Skip to main content

Home  ES  JHS  HS  Articles  Blogs  Forum  Links  NonTextbook  Volunteers  Warmups  Shoutbox  SUBMISSIONS   

Phonics in the Japanese Classroom


WRITTEN BY      ADDED: Oct 5, 2007 Patrick Bickford


"Phonics is a lot like an animal -- each has a name and makes a certain sound." - Patrick Bickford




Currently, the first English lesson a Japanese elementary school student is exposed to upon entering junior high school is learning how to write the upper/lowercase alphabet. The second lesson is reading and writing English words. However, these words fall under many different phonics rules: house, computer, apple, bike, pen, desk, textbook, tree, etc. Without phonics, public schools are forcing their JHS students to strap on life preservers made of lead and push them into a metaphorical English swimming pool filled with 946 words. The only chance students have to stay afloat is to rely on rote memorization or jukus (after-school cram schools, which ironically use the same boring 'see-read' strategy). Phonics provides many benefits:

  1. It assists in reading and spelling.
  2. It serves in providing a solid mnemonic foundation for students to retrieve previous learned words, as well as remembering how to pronounce the words correctly.
  3. It provides students with the tools they need to quit their crack addiction to superscripting textbooks in katakana.
  4. Most importantly, it gives a frustrated ALT who can’t comprehend thick katakana-English hope that Japanese students may one day boldly stand on their English legs without the use of their katakana crutches.


My journey into the world of phonics started a couple of years after I landed in Japan in 2003. Almost as fast as the journey started, it almost stopped. I quickly found that working in Japan's public education sector and teaching topics outside the textbook does not provide the educational explorer support from the bureaucratic system that often regards ALTs as nothing more than window dressing in the fantasy world, which the Ministry of Education refers to as 'Japan's English education system'. I almost became a victim of 'caring'. If I came to Japan for the green tea and onsens, I would have already wiped my hands of this country and went back home. However, I care too much about a future generation whose government has the proper resources, yet constantly robs them of future opportunities and chances because they the lack the knowledge to properly teach a foreign language or are too proud to rely on 'outsiders' to play a pivotal role in the education of their youth.

When I started my phonics adventures, I had virtually no support from anyone at any of my schools. Fortunately, I was quite stubborn because I believe phonics is a better solution to rote memorization or the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), which is still being used in at least 6 of the 7 English textbooks okayed by MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).


Through more trials and errors than I wish to remember, effective methods of teaching phonics rose out of the ashes. What I have done with phonics is revamp the style in which it is taught in an L1 language (the first language you learn as a child) and use examples Japanese students are familiar with and can relate to.

If a teacher wants to start teaching phonics in their class, I always request the class begin with the No Experience with Phonics Test. While the teacher might think this quiz is too easy for their students, it basically tests the students' ability to hear real English sounds and not that katakana crap. To be honest, this test is rather easy, so if you think you might be have an above-average class, you might want to give them this test instead, Lesson 07: The Big Test


When two of my English teachers approached me about wanting to teach phonics, they told me they wanted to skip the first seven lessons, which only teaches individual letter sounds.  I suggested this "easy" No Experience w/ Phonics quiz. They agreed. The result? The two classes averaged in the high 80's. Because of this, one of the teachers agreed to start their class at the beginning because she was too embarrassed by her students' low score. She was embarrassed because her class was a 3rd grade JHS class that was preparing to graduate.

The phonics lessons in this area have already been tested in the classroom and found to be successful. That being said, everyone has different opinions and discover teaching styles are different so don't be afraid to change the order.

In addition to teaching phonics, I suggest keeping a running spreadsheet of each student to track his or her individual progress, as well as the progress of the class as a whole. This serves as a way to see which lessons seem to be soaking into the students’ heads.

If I could offer four final important pieces of advice to anyone interested in teaching phonics in the Japanese classroom:

  1. Be creative!  While these worksheets might be a great starting point for you beginning your phonics adventures, keep your eyes and mind open for other creative methods and techniques.
  2. Never give up!  If an idea bombs in class, analyze what went wrong, tweak it and try it again.
  3. Learn classroom Japanese! Meaning, learn the Japanese equivalent to words that will prove extremely useful in the phonics classroom, like: noun, verb, pronoun, vowel, consonant, etc.
  4. Team-teaching is essential! The JTE is the key to phonics success. They need to understand the objective of the lesson BEFORE class starts. They are the people who can effectively communicate with the students. They also probably know the students better than you do.


Most importantly, have fun kick-starting students' minds to a new and fresh way of thinking!



This page was last modified on Monday, March 17, 2014 04:02:19 PM