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Effective Ways to Teach Kanji in an AP Japanese Language and Culture Course

by Yasu-Hiko Tohsaku
University of California: San Diego
La Jolla, California


One of the problems with articulation between high school and college Japanese language programs in the United States lies in kanji learning at the high school level. Students who have finished fourth-year high school Japanese very often can read only 50 or so kanji, although their speaking abilities are equivalent to those of students who have finished first-year or even second-year college-level courses. Many college Japanese language programs in the United States teach about 50 kanji, in addition to hiragana and katakana, in the first quarter or semester and 400 to 500 kanji in the first two years of instruction. Students taking the AP Japanese Language and Culture course—which has learning goals equivalent to college-level, 300-hour instruction—are expected to learn about the same number of kanji. The reading section of the AP Japanese Exam requires students to comprehend authentic or semiauthentic texts at the intermediate, low to mid level of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. Students should be able to recognize 400 to 500 kanji to read materials at this level. Thus kanji learning plays a key role in the AP Japanese Language and Culture course. In this article I offer some practical suggestions for how to teach kanji in the AP Japanese course.

Metaknowledge of Kanji

At the outset of your AP Japanese course (or, preferably, your Japanese program), you should emphasize to your students the importance of kanji learning in Japanese language studies and the fact that without kanji knowledge and skill it is impossible to understand Japanese. For instance, you can bring authentic Japanese texts (ads, articles, books, etc.) and show students how many kanji are used in them. You should emphasize that kanji are worth learning because mastering even a small number of kanji means acquiring a large number of vocabulary items due to the makeup of Japanese words. You can mention that kanji knowledge helps learners guess the meaning of texts more easily. You should motivate students by emphasizing that kanji learning is actually fun. To this end, I strongly suggest that you impart the metaknowledge of how kanji are used in the Japanese language to your students: how the written language was created, how it was imported into the Japanese language, and so on. The following is a sample syllabus for imparting this metaknowledge.

  1. The position of kanji in a larger context
    • The writing systems of the world (including phonograms and logograms)
    • Kanji and kana mixed in writing
    • History of kanji in the Japanese language: how they became part of the language (Manyoo gana, hiragana, and katakana; kanji and kana mixed in writing; kanji made in Japan [Kokuji])
  2. Characteristics of kanji form (important information for codification and searching)
    • Strokes (show various fonts and handwritten styles)
    • Stroke order
    • Simplified forms of kanji (may be an important aspect for students from kanji cultures)
    • Similar forms of kanji
  3. The formal structure of kanji (hen, tsukuri, and so on)
  4. Kanji classification according to etymology: six categories of kanji
  5. The semantic marker and the phonological marker of keisei moji
  6. Differentiating on readings and kun readings
    • Why are there on readings and kun readings?
    • Why are there more than one on reading at times?
    • When are on readings used? When are kun readings used?
  7. Okurigana (used for adjectives and verbs)
    • Why do they have okurigana?
    • Need for practice with a variety of conjugation forms
  8. Structure of kanji compounds
  9. How to use kanji-Japanese dictionaries
    • Various kanji search methods
    • Use of authentic material—practice searching for unfamiliar kanji vocabulary
    • Emphasis that this in itself is not a goal of kanji study

You can introduce these points little by little in the beginning of your course. It may seem too time-consuming to cover them, but the benefits for students who acquire this metaknowledge are immense. Such knowledge will make it possible for learners to learn kanji autonomously and increase their kanji skill effectively.

Kanji Teaching and Learning Strategies

Japanese language learners need to acquire two types of kanji knowledge and skill to read and write Japanese effectively:

  • Ability to use and understand individual kanji (bottom-up, individual, surface knowledge)
  • Ability to process and understand kanji in context (top-down, integrated, deep knowledge)

Traditionally, Japanese teachers have taught kanji one at a time, introducing its form, stroke order, meaning, and reading, and showing how it is used in compounds. Then students write the kanji many times to memorize it, read it aloud many times, make flash cards, put up and look at kanji cards in their rooms, incorporate kanji into stories for memorization, and so forth. Of course, this type of kanji study is necessary, especially at the beginning of kanji learning, but this type of knowledge is not sufficient for learners to develop the knowledge and skill to read and comprehend authentic texts effectively. The ultimate goal of kanji study is to be able to conduct intelligent and integrated linguistic activities such as reading comprehension.

It is of the utmost importance for you to impart to your students the knowledge and ability to process and understand kanji and kanji compounds in context. For this purpose, use authentic and semiauthentic texts that are appropriate for the learners’ level and help your students develop the ability to make guesses about unknown kanji or kanji compounds by using the context and their existing knowledge. Also, it is important to encourage learners to use a print or online kanji dictionary early on, so that they can become familiar with a variety of search methods and techniques.

The most important part of kanji acquisition is to make a clear connection between the three components of form, sound, and meaning. To help learners establish this form-sound-meaning connection effectively, you can introduce kanji in conjunction with speaking activities. In speaking activities, you introduce new vocabulary and help the students establish the relationship between sound and meaning. Then you can teach related kanji or kanji compounds and add the third component, the form, to the sound and meaning. This method also makes it possible to teach kanji that are used as words in their contexts. In addition, it forces learners to minimize their decoding of single kanji. You also need to help students develop skimming and scanning skills through reading comprehension practice as well as develop rapid reading and sight reading.

One thing to keep in mind is that the amount of information learners can process at one time is limited. Teach only the particular reading of a kanji as it appears in context, rather than introducing all possible on and kun readings at once. Add new readings when that kanji appears in other contexts. Also, requiring learners to comprehend and produce kanji from the beginning is a big burden for them. In the beginning, emphasize the recognition and comprehension of kanji and kanji compounds rather than the transcription and reproduction of kanji (this is especially important in assessment). Overemphasis on transcription and reproduction will cause learners to pay excessive attention to the form and not enough attention to the sound and meaning. Even skilled learners have a tendency to depend on the form rather than use phonological and semantic strategies.

Each learner uses different learning strategies, and the most effective strategy differs from one person to another, depending on cognitive style. The time we can spend teaching kanji in the classroom is limited, so we should make every effort to encourage students to be autonomous learners and help them develop effective learning, processing, retaining, and recall strategies. Teach a variety of memory and learning strategies and have learners use the ones that are most effective for them.

Try to develop a kanji-teaching syllabus that connects kanji study to the students’ real life; for example, daily communication, needs within the context of Japanese language study, or needs that arise within a research project or profession. Include as many purposeful, task-oriented activities as possible. Create opportunities where students encounter kanji and kanji vocabulary that are used in real-life contexts. Have students learn the same semantic or topic group of kanji together; this will help them develop good strategies for retrieving kanji.

Your assessment strategies for kanji must reflect your kanji teaching. If your teaching emphasizes the development of the ability to comprehend kanji in context, your kanji tests must include questions that check that ability. Note that the AP Japanese Exam includes no questions that check kanji knowledge and skill discretely but rather evaluates holistic abilities, i.e., whether students can comprehend and use kanji in context.

Notes on Computer-Based Testing

The AP Japanese Exam is administered online. Students are not required to write by hand; they write Japanese using the word-processing function of a computer. Students should learn early how to write Japanese using the keyboard, how to select the appropriate kanji while writing, and so forth.

This does not mean that students should not practice writing by hand. There are many students who cannot learn kanji unless they use their kinesthetic and motor skills. Although word processing is widespread, handwriting is an important way for many learners to memorize new kanji. Also, if the learner is not taught correct writing of kanji, he or she may end up practicing writing based on the wrong model. For these reasons, it is important to practice kanji both on a computer and with pencil and paper.

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