Professor Isao Ishii’s Method of Teaching Chinese Characters

Professor Isao Ishii

Introduction – Who is Professor Isao Ishii?

Professor Isao Ishii  (石井 勲) is a pioneer in Chinese character education in Japan. He proposed that children should be taught Chinese characters before learning Hiragana or Katakana based on a empirical findings regarding children’s brain development. Professor Ishii observed that during the early stages of brain development children can recognize first images before they can recognize phonetic symbols (i.e., alphabets). He further noted that the development of the right side of the brain, which is the side used to recognize Chinese characters, stops at an earlier age than the development of the left side of the brain, which is the side used to recognized phonetic symbols. From these observations, Professor Ishii theorized that for children recognizing Chinese characters is easier than recognizing Hiragana or Katakana

In 1960, he tested his theories by teaching first graders 200 characters that are normally taught between 1st and 3rd grade in just one semester. The Professor found that the children could indeed learn those 200 characters — and that they thought the characters were easier to read than Hiragana and Katakana. He then started writing books on Chinese characters designed for Japanese preschoolers. Since then, many schools throughout Japan have adopted Professor Ishii’s method. His method is also known among Korean educators. 

A Documentary on Professor Ishii’s Method of Teaching Chinese Characters

With the recent rekindled interest in Hanja (Chinese character) education in Korea, the Education Broadcaster System (EBS, 韓國教育放送公社, 한국교육방송공사), a publicly owned broadcasting corporation, did a document about Professor Ishii’s Method of Teaching Chinese Characters (石井漢字敎育法, 이시 한자교육법). The remainder of this post will summarize the documentary’s highlights.

Part 1

Part 1 introduces one Japanese preschool that uses Professor Ishii’s method. It starts with a 5 year old child reciting Chinese characters put up on the board by his teacher. He states that he had been learning Chinese characters since the age of 2 and does not find them difficult. The narrator remarks, “The notion that Chinese characters are too difficult for children is perhaps an opinion imposed by adults.”

EBS Doc 1

At this school, there is even a class for children of the age of 1. (Most Japanese children learn Chinese characters starting in elementary school). For attendance, the teacher displays a flash card with the child’s name in Chinese characters and calls out the name. Around the classroom are cards with Chinese characters indicating what the name of each object is. What is interesting is that Chinese character exercises only takes 10 minutes of their day. In one exercise, the teacher shows a card with a word in Chinese characters, states its pronunciation, and then quickly flips it over hiding the word. The teacher states that this was found to be the most effective method, because children are more likely to focus.

EBS Doc 2

During story time, a teacher shows a picture book with mixed script. Children at this school by the age 5 are able to read books typically meant for Japanese middle school students. This method makes use of the fact that children recognize images faster. According to a representative from the Japanese Language Education Research Association, when children were shown the Chinese characters 九 (きゅう, Kyou, “Nine”), 鳥 (ちょう, Chyou, “Bird”), and 鳩 (きゅう, Kyou, “Dove”), and the Kana く (Ku) and asked, “Which character did you recognize first?”, the children responded that they recognized 鳩 first, then 鳥, then 九, and lastly く.

Part 2

Part 2 first shows children going through a number of exercises. In the first exercise, the teacher puts a number of cards with Chinese characters on the board and then removes one card when the children are face down. When the teacher calls the children to raise their heads up, the children call out which character is missing.  In the second exercise, a teacher quickly flashes a card with a Japanese proverb. The children are only able to see it for a blink, but they are able to recognize them. In a third exercise, the teacher shows only a part of it. Again, children are able to deduce what the rest of the proverb is.

EBS Doc 3

The narrator addresses worries concerning whether these children are being taught Chinese characters at too early of age and whether they are too difficult for children. Using images of brain scans, a Japanese professor explains that the parts of the brain (i.e., the prefrontal lobe and the angular gyrus) that are most associated with Chinese character recognition are the most active from the age of five to ten. Based on these facts, he concludes that it is suitable for children of that age to learn Chinese characters.

Part 3

In Part 3, two year old children were tested to see whether they actually memorized Chinese characters faster. They are shown four words (Rabbit, Fox, Swallow, and Rat) that they did not know in Chinese characters, Hiragana, and English. After they were shown the words for ten minutes, the children did other activities for an hour. This was repeated four times.

EBS Doc 4

When they were finally tested, the experiment showed that children correctly memorized Chinese characters at a higher rate, at a ratio of 16:5:5 for Chinese characters, Hiragana, and English respectively. The same professor as earlier in the show explains that reading Chinese characters activates patterns in the brain different from Hiragana and English. He also states that since alphabets represent sound, there is no difference between the two as to which parts of the brain are activated.

EBS Doc 5

There was also another experiment to test how fast Japanese people read Chinese characters, Hiragana, and English. This was done to figure out what character set should be put on road signs, when Japan started building the Meishin Expressway (名神高速道路) in the late 1950s. The experiment data showed that Japanese people on average recognized Chinese characters in 0.06 seconds, Hiragana in 0.7 seconds, and English in 1.5 seconds. As a result, Chinese characters in large font were put on all road signs in Japan.

Part 4

Part 4 primarily shows more grown up children who were taught Professor Ishii’s method from a young age. They state that Chinese characters are not difficult. Furthermore, they have no difficulty reading Chinese Classics. Even in elementary school, they are able to recite Confucius, which is normally read during high school.

The narrator’s last comment is whether the widespread notion that Chinese characters are too difficult for children is keeping Korean children from using their full talent and intellect.

1 comment
  1. Fascinating findings, and it makes intuitive sense if one were to think about it (sadly most don’t myself included). When kids are learning words in English it is often with picture books (ditto for Korean). Since Chinese characters are visual and not necessarily audial its perfect for young students. I teach English but whenever I have a powerpoint with a Korean word on the slide I always include the hanja. The students have come to expect it as my peculiarity but always respond well. Its just a matter of doing it. By the way, have you watched this short TED Talk on Chinese characters? It deals with how to teach it:

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