My toddler is hissing like a pantomime villain as she runs along an S-shaped snake made from sticky tape curled across the living room floor.
This may appear to be just another freestyle game in her eclectic entertainment repertoire (and believe me, she has many, from pretend shopping to scribbling on walls whenever I’m not looking).
But this particular activity can apparently be described as “educational” and is an early step in that arduous task facing almost every parent: teaching their children how to read and write.
It is not often that teaching literacy skills to a hyperactive toddler falls into the “play” category. However, a popular literacy method called Jolly Phonics is attempting to subvert conventional teaching techniques by helping children to read and write English in an easy and playful manner.
It is a technique that is likely to hold widespread appeal for parents in Japan — particularly in mixed Japanese-Western households and among international families whose children are studying within the Japanese school system.
One major advocate of the method is April McBride, an enthusiastic British teacher — and mother of two self-described “ninja boys” — who has spent more than a decade honing her teaching skills at international schools in Tokyo.
I recently attended one of April’s three-hour Jolly Phonics weekend workshops in Aoyama-Itchome, organized by the parents’ group Raising Japanese and English Bilinguals in Tokyo.
Around 15 mothers (minus children) attended — from Britain, the U.S., Hong Kong and Japan — all keen to glean tips on teaching their little ones how to read and write without triggering temper tantrums and frustration shutdowns.
Opening the session, April revealed the fundamental basics of the Jolly Phonics literacy method, a system that hinges on teaching children 42 letter sounds in the English language using fun and multi-sensory techniques.
In a nutshell, forget reciting the ABC in parrot-fashion. Jolly Phonics is, I realized, all about teaching letters and sounds based on logical understanding, rather than learning off by heart.
Among the golden rules with this technique is that unlike conventional ABC-teaching methods, the focus does not lie only on the first letter of any given word, but gives equal importance to each sound.
Jolly Phonics takes this into a playful arena with specific actions and even characters — such as Inky the Mouse, Bee and Snake — created in connection with each letter.
And the first group of letters to be tackled are not “A,” “B” and “C” but “s,” “a,” “t,” “p,” “i” and “n” (all lower case) — a clever collection of letters that together can create endless combinations of easy-to-learn first words.
Describing how this technique is more likely to result in a deeper understanding for children than conventional teaching techniques — often accompanied by breakthrough “aha” moments — she says: “When this approach is used from the very start, it creates a very solid foundation.
“This technique has been proven to have a long, lasting effect on children, making them better speakers as well as creating higher reading levels.”
Perhaps most usefully, there are endless tools that April recommends to help parents at home: not only the pricey bumper collections of phonics-based workbooks, story books, activity books, songs and DVDs, but also tips for DIY learning games.
Refreshingly, April clearly belongs to the non-pushy school of teaching, emphasizing that every child learns at a different pace and that there is no rush to start the process until age 3 or even 4, with older children also benefiting from the technique.
But I was happy to pick up a number of tips for games and activities from the session that would be quite easy to start with children from as early as the age of 2 — as in the case of my daughter.
And so it was that I found myself shortly after the session rummaging in the local ¥100 shop (a useful April tip-off — they are nirvana for DIY literacy tools) and loading my basket with flourescent stickers, notepads, colored paper and plastic clips.
My daughter may still not yet have any idea how to read (or the journey that lies ahead for us both) — but what she has learned with plenty of playful laughter is the fact that the snake on the living room floor makes a hissy “sssss” sound.
April McBride holds regular Jolly Phonics workshops and seminars across Tokyo for parents and teachers. She also conducts in-house training and curriculum development in schools. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.