Real life, real English, the Tohoku 2011 earthquake

Jane A. Lightburn, Aichi Gakuin University


Quick guide

  • Key words: Writing, content-based English, value-based activity
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: University 
  • Preparation time: 30 minutes to set up the blog, 10 minutes to assign the essay and letter
  • Activity time: 3 class periods, 90 minutes each
  • Materials: Computer classroom with Internet access, regular classroom

This activity is a university-level intermediate writing course project that allows students to express their feelings and ideas about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake disaster in three different ways. There are three parts. The first is a 150-160 word essay on the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster. It is a general narrative-style essay. The second assignment is a blog post. Students read one news story about the disaster and then write a news summary or editorial-style essay. It is both a computer skills class and an English-language media writing assignment. The third assignment is a real-life task in which students write letters of encouragement to an actual group of students in the Tohoku region and the teacher sends these letters to a non-profit group for sharing with a class of students in the affected region.



Step 1: For the first assignment, prepare a sample essay for students on the topic of the Tohoku disaster of 2011. Prepare a handout of ideas on how to write a general essay about it.

Step 2: For the second assignment, set up a blog (I used Google’s <>) on which students will write their blog posts. Organize an Internet access classroom for the day of writing so they can write as a group. Prepare a sample news summary and editorial with an attached hard copy of a news story on the disaster for students to read before blogging.

Step 3: Before the third task, contact an NPO group connected with the disaster relief to initiate an exchange of information so that student letters of encouragement can be sent to a particular group of students through that association. In this case, I used the group Teachers for Japan (, an English teacher volunteer group based in Sendai. Once in contact, you can organize where the letters of encouragement should be sent.



Step 1: In the first class, ask students to write a short narrative-style essay about the Tohoku earthquake of 2011, based on their primary experience or reactions to the disaster. Set a word limit, perhaps 150-160 words for an intermediate-level class. Allow about 90 minutes to write. Essays are turned in at the end of class. For lower levels, provide sample topic sentences. Circulate and assist students with any grammar problems they encounter as they write. Return the essays with corrections by the next class. Have students draft a final version for use in the third class.

Step 2: Before the second class, ask students to check the news about the Tohoku earthquake. It could be any news source, from an online newspaper to YouTube. Students write a blog post either in the form of a news summary or an editorial in the second class.  This is a news writing assignment, not a personal narrative essay. The post should be about 150 words. Have students print out their blog posts. Write your comments and corrections. Return them in the next class.

Step 3: Students write personal encouragement letters (see Appendix for an example) in the next class on good quality paper. This is a creative letter writing assignment. Send the letters on to the NPO, which will then deliver them to the students in the target area.

Step 4: Share feedback from the NPO with students to underscore that they have used their English for real-life application. If possible, have a class group share of the finished first essays as a reading circle activity, which creates a sense of closure to the project.



This activity is one way in which university teachers can help students process what happened in the Tohoku earthquake disaster. As this disaster was in Japan, the students here are in a unique position to reflect and write about it.  This activity is a creative approach to the topic using three writing tasks: general essay, blog post and letter writing.  Finally, the effort of using English for a positive and meaningful purpose—in this case of writing to Tohoku junior high or high school students who are also learning English—can be a motivating experience for Global English student writers.



Part 3 of the assignment: letters of hope to students in theTohoku area. Students write a letter of encouragement.  Some of the language in these letters includes the following points:

  • A short self-introduction
  • Phrases/words of encouragement that include key values such as hope, courage, patience, strength, appreciation, love, happiness, fearlessness, contentment, peace, etc.
  • An English letter salutation (Dear…) and valedictory  (Yours truly or Sincerely).


May 2011

Dear Tohoku students:

HI!! My name is _____________. I’m a Global English student at Aichi Gakuin in Nagoya.  I live in Gifu which is pretty close to Nagoya. I study English. We heard about the big trouble you had and the earthquake.  I think you are very courageous! You are trying your best to keep going to school after such a big disaster!  We are sending you all our thoughts of love and patience too!

Good luck with your studies! You are great!


Yours truly,