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Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices

Japanese: Happy New Year!

Japanese II, grades 10 - 12: Students learn about some common products and practices of the Japanese New Year's celebration. Leslie Birkland's class splits into two groups: One sings New Year's songs, writes cards, and plays cultural games, while the other discusses New Year's food and decorations. After switching activities, the class reconvenes to compare the Japanese New Year's celebration with those of other cultures.



Leslie Birkland


Japanese II




Lake Washington High School, Kirkland, Washington

Lesson Date

January 10

Class Size



55 minutes daily

Video Summary

In this lesson, students learn about the products and practices of the Japanese New Year’s celebration. First, half of the class participates in authentic Japanese New Year’s games and activities. The other half of the class breaks into four groups to discuss cultural aspects of the New Year’s celebration, then jigsaws into four new groups to share their knowledge with each other. Then the two halves of the class switch, so that all students have an opportunity to participate in each activity and discussion. The lesson concludes with a discussion in English in which students compare the customs of their own cultural backgrounds with Japanese New Year’s customs.


Standards Addressed

Communication: Interpersonal, Interpretive, Presentational

Cultures: Practices, Products

Comparisons: Cultural


heritage speaker
A heritage speaker is a student who is exposed to a language other than English at home. Heritage speakers can be categorized based on the prominence and development of the heritage language in the student’s daily life. Some students have full oral fluency and literacy in the home language; others may have full oral fluency but their written literacy was not developed because they were schooled in English. Another group of students — typically third- or fourth-generation — can speak to a limited degree but cannot express themselves on a wide range of topics. Students from any of these categories may also have gaps in knowledge about their cultural heritage. Teachers who have heritage speakers of the target language in their class should assess which proficiencies need to be maintained and which need to be developed further. See also native speaker.

Used in one of the three Japanese writing systems, kanji are the characters drawn from the Chinese writing system. Approximately 2,000 kanji, many with multiple meanings, are needed to read materials written for adults in Japanese.

negotiation of meaning
In this process, teachers and students try to convey information to one another and reach mutual comprehension through restating, clarifying, and confirming information. The teacher may help students get started or work through a stumbling block using linguistic and other approaches.

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice
As you reflect on these questions, write down your responses or discuss them as a group.

  • What routines and materials do you use in your classroom to create an atmosphere that reflects the target language culture?
  • What are the benefits and challenges of using the jigsaw and other cooperative-learning techniques for group work in your classes?
  • When organizing student group work, what is your role before, during, and after the activity?
  • How do you build and maintain your own understanding of the target culture? How do you build and maintain your understanding of U.S. culture and other cultures represented by your students, so that you can help students make comparisons?
  • If you teach a language spoken by people from different cultures, such as Spanish, how do you build and maintain your students’ understanding of those cultures?

Watch Other Videos
Watch other videos in the Teaching Foreign Languages K-12 library for more examples of teaching methodologies like those you’ve just seen. Note: All videos in this series are subtitled in English.

Politics of Art (Spanish) features students debating political and cultural issues in multiple group arrangements, and Holidays and Seasons (German) illustrates students making cultural comparisons at the elementary level.

Put It Into Practice
Try these ideas in your classroom. Where it’s not already evident, reflect on how to adapt an idea that targets one performance range for application to other performance ranges.

  • Create opportunities for students to explore the practices and products of your target language culture, then lead them to think about the perspectives the products and practices reflect. It takes time to establish the perspectives (the values and attitudes) of a culture, but they become clearer the more you explore them. For example, Ms. Birkland’s students first looked at the products (food, cards, songs, etc.) and practices (eating a special meal, giving money, etc.) associated with the Japanese New Year’s celebration. At the end of the lesson, Ms. Birkland led a discussion about the perspectives reflected by these customs. Student responses showed that they were beginning to see that structure was a value of Japanese culture. When planning a cultural lesson around the “three Ps,” begin by listing the possible products and practices. Then consider how you might lead students to hypothesize about the perspectives, making sure you avoid generalities or conclusions not supported by the evidence.
  • Try using a jigsaw technique for group activities that involve the exchange of information. Ms. Birkland designed activities to teach students about four aspects of the Japanese New Year’s celebration: food, cards, decorations, and money. First, members of each group became experts in that group’s content area (see Chart 1). Next, the students in each group were assigned a number 1, 2, 3, or 4 (see Chart 2). The students then formed four new groups according to their assigned number and shared their expert knowledge with their new group members (see Chart 3).


World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages
The World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages create a roadmap to guide learners to develop competence to communicate effectively and interact with cultural understanding. This lesson correlates to the following Standards:

Communicate effectively in more than one language in order to function in a variety of situations and for multiple purposes

Interpersonal Communication

Learners interact and negotiate meaning in spoken, signed, or written conversations to share information, reactions, feelings, and opinions.

Interpretive Communication

Learners understand, interpret, and analyze what is heard, read, or viewed on a variety of topics.

Presentational Communication

Learners present information, concepts, and ideas to inform, explain, persuade, and narrate on a variety of topics using appropriate media and adapting to various audiences of listeners, readers, or viewers.

Interact with cultural competence and understanding

Relating Cultural Practices to Perspectives

Learners use the language to investigate, explain, and reflect on the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the cultures studied.

Relating Cultural Products to Perspectives

Learners use the language to investigate, explain, and reflect on the relationship between the products and perspectives of the cultures studied.

Develop insight into the nature of language and culture in order to interact with cultural competence

Cultural Comparisons

Learners use the language to investigate, explain, and reflect on the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own.


Lesson Materials
Jigsaw Readings (PDF, 23 K)
Worksheets that students used to learn about Japanese New Year’s food and cards for the jigsaw activity (Includes English translation)

Photo panel images used in the class are part of the Minna no Kyozai Web site maintained by The Japan Foundation.

Photo Panel Bank Series
Series IV, No. 002 (© by the Japan Foundation)
Series IV, No. 004 (© by the Japan Foundation)
Series IV, No. 005 (© by the Japan Foundation)
Series IV, No. 006 (© by the Japan Foundation)
Series IV, No. 100 (© by the Japan Foundation)

Curriculum References

Web Resources:
The Japan Forum
Promotes language education and intercultural understanding among elementary and secondary school students. Note: Ms. Birkland uses the Deai resource, which shows the lives of seven Japanese high school students.

The Japan Foundation
An organization for international cultural exchange in Japan, including information on Japanese studies and Japanese language education (available in English and Japanese). Note: Ms. Birkland acquired the large photographs (Shashin Paneru Banku) for this lesson from this source.

Print Resources:
Japanese Writing Practice Through Pictures and Topics. Nihongo Kyoiku Kyozai Kenkyukai (Japanese Educational Materials Research). Compiled by Sumiko Tomioka and Saku Takaoka. Tokyo, Japan: Senmon Kyoiku Shuppan, 1992.

Shitsu, Sanno Tanki Daigaku Nihongo Kyoiku. Enjoyable Task Reading in Japanese: Intermediate. Tokyo, Japan: Bonjin-sha, 1992.

Super Kit 2 — Volume 2: A New Selection of Materials — Teaching Aids for Japanese Language Learning. Tokyo, Japan: ALC Press, Inc., 2000.


Series Directory

Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. 2003. 2016.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-731-2