Two Events for Introducing 21st Century Skills to Young Learners

Patricia Daly Oe

Hello, colleagues, 

In this fourth installment with the theme of 21st century skills, Patricia Daly Oe, one of the most active and renowned picture book authors and storytellers based in Japan, shares her experiences in nurturing young children’s linguistic, cognitive, and social skills through picture book based activities. 

In addition, please make sure to take a look at the greeting from the new co-editor of this column, Marian Hara, at the end of this segment. Welcome aboard, Marian!  

Two Events for Introducing 21st Century Skills to Young Learners

In the summer of 2017, I was requested by Trivector Inc., a translation company based in Tokyo, to hold events on two consecutive afternoons for eleven pre-school age children (aged between three and six years). Most of these children had not attended any classes in English before and for many it was their first time to come into contact with English. Participants came from various places and had not met before. 

My aim was for them to have two afternoons of enjoyment based on picture books with songs, games, and simple craft activities, to perceive English as a fun language, and to directly experience the four 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Trivector was under the impression that I would be using Japanese with the children as the children could not understand English at all, while my plan was to use English only and to have the children communicate in English.

By the end of the first session, Trivector saw that it is indeed possible for children to communicate in English within only a few hours of encountering the language. This communication is achieved by the children not simply repeating words without understanding, but actually understanding what they are saying through the use of stimulating content and enjoyable and meaningful activities that build up vocabulary systematically. 

Here is a report from day one of the two-day event. 


  • Date: 23rd August 2017
  • Duration: 120 minutes
  • Materials: Session based on two picture books, Milkshake Shake (Nakamura & Oe, 2015) and Princess Lizzie (Oe, 2005)

I started with Milkshake Shake (Nakamura & Oe, 2015) as the content is easy and suitable for the children to feel comfortable and confident with each other and the new language.

First, I showed some flashcards of various kinds of fruit, and asked the children, “What fruit do you like?” Each child answered with their favorite and some children mentioned fruit that was not on the flashcards, such as lychees.

Next, I read the story Milkshake Shake (Nakamura & Oe, 2015) using the picture book. The story has rhythm and rhyme, and I used a shaker to the beat of the rhythm. The shaker was a simple plastic bottle half-filled with rice. For the second reading, I gave the children their own shakers which they shook to the beat together and some of them started to dance and join in the chorus of “Milkshake Shake!”

Then I showed the four flavors of milkshakes that come up in the book (strawberry, blueberry, chocolate, and melon) which I had made with colored clay pressed into plastic cups with a straw in each. Now it was time for the children to produce their own sentences. The children could not wait to make their own milkshakes. I acted as the shop owner so each child had to come to me and ask for one of the four flavors of milkshake, “Strawberry milkshake, please” or “Chocolate milkshake, please.” I gave them a plastic cup, some colored clay of the flavor they had requested (red, brown, green, or blue clay), and they chose the color of the straw that they wanted. 

After all participants had made their milkshake we had a short quiz. “Who has melon milkshake?” “Who has chocolate milkshake?” And the children with those flavors held their milkshakes up. 

Then we had one more reading of the book, and the children held up their milkshake when the word “milkshake” or the words for the flavor of their own milkshake came up.

I taught the children the actions for “stir,” “mix,” “crush,” “shake,” “up,” and “down,” and we sang the Milkshake Shake Song that was composed based on the story, with all children doing the actions at the appropriate time. 

During all of these activities based on Milkshake Shake, the children communicated their likes and wishes, collaborated with each other in the rhythm reading, used critical thinking to decide when to hold up the flavor milkshake they had chosen, and creativity to make their milkshake.  

I started the second part of the event by introducing the main vocabulary that would come up in the story Princess Lizzie (Oe, 2005). I showed pictures of the creatures that come up in the story, and children repeated their names (lizard, frog, ladybug, snail, ants, butterfly, bee, and grasshopper). 

Then I introduced the main concept in the book of “I want to be,” by using various hats or pictures (ballerina, witch, singer, baker, swimmer). For example, I said “I want to be a …” and put on the witch’s hat and said, “I want to be a witch.” To check comprehension of the meaning of this sentence I asked each child, “What do you want to be?” and got some interesting answers, including Kamen Rider and three bakers.

Next, I showed the soft toys of the lizards in the story, and the children enjoyed touching them and saying the word “lizard.” Then, I read the story of Princess Lizzie (Oe, 2005) using large story boards. 

After I had read the story, we sang the Princess Lizzie Song which was composed based on the story and includes the repetition of “I’m a princess” many times, so by the end of the song all of the children were singing “I’m a princess!”

Then I gave each child a set of the five creatures made from paper taped to separate chopsticks and we had a quiz, “Hold up the ladybug!” and so on.

Next, I turned the other way and asked all of the children to hold up one creature. Then I turned around and showed them the creature that I had chosen. Children with the same creature said the name of the creature and stayed in the game while the ones with a different one sat down.

We played the game until only one or two children remained in the game and played the game a number of times so that all of the children could experience staying until the end. Then I changed the rules so that in the next game the children who held up the same creature as I was holding sat down and those with different creatures stayed in the game.

Now it was time to introduce a large picture of a lizard and teach the names for the parts of the lizard’s body: head, eyes, mouth, body, legs, and tail. The children repeated these words while I pointed to the parts of the lizard in the picture. Each part of the body was assigned a number from one to six (head = 1, eyes = 2, mouth = 3, body = 4, legs = 5, and tail = 6). Children made three groups and were given a large piece of paper. They threw a large dice in turn and drew the part of the lizard that matched the number that came up on the dice on their piece of paper. The children were laughing a lot because some of the pictures started off with only a mouth and then the tail came next. Near the end of the game all of the groups were waiting for only one number to come up to complete their pictures. For example, all members of one group were shouting “Six! Six! Tail!”

Next was craft time. I had prepared a lot of cut-out pictures from some scenes in the book with the creatures, flowers, sun, clouds, and grass, and put some crayons in the middle of the room for children to add anything else that they wanted. I gave each of them a piece of paper and a glue stick to make their collage and walked around talking to them while they were making their pictures, asking them what the creatures were and saying things like, “Lovely!” “Many flowers!” and “Here is a frog.” The children were totally absorbed in this activity and were quiet as they selected where to put each item.

When all of the children had finished their pictures they came up to the front one by one and gave a mini presentation by holding up their picture and pointing to one or two parts and saying what they were. Some of the children were very confident and said many words that they had learned during the session loudly and clearly. Others were a little shyer so I interviewed them about their picture instead. “What’s this?” “A bee.” “What’s this?” “An ant.”

In the second part of the session, vocabulary was steadily developed with a limited number of words from the story repeated many times in the song, game, and craft activity. Children collaborated well in the dice and drawing game and finally produced a simple presentation in English of the picture that they had created.

Activities based on picture books in English are an ideal way to introduce even very young learners to the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. The impact of the visual input of the pictures and the interest of the children in the stories and in the activities based on the stories lead to children learning and using English in a meaningful way in a session of only a few hours duration, even if they had not had any formal lessons in English before that time. Having children express themselves in English by doing creative and fun activities based on picture books encourages them to develop  a view of English as an interesting language which will in turn help them to be open to further learning experiences in the future.  


Oe, P. D. (2005). Princess Lizzie. Tokyo: Net Musashino. 

Nakamura, M., & Oe, P. D. (2015). Milkshake Shake. Tokyo: mpi Matsuka Phonics. 

Patricia Daly Oe comes from the U.K., graduated from Aston University, and has been writing and illustrating children’s stories for her own classes, narration events, and storytelling sessions for many years. She has had a number of picture books published, including Peter the Lonely Pineapple, Blue Mouse, Yellow Mouse, Lily and the Moon, Milkshake Shake and Can We Be Friends? (The latter three titles co-authored with Mari Nakamura). Visit her website and blog for more information:

Hello! My name is Marian Hara and I’m excited to be a co-editor of this column. After a long, full-time career teaching at junior and senior high level I’m now working with pre-school and elementary students again—which I started in the mid ‘70s. I am happy to see an increasing focus on Young Learners in JALT. Since last year I have been organizing Young Learner teacher events for Tokyo JALT and the Younger Learner SIG. I’m a huge fan of TPR, and my interests are in developing literacy and oral fluency with younger learners and global studies with older students.