Kids learn there’s more than one write way (Jan. 27, 2011)

Takayuki Yasui / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Education Renaissance series. This installment, the first of three parts, focuses on schoolteachers’ efforts to help children improve their language skills, which are generally considered to be lacking in recent years.

The fifth-graders of Orionishi Primary School in Kitakyushu last month tried something new during Japanese class–analyzing written content and its goals. During the lesson, they broke up into groups of five and presented their thoughts on two different kinds of passages written by their classmates.

“The research paper was simple and clear, while the opinion piece was persuasive,” one student said.

The aim of the lesson was to help the kids better understand the purpose of different types of written materials by grasping the way writing styles changed depending on type of document and the target audience.

The students’ teacher, Tomoko Iwakura, stood at the head of the class, where she wrote the students’ remarks on the blackboard, helping them to see the difference between the two types of written materials.

Ten-year-old Honoka Arimatsu wrote an opinion piece on garbage. She researched the lifestyles prevalent during the Edo period (1603-1868) and made a list of the Top 10 practices from the time that she recommends adopting into our modern lives in order to reduce waste.

“I’m happy everybody liked my presentation and thought my Top 10 list was easy to understand,” she said. “I usually ask my classmates for advice when I’m finishing up my paper.”

The city board of education is heading a project researching a more advanced curriculum such as this. Under the project, the school was tasked with developing a curriculum to better the Japanese language skills of its students. Since the 2008 school year, the school has been working on getting the children to correctly alter their writing styles depending on what they are writing. Each grade has courses that explore a wide variety of writing forms and functions.

“Each type of document has a different target audience, so the purpose of the writing and how it is evaluated also varies,” explained Iwakura, who also heads the program at the school.

“Our goal here is to get the children to understand how they need to write something, thereby helping them to develop better writing skills through careful consideration of their position, message and the words to get them across before ever putting pen to paper,” Iwakura said.

In addition to teaching the children different writing styles, the school also places importance on having students evaluate each other’s work.

“The kids who are good writers teach me how to write better and they also point out good things about my writing I had never noticed before,” said 11-year-old Toshimasa Kawai.

“Even students with low grades in Japanese have taken to having their classmates listen to their opinions,” Iwakura said. “I was thrilled when those students started opening up at the beginning of the second term.”

Said Principal Hiroko Kawamoto: “The open exchange of opinions has helped the kids to better express themselves. It has helped them to better give logical explanations, such as in math class.”

Each of the students is encouraged to use writing to express his or her thoughts, and to find good or unusual aspects of their classmates’ work. According to the instructors involved, this seems to be leading to improved communication skills and a better understanding among the students.