Using a Japanese Storytelling Box to Teach English

Alicia Rowe, Gifu Women's University



  • Key Words: Speaking, Listening
  • Learner English Level: Low Intermediate to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: Any Age
  • Preparation Time: About 2 hours
  • Activity Time: 3 class meetings


A whole new world opens up for the teacher of English when the students begin to go to the public library and check out-not books but-kamishibai cards! Kamishibai cards are pictures used for a type of Japanese storytelling which is staged in a box. Forty years ago, a man on a bicycle would ride into a village and choose a place in the main square under a tree to set up his small kamishibai stage, on the rear wheel rack of his bicycle. He'd draw a crowd by tapping two sticks together; then he would sell candy. Finally he'd tell stories, some of them to be continued the following day. The sale of sweets was the way he made his living.

Before he told a story, the kamishibai teller would put the picture cards into the stage-like box and change them, showing one card after the other, during the telling. For the audience, it was almost like watching TV. In fact, the coming of television around 1953 might have caused the demise of kamishibai. However, some librarians in Japan will still tell a kamishibai story, if asked. Today, almost every library in Japan of any size has large picture cards which have the story on the back in Japanese and sometimes also in English. These kamishibai cards can be checked out just like a book.

I have an English Storytelling class for freshmen university women in which we study a range of subjects from traditional Japanese folk tales to rakugo, the comic storytelling seen on TV. My new kamishibai box has added a new dimension to the class. I bought it from a Japanese school supply company (see end of article for details). It is a brown box with two doors that open to reveal a picture card.

There is a place to slide the cards behind the unused ones as you tell the story. One illustrated story has about fifteen 11 inch by 14 inch cards. Each card has the Japanese (some also have English) text printed on the back. The ones from the United States have both languages, along with English instructions, such as "Uncover only half of the next card" or "Quickly change to the next card."


On the first day, a storytelling class of 30 is divided into six groups of five students each. Early in the semester, the students learn to tell a story. They judge the stories of other students for clear, fluent English, volume, eye contact, and drama. They rehearse their stories by visualizing and mumbling them to themselves before presentation as recommended by Mario Rinvolucri in Once Upon a Time: Using stories in the English classroom.


Jigsaw Storytelling

There are many ways to use kamishibai. One is to involve the students in Jigsaw Storytelling. (For a full description of the Jigsaw method, see the article by Kluge in the October 1994 The Language Teacher. )

Before class, the teacher chooses a familiar Japanese story already on kamishibai cards. Using a copy machine (color works best), the teacher makes six copies of the pictures -- one for each group in the class, and divides the cards into five roughly equal sections of about three pages each. Then the teacher labels them Part 1 through Part 5. It is important to note that the copies have no text. Only the side with the picture is copied.

In class, the teacher elicits that jigsaw means a puzzle, then tells the students that the story has been broken into five parts like pieces of a puzzle. Their group will cooperate to put together the whole story with each student telling one part.

The teacher tells a short form of the story in simplified English, using the kamishibai box. The students will be telling the same story the teacher tells, so they must listen carefully.

After the storytelling, the teacher passes the pictures for the whole story to each group. Each student chooses one part of the story. The teacher passes out square post-its, demonstrating how they can be stuck to the back of the picture, so the student can see her own notes.

The six students (one from each of the six groups) who are going to present Part One are asked to stand. They go to a corner of the room to practice together. The same procedure is followed with the Part Two's, Three's, Four's, and Five's until there are five jigsaw teams of six members each, all with the same part of the story. These jigsaw teams meet and decide how to tell their part. The teacher makes sure that the students know that they should not try to memorize every word of her story, but simply take short notes on the post-its that they can use while telling it to their groups next week.

Since there are no words with the pictures on the copies, the students must write their part of the story in English themselves from memory, which often includes not only the story they have just heard but also childhood memory, because a traditional Japanese story is as well known as Cinderella is to English-speakers.

The teacher may want to collect the copies at the end of the class since they tend to get lost and are expensive to print. The students must practice from their notes on the post-its during the week.

In the next class, the original six groups of five students sit together. The teacher passes the whole packet of story pictures to each group. Each student takes her part.

The students are given a few minutes to visualize and mumble their parts. They close their eyes, and picture the scenes while mumbling the story to themselves until the classroom is buzzing.

The students must listen carefully to each storyteller to be sure they understand the story because they will be tested on the material the following week. Now the students are ready to hear the whole story in their groups.

The teacher asks the One's to stand and begin to tell part one of the story. The six students with Part One all stand and begin telling the story to their group, showing the copy pictures as they speak. When Part One is finished, the members of Part Two stand and tell their part of the story to their own group. The same is done with Parts 3, 4, and 5. The pace of each group may be different. If so, each group will finish in its own time. Early finishers can review. Then every group is asked to critique its performance and evaluate how much they learned of the story.

Since each student tells her part of the story to her group, as the other students listen, every student has a chance to speak and to listen to English. Some storytellers seem to become more confident as the other students give them their full attention.

When all the groups are finished, the teacher chooses five of the most lively tellers to present the story to the whole class using the kamishibai box.

The following week, a non-threatening test can be given, pairing up partners. This means that two students receive one test. They seem to enjoy having a partner and tend to do better without the stress. After the test, the pairs exchange papers and get instant feedback as the answers are checked in class. The scores should be high since the story is always a familiar one, and the partner test is easy.