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The Write Stuff: English Literacy Skills for Elementary Students in Japan

Reading and writing ability is often overlooked in the ALT's classroom. Here’s how to change that.

By 6 min read

Under the new elementary school English language teaching system currently being phased in ahead of a nationwide roll-out of the curriculum next year, as early as grade three, students will be required to learn to read, write and pronounce the letters of the English alphabet. Moving forward into the later years of elementary school and looking toward junior high school, students will be encouraged to learn to read and write words as they learn how to say them.

This is a departure from the typical assistant language teacher (ALT)-led English class, which usually focuses purely on speaking and listening.

As someone with a background in journalism and a love of writing in general, I welcome this new challenge. However, to the average ALT who may not have a background in writing, this may seem somewhat scary. Don’t worry though, because it needn’t be.

Here are a couple of simple ideas to try in your lessons the next time you’re asked to teach reading or writing in class while on the job.

1. Reading

When you approach reading, it’s important to remember that Japanese — at least in its katakana and hiragana forms — is read phonetically. As such, you need to familiarize the students not only with the shape and pronunciation of each letter,  but also with the more common phonetic blends. Perhaps the best way to do this in the early stages is through the use of worksheets.

Worksheets are something the students should be familiar with from their other classes already. For reading worksheets, at the elementary level, you want to keep it as simple as possible. Multiple choice is probably the best way to go.

For example, prepare a list of words that the students have learned recently and that you wish to review. Then list each one, along with three possible spellings.

… as early as grade three, students will be required to learn to read, write and pronounce the letters of the English alphabet.

Students go through each set of options and circle the correct one.

Visual recognition worksheets are also good. For these, prepare a worksheet with a series of pictures on it and have the students match the pictures with a list of words. They can either select the words from a list on the page or if they are feeling more confident, perhaps give them the first one or two letters as a prompt and have them write out the rest.

At a very basic level, word searches can be a fun review activity for students, too. However, a few important rules need to be followed:

  • Keep the words within vocabulary the kids already know. This is a review activity, not a means to introduce new vocab.
  • Don’t have words going backwards or diagonally across the page, this will just confuse the students.
  • Don’t spend any more than five to 10 minutes on this, or it will get boring for the students.

2. Writing

Japanese school life is all about routine. It’s about building familiar processes, behaviors and expectations among the students. One of the main reasons why some students struggle initially with English is that it takes them outside of this “comfort zone” and into uncharted territory.

With writing, you have the chance to prevent this, since writing the letters of the English alphabet can be taught in exactly the same way Japanese kids are taught kanji: using drilling worksheets.

It’s always easier to start with lowercase letters when making practice worksheets as these are the letters the kids will most often be expected to write. Alphabet drilling worksheets can be found from many English teacher resource sites online. Here is a link to some of the better ones to get you started.

Once you’ve drilled the letters and they feel confident in writing each one, you can expand the worksheets to include drilling of small words. Bonus tip: Where possible, try to include pictures alongside the words to help the students keep up with the context.

… writing the letters of the English alphabet can be taught in exactly the same way Japanese kids are taught kanji…

Once the students are assured enough in writing all the letters of the alphabet and some small words, you can then start to challenge them further with alphabet games. Here is another link to some of useful games to get you started. There are many that work well, but the one that seems to get the best response in my classes is the “line-up game.”

There are many that work well, but the one that seems to get the best response in my classes is the “line-up game.”

  • Organize the class into teams of five or six students each and have them stand up and form straight lines from the back of the class facing towards the whiteboard or blackboard.
  • On each team, give the student closest to the board at the front a piece of chalk or a pen.
  • Next, go to the back of the class, call the students from team nearest the back of the class to you and whisper a letter of the alphabet.
  • The students must then trace the outline of this letter with their finger, onto the back of the student in front of them.
  • This relay continues along each team until it reaches the person at the front who must then run up and write the letter on the board.
  • The first team to successfully write the correct letter on the board will be awarded one point.

Be sure to move the students at the front to the back of the line after each round, to ensure everyone gets the chance to write on the board. Depending on the mood and energy of your class, this activity can be anything from a five-minute warm up to a 20-minute main activity for that lesson.

Overall, my most important pieces of advice for teaching reading and writing to younger students are these: Keep it simple and keep it fun!

Reasons to be Cheerful: Why Being an ALT Is Awesome

Remember, too, that the students will react to whatever vibes you are giving off. Lots of new teachers find teaching reading or phonics to be intimidating. However, if you can exude some confidence in the classroom this will rub off on the students.

How much enjoyment and how much satisfaction students can derive from this first, fleeting experiences with written English will go a long way to determining their future aptitude in the subject. English reading and writing isn’t like science or math. Sure, drilling is one part of the process, but it can’t be all about rote memorization and repetition — the students need to enjoy it.

Remember, you represent the first real, up-close exposure these kids will have not just to English, but to the wider world outside Japan. You don’t just want to teach them to write — you want to foster in them a life-long love of reading, of writing and of communicating in English.

Do you have any special strategies or tips for teaching reading and writing to your elementary kids? Leave a comment and tell us your thoughts.

Japan101: Teaching English

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