Nintendo DS English learning software a big hit with students

by Yuri Kageyama

The Associated Press

The Nintendo DS is providing much more than just fun and games for English-language students at Tokyo’s Joshi Gakuen all-girl junior high school. The portable video game console is now being used as a key teaching tool, breaking with traditional Japanese academic methods.

A giggly class of 32 students used plastic pens to spell words like “hamburger” and “cola” on the touch panel screen — the key feature of the hit console — following an instruction from the machine.

When the students got the spelling right, the word “good” popped up on the screen, and the student continued to the next exercise. “It’s fun,” said Chigusa Matsumoto, 12, who zipped through the drills to get her sticker. “You can have fun while you study.”

The drills, which the school began using earlier this year, are the first linked to a widely used public-school textbook series, said Yasuhiro Yamamoto, manager at software maker Paon Corp., which made the DS English program. “This is quite revolutionary for a Japanese schoolroom,” he said.

Japanese education has long failed to develop English conversation skills and instead focused on rote memorization with little practical use.

The DS boasts a series of brainteasers and puzzle games, designed to improve math and other academic skills, as part of a larger effort at Kyoto-based Nintendo Co. to appeal to newcomers, older people and women.

The DS, which is being used in a handful of schools on a trial basis, was part of a course that included a video of an American ordering at a fast-food joint, as well as repeated audio of the dialogue that the students listened to on headphones.

“Two hamburgers and two colas please,” they repeated together.

“Very good. Good job,” exclaimed teacher Motoko Okubo, who seemed to have little to do but cheer the students on, as they switched from one gadget to another.

Okubo acknowledged she has never before seen the kind of enthusiasm the DS classes have inspired in her students.

Principal Tsuneo Saneyoshi said views about the initiative were mixed among teachers who are more accustomed to keeping games and other distractions out of classrooms.

The school is getting 40 DS machines and free software for agreeing to be part of a test in a real classroom situation.

“Some teachers aren’t quite convinced this is good,” Saneyoshi said, adding that the jury is still out on the educational value of the DS.

However, the school’s vice principal, Junko Tatsumi, has been won over. “There was no opposition from the parents,” she said. “It wasn’t that difficult a decision for us. We thought it was a great idea.”