Fun with “Student Senryu”

Ian Willey, Kagawa University

Quick Guide

  • Key words: Group work, senryu, writing
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Activity time: About 120 minutes (in two class meetings)
  • Preparation time: About one hour
  • Materials: Computer, projector

Haiku, short poems capturing the transience of the seasons, are popular in the West, but less widely-known is the senryu. Close cousins of the haiku, senryu are also short three-line poems, but without the requisite natural element; they are often humorous, targeting the follies of daily life. The wit and accessibility of senryu have made them enormously popular in Japan, as the success of the “Salaryman Senryu” contest reveals. Here is an example:
school year ends
at last I remember
all their names

Writing senryu in English can enable students to see writing as a meaningful and enjoyable endeavor. The following activity can be done in any English course involving writing.

(Before class and 30 minutes of the first class)
Step 1: To prepare, read some English senryu to familiarize yourself with the genre; good examples can be found in the online senryu journal Prune Juice <>. Compile a list of senryu that you like in a Word file. Try your hand at writing a few!  
Step 2: In class, tell students that their next writing task will be to write senryu in English. Using a projector, show samples of English senryu from Prune Juice or other online sources. If you compiled a list of senryu (or attempted to write your own!) show these poems to students.   
Step 3: Explain that English senryu, unlike their Japanese counterparts and haiku, tend not to follow a strict 17-syllable format. English senryu are typically short poems consisting of no more than three lines. (Avoid any lengthy explication of English syllables as students will likely become lost.)     
Step 4: Give students this assignment: Each student should write three to five senryu in English on the theme of “Life as a university student.”
Step 5: Tell students that their senryu should be typed and numbered on one A4 sheet.
Step 6: Instruct students not to type their real names on this sheet. Rather, they should give themselves a pen name, a common practice in senryu writing. They can use their imagination here. (For example, my pen name is Pilot®.)

Step 1: In the second class (one week later), divide students into groups of six or seven students.     
Step 2: Remind students that only their pen names should appear on their senryu sheets.
Step 3: Collect senryu from each group, shuffle them, and redistribute them to group members. It doesn’t matter if students receive their own papers. However, students should try to conceal their identities from other group members.
Step 4: Instruct students to look at the paper they have received and choose the senryu they like best on that page, and then write their initials in the margin next to that poem. Then they should pass their paper to the person on their right. This should continue until all group members have put their initials on all senryu sheets.
Step 5: Let students go to it! Encourage students not to spend too much time on each page or the flow of papers will get backed up.
Step 6: Have students reveal their identities to other group members.
Step 7: Have all students write their own most popular senryu among group members (one per person) on the whiteboard or chalkboard. They should include their pen names.
Step 8: Discuss the senryu with the class. Ask some students about the meaning behind their poems. Give your own comments and criticisms. Enjoy!

For lower-level groups of students, this activity may be quite challenging. Although students are familiar with senryu in Japanese, they are likely unaccustomed to writing poems in English. Remind students that they need not write full, grammatical sentences, but rather groups of words and phrases. Therein lies the value of this activity: It allows students to express their own feelings and experiences as well as be innovative in their use of English, something they aren’t normally permitted to do.