While browsing the net recently, I came across a post by a very respected teacher of TPRS that advocated using characters instead of Pinyin when teaching reading in Chinese. (This was based on observations of teachers, not on the teacher’s personal experience). Since it was a post and not a discussion, I may be putting words in that teacher’s mouth, but what I came away with was the opinion that reading should be in characters, and characters should be pointed to, not Romanization, when teaching.
In the reading arena, I definitely disagree on the exclusive use of characters-only readings for L2 students of Chinese. I use frequent and extensive Pinyin readings (actually TOP, Tonally Orthographic Pinyin, readings — in a system of Romanization that includes tonal spelling while retaining normal Hanyu Pinyin spellings — see the page attached to this blog for an explanation).
If we want to use extensive reading as a means of building fluency in the language, I believe that in the case of Chinese we want to split reading into two parts (reading in Romanization and reading in characters). The goal of reading is to get meaning directly through a visual channel, and when students read in characters I don’t want them to have to (eventually) subvocalize. I was taught traditionally and subvocalized for over a decade before realizing that it was about extracting meaning directly; my reading speed in Chinese doubled or even tripled after that.
Reading Romanization is, IMHO, the most effective type of reading for building fluency in Chinese, because we are presenting the students with the spoken form of the language (in the earlier levels) in written form, so that we can all refer to it, discuss it, look at it, trace it with our fingers, etc. at leisure. It’s kind of like super-duper spoken language (or maybe spoken language read by someone on serious chemical substances, but let’s not go the chemically-enhanced synesthesia route!)
I think that both types of reading have their place in the instructional program. Reading characters is of course the ultimate goal, but there is much to be said for reading Romanization and the gains it can provide in spoken language and acquisition of grammar without the added burden of decoding from symbol to sound to meaning.