Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

November 15, 2015
by leesensei

Learning/Testing Script: The Update On A Successful Switch

hiraganaI 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.


March 1, 2015
by leesensei

Learning/Evaluating In Context – Not Content: The Journey ….

RENOVATION 3As teachers we are always saying that we are on a ‘journey’. I know for me the transformation of my teaching from ‘teaching the textbook’ to ‘facilitating language acquisition and use’ is an exciting one. It’s also, as we always affirm, about small do-able changes – steps that, when they are taken, will ‘stick’. I have learned – and now seen put into practice – the benefits of teaching in context – and learning that way too. And although my examples of ‘how’ and ‘why’ may seem a bit odd to a teacher who uses the regular a-b-c’s in their teaching it is the lessons on ‘real contextual’ learning that are key for me and perhaps you will see your own journey in them as well.

I am a Japanese teacher and, as a result, my students not only are mastering a 2nd language – but also a 2nd, 3rd and sometimes 4th orthography. We begin in year 1 with hiragana – a script of 46 sounds out of which any ‘native’ Japanese word can be written. Then we start to add in katakana – another 46 character script primarily for words imported into Japanese from other languages (think ‘pizza’ and ‘T shirt’) . As students are learning these we also throw in kanji (Chinese characters) – not all of the required 1900 or so to be fluent but about 300 by the time students are done Yr 4. Whew!

The old “Teach the Content” way – Ah the old days. It would look like this. Start students learning Japanese – they can’t write the characters yet so let’s use ‘romaji’ (Japanese written in English characters) until we have introduced all the written hiragana. Then when we’ve done that – let’s test those characters – discreetly – in batches of 10 – making kids memorize them because if they can’t memorize them like that well then they can’t use them can they? Then let’s finally make them write phrases that they’ve written in romaji the ‘real’ way. Oh and what about those import words? Well we’ll keep writing them in romaji until Yr2 when we introduce katakana (the same way as the first script) and then force them to stop using the english letters and use those. Whew – head awhirl? I suspect my students’ were!

The start of “Teach in Context” way – Speak First! Suddenly it struck me – why use the English letters? Japanese kids don’t. They speak and speak and gradually learn to write the words that they know. So last year my Yr1’s started speaking. Using picture clues we learned, practiced and used key content phrases to interact with classmates. “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?” etc. As the characters were introduced we started reading…BUT…I still taught the characters and tested discreetly. That is I still tested the ‘sounds’ – as, well, sounds. And I still used the ‘romaji’ for foreign words…A start it was but…

The evolution of “Content” way – Give It To Them When They Need It – This year has seen an evolution in my teaching and use of characters. The first has been that I have dropped the ‘romaji’ altogether. In consultation with my Yr 2’s & 3’s (and my new more ‘aware’ self) I decided to introduce the ‘katakana’ foreign-sound orthography as needed. That is the students are not required to know how to write it but they are required to see it and use it. So now they get a chart as part of their key package. They can try using it but they get the katakana chart for all tests/quizzes (and I don’t mark their ‘spelling’ of them). To help them read it I write the hiragana sounds they know over top to help them. They are – shockingly – using it correctly in context. Next year when I want them to be ‘off chart’ I see an easy transition.

Evolution Step 2 – Don’t “Test the Content” – “Evaluate in Context” – This year I also returned to teaching a compressed course called Beginner’s Japanese 11. It is a ‘catch-up’ course that tries to introduce content /structures of Yr 1 & 2 in just 1 semester! (I know!). I haven’t taught it in 8 years and how I’m approaching it reflects my ‘context’ shift. I still taught the individual characters (wait for it) but instead of the dreaded ‘write rows A-O, KA-KO’ tests now we tested in ‘context’. The first quizzes were writing phrases we knew – and students could have the chart if they wanted to. The majority came prepared to write and didn’t use the chart at all. They liked that they were tested on what they knew already rather than random sounds. As for the Chinese characters – I’ll ask that they recognize them and instead of waiting for when the book said to introduce them – they’ll be in there the first time that they see the word.

Next Step To Come…? I’m toying with introducing the characters as we need them. While the ‘context’ in me likes that the ‘content’ part of me realizes that they need all the characters to be able to read short passages that may contain words they have not yet seen. I’m still thinking about this.

Context, real-life use and not the ‘content’ should be what/how we are delivering language to our students…and I’m finally seeing that.


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