China's language input system in the digital age affects children's reading development

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jan 15;110(3):1119-23. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1213586110. Epub 2012 Dec 31.


Written Chinese as a logographic system was developed over 3,000 y ago. Historically, Chinese children have learned to read by learning to associate the visuo-graphic properties of Chinese characters with lexical meaning, typically through handwriting. In recent years, however, many Chinese children have learned to use electronic communication devices based on the pinyin input method, which associates phonemes and English letters with characters. When children use pinyin to key in letters, their spelling no longer depends on reproducing the visuo-graphic properties of characters that are indispensable to Chinese reading, and, thus, typing in pinyin may conflict with the traditional learning processes for written Chinese. We therefore tested character reading ability and pinyin use by primary school children in three Chinese cites: Beijing (n = 466), Guangzhou (n = 477), and Jining (n = 4,908). Children with severe reading difficulty are defined as those who were normal in nonverbal IQ but two grades (i.e., 2 y) behind in character-reading achievement. We found that the overall incidence rate of severe reading difficulty appears to be much higher than ever reported on Chinese reading. Crucially, we found that children's reading scores were significantly negatively correlated with their use of the pinyin input method, suggesting that pinyin typing on e-devices hinders Chinese reading development. The Chinese language has survived the technological challenges of the digital era, but the benefits of communicating digitally may come with a cost in proficient learning of written Chinese.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • China
  • Dyslexia / etiology
  • Dyslexia / psychology
  • Female
  • Handwriting
  • Humans
  • Language Development
  • Language*
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Phonetics
  • Reading*