A university vision on the reading and writing process --Asia

Yoshiya Tanaka

 HokkaidoUniversity of Education Japan

I will introduce the issues of reading and writing education for children in Japan, and the current areas of interest surrounding them.

The system of the character used in Japan is quite different from that in the sphere of Spanish. Therefore, please try to replace what I say to your theme. For instance, when I speak about the study of the Chinese character, it might be easy to understand if you replace it to the theme of vocabulary building by your children.

*Figure 1

Subjects of my report

Ⅰ Basic environment over reading and writing education in Japan

Ⅱ Two schools about the reading and writing education

Ⅲ Current issue

Ⅰ Basic environment over reading and writing education in Japan

1. Japanese three types of writing systems

One of the issues regarding reading and writing education in Japan originates from the fundamental fact that Japanese has many characters.  We Japanese use three types of writing systems, and we have to learn about 1,100 characters by elementary school.

*Figure 2

 Three kinds of character system hiragana, katakana, and Chinese characters


Figure 3 Hiragana table

At the beginning Japanese children learn hiragana in the elementary school at the age of six. The hiragana is phonogram that the Japanese made from the Chinese character in the ninth century. There are 46 basic characters, and with applied forms totally 71 characters. Each of them corresponds to one voice in principle.  


Figure 4 Katakana table

Next to Hiragana Japanese children studies the katakana. It is another kind of phonogram. It is chiefly used for words of foreign origin and to write onomatopoeic.

Chinese character

It is the Chinese character that Japanese children must work hard most to learn, and the teacher also spends much labor and time in guidance. They are characters imported from China about 1,500 - 2,000 years ago. The Chinese characters designated by Act for everyday use are 1,945. But we see much more in books. Japanese course of study provides 1,006 characters to be studied in the elementary school and divides them each school year.

*Figure 5-10   distribution of Chinese character of each elementary school year

*Figure 11 everyday use Chinese character

Chinese character is very convenient for reading and writing, once we master it. However, when we are children, we have to study hard to memorize the character. Therefore, it is not easy for young children to acquire the skills of reading and writing, although Japanese literacy rate now reaches 99%.

It is often said that Japanese are trained to be diligent because they have to master such complex character system. However, if it says oppositely, when Japanese come not to be diligent, Japanese literacy might decline immediately.

2. The actual conditions of the reading and writing education for preschool and elementary in


  Interest to the character

According to the investigation of the government in fiscal year 2003, the 59% of Japanese five-year-olds and the 34% of three-year- olds go to the kindergarten. The 36% of five-year-olds and the 34% of three-year-olds go to day-care centers. In Japan day-care centers are often as for educational role as kindergartens.

Institutionally Japanese children start to study reading and writing characters after they enter elementary schools. Most kindergartens have a policy that experience activities are more important than systematic guidance of the characters for young children.

 But parents worry that if their children couldn't read and write hiragana at the start of elementary school class, they would have a hard time.  Therefore some reading and writing education is done in many kindergartens and day-care centers. Actually about 90% children come to be able to read and write some hiragana including their names before school age.

The most effective and popular way to make children learn hiragana and katakana is to read aloud picture books for them repeatedly. Many teachers of kindergartens or day-care centers and parents are eager to do so. We can find a lot of picture books including translated version in Japan. The monthly periodicals of the picture books correspond to each age are published.

 Japanese is comparatively easy to learn at the first step to connect voices to characters, because each character of the hiragana and katakana fundamentally keeps one to one correspondence to each voice except a few cases, while "a" of English corresponds to various sounds. Children can have the sound that is spoken and heard correspond to the hiragana almost as it is though the number of hiragana characters is more than that of the alphabet. They notice the words that parents and the teacher read aloud being written in the picture book as characters, and begin to be interested in them seen in various points of the life scene and remember them.

When we investigate the number of hiragana which children can read, the graph doesn't draw a straight line or a normal distribution curve but a U or a J one.

*Figure 12


It means that once a child comes to be interested in the character he/she comes to be able to read most of them in a short period. If children learn characters one by one with efforts, the graph would draw upper right straight line. The interest to the character is the most important.

  Expansion of the gap between social classes

In recent years the gap of the educational environment among social classes has been a problem.

On the one hand there increasing the families they don't have enough mental and economical room to enjoy rearing children because of the social situation in Japan. In such family children tends to spend too much time by watching TV and playing computer game from early age, so they can't have sufficient chance to get close to the character. It is difficult for a teacher at the elementary school to correspond to such children appropriately because the capacity of one school class in Japan is as many 40 students. So there sometimes are a few children who cannot write the hiragana accurately even in the third and fourth grade of elementary school.

On the other hand, there are increasing families which are eager to educate young children. Many of them hope their children to enter private or national elite schools. Of course most of such children can get good grades in reading and writing examination.

But I think such families' educations aren't necessarily excellent. As I will say later, we need enjoyable, communicable and sympathetic relationship to cultivate genuine reading and writing literacy, but some families and teachers who are ardent to educate children tend to be too individualistic and competitive.

The expansion of the gap between social classes is apt to be an obstacle to develop literacy for both classes.

Ⅱ Two schools about the reading and writing education

As I already said, hiragana is convenient for children to enter the world of reading and writing. However, Japanese sentences are described in general using the Chinese character and hiragana together, so children have to be skilled reading and writing Chinese character at the next stage.  

It is one of the difficult points to master Japanese, so variety of guidance methods have been tried to achieve this goal.

I think ordinary ways to learn reading and writing in elementary schools are not so different between Mexico and Japan. Children read aloud and interpret textbooks, practice writing words and take some achievement tests. But Japanese teachers haven't used only such general ways but have organized non-governmental education movement and have been devising guidance methods with educational researchers.

There are two schools of thought prevalent among teachers and researchers. On one side is a discipline-centered approach, which emphasizes repeated practices of reading and writing by flash cards, drilling, and the transcription of textbooks and the other side is the child-centered approach.

1. Discipline-centered approach

*Figure 12  Discipline-centered approach

Flash cards

Drill in spelling and penmanship

Accurate transcription of textbooks

Flash cards

Flash cards are used often in classroom and even at home as the teaching material for the early education of Chinese character.


Almost all teachers impose some drills of Chinese characters, because we need repeated practice to memorize words and characters to some extent. Teachers ordinary give a workbook for the Chinese character practice to child in the lower grade.

However, teachers who consciously take discipline-centered approach as educational principle spend much more time and energy to drill. They set a target of amount of drilling at home as well as at school and make children compete.  

Transcript of textbook

So many average teachers don't impose children to transcribe textbooks, but discipline-centered teachers often use this way. They think it is a good method to make children acquire the Chinese character, vocabularies and the standard style. 

The children are made to set the target of the amount of transcript. For instance, one of the leaders of discipline-centered approach says that each child should transcribe textbooks at least 400 characters, more than 20minutes everyday and continue it for six months without any interval. It is a minimum requirement. They think the more the better and make children compete.

Cultural and Social background of discipline center approach

In addition, they check and correct posture and the way to grip pencils of children strictly. They think making the serious attitude to learning is the purpose as well as the precondition of reading and writing education. They believe that the fortitude to continue drilling and the pleasure to achieve their goal are the most important for fostering the habit of learning.

The discipline-centered approach keeps influence to Japanese educational scene because it has cultural and social background in Japan.

First, its cultural background is the Japanese traditional idea that we should shape the character of ourselves by forming spiritual and physical basic positions. This idea is also common to Japanese classic skills such as tea ceremony, flower arrangements, samurais' military arts and workman's techniques etc.

Secondly, the social background of the discipline-centered approach is the gap of cultural capital. This approach often has strong influence in the area where family's income and educational level is not high, and difficult for children to acquire the habit of and the interest in learning.

In such condition teachers need methods which work instantly. They can show parents and children remarkable effectiveness and expectation children to go to higher education in the future by using the discipline-centered approach.

2. Child-centered approach

 The other side is the child-centered approach, which especially attaches great importance to writing instruction based on the children's lives, and to selecting books which are interesting to young children.

*Figure13   Child-centered approach

Reading for each child's interest

Understanding Chinese character from the etymology

Writing free composition, diary and poem

Reading for each child's interest

In the discipline-centered approach children are imposed to read aloud and transcribe textbooks over and over again to master the officially fixed basic characters, grammar and style. In contrast, Child centered approach attach importance to encourage reading for each child's interest. The class library plays an important role to let children enjoy reading. They introduce their favorite books each other. There are some teachers who use the activity of 'Animacion a la Lectura', too.

Understanding Chinese character from the etymology

Many children are interested in Chinese character when they know the etymology of each one. This is an important chance to understand the principle of the structure of Chinese character, and the predecessors' wisdoms.

The discipline-centered teachers occasionally refer to the etymology, too. But the main purpose of it is not to enjoy the culture but to raise efficiency of remembering the Chinese character.

Writing free composition, diary and poem

The teachers guide children to write free composition, diary and poem. Children freely choose the theme from his daily life. Therefore, each child's receptivity and awareness of the various issues are reflected in his/her writing. The children read their compositions each other and deepen mutual understanding. These works are sometimes presented even to parents by class news. In such experience of writing and reading children notice the pleasure to express their own opinion and to find others' feeling and thinking. The main crucial point for this guidance is to create sympathetic atmosphere among children and parents. You can find a communal relationship is there in such class.

This guidance method has the origin in the education method begun in 1930 named seikatsu tsuzurikata (seikatsu=life, tsuzurikata=composition). Japanese teachers found that the method was effective not only to make children from poor farmers' families practice in writing but also to help them recognize their own life and environment reflectively.

On the way, the militarists who caused World War II suppressed the method as it would lead to democratic thought, but the idea and the teachers' circle has been succeeded until today and greatly influenced to Japanese education. There are some common points between seikatsu tsuzurikata and the methods of Paulo Freire and Celestin Freinet.

I will show you a movie of a Japanese elementary school class and some materials, because the children-centered approach is difficult to understand if it explained only in words.

The scene of the movie is a lesson in which children learning Chinese character through answering etymology quiz questions. The class is the 3rd grader of public elementary and the ages of children are from 8 to 9 years old. The teacher, Mr. Toshiki Abe is one of the excellent and prominent teachers in Hokkaido, northern part of Japan. There are some special needs children in this class including a child of LD, a serious underperformance and a suspected Asperger's who couldn't stay at classroom before Mr. Abe came to be his class teacher.


In this class, children come to understand the principle that composes the Chinese character through an interesting quiz. As a result, they are learning characters which are considerably higher level than official designated for the 3rd grader. They have exceeded the average level at many other subjects as well as Japanese language, though there are some children who hold the difficulty as I previously mentioned.

Mr. Abe's guidance to the free writing, diary and poem is effective to such development. Let's see it through the improvement of one child's diary. She was the lowest rank in the achievement test at the 2nd grader, so she couldn't have understood the class. She did not try to read the textbook because she could read few Chinese characters. Moreover, the relation to other children did not go well because she couldn't have confidence. She kept being said by her mother who was the only family, "You are foolish", "You are a poor student". Mother had misunderstood that such words would have roused her dearest daughter into learning.

This is a diary she wrote at early time Mr. Abe came to be her class teacher. (Fiscal year starts in April and end in March in Japan).

*Photo 1

"I wiped the floor today.  Dust was fully attached to the dustcloth of the passage.  But teacher saw the dustcloth and praised.  I was glad. "

Sentences were short and grammatically faltering. She didn't use Chinese character so much and even the shape of hiragana was vague. We can suppose that she had a hard time from the many traces of erasing. Her diaries at this time almost look like the same level.

When a child submits composition of such level, the teachers based on the discipline-based approach will check the errors and direct him or her to drill Chinese characters and to transcribe the textbooks repeatedly because they think a child will be able to write a good composition when he or she acquires the basis of grammar and characters.

Mr. Abe didn't so, and encouraged her with attaching following comment.

*Photo 2

"I am happy because you treat anything carefully.  Writing diary is the same as cleaning at the point that you should continue everyday.  The volume is not matter."

Mr. Abe has continued encouraging her with giving her affirmative evaluations, so she has kept writing the diary. She wrote the following diary after four months, and Mr. Abe presented it to children and parents of the class by the class news.

*Photo 3

"It was the day for school visitation today.  We researched the drugstore in class.  I was not able to make a good quiz question, for I was shame because mother had come.  I went to the after-school lesson in a hurry because the typhoon approached and a lot of rain had fallen.  The school will be a rest tomorrow.  I was happy to buy a Chinese character dictionary and a Japanese language dictionary. I enjoyed examining various Chinese characters at night. "

You can find that the level goes up greatly in sentences and characters. She came to enjoy writing the diary, and studying the Chinese character.

The feature of Mr. Abe class is to draw out the motivation of children through constructing the frank and sympathized communications. Moreover, the teacher himself is enjoying the content of study, and children are told the interest point of each lesson and learning. Of course there sometimes occur the fights and the conflicts between children, but Mr. Abe thinks them to be important chances to make flank relationship deeper. These respects are contrasted with the discipline-centered approach.

Difference between the discipline-centered approach and the children-centered approach

The difference of each approach is there more in how to think about the educational process than in individual techniques and the purpose of education. Even the teachers of the discipline-centered approach say that they also ultimately aim developing children' ability reading and writing from his or her own interest. But they think that the children must be able to get such ability only after they memorizes element knowledge as Chinese and copies an orthodox style of the textbooks. In a word, it is a stage theory.

On the contrary, the teachers of child-centered approach think that they should foster the reading and writing skills with interest and the awareness of issues. They have an idea that children can form their personality and their own style in reading and writing as actual communication with friends, teachers and parents. They think children can acquire even elemental knowledge like grammar and Chinese characters authentically only in the whole activity of reading and writing.

Ⅲ Current Issues.

The reading and writing education in Japan has been faced to a new problem today.

The first was the tendency to decline of children's scholastic attainments which has been clarified by the PISA and some domestic investigations. According to the PISA, Japanese reading literacy was 8th place at the investigation in 2000 but it dropped to 14th place in 2003. This result woke up national consciousness of crisis with the retreat of mathematical literacy from the 1st place to 6th place.

The second problem is that many people have come to expect the discipline-centered approach again to be the effective remedy for the decline of scholastic attainments. I think that the effect of the discipline-centered approach is partial and unreasonable applause to it will produce side effect. I should take the children-centered approach to solve the today's decline of literacy. 

Then, I'll think from the point why the discipline-centered approach is supported by the Japanese. The reason is that it has the following features.

*Figure 14

Why the discipline-centered approach is supported in Japan

We can see the effect explicitly by the score of the objective test etc.

But . What we can see as the explicit effect is just only some partial areas of the ability which necessary for reading and writing.

② It is easy even for parents and teachers who don't have so high educational ability to impose standardized repeated practice on children.

   But .There is a danger that they may overlook the more important role as parents and teachers.

The discipline-centered approach fits to the conventional image of the study by the adult generation in Japan.

   But . Adults should reflect on literacy of their own

The thought of learning to get higher social position has not been already attractive for the young generation.

①First, the repeated practice of element knowledge is certainly effective to the improvement of scholastic attainments measured by objective tests. However, who memorizes Chinese character and grammar doesn't always have ability to understand the meaning of sentences meets in the actual social life nor to express his/her intention by writing adequately.

    The concept of reading literacy in PISA connotes the ability to participate in the society, and the positive and interactive activity of readers. It isn't resolved into memorizing element knowledge or tracing the standardized style.

The reading literacy will be grown up in the frank relationship between children in which they are expressible themselves. It suits well the children-centered approach

②Next, many collections of drills have come to take wide space in the bookstores and long time in schools more than before since the decline of children' academic attainments had broadcasted.

The trend for parents to make children learn advanced contents early has been gathered force again. Indeed, if it trains, even three-years old child's comes to be able to read a difficult Chinese characters and words. Young children at this period are good at the remembrance of the character as the pattern in the figure.

However, the effect is limited. When we compare the children who received the early education of the Chinese character and the other, in many cases, the difference of both will be lost in the third or the fourth grades of elementary school. When a child comes to think that the learning of the Chinese character is only to memorize the shape, he/she is often deprived of etymological or cultural interest. Such advance study has the possibility to be a disadvantage to children for the study in the future.

Moreover, by spending a lot of consideration, time, and labor to impose repeated training to children, parents and teachers are apt to lose time and chances to enjoy reading and communicating with children. We are easy to confirm the result of the repeated practice numerically in a short term, parents and teacher's tend to become crazy about the unlimited pursuit of the speed and the amount of training as previously described, too. Then, children also will mistake it for study skills.

About the transcription, I think we should choose the passage for material from the novel, poetry, and the thesis each person felt the charm, because reading and writing is a kind of cultural and political activity.

In Japanese school textbooks, unique charm cannot be abundant in particular, because the government authorizes them. From the discipline-centered point of view, such textbooks are the most effective materials for transcription, as they are described only by the Chinese characters within the learnt range for the school year. But I think it is an easy standardization. We should consider the wrong effect to force the style with no individuality on children.

To do something is not to do others because time and the labor are limited. We should not choose the educational methods only from the points of instant convenience or short-term satisfaction.

③Japanese adults have become familiar with the hard studying for entrance examination since they were children, and actually have kept the highest rank of achievement score in some international tests and they have been proud of it. Therefore many of them have an image that study is discipline. It is difficult for them to understand the significance of other types of learning.

However, the literacy of Japanese adult is not as excellent as that they were children. They have forgotten what they studied at school, because many of them had learned it only to pass the examinations. They have accepted the knowledge and the literacy without connecting with the context of society and their own life, so they can hardly use their knowledge and skill in actual reading and writing when they grown up excluding the persons who attach to intellectual pursuits. Japanese adults should reflect on their learning experiences and recognize the limit of the discipline centered approach.

In addition to it, the myth that who put up with boring study will be able to get the high statues in social hierarchy in future have come to be doubtful. Therefore, they can't have the strong motivation to endure the discipline and the reading and writing especially when they reach adolescence.

*Figure 15

 The number of books children read in one month

    4-5th grader   → 8.0books

     junior high   →  2.8

          high    → 1.4

For instance, a Japanese newspaper examined the number of books that children read in one month of 2003. The 4-6th-grader student read 8.0 books. About the 80 percent of elementary schools in Japan carry out the reading activity like "Read for ten minutes in the morning", so the amount of books children read is not so little. But when it comes to junior high students, they read only 2.8 books and high school student 1.4. The person who did not read even one book a month goes up to 31.9% in the junior high, and high school student 58.7%.

It is important to have children feel pleasure in reading and writing from infant. The uniform education forcing children to read or only setting up the hour for reading isn't enough.  


As I said at the beginning of this lecture, Japanese reading and writing education will be different from your alphabetical education very much. But I think there are some points in common.

If we hope to have children feel pleasure and interest in reading and writing, we should recognize the importance to rest education on the communication, the participation and the actual context. From this point of view, I think we should take the child-centered approach in Japanese educational scene. And it is necessary to bring up the teachers who can practice this approach and to construct a training system for them. I think this approach is much more difficult than the discipline-centered approach to put into practice.

Your circumstances would be different, but I hope you could get some hints from our Japanese case.