jarrold, M. J. Kane, A. Miyake, & J. N. Towse (Eds.), Variation in working memory (pp. 21–45). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Kaye, D. B., Sternberg, R. J., & Fonseca, L. (1987). Verbal comprehension: The lexical decomposition strategy to define unfamiliar words. Intelligence, 11, 1–20.Google Scholar
  58. Kieffer, M. J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2012). Direct and indirect roles of morphological awareness in the English reading comprehension of native Spanish, Filipino, Vietnamese, and English speakers. Language Learning, 62, 1170–1204.Google Scholar
  59. Kintsch, W. (1998). Comprehension: A paradigm for cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Kintsch, W., & van Dijk, T. A. (1978). Toward a model of text comprehension and production. Psychological Review, 85, 363–394.Google Scholar
  61. Ku, Y.-M., & Anderson, R. C. (2003). Development of morphological awareness in Chinese and English. Reading and Writing, 16, 399–422.Google Scholar
  62. Kuo, L.-J., & Anderson, R. C. (2006). Morphological awareness and learning to read: A cross-language perspective. Educational Psychologist, 41, 161–180.Google Scholar
  63. Li, W., Anderson, R. C., Nagy, W., & Zhang, H. (2002). Facets of metalinguistic awareness that contribute to Chinese literacy. In W. Li, J. S. Gaffney, & J. L. Packard (Eds.), Chinese language acquisition: Theoretical and pedagogical issues (pp. 59–86). Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publisher.Google Scholar
  64. Liao, C. H., Georgiou, G. K., & Parrila, R. (2008). Rapid naming speed and Chinese character recognition. Reading and Writing, 21, 231–253.Google Scholar
  65. Lin, T.-J., Anderson, R. C., Ku, Y.-M., Christianson, K., & Packard, J. (2011). Chinese children’s concept of word. Writing Systems Research, 3, 41–57.Google Scholar
  66. Mahony, D., Singson, M., & Mann, V. (2000). Reading ability and sensitivity to morphological relations. Reading and Writing, 12, 191–218.Google Scholar
  67. McBride-Chang, C., Cho, J.-R., Liu, H., Wagner, R. K., Shu, H., Zhou, A., et al. (2005). Changing models across cultures: Associations of phonological and morphological awareness to reading in Beijing, Hong Kong, Korea, and America. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 92, 140–160.Google Scholar
  68. McBride-Chang, C., Shu, H., Zhou, A., Wat, C. P., & Wagner, R. K. (2003). Morphological awareness uniquely predicts young children’s Chinese character recognition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 743–751.Google Scholar
  69. McBride-Chang, C., Tardif, T., Cho, J.-R., Shu, H., Fletcher, P., Stokes, S. F., et al. (2008). What’s in a word? Morphological awareness and vocabulary knowledge in three languages. Applied Psycholinguistics, 29, 437–462.Google Scholar
  70. McCutchen, D., Green, L., & Abbott, R. D. (2008). Children’s morphological knowledge: Links to literacy. Reading Psychology, 29, 289–314.Google Scholar
  71. Metsala, J. L. (1999). Young children’s phonological awareness and nonword repetition as a function of vocabulary development. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 3–19.Google Scholar
  72. Metsala, J., & Chisholm, G. M. (2010). The influence of lexical status and neighborhood density on children’s nonword repetition. Applied Psycholinguistics, 31, 489–506.Google Scholar
  73. Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81–97.Google Scholar
  74. Munson, B., Edwards, J., & Beckman, M. E. (2005). Phonological knowledge in typical and atypical speech-sound development. Topics in Language Disorders, 25, 190–206.Google Scholar
  75. Munson, B., Kurtz, B. A., & Windsor, J. (2005). The influence of vocabulary size, phonotactic probability, and wordlikeness on nonword repetitions of children with and without specific language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 48, 1033–1047.Google Scholar
  76. Nagy, W. (2007). Metalinguistic awareness and the vocabulary-comprehension connection. In R. K. Wagner, A. Muse, & K. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Vocabulary acquisition: Implications for reading comprehension (pp. 52–77). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  77. Nagy, W. E., & Anderson, R. C. (1984). The number of words in printed school English. Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 304–330.Google Scholar
  78. Nagy, W. E., Berninger, V. W., & Abbott, R. C. (2006). Contributions of morphology beyond phonology to literacy outcomes of upper elementary and middle-school students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 134–147.Google Scholar
  79. Nagy, W., Berninger, V., Abbott, R., Vaughan, K., & Vermeulen, K. (2003). Relationship of morphology and other language skills to literacy skills in at-risk second-grade readers and at-risk fourth-grade writers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 730–742.Google Scholar
  80. Nagy, W. E., & Herman, P. A. (1987). Breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge: Implications for acquisition and instruction. In M. McKeown & M. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 19–35). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  81. Nagy, W. E., Herman, P., & Anderson, R. (1985). Learning words from context. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 233–253.Google Scholar
  82. Nation, K., & Hulme, C. (2011). Learning to read changes children’s phonological skills: Evidence from a latent variable longitudinal study of reading and nonword repetition. Developmental Science, 14, 649–659.Google Scholar
  83. Niswander, E., Pollatsek, A., & Rayner, K. (2000). The processing of derived and inflected suffixed words during reading. Language and Cognitive Processes, 15, 389–420.Google Scholar
  84. Nunes, T., & Bryant, P. (2006). Improving literacy by teaching morphemes. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  85. Packard, J. L. (2000). The morphology of Chinese: A linguistic and cognitive approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  86. Pickering, S. J. (2006). Working memory and education. Burlington, VT: Academic.Google Scholar
  87. Sandra, D. (1994). The morphology of the mental lexicon: Internal word structure viewed from a psycholinguistic perspective. Language and Cognitive Processes, 9, 227–269.Google Scholar
  88. Service, E. (1992). Phonology, working memory and foreign-language learning. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 45A, 21–50.Google Scholar
  89. Shu, H., Anderson, R. C., & Zhang, H. (1995). Incidental learning of word meanings while reading: A Chinese and American cross-culture study. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 79–95.Google Scholar
  90. Shu, H., McBride-Chang, C., Wu, S., & Liu, H. (2006). Understanding Chinese developmental dyslexia: Morphological awareness as a core cognitive construct. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 122–133.Google Scholar
  91. Snow, C. E. (2010). Academic language and the challenge of reading for learning. Science, 23, 450–452.Google Scholar
  92. Snow, C. E., & Kim, Y.–. S. (2006). Large problem spaces: The challenge of vocabulary for English language learners. In R. K. Wagner, A. Muse, & K. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Vocabulary acquisition and its implications for reading comprehension. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  93. Snowling, M., Chiat, S., & Hulme, C. (1991). Words, nonwords and phonological processes: Some comments on Gathercole, Willis, Emslie, and Baddeley. Applied Psycholinguistics, 12, 369–373.Google Scholar
  94. Swanson, H. L. (2011). Working memory, attention, and mathematical problem solving: A longitudinal study of elementary school children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 821–837.Google Scholar
  95. Swanson, H. L., & Ashbaker, M. (2000). Working memory, short-term memory, articulation speed, word recognition, and reading comprehension in learning disabled readers: Executive and/or articulatory system? Intelligence, 28, 1–30.Google Scholar
  96. Swanson, H. L., Saez, L., & Gerber, M. (2006). Growth in literacy and cognition in bilingual children at risk for reading disabilities. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 247–264.Google Scholar
  97. Swanson, H. L., Orosco, M. J., Lussier, C. M., Gerber, M. M., & Guzman-Orth, D. A. (2011). The influence of working memory and phonological processing on English language learner children’s bilingual reading and language acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 838–856.Google Scholar
  98. Tyler, A., & Nagy, W. E. (1989). The acquisition of English derivational morphology. Journal of Memory and Language, 28, 649–667.Google Scholar
  99. Whitney, P., Arnett, P. A., Driver, A., & Budd, D. (2001). Measuring central executive functioning: What’s in a reading span? Brain and Cognition, 45, 1–14.Google Scholar
  100. Wiebe, S. A., Espy, K. A., & Charak, D. (2008). Using confirmatory factor analysis to understand executive control in preschool children: I. latent structure. Developmental Psychology, 44, 575–587.Google Scholar
  101. Wu, X., Anderson, R. C., Li, W., Wu, X., Li, H., Zhang, J., et al. (2009). Morphological awareness and Chinese children’s literacy development: An intervention study. Scientific Studies of Reading, 13, 26–52.Google Scholar
  102. Zhang, J., And erson, R. C., Packard, J., Wu, X., & Tang, S. (2007). Development of knowledge about compound word structures in Chinese and English. Champaign, IL: Center for the Study of Reading.Google Scholar
  103. Zhang, J., Anderson, R. C., Wang, Q., Packard, J., Wu, X., Tang, S., et al. (2012). Insight into the structure of compound words among speakers of Chinese and English. Applied Psycholinguistics, 33, 753–779.Google Scholar
  104. Zhang, G., & Simon, H. A. (1985). STM capacity for Chinese words and idioms: Chunking and acoustical loop hypothesis. Memory and Cognition, 13, 193–201.Google Scholar
  105. Zhou, X., & Marslen-Wilson, W. D. (1995). Morphological structure in the Chinese mental lexicon. Language and Cognitive Processes, 10, 545–601.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jie Zhang
    • 1
  • Tzu-Jung Lin
    • 2
  • Junli Wei
    • 3
  • Richard C. Anderson
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research, College of Education and Behavioral SciencesWestern Kentucky UniversityBowling GreenUSA
  2. 2.Department of Educational StudiesOhio State UniversityColumbusUSA
  3. 3.Department of Educational PsychologyUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignChampaignUSA
  4. 4.Center for the Study of ReadingUniversity of IllinoisChampaignUSA

Personalised recommendations