Students Explaining How to Do Something

James W. Porcaro, Sundai Kanko Gaigo Semmon Gakko



  • Key Words: Japanese culture, TPR, Games, Group work
  • Learner English Level:Up to high intermediate
  • Learner Maturity Level:All
  • Preparation Time:Depending on knowledge of the games; after the first time, almost nothing
  • Activity Time:90-minute class

Giving instructions is a functional language item that is presented for practice in most general English course texts for speaking. Typically, situations and exercises involving cooking, or the use of various machines and devices are included for such practice. Of course, the imaginative teacher can come up with any number of other purposeful and interesting examples used with a variety of methodologies for students to extend their practice of this language--and to enjoy doing it. Such examples could range from instructing step-by-step how to change a diaper to how to use a cash card to how to do shodo, and so on.

Children's Games

I will describe an activity in which students tell someone how to play Japanese children's games. This elicits a rather delightful response from students, as they know the games well. When the idea is presented, with an appealing teacher-made handout, there are spontaneous light gasps of natsukashii (nostalgia) and noticeable curiosity. As students soon realize, however, though the playing of many of the games is quite simple, it is not so easy to explain how to do so clearly and succinctly. Indeed, the lesson is at least a fair challenge for students, even at a high-intermediate level.

The handout that I prepare and give to students lists about 40 such games--in romaji as well as in kanji and kana. I add several pictures of children playing some of the games, which I have gathered from various sources. Here is a short list of just a dozen of these games: kakurembo; hankachi otoshi; acchimuite hoi; menko; isutori; karuta; otedama; kendama; kagome, kagome; onigokko; hanaichimonme; and oshikura manju.


Depending on class size, students work in small groups, usually of three. I tell them to select from the list three games that they will have to explain how to play. Each group has a different set. To be fair in the choosing, I take one selection at a time from each group, going around from group to group in three rounds. This is accomplished quite quickly as I tell the groups they must be ready with their selection when I come to them or they will lose their chance to choose in that round.

I give the groups a time limit within which to prepare what to say, perhaps 20 minutes or so, depending on the general language proficiency of the class. I move from group to group during this time listening to their preparation, answering questions, asking questions, and giving suggestions. One common vocabulary point I always need to mention is for those games in which one person is the oni, or "it." Obviously, teachers should be familiar with all the games they decide to put on the list.

When time is up, each group in turn comes to the front of the classroom and explains to the members of another group, also in front of the class, how to play the game. I include myself in each group learning the game. I wouldn't think of missing out on the fun! I instruct students to explain as much as possible in words only; that is, they should not simply gesture or move and instruct, "Do this." Many of the games can be explained in perhaps three to five minutes, if done accurately and efficiently. Thus, we go from group to group for the second and third rounds as time allows.


Of course, this activity is an exercise not only for the explainers, who must use a lot of practical vocabulary for movements and objects, and employ careful sequencing and appropriate linking words. It is for the doers as well, who must listen carefully and do just as they are told--not as they, in fact, know. Even though they know how to play the game, following instructions carefully can sscrepancy between the action an explainer intends to direct and what he/she actually says to do. These confusions can be quite humorous. As closure for this activity, I tell students that even I played many of the games (two generations ago!) and that they seem to be universal, played by children throughout the world. Students seem to appreciate learning this cross-cultural fact. And for the teacher, it's great to be a kid again!