Gold belt in Hiragana

This post comes from Jenni Krasnoff, our first guest blogger, and teacher of Japanese at Ardtornish Primary School in South Australia. Jenni writes about her experiences implementing a program for teaching hiragana, the Japanese syllabary, to young students. The program extended from a school-based program to include a competition for schools across Adelaide.

I have been teaching Japanese to 5 – 13 year olds for over 10 years now and one aspect students seem to benefit most from would be the Hiragana program.

There’s nothing quite like the pride I see on the students’ faces when they walk up in front of the applauding class to receive the next coloured ‘belt’ they have earned.

The mnemonics I use are from the Hiragana in 48 minutes program and they are what I used to learn Hiragana; they really do stick in your head!

Naturally it is a big help to students who go on to study Japanese at high school, if they already have Hiragana ‘under their belt’ (forgive the pun).

So, how does the program work?

I must acknowledge that I ‘borrowed’ the foundation of this program from another teacher of Japanese, Rebecca Jeffs. It was at a Hub Group meeting that I learned about her Hiragana program where students would receive coloured ‘belts’, much like in a karate course.

I recognised instantly the value students would place on receiving something tangible for their learning, something different from a sticker or certificate. I wondered how I would go about providing coloured belts for 90-odd Year 6/7 students and Rebecca did lament that this was a sizeable task – cutting up coloured belts for them all!

However, I went on to develop a program, somewhat different from Rebecca’s. I divided the 46 letters of the basic Hiragana set into coloured belts, based on the karate system. That is, the first 5 Hiragana (a – o) form white belt, the second 5 (ka – ko) form yellow belt, then there is orange belt (sa – so), green belt (ta – to), purple belt (na – no), brown belt (ha – ho), pink belt (ma – mo), blue belt (ya – yo), red belt (ra – ro) and black belt (wa – n).

I also divided the ten ten/ maru and combination Hiragana so that ga – go, za – zo and da – do forms aqua belt, ba – bo and pa – po forms grey belt and the combination Hiragana are divided into silver and finally, gold belt. So, when you know ALL the Hiragana, not just the basic set, you achieve gold belt and can go on to intensive study of Katakana and Kanji.

I then created tests for each belt. The white belt test consists of the 5 vowel Hiragana and students are required to write the equivalent romaji next to each Hiragana. For example, write ‘a’ next to あ, ‘i’ next to い etc. The yellow belt test requires students to write the correct romaji next to the white belt Hiragana as well as the ka – ko Hiragana. Students must answer all 10 Hiragana correctly to receive a yellow belt, thus it has more value than a white belt. To receive black belt, students must answer all 46 Hiragana correctly.

Students prepare for tests by cutting out 5 Hiragana ‘cards’ for the belt they are learning and writing the corresponding romaji on the back. They keep these cards in a small sandwich bag, which they take home to practise.

They practise by looking at the Hiragana, guessing what the corresponding romaji is and turning the card over to see if they are right. They make an ‘I got it’ (yatta!!) pile and a ‘need to practise’ (chigau) pile. They keep practising until they know all the Hiragana.

I specifically teach each class the mnemonics for the 5 Hiragana (from the Hiragana in 48 minutes program) and the skill of practising cards, which they do with partners in class also.

I think teaching metacognitive skills, such as the use of mnemonics and flash cards, provides students with invaluable tools for language study and learning how to learn in general.

In 2005 I also set up a Hiragana Competition for schools in Adelaide’s north-eastern metropolitan area. This competition provides students with an annual opportunity to test their Hiragana reading skills against students from other schools. Each school enters a team of four and students take turns to stand up and as the Hiragana character is revealed, be the first to read it aloud. Students have now moved on to reading words as well as letters. The trophy for the winning school is hotly contested and students enjoy the lucky dip prizes, certificates and sushi lunch at the end of the competition also.

There are always negative aspects to any program and I am always looking for ways to make Hiragana learning more effective and enjoyable for students. I have always been aware of how romaji can confuse students, however I can also see how it is useful to know the equivalent romaji for Hiragana when word processing Japanese on an English-alphabet computer keyboard.

It is difficult for primary school students to get a good grasp of Japanese when they have only one 45 – 60 minute lesson per week. Once students have a working knowledge of Hiragana, they can then create their own texts in Japanese such as letters, presentations and short stories. This is in addition, of course, to being able to speak basic Japanese confidently and having a good understanding of Japanese culture. There is so much to learn and such little time available!

However, when students proudly tie their coloured belts onto their folder, I know that the Hiragana program is an important part of their learning that neither I nor they would want to do without.

Basic hiragana chart – white belt to black belt

The belts! White belt to gold belt

Folders with Belts tied on…a quick way to see how a student or class is progressing


5 thoughts on “Gold belt in Hiragana

    • Hi Chalmersensei, I give each class a written test every fortnight. This test is word processed Hiragana and students have to write the romaji next to each character. If they get all the characters right, they get the corresponding coloured belt 🙂


  1. Great work Heather!!
    I prefer to teach the hiragana that is being used in the sentences I am focussing on. This is from the early years tactic of targetting most frequently used words first and learning them IN CONTEXT rather than isolated. This allows students to make connections between the shapes and meanings faster. I teach individual hiragana with flashcards and various games only as a warm up, then we use them in the words and sentences. I also offer open ended tests where students write as many hiragana individually or in words or sentences as they are able to. I have a scoring system which encourages them to use words and sentences. I have had a great deal of success this way too.


  2. Hi! Fantastic Idea. I am going to implement with my students next year. Just wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing a sample of a written test that you give your students in order to progress to the next belt. Do you focus on just reading or writing as well?


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