I often preface a post with “This may look like it is only for Japanese teachers” when the content may apply to all. This post is specifically about teaching script in Japanese. But maybe the underlying ideas – my shift in approaching a required skill in the language I teach – may speak to you as well.
This is an update post on my shift – my shift from ‘memorizing’ characters/script and testing it to death – to a more ‘natural’ learning (and testing) way. This may be where you are as well. Last year I wrote about my ‘experiment’ as I changed the way I introduced characters…and an update on that follows.
Hiragana – The Foundation Script: This year my first year students again experienced my new approach to character testing. With 46 characters to learn to do basic writing, I used to ‘teach the chart’ and then ‘test the chart’. Stress on my students, memorizing characters in order, unnatural context – I’d had enough. So where are am I now in having my students ‘learn’ their characters? I still introduce ‘the chart’ (over 3-4 classes). But instead of immediately applying pressure to learn them we begin to read/write with the chart for ‘assistance’. Then, and keep in mind we’ve done the words we’re writing over and over again orally, I start with simple quizzes that require them to use/practice certain characters. We continue in this style.
For the first unit test – still chart support is offered. We practice how to prepare for writing tests (I like to use my ‘power 7’ method) but students know that they can have the chart with them. (They also know that having the chart is not a substitute for studying!). Some kids are keeners and they take advantage of the ‘bonus’ they can get for not using the chart. The ‘bonus’ is 2% – a number I purposely set low as I am not trying to encourage ‘going for the bonus’ at this point. For the second unit test I ask that they try to be ‘off chart’ and to be honest most of them are. We are on the 3rd unit test this week. I will have 1 or 2 of my 30 that still request the chart. There will be others that will ask for support as they forget how to write that ‘one’ character – and I give them the one they can’t think of.
Katakana – The Next Essential Script: I only require my Yr1’s to be responsible for 1 script off chart. But there is another essential one that I now introduce right away. Katakana is introduced from the first times we start writing with hiragana – always with furigana (hiragana) for it. All of my Yr1’s have a chart to read Katakana and are provided a chart during unit tests. I don’t ‘test’ or ‘mark’ the Katakana they use for correctness. Yes I know I may be sacrificing some stroke order (until I formally teach it in year 2) but for me the natural use of the kana overrides the instinct to control how they may write it.
This year my new Year 2’s – the first to experience my shift in teaching writing last year – took on Katakana right away. I still taught the character in groups – but again – the way I ‘tested’ was to go back to the words we had used in Yr1. Yes – spelling tests – but spelling words they had used for almost a whole semester – and would use in the future. Did we hit all of the katakana in those 4 quizzes? No. But I know we will have ‘tested’ them all through the vocabulary that they will encounter by the time we end of the semester. As we move through unit tests I still get an occasional ‘Sensei I can’t remember how to write…’ and I provide the character.
My students are now relaxed and more worried about expressing themselves in the language than they are about memorizing charts of script. And I am way more relaxed as I give them what I now see as the proper ‘time’ to acquire these new scripts. The stress of ‘learning/testing’ the script is gone…and in the end I have more confident learners in the room.