Date of Award


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Education, Ed.D.



First Advisor

Ellyn Arwood

LC Subjects

Cognitive learning; Learning; Learning, Psychology of; Semantics; Chinese language -- Study and teaching


For learners of Chinese as a foreign language (CFL), character learning is frustrating. This research postulated that this difficulty may mainly come from a lack of semantic understanding of character-denoted meanings. Language theories support that when a learner’s semantic meaning increases, the orthographic structures that represent the underlying meanings also improve.

This study aimed to reveal CFL learners’ cognitive abilities and processes in visual-semantic learning of Chinese characters. Particularly, this study investigated the process by which English-speaking adolescent CFL learners, at the beginning to intermediate level, made mental images of character-denoted meanings to visually encode and retrieve character forms. Quantitative and qualitative data were gathered from image making questionnaires, writing, and reading tests, after learning characters in three commonly-used teaching methods (i.e., English, pictorial, and verbal). The data were analyzed based on a triangulation of the literature from Neuro-Semantic Language Learning Theory, scientific findings in cognitive psychology, and neuroscience.

The study found that participants’ semantic abilities to understand character-denoted meanings emerged, but were still restricted in familiar orthographic forms. The use of the imagery strategy as a semantic ability predicted better performances, most evidently in writing; however, the ability in using the imagery strategy to learn characters was still underdeveloped, and needed to be supported with sufficient contextual information. Implications and further research in visual-semantic learning and teaching characters were suggested.


Copyright for this work is retained by the author.