Scaffolding difficult topics for meaningful discussion

Robin Russ, Kansai University


Quick guide

  • Key words: prisons, criminality, Internet search, critical thinking
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: A few minutes
  • Activity time: Three 90-minute lessons
  • Materials: News article, lesson handouts, video


Challenging topics can be made engaging and accessible by scaffolding activities so learners have the information and vocabulary they need to exchange information, express their opinions, and reflect in a critical way. This lesson evolved from an article about the attack in Akihabara, Tokyo(The Japan Times,2008), but any article about a major crime can be used.


Step 1: Assign students to research three aspects of prison: famous prisons of the world, conditions of Japanese prisons, and the death penalty in Japan. I searched for appropriate sites for each category and listed these URLs on a printed handout (Appendix A). Students make groups of three and each student chooses one site from each category so that everyone reads something from all three categories. Students take notes summarizing their findings and report to their group in the next class.

Step 2: Group members report and take notes on the information being reported by others. You should write a class summary of the salient points on board.

Step 3: Write on the board: “Sunday, June 8, 2008 Tokyo-Akihabara” and elicit from the class what happened on that day. Write details such as the name, age, the weapon, number of people injured, on the board. Students copy this into the class notes. Emphasize the need to report only facts, not opinions.

Step 4: Students recall the incident (the news reported and their reaction to it), and then write a newspaper headline and three sentences about it (see Appendix B). In groups of four, students brainstorm key words relating to the incident as well as any similar crimes they can recall. Elicit this information and write it on the board.

Step 5: Hand out a copy of the news article for homework. It may be helpful to divide the article into sections, and have groups assign each member one section to read. After reading it, students should prepare a three-sentence summary along with a list of vocabulary words to teach to the group in the next class.

Step 6: In the next class,in the same groups, students teach the vocabulary, and then explain the key information from their section of the article. Record the information in the class notes.

Step 7: Distribute a worksheet asking students to summarize the information from the article and to report the current situation of the perpetrator if they know it (see Appendix C). Summarize this on the board. Students then judge by percentage how strongly they feel the accused is guilty or a victim himself. (This evaluation is not discussed in class.)

Step 8: In their original groups, students brainstorm different types of crime, minor and major. Make a list on the board. Then brainstorm reasons why people commit crimes. Write the list on the board.

Step 9: Students write a definition for the word “punishment” and list different kinds of criminal punishments they know from their reading (solitary confinement, etc.). Write a definition for “rehabilitation”. The final homework assignment is to web search prison rehabilitation programs and report on it the following lesson. (I suggested two websites and gave examples of programs, but students were expected to search for this information themselves).

Step 10: Students report the results of their web search. Then a documentary about a prison reform program including interviews with inmates and prison officials is shown with a work sheet (see Appendix D). If time permits, debrief in class or do a written assignment as homework.


These lessons were developed as a prelude for watching the documentary Doing Time, Doing Vipassana by Karuna Films [subtitled]. Recently a peer jury system has been reintroduced in Japan and students made reference to this throughout. As a result, while considering aspects of crime and punishment the critical thinking evolved to include a more personal issue beyond what was originally intended.


Uechi, J. (2008, July 1). Society’s role in Kato’s crime: Tracing killer’s lonely path from exclusion to Akihabara rampage. The Japan Times. Retrieved from <>

Appendices: Available from the link below