Project Details
Funding Scheme : General Research Fund
Project Number : 17614519
Project Title(English) : Examining the effects of executive function on Chinese word reading among Chinese as a second language (CSL) learners and Chinese students from a developmental perspective 
Project Title(Chinese) : 執行功能對中文一語及二語學生發展中文詞語認讀能力的影響研究 
Principal Investigator(English) : Dr Liao, Xian 
Principal Investigator(Chinese) :  
Department : Department of Chinese Language Studies
Institution : The Education University of Hong Kong
E-mail Address : xliao@eduhk.hk 
Tel :  
Co - Investigator(s) :
Dr Hung, On Ying Cathy
Dr Leung, Shing On
Dr Loh, Elizabeth Ka Yee
Panel : Humanities, Social Sciences
Subject Area : Education
Exercise Year : 2019 / 20
Fund Approved : 425,956
Project Status : Completed
Completion Date : 30-11-2021
Project Objectives :
To examine the predicting effect of executive function on Chinese word reading for CSL learners and Chinese speaking students at different reading stages
To compare the effect of executive function on Chinese word reading between CSL learners and Chinese speaking students
To identify any difference on the effects of executive function on Chinese word reading at different reading stages
Abstract as per original application
Decoding Chinese orthography is complex because Chinese characters’ constituents shared very similar stroke patterns and morphemes which can correspond to the same character. Given the complexity, learners of Chinese as a second language(CSL) often encounter great challenges in word reading. A recent study suggests a series of top-down mental processes, also known as executive function(EF), has a significant association with Chinese word reading in Chinese students (Chung, Lam, & Cheung, 2018), to see patterns and figure out the abstract relations underlying analogies. Yet, the extent to which EF affects CSL learners’ word reading, and the underlying mechanism itself in Chinese word reading remain underexamined. This study aims to fill three important research gaps which are fundamental to understanding word reading difficulties of CSL learners. First, there is no research on the association between EF and word reading in CSL learners. Second, and relatedly, there is no research compares such relation between CSL learners and Chinese students. Word reading process for first- and second-language readers is different in the way that second-language readers are interfered by the dominant language simultaneously. As such, word reading in L2 potentially needs the inhibitory system in EF to suppress the interferences. Whether difficulties in interference control predicts the greater challenges to recognize Chinese written words for CSL learners than the Chinese students is not known. Third, previous studies on the link between EF and Chinese word reading focused on early childhood. The potential differences of the underlying cognitive processes at different stages of reading development has not been considered. This study is designed to address the above issues in order to enrich literature on the decoding of L2 learners. We will recruit two groups of 300students(CSL and Chinese-speaking students) in grade 3,5& 7. Their EF, orthographic knowledge, morphological knowledge, and word reading will be measured; while the effects of age, vocabulary and non-verbal IQ will be controlled. The effects of EF on word reading will be compared between two groups of students across different reading stages, and in relation to those linguistic knowledge. The study will identify the cognitive underpinnings of word reading difficulties among CSL learners at different stages of reading development, and enhance our understanding of the decoding process as a second language. The findings will suggest teachers may develop learning strategies and teaching activities that evoke the awareness of the orthographic structures to facilitate interferences control process and memorize the Chinese characters.
中文字詞的學習並不容易,其中一個原因是漢字由部件構成,許多漢字因而都含有字形相似的部件,而且漢字作為詞素,在不同的語境中往往會對應不同的意思。這讓以中文為第二語言(CSL)的學生在學習中文詞語時頗感困難。當前的研究顯示,學生如需掌握中文字詞潛在的特徵和法則,需進行一系列自上而下的認知過程,這些過程被稱作執行功能。近來的研究表明,在以中文為一語的學生中,他們認讀詞語的能力與執行功能有緊密關聯(Chung, Lam, & Cheung, 2018),但在二語領域,二者的關係如何,尚未得到專門探討,一系列問題亦有待解答。例如執行功能在多大程度上影響學生的詞語認讀、哪些執行功能會影響以及如何影響認讀詞語的表現等。回答這些問題,有助於進一步認識造成二語學生中文閱讀困難的原因。 本研究可彌補當前研究中的三項空白。首先,二語領域中未見探討執行功能與詞語認讀關係的研究;其次,較少研究探討一語和二語學習中,執行功能和認讀詞語的關係會否不同。理論上,二語學生受到其一語的影響,其認讀詞語的過程可能與一語有所不同。特別是二語者可能更多運用執行功能中的抑制功能去排除一語的幹擾,因而抑制功能可能對二語學生認讀表現有更大的預測作用。最後,現有執行功能的相關研究多數以幼兒為對象,尚未探討學生在不同的學習階段執行功能和認讀詞語的關係是否有變。 針對以上研究空白,本研究探討一語和二語學生在認讀詞語時的認知因素。在以中文為一語和二語的三年級、五年級學生中,分別抽選出200名進行研究,總共400名學生。這些學生將接受多項評估,包括執行功能、字形意識、構詞意識、詞語認讀能力等。作為控制變量,學生的年齡、詞匯量和非言語智能的信息亦會被採集。研究小組將分析執行功能對詞語認讀的作用及其與中文語言知識的關係,並比較這些效應在不同年級、不同類型學生中會否不同。 本研究將從認知角度揭示不同階段二語學生詞語認讀困難的影響因素,有助學界更好地認識二語學習字詞時解碼過程。本研究結果亦有助於教師明確非華語學生中文學習困難中的一些成因,從而引導教師制定適切的教學方法和活動,提升學生閱讀相關的執行功能,最終提升學生的中文學習表現。
Realisation of objectives: Overall progress In alignment with the recent trend in understanding the role of executive function in literacy learning, this study aims to examine the respective effect of executive function on word reading among Chinese native and Chinese as a second language (CSL) students in Hong Kong. As a set of cognitive skills encapsulating the ability to update information, suppress interferences and shift attention that is necessary to control behavior, executive functions have been believed to place an important effect on Chinese word reading partially due to the complexity of the Chinese written system. In this study, we hypothesized that the pathways of its effect include both direct and indirect ways, with orthographic and morphological awareness as mediators. As approved by UGC, this research planned to recruit a total of 400 primary students in grades 3 and 5 (including 200 CSL students and 200 Chinese-speaking students). Due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the past two years, the project has encountered huge difficulty in collecting research data because the primary schools in Hong Kong were not able to conduct face-to-face teaching. Under such circumstances, the research team has made substantial efforts in completing various aspects of research, such as: (1) Kept close communication with the participating schools. (2) We have completed two meta-analysis studies during the period of face to face teaching suspension. It was found that the two key variables of this project, orthographic knowledge, and working memory, could correlate significantly with word reading/Chinese proficiency among CSL students at r=0.429 and r=0.286, respectively. These two studies lay a solid foundation in literature preparation; (3) Based on our previous studies and existing literature, the research team has developed or adapted a series of research instruments as stated in the approved proposal, including a Chinese word reading task, four meta-linguistic tasks (i.e., lexical decision, orthographic choice in context, morpheme recognition, and morpheme discrimination), three computerized executive function tasks (i.e., color-word interference test, sorting test, and digit span task measuring inhibitory, shifting and working memory respectively), and three instruments for measuring control variables (i.e., nonverbal intelligence, vocabulary, and background questionnaire). As these instruments have been widely used in previous research, they all have good validity and reliability. In the end, we have successfully completed the data collection among 204 CSL students and 419 Chinese native students although the schedule was a little delayed. Such data volume has exceeded the expected size. For the whole project, we have three research papers (two journal papers and one book chapter) published and four papers under review. We also have one research student graduated by exploring effect of inhibition skill in Chinese reading comprehension under supervision of team member (principal supervisor: Dr. Loh Elizabeth Ka Yee). Based on the tentative results, we believe that the research objectives have all been achieved. Realisation of three objectives 1. To examine the predicting effect of executive function on Chinese word reading for CSL learners and Chinese speaking students at different reading stages The objective has been fully achieved. Using the data collected, we performed regression analysis and found that for the whole sampled students, the overall prediction of executive functions on word reading was statistically significant, R square = .259, F (4, 618) = 53.962, p < .000. Among the four executive function skills, inhibition, verbal working memory and visual working memory are unique predictors. Furthermore, the significant prediction was found among Grade 3 students, R square =.335, F (4,234) = 29.404, p<.000. Verbal and visual working memory are significant predictors. The contribution of inhibition was marginally significant. Regarding the result of Grade 5 students, executive functions explained 15.9% of the variance in word reading, F (4,379) = 17.960, p<.000. It was found that verbal and visual working memory significantly predicted word reading. Based on the above results, the executive functions appear to be more important in Grade 3 than in Grade 5. 2. To compare the effect of executive function on Chinese word reading between CSL learners and Chinese-speaking students The objective has been fully achieved. To compare the effect of executive functions on Chinese word reading between CSL learners and Chinese-speaking students, linear regression analysis was conducted. The results indicated that executive function explained 14.8% of the variation in word reading, among Chinese-speaking students, F (4,414) = 18.018, p<.000. All subskills significantly contribute to word reading. Executive functions also significantly predicted CSL students’ word reading, R square = .236, F (4, 199) = 15.358, p < .000. Among executive function skills, inhibition, verbal working memory, and visual working memory were statistically significant to the prediction. The above results indicate that executive functions shed a greater predictive effect on the CSL student’s word reading, which might partially due to the complex linguistic properties of Chinese. The CSL students may not have sufficient practice and exposure to Chinese. Therefore, they may need to be more skillful in deploying their EF resources to memorize and recognize the Chinese words. 3. To identify any difference on the effects of executive function on Chinese word reading at different reading stages The objective has been fully achieved. The moderating analysis was performed to investigate the potential differences in the effects of executive function on word reading at different reading stages. Interaction items, namely inhibition×grade, attention shifting×grade, visual working memory×grade, and verbal working memory×grade, were added together in the regression model with word reading as the dependent variable and executive functions as independent variables. The interactions were also significant, ΔR square =.020, F (4,374) = 7.462, p<.000. Further focus was given to the moderation effect of grade on the contribution of each sub-skill using structural equation modelling (SEM). It was found that both the effect of inhibition and working memory on word reading could be negatively moderated by grade. That suggested, inhibition and working memory could play a less important role when students advance to higher grades.
Summary of objectives addressed:
Objectives Addressed Percentage achieved
1.To examine the predicting effect of executive function on Chinese word reading for CSL learners and Chinese speaking students at different reading stagesYes100%
2.To compare the effect of executive function on Chinese word reading between CSL learners and Chinese speaking studentsYes100%
3.To identify any difference on the effects of executive function on Chinese word reading at different reading stagesYes100%
Research Outcome
Major findings and research outcome: There are several key findings emerged based on the tentative analysis. First, we confirmed the importance of executive function to students’ Chinese word reading. Our correlation and regression results indicated that 25.9% of the variance of students’ performance in Chinese word reading can be explained by the executive functions among Grade 3 and 5 students. Inhibition, verbal working memory, and visual working memory remain significant in terms of their predictive effects. Second, we gained evidence about the developmental impact of executive functions on wording reading. Although our data is cross sectional, it is shown that executive functions contributes 33.5% of variances in the Grade 3 students’ group whereas the value reduces to only 15.9% in the Grade 5 students’ group. The moderation found that both the effect of inhibition and verbal working memory on word reading decrease with grade. This reveals that the relationship between executive function and wording reading weaken along with students’ progressing to higher grade level. Third, the executive functions could be more important among CSL students than among Chinese native students, explaining word reading’s 23.6% and 14.8% variance respectively. Furthermore, we also found that executive function can significantly predict the performance in morphological awareness and orthographic knowledge tests, which in turn could significantly predicate the word reading performance. The indirect effects of executive function on word reading via the mediating of orthographic knowledge in CSL students was found higher than in Chinese native students (Please see our paper entitled “The effect of executive function on word reading: a comparison between CSL and Chinese native students” for more details in Part C) All the above findings indicate that executive function is a set of domain-general cognitive skills that bear significance in word reading across different ages and linguistics backgrounds in the present study. These findings have not been reported in previous studies and could further widen our understanding of executive function’s role in learning of logographic languages such as Chinese.
Potential for further development of the research
and the proposed course of action:
Based on the results obtained, there are two lines of future research directions. The first one is to initiate more longitudinal studies. During elementary education, students simultaneously develop their different aspects of reading skills and capacity of deploying executive function, for which researchers have suggested their relationship could be reciprocal. Therefore, it is necessary to provide a longitudinal perspective to deepen our understanding of the relationship between executive function and Chinese learning. Meanwhile, along with researchers’ ever-deepen understanding of executive function, it is recognized that investigation of executive function does not only involve the “cool executive function” (e.g., inhibition, shifting, and working memory) but also the “hot executive function” (e.g., delayed satisfaction) (Kerr & Zelazo, 2004; Zelazo, & Carlson, 2012). To provide a more comprehensive understanding of the role played by the executive function in language learning, it is rather necessary to include more identified of executive function in future research.
Layman's Summary of
Completion Report:
As a foundational skill of reading comprehension, Chinese word reading is rather challenging for learners with Chinese as second language (CSL) or even Chinese native students due to Chinese language’s logographical properties. Recent research has shown that executive function (EF) could be an important factor in explaining students’ differences in academic performance. However, its role in Chinese learning among different groups of students at different stages has not been addressed. In light of the crucial role of EF, the present study examined the effect of executive function on word reading among two groups of Chinese native (N=419) and CSL students (N=204) in Hong Kong. The study shows that EF significantly predicts students’ word reading performance across the two groups of students while such predictive effects are greater in the CSL group than in native Chinese group, and EF provides greater predictive effects in the lower grade level (i.e., Grade 3) than in higher level counterpart (i.e., Grade 5). The results of this project could provide theoretical insights into the important role of EF in Chinese language learning, which are also rather valuable in terms of the implication on curriculum design as well as teaching practice.
Research Output
Peer-reviewed journal publication(s)
arising directly from this research project :
(* denotes the corresponding author)
Year of
Author(s) Title and Journal/Book Accessible from Institution Repository
Dr. LIAO, Xian Dr. LOH, Ka Yee Elizabeth  Liao, X.&Loh, K.Y. E (under review). A Meta-analysis on the Relationship between Working Memory and Chinese Proficiency among Learners with Chinese as a second Language.  No 
2020 Dr. LIAO, Xian* Ms. Cai Mingjia  Liao, X. & Cai, M. J. (2020). The Relationship between Orthographic Knowledge and Word Reading among Learners with Chinese as a Second Language: A Meta-analysis Study. In Liang. Y. (ed.). Character Teaching and Learning in L2 Chinese Classroom: From Theory to Practice(pp.51-64). National University of Vietnam (Hanoi) Press.  No 
2022 Xian Liao, Elizabeth Ka Yee Loh* Mingjia Cai  Lexical Orthographic Knowledge Mediates the Relationship Between Character Reading and Reading Comprehension Among Learners With Chinese as a Second Language  No 
2021 Elizabeth Ka Yee Loh, Xian Liao*, Shing On Leung, Loretta Chung Wing Tam  How do Chinese as a second language (CSL) learners acquire orthographic knowledge: component, structure and position regularity  No 
Xian Liao* Mingjia Cai  The Effect of Executive Function on Word Reading Among Students with Chinese as A Second Language (CSL)  No 
Mingjia Cai Xian Liao*  The effect of executive function on word reading: a comparison between CSL and Chinese native students  No 
Xian Liao Mingjia Cai On Ying Cathy Hung*  The direct and indirect effects of executive functions on reading comprehension: A lexical representation perspective  No 
Recognized international conference(s)
in which paper(s) related to this research
project was/were delivered :
Month/Year/City Title Conference Name
Hong Kong A preliminary exploration on the relationship between executive function and word reading among students with Chinese as a second language (CSL) 探討執行功能與非華語學生字詞認讀表現的關係  The 10th international conference on Teaching Chinese as a second language. 
Hong Kong The Role of Executive Function in Chinese Language Learning: Starting From Its Influence on the Pupils’ Word Recognition執行功能在語文學習中的角色:從其對小學生字詞認讀的影響說起  Joint Lecture Series on Chinese Language Education: Chinese Language Learning in Multilingual and Multicultural Context 
Other impact
(e.g. award of patents or prizes,
collaboration with other research institutions,
technology transfer, etc.):