How can you keep your students smiling during a hiragana lesson?
The nurturing teacher inside of you wants to spare them the pain and frustration that so many of us have felt when studying hiragana…
Like me, for example.
I was raised in Italy by a very typical Italian mamma and a somewhat old-fashioned Japanese father, who was born in the last years of the Taisho era. The poor man just wanted my 8-year-old bratty self to be literate in Japanese. But all I gave him was adamant resistance.
Hiragana looked sort of cute to me… and I wasn’t terrible at drawing… but as soon as I encountered あand お and couldn’t really tell the difference, I figured my days of wrestling with hiragana were over before they started.
Then one day, my dad brought me a Japanese copy of the then state-of-the-art SNES Final Fantasy IV game.
All those colorful characters clad in armor or battle leotards were so alluring and awesome to my not-so-dormant nerd side. You can understand my disappointment when, after seeing the wonderful images and hearing the supreme 16-Bit music, I found out it was basically a hiragana reading game.
I protested for a good 30 minutes until my dad threatened that next time he’d bring me Minna no Golf—a.k.a. the dullest game in the history of games from the Pleistocene to the present.
“No!” I shouted, “Anything but Minna no Golf!” and resolved to learn hiragana so I could play Final Fantasy.
Since I don’t want you to experience the terrible aches my dad had to go through in order to teach me hiragana, I’ll give you a few tips of mine, and I hope that you’ll be forever grateful (and that your Japanese language students will, too).
How to Teach Hiragana: The Ultimate Lesson Guide with Resource Recommendations
How to Motivate Students to Learn Hiragana
Surprisingly, some students reach some degree of fluency without being able to read and write. But they often eventually realize that they’re missing something.
So, help your students understand that learning hiragana now will save them major headaches down the line, especially if they eventually want to live, study and/or work in Japan.
Remind them that without hiragana knowledge, they’ll have trouble in everyday life—they won’t be able to read labels and signs, they won’t be able to write memos when they answer phone calls…
Hiragana solves a number of issues your beloved pupils may face, and will be a safe anchor for them to cling to in otherwise confusing situations. Just imagine: they can now get on and off the right trains safe and sound!
I know some naysayers just prefer to shove all the Japanese writing under the carpet, but we aren’t lazy teachers, and we shall fulfill our mission by teaching hiragana. Being the one who teaches how to write is a great responsibility and honor. Your students will surely remember what you put into this heroic effort.
How to Set the Stage for a Successful Hiragana Lesson
Writing in hiragana requires fine motor skills. You can teach it almost like you would an arts and crafts lesson in elementary school.
Tell your students it’s okay to feel like kids again, and don’t forget to point out that many native Japanese speakers still have terrible handwriting as well.
I usually start with recurring patterns, like strokes, circles, spirals and stars (yes, like the pentacles in witchcraft movies!). It’s advisable to do some warm-ups with these motions at the top of the lesson, so your students can internalize them.
Also, it has to be noted that left-handed students may have a hard time writing in Japanese, and this is one of the reasons many of us have been forced to write with our right hands as children. You needn’t be extreme and horrible, but if your students can write with their right it’ll make things easier in the future.
What Order Should You Follow When Teaching Hiragana?
You unsheathe your hiragana chart by simply flipping through the first pages of the textbook, but in your heart you already know it won’t keep your students interested for long.
The canonic order will be fine for an introduction, but students should be introduced to recurring words right from the start. Some examples:
は which I introduce as “about”
が which often describes determination
へ which expresses address as in the English “to”
から for origin as in “from.”
There are many other useful hiragana I would include… but for the moment just brush on the concept of saving time for your students by teaching real-life Japanese.
How to Choose the Right Hiragana Chart for Your Classroom
Much depends on the age of your students. If they’re kids, they’ll love the colorful charts with mnemonics (cute pictures that look like the letters).
It’ll be like reading picture books to them.
Adults and teens, on the other hand, will just be fine with the simple ones you find at the back of notebooks. Treating them as children would undermine their self esteem as learners. You can opt for teaching them a more mature style of hiragana.
Round hiragana is seen as naive or sweet, while angular and spiky can summon a sense of drive and efficiency.
Don’t Forget the Value of a Hiragana Notebook!
The hiragana notebook is to the language learner what the grimoire is to the Hogwarts student.
I have the habit of buying notebooks as presents for my best students (i.e. pretty much all of them). I hand them the notebook somewhat solemnly, saying: “dear (name), this is a present for you… please, practice hiragana on it.”
That’s just another tool for creating a strong bond with your pupil.
As for the format of the notebook, I recommend this type with big squares.
Authentic Japanese Resources to Teach Hiragana Creatively
Adding some meaningful context to your hiragana lesson is one of the best ways to help your students learn and retain what they’ve learned. Try the authentic Japanese resources below where students can encounter hiragana in interesting, relevant ways.
Hiragana Poems and Passages
Look for poems that are easy but meaningful to decorate your classroom walls.
I greatly like the poems by Misuzu Kaneko. They’re simple yet deep. Of course, they weren’t written expressly in hiragana, but you can transliterate and hang a beautiful poster in your class. One of my favorites is “Are you an echo?” The link above has a lovely song to accompany the poem.
It starts with an obstinate, childish tone:
“If I say stupid, you say stupid…”
It’s actually a very deep poem that means that we’re all mirrors of other people. Others will treat us depending on how we treat them.
“And then, later, becoming lonely, If I say sorry, you say sorry. Is this an echo? No, it’s everyone.”
As you can see, the poem doesn’t display particular acrobatics in style. That’s what makes it such a great vehicle to present hiragana to your classroom. It’s engaging without being confounding.
Here’s another by Kaneko: “The bell, the little bird and me” is a great work about difference and inclusion.
Paraphrased, it goes like:
“Even spreading my arms I can’t fly like a bird, and even if I shake my body I can’t make a beautiful sound like a bell. Still the bird doesn’t know how to run on the grass, and the bell doesn’t know as many songs as I do. We’re all different, all wonderful!”
This poem has become a personal motto to me, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do. More of her writings deal with very topical issues like feminism, war and racism.
Enjoy a third poem though by a different author, Ujou Noguchi. In my top 10 I would have to stay awake at night to chose the one I consider the most sublime of his works.
For example, have a look at this a popular children’s song called “soap bubble.”
Innocent as it sounds, it never fails to move me to tears when I consider how the line “Soap bubble floats up to the roof, up to the roof… wind, wind, don’t blow, let it fly!” actually refers to the life of children whose lives were taken during the war. We’re fragile, and a gust of wind makes us disappear, nowhere to be found.
I hope this brought a little tear to your eyes. I can’t look at soap bubbles without feeling devastated nowadays.
Haiku are nice as well, and there’s a variety of alternative material that’s just as appealing, such as J-Pop, fiction, fairy tales or clips with hiragana subtitles—which brings us to…
Real Japanese Videos with Subtitles on FluentU
As much as your students might love it, you probably can’t spend your next Japanese lesson playing Final Fantasy as a class. But you can create that entertaining, immersive hiragana environment in a productive way with the videos on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Your students can use the flashcards and transcripts provided with every video to home in on specific hiragana or words, then watch the videos to hear their pronunciation.
Every video is accompanied by interactive subtitles in kanji and hiragana, plus professionally translated English captions. Students can even hover over any word for an instant translation, or click on it for more information and to see it used in other videos for added context.
Karuta for Hiragana Playtime
Karuta are lovely cards containing simple riddles that stress one hiragana sound at a time. Students need to associate the right letter and snatch the appropriate card from the table.
The pre-made riddles, though funny for the teacher, can sometimes be too difficult if not overwhelming for the learner. In that case, it’ll be important to adapt and tone down the complexity even when what’s written on the actual card will have to be ignored.
You can also cover the riddles with sticky notes so that you can still use the picture and hiragana symbol on the card without short-circuiting your students’ nervous systems.
Japanese hiragana cards have the advantage of being very eye-catching. Your students will forever associate the images they see with the corresponding letter. At some point, they’ll find out they don’t need the pictures anymore, and you can purchase or make new cards to better suit their needs.
The game mechanics will make it unnecessary to tell the rules every time, and everyone will know what they’re supposed to do. For new people in your class, delegate some students to explain the rules. By teaching, they learn better themselves and have a tangible proof of their progress.
When it comes to using cards, you can pair your students in teams, so that no one feels excluded or lost.
This one is my favorite deck. You can use the proverbs just as they are or simplify them. Also, some of them are similar to English proverbs.
This other deck is also very nice, as the pictures resemble Japanese ink drawing. They’re humorous and traditional looking at the same time.
Have a look by yourself, you won’t be disappointed!
Much of your success in teaching anything—and even more with basics like hiragana—revolves around how you present your topic, and on how much love and dedication you put into preparing your exposition and materials.
A video game spurted my will to learn hiragana (where anything from drill and kill to knife throwing had failed miserably), but I never would’ve managed without the patience of teachers I’ve had—first of all, my father.
Before you even start imposing hiragana on your students, find more about them and their motives, suspending prejudice.
As Misuzu Kaneko says, we’re all different, all beautiful.
Only then should you apply your little strategies, like in a game of chess to trick your students into learning what they think is too vast or different to learn.
After the thought comes the material, which will physically help you in class. If you’re in charge of choosing textbooks and objects, always buy after careful thought, never forgetting your experience as a learner as well. You’re their guide, and their notebook is their journal to success.
Find material that’s engaging to read, simple but entertaining—or even sublime.
Finally, after all the hard-work, have fun with them playing a game to release tension. Praise your learners often, as they must be commended for undertaking the titanic resolution to learn hiragana. Praise yourself as well, because teaching hiragana is far from easy.