Laughing all the way to English proficiency


“When Genki English visits our school, the kids simply love it,” says Kimie Chu, an English teacher at Shin Tokorozawa preschool in Saitama Prefecture.

She is referring to a two-man team of educators that is bringing about a grassroots revolution in English-language teaching. Since Richard Graham, 27, and Will Jasprizza, 32, started Genki English in May 2000, the two former JETs have presented their innovative teaching method at more than 150 schools throughout Japan.

At the Tokorozawa preschool, the Genki English lesson is action-packed. After only 45 minutes of high-paced, nonstop fun using games, original songs and role-play techniques, the children are already beginning to use English effectively.

Chu points out that not only are they speaking English but they also view it as fun, rather than work.

The core of the Genki English system is based on sound educational objectives. Most of the techniques Graham and Jasprizza use were developed during their three years’ teaching at elementary schools in Ehime Prefecture, in Shikoku.

Graham, who has a degree in physics from Leeds University in northern England, found that by making up his own songs he was able to teach three weeks of vocabulary in just a single lesson.

“Most English songs such as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’ use English words that you’d never use in real life,” he explains. “So I took the target English vocabulary from each of my school lessons and made them into songs.”

The response was encouraging: He was regularly asked to facilitate teacher-training programs in his prefecture for Japanese teachers of English and new Assistant Language Teachers.

In the summer of 1999, he set up a Web site to provide teaching materials to a wider audience. As word of Graham’s site spread, he began receiving requests for CDs of his songs, and it was then he realized the potential of the Genki English concept.

Meanwhile, Jasprizza, a former Sydney lawyer, was also using games and role-playing activities in his own elementary school lessons. He found that Graham’s songs fitted his teaching style perfectly. In January 2000, the two met up and began talking about making Genki English a full-time career.

“It was our last year on the JET program,” Graham explains. “It was a time when everyone was talking about dot-com businesses. We both had very good experiences in Japan and realized the need for a more effective English-education program in this country, especially at the primary-school level. Genki English, we believed, was the answer.”

After completing the JET program in August 2000, the two decided to make a cross-country tour of Japan to spread the word about Genki English. For three months, from September until December, Graham and Jasprizza traveled in a VW camper van from Ehime to Hokkaido and then back down to southern Kyushu, visiting elementary schools and volunteering to organize Genki English shows and seminars.

Following a newspaper article on the Genki English caravan in the Daily Yomiuri that November, Jasprizza and Graham were contacted by Oxford University Press and invited to join two prominent Japanese English-language educators, Ritsuko Nakata and Setsuko Toyama, on a four-city tour of Japan. In September 2001, Jasprizza and Graham traveled with Nakata and Toyama to Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, where they conducted teacher-training seminars for more than 1,700 people.

Demand for their CDs and teaching materials grew rapidly, and invitations poured in, asking them, for example, to write articles for ALC Press and the Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun and to hold seminars at Maruzen book stores.

These days, when not on the road doing shows and seminars, the Genki English crew are at home in Ehime, developing new software and videos, and working on their Web site. With upward of 1,100 hits a day, after just two years, the site has become a vital educational resource for teachers and students not only in Japan, but also in more than 50 countries around the world.

Understanding the potential of the Internet to revolutionize education has been one of the keys to Graham and Jasprizza’s success. Their Web site now includes downloadable MP3 songs, games, talking pages, lesson plans, flashcards, curricula and discussion boards. Plans are underway to create a Genki English TV station that will make English-language video games, songs and educational videos available online.

Summing up the core philosophy of the Genki English concept, Graham says that in order for Japanese people to break out of the insular mindset that categorizes people as nihonjin and gaikokujin, learning English-language skills and communicating with the rest of the world is essential.

“That’s why Genki English is so important,” Jasprizza adds. “It is the most effective way of teaching kids at the primary-school level.”