Experiment in teaching new glyph systems

I thought I would share excerpts from a paper I recently presented for my Research Methods class in the Masters of Education in Arts & Learning program I am currently taking.

The focus of this Masters program in to investigate, propose and document ways in how the creative arts influence, enhance and/or improve the learning process, and the first project I proposed was to investigate alternative methods for teaching the alphabet. This paper describes the first excerise I developed for the classroom (young early readers or adults learning foreign/non-latin alphabets).

Here are some excerpts, samples and illustrations from the paper. If anyone is interested in a copy of the full paper or prepared source materials for conducting the exercise with students, please contact me through Typophile's "contact" feature.

Learning New Glyph Systems:
Experimental Research in Recognition and Retention

Written communications use glyphs as the essential component for making visual expressions of language. Though the scope of modern and ancient glyph systems is immense, my personal and professional interest lie in modern phonetic alphabet systems, in particular, the stylistic variations found within Latin based alphabets. Due in part to my training and experience in graphic design and typography, I am deeply interested in how others see and interpret words (hand-written, printed or constructed) and how their arrangement and treatment can influence or affect the reader.
I care about understanding more about written language since I grow increasingly aware of how new technologies affect not only how we communicate, but also what and why we communicate.

Writing systems were originally created, learned and practiced by inscribing glyphs and letters through repetitive hand movements utilizing various tools and implements. Teaching students an alphabet system through repetitive hand-copying of individual glyphs is the most common and wide spread method used. Newer methods of teaching alphabets have developed within the last fifty years which do not involve hand writing individual letters or words but instead use student interaction with glyph images through use of key pads. The selection of a glyph or whole word with the single touch of a key or click of a mouse is significantly different than manually writing or constructing a glyph (letter) or word. The first question that comes to mind is what is gained or lost by using one method of teaching students an alphabet over another method.

It is my hypothesis that the physical act of writing (manually constructing glyphs and letter-forms) aids in the initial learning of an alphabet system and that certain writing exercises can improve the speed of glyph recognition when learning new alphabets. I am biased toward methods using drawing, hand writing and physical construction of glyphs and letters, since as an artist, I feel there are multiple and complex processes involved (visual and motor skills). It is my suspicion that methods which use key pad or mouse click interactions with screen imagery of glyphs and letters might yield faster results in glyph recognition and with longer retention. In order to assess statistical data regarding advantages or disadvantages of one method of teaching alphabet systems over another it is necessary to establish a baseline or norm for learning basic alphabets. While I am certain that such data exists, it is not the purpose of this paper to present comparative results between methods. Instead, the intent of this project is to present an alternative method for teaching alphabets to students then collect data which can be used for comparison with my future projects and experiments in developing new methods for teaching glyph, letters and alphabet systems.

The exercise I have developed involves hand copying a four to six letter word consisting of characters (glyphs) not previously known to the student. Instead of the repetitive copying exercise commonly used by other teaching methods, the student only copies the word once, but is challenged with creating a copy that embodies the meaning or expression of that word. With this method more emphasis is placed on stimulating cognitive and creative centers of the brain as opposed to rote methods using mechanical centers through repetition and hand-eye coordination.

What I hope to learn from this project is that focused methods involving creative expression will yield quicker recognition of new glyph than mechanical repetition and rote methods would. As stated previously, this paper will not present comparative data, but only the results of the exercise I have developed.

(Excerpts from Materials, Lesson Plan, Samples and Results)

Introduction to exercise.
Subjects were given a brief introduction to the exercise by stating that words can convey meaning or expression solely by the way they are presented visually, despite the ability to read or understand the word itself. To help demonstrate the point, subjects were each given a word in a foreign language (English translation provided on source card), written in the alphabet of that culture. Then the subjects were asked to draw their given word in a manner that expresses the nature or essence of that word.

Sample language/alphabet source card used for exercise.

Post drawing exercise review.
After the exercise, all drawing were lined up for review. The subjects were asked as a group if they could identity any of the drawings by their respective English translation. One by one, the English translations used for the exercise were read aloud and the subjects were asked to identity which drawing matched the word. (Students were asked to refrain from identifying their own drawing).

Samples of students' drawings --

Armenian - "bird"

Thai - "fire"

Georgian - "mouse"

Drawing exercise data
A total of eight foreign words were drawn, each word comprised of four to six non-Latin letters. A total of four languages were used for the exercise, each having its own unique alphabet system. Of the eight drawings reviewed by the subjects as a group, each foreign word was correctly identified by their respective English translation.

Glyph/letter recognition test.
After a period of approximately three to four hours after the drawing exercise, the glyph recognition test was administered. The subjects were not give any indication prior or during the drawing exercise that such a test would be given. The purpose in not disclosing the test phase to subjects beforehand was to collect data on how well subjects could recall glyphs solely based on the previous drawing exercise.

Printed sheets with complete alphabets for each of the foreign languages used in the drawing exercise were distributed to the subjects. The subjects were then asked to circle or mark any of the letters they recognize from the word they drew. After approximately five to ten minutes, the test sheets were collected and subsequently used for the collected of data for this paper.

Glyph/letter recognition test data
A total of 41 foreign characters were used for the 8 words used in the drawing exercise. A total of 28 out of the 41 characters were correctly identified by the group as a whole, resulting in an average score of 68.3%. The best score achieved was 100% by one of the subjects or 6 out of 6 foreign characters identified correctly. The poorest score was 50% or 2 out of 4 foreign characters identified correctly by one subject, and 3 out of 6 characters identified correctly by another subject within their own respective drawings.

Although there was no comparison of data between one method over another when teaching alphabet systems, I believe there is enough data to support further exploration into methods that employ creative interpretation of words while teaching the alphabet. One of the more interesting outcomes of the drawing exercise was the 100% success in identifying the meaning of a foreign word solely by the graphic treatment of the non-Latin letters. One might describe it as pure typography when the meaning of a word can be conveyed even without understanding the language or its alphabet. The group as a whole seemed to experience the “guess the word” session as very positive, while on the other hand seemed more stressed and anguished during the glyph recognition test.

By selecting non-Latin phonetic alphabets for the exercise, I was able to place the subjects into a situation similar to what children first learning the alphabet or non-English speaking students might experience when learning to read and write in English. That in itself is a useful experience for teachers and may foster an understanding of how difficult learning our language might really be.

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