Japanese Online: The co-learner experience

Avatars communicate the intricacies of Japanese language and culture in an online program developed for primary students at Sydney Catholic schools. And the teachers, who were once the source of all knowledge in a classroom, have a different role to play as students learn.


How do you give students the opportunity to learn a language and claim an advantage in today’s globalized world where you have:

  1. no expert language teacher on staff; and
  2. limited time to devote to a language in a crowded primary school curriculum?

It is a scenario familiar to almost all NSW primary schools, where learning a language is not yet compulsory. Asia Education Foundation research* found only 11 per cent of Australian students study a language in Year 12, and that a lack of exposure to languages at primary school is partly to blame.

Sydney Catholic Schools (SCS) has answered with Japanese Online – an eight-week pilot course for students in years 5 and 6 that teaches Japanese through a series of animated videos and web-based tasks and quizzes.

More than 320 students at four schools in Sydney’s inner west completed the program in Term 4 last year, and more will join them as the program expands.

St Joan of Arc Catholic Primary Haberfield, St Pius Catholic Primary Enmore, St Paul of the Cross Catholic Primary Dulwich Hill and St Charles Catholic Primary Ryde all took part in the successful trial.

Learning a language … helps to expand the brain and make it brighter for more learning.

– Katy Gilles

Students learnt to count, hold a conversation in Japanese and write their name in Japanese script. They tested their skills through interactive quizzes, memory games and recorded conversations with their peers.

Teachers found links in the content to other areas of the curriculum. Students researched time zones and Japan’s position on the world map for Geography. They also read Japanese syllables on a chart made to mirror the way you would read co-ordinates on a map. For Visual Arts, students at St Paul of the Cross created their own version of Japanese artist Hokusai’s famed 1820’s woodblock print The Great Wave.

The student has the opportunity to see the teacher as a learner, with the same struggles and successes.

– Greg Swanson

SCS’ Innovation and Development Senior Project Officer Greg Swanson said each school worked through the course in a different way. Some made the work a whole-of-class task. Others gave students the time to complete each 20-minute section of the course individually or as a group activity.

For many this is the beauty of the ‘teacher as co-learner’ model of teaching practice.

Unlike the traditional view of the teacher as ‘expert’ and student as ‘novice’, it assumes no prior knowledge of a subject from the teacher, who directs the learning experience using the same classroom management and teaching skills they would use for any other subject.

Mr Swanson said it worked well for a niche area like language, and allowed student and teacher to come to the learning experience on equal terms.

“The student has the opportunity to see the teacher as a learner, with the same struggles and successes of all learners,” he said.

“It also allows the teacher and student to practise Japanese language skills throughout the day. If the model used was that of a specialist teacher their engagement would normally be confined to a specific lesson time.

“Animated videos using the avatars as peer coaches allow us to immerse the students into a Japanese experience.”

St Charles Year 6 students Rowan Bird said the Japanese lessons could be done in and out of class, and the co-learning model encouraged him to do more on his own.

“It helped me to know that I can’t just ask my teacher for the answer all the time,” he said.

“It was very interesting because they had different stages and in each stage you had lots of quizzes. At the end of each stage, there was a quiz to find out what you had learnt.

“We were also learning about the history of Japan, and how to bow. There was a different way to bow for different people. If you were just saying hello to a friend it was a small bow. If you were saying hello to a very important person it was a lower bow.”

Classmate Claire Needs also found value in the co-learning model.

“It’s nice to learn something new with your teacher, because then you can both interpret something for the first time,” she said. “Different opinions can help you to learn.”

Declan McBurney said the activities started simply and became more difficult gradually.

“It was easy to access and it was easy to understand what we were learning about,” he said.

“It was really fun because it’s taking technology to a new level, using it to help kids learn a new language.”


There are three avatars in the course.

Main avatar Yuki is a native Japanese speaker and helps students with their pronunciation. Her friend Angie will talk to students about different cultural aspects of Japan, points of interest and local festivals. JP is the language expert, a ninja who reminds students of the structure and different rules of the Japanese language.

“The avatars were deliberately created to help the students feel comfortable in the online space,” Mr Swanson said.

St Joan of Arc Catholic Primary Haberfield stage 3 (year 5 and 6) teacher Lisa Speranza taught the students Japanese online content, and said the classroom dynamics reflected students’ deep engagement with the program.

“It was a wonderful resource to have,” Ms Speranza said.

“Some students loved challenging their friends with games that had a timer attached to it. They also really loved translating and writing their names in the Katakana script and having a conversation with each other in pairs with the words they had learnt.

“As a teacher I learnt Japanese at university for a year and it was great to refresh some of the words and scripts that I had previously learnt. It was easy to access and log on to and everything was there in the program.”

Parent point: What can you do to support Japanese language development at home?

  • Download the Hiragana cards and play ‘snap’ or another memory game with them before or after dinner with your child.
  • Turn off screens and talk. Giving your child the chance to repeat what they have learnt sends the information to a deeper part of their memory.

Although the Japanese Online program doesn’t expect teachers to be fluent in the language to teach it, developers have drawn on staff and student feedback to refine the course and expert knowledge to shape it.

Katy Gilles is the family Educator at St Charles’ Catholic Primary School Ryde and a Japanese subject matter expert.

She joined Japanese Online’s development team early this year to develop course content and resources, and to assess student’s aural comprehension and speech in Japanese.

The avatars in the videos help you to understand more.

– Claire Needs

Mrs Gilles created flash cards that match a Catholic story to each of the 48 characters in the Japanese alphabet, the hiragana, to help students remember them.

Mrs Gilles first heard about the pilot through other parents at St Charles and her own children, who were also exposed to the course.

As a rule, learning a second language follows the pattern of listening, speaking, reading and then writing. Social interaction is an important component.

“I was intrigued as to how they were going to manage this on the platform of the computer,” Mrs Gilles said. “Then I saw they had come up with these beautiful avatars.

“The way they thought to show students how to write the hiragana online was very clever. You click on one of the letters of the hiragana chart and the stroke order is highlighted.

“The parents were amazed their children could write hiragana and they’d only been learning it for one term, for 20 minutes, three times a week.”

It was easy to access and easy to understand.

– Declan McBurney

Mrs Gilles said she had always taught Japanese through a textbook but loved how the digital technology could be used to teach the language.

“It’s like heaven for me, the creativity that is involved in it,” she said. “Anything you can imagine, they can do.

“The word unique is able to be used for Japan because everything is so different to in other cultures. “My favourite part is being able to put across the cultural hooks that will turn on the children’s interest.

Among the benefits of Japanese as a language are empathy, and the ability to converse with Australia’s major trade partners and tourist groups. It also introduces a broader cultural understanding and a way of writing that is completely different to using the roman alphabet.

“As a child grows, their understanding [of the world around them] gets bigger, so learning another language broadens your mind to not think about ‘me’ so much,” Mrs Gilles said. “It brings empathy.

“Learning a language fires parts of the brain that are rarely used and this helps expand the brain and make it brighter for more learning.

“Japanese is very easy to pronounce and its grammar is simple so it can be learnt quickly. Fast results make for happy learners.”

Totemo Sugoi!

Year 6 students at St Charles Catholic Primary Ryde share their thoughts on Japanese Online:

  • “It was very interesting because they had different stages and in each stage you had lots of quizzes. There was a different way to talk on the telephone. We also learnt what the symbols looked like for different words.” – Rowan Bird
  • “The avatars in the videos help you to understand more and make it [Japanese] less complex. The most interesting thing was probably learning that there was more than one script and alphabet.” – Claire Needs
  • “I knew a tiny bit about Japanese – words like obento – because my brother learnt it, but I didn’t know how to speak it fluently. It was easy to access and easy to understand what we were learning about. It was fun.” – Declan McBurney


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