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The Invisible “Reading Wars” in China and the Lessons for America

March 29, 2019 @ 1:00 pm - 2:30 pm


Philip Hui Li
Professor in Early Childhood, Macquarie University, Australia
Baldy 12
University at Buffalo North Campus
Cosponsored by the UB Confucius Institute and Early Childhood Research Center
Free and open to the public

Reading is the foundation for national success, and literacy is the benchmark for most academic success. Similar to the decades-long debate in North America about how to teach early literacy between the phonics and whole language approaches, in China, there is a kind of invisible “reading wars” that ignited in the 1950s and might be still going on. The invisible “reading wars” in China might include the three debates surrounding two fundamental questions –when and how to teach early literacy: (1) informal literacy versus formal literacy; (2) reading readiness versus emergent literacy; and (3) phonics versus whole language approach (Li, 2015).

Moreover, educational authorities and parents and teachers of Hong Kong and Mainland China have taken very different positions in these debates. For instance, many kindergartens and parents, despite the ban of early literacy by the Ministry of Education in China, insist on teaching children to read and write in the early years. Accordingly, three “GAPs” were found (Li, 2015) in early Chinese literacy: belief-practice gap, policy-practice gap, and preschool-school gap.

These contradictions between policy-makers and practitioners have triggered Li’s intense research interest in the two fundamental questions: When is the best time for early literacy? And what are the best practices? After two decades of studying early literacy development and education in Chinese societies, he published a monograph with Routledge in 2015—Teaching Chinese Literacy in the Early Years.

This lecture will first provide a historical account of the invisible “reading wars” in China, then present the longitudinal and neuroimaging evidence collected from Beijing, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Singapore to address the “when” and “how” questions. Next, it will introduce the “3CAPs” theory (Li, 2015): culturally-appropriate practice, contextually-appropriate practice, and child (individual) appropriate practices. Finally, the lesson for American policymakers and practitioners will be addressed.

Early childhood education scholars, research students, parents, practitioners, and policymakers are all welcome.

About the Speaker

Philip Hui Li is Professor in Early Childhood at the University of Macquarie. His research interests lie in developmental psycholinguistics, developmental cognitive neuroscience, early Chinese literacy, early childhood curriculum and pedagogy, and educational policy. He has published more than 180 academic works including books, book chapters, and journal and conference papers. He is Co-Editor of the Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Associate Editor of Early Education and Development, and an editorial board member of Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, and International Journal of Early Years Education.


March 29, 2019
1:00 pm - 2:30 pm


12 Baldy
University at Buffalo, North Campus
Buffalo, NY 14260
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