Making College Writing Fun for ESL and EFL Learner Using Kamishibai

Pauline Baird
paulinefbaird ]-at-[
University of Guam (Guam, USA)


First year college students in writing classes can identify at least one writing experience that makes them apprehensive about writing (Gungle & Taylor, 1989; McLeod, 1987).  Some students say that the stress of beginning to write essays and completing the writing process prevents them from enjoying and maximizing their ability to write.  Research suggests that students may have difficulty writing because of their unfamiliarity with the requirements of academic writing. However, when composition is regarded as a dialect, native speakers and ESL students alike should expect to find writing a challenge.  In addition, the more students feel inadequate to the task, the greater the chances are that they would not perform well (Leki, 1992).

The larger question is, “How can students feel confident enough to write well and still have fun?”  Students should explore and express language in their authentic voice before making hasty commitments to their writing projects (Fletcher, 1993, pp. 77-78).  In essence, when students flesh out their thoughts in their ways of knowing, and in a non–threatening, yet academic way, they are more willing to take risks.  The Kamishibai (Japanese for “paper drama”) is a creative way for students to engage in writing. This pre-writing technique not only fosters creativity and risk-taking, but also, reduces tension and allows students to draft, sketch and converse repeatedly before they commit to a formal draft.

Rationale for Kamishibai as Pre-writing Tool

Kamishibai or “paper drama”, when adapted and used as a pre-writing tool helps students to think out loud and gain confidence in writing. Its features allow students to create and organize ideas, and to present them in an academic and enjoyable manner. Students get to invent, and present arguments without intimidation; they collaborate, mico-teach, change strategies, and fine tune their thoughts before committing their writing to the scrutiny of the teacher.

When adapted for pre-writing, students begin to craft outlines of their discourse.  Students fine-tune ideas, design visuals, and present their proposals orally to a real audience of their peers and solicit feedback before they write out a formal rough draft. Both students and teachers benefit from using the Kamishibai as a strategy for organizing and presenting a paper because it requires low technology, few materials, and is readily adaptable for all kinds of writing. In addition, it provides a safe setting necessary for students to allay their fears of speaking to a real audience.

This activity is versatile and can be prepared with ease by students to test run their ideas multiple times before investing in typing or making a first draft. I have used this method multiple times as a peer teaching activity at various universities. The Kamishibai is versatile and can be used in small groups for delivering part of a lesson or for giving instruction for the entire lesson. However, as a writing tool for students, the Kamishibai is most rewarding; no matter the class size, students remain engaged throughout the process.

An Introduction to Kamishibai

Kamishibai, an ancient narrative art form used by Japanese monks between the 9th and 10th century, to teach their followers, later served as a moneymaker for candy salesmen in the 1950’s. Later, lay evangelists and teachers used it to instruct others, and nowadays it is used in schools and libraries to teach Japanese children culture and morals. Traditional Kamishibai consisted of a set of paper picture cards in sets of 16, measuring 15” x 10.5” that depicted a story (McGowan). The cards have a picture side with prominent colorful drawings that always faces the audience. The back side of the card is the text side, with the words the storyteller will use, and a small replica of the picture shown on the front side. Most important is the last card; on the back is the textual message for the first card (Rowe,1997; Canning, 2002).

Kamishibai is like paper PowerPoint; storytellers change “slides” or “story cards” as they make presentations. However, in Kamishibai performances, the story teller puts the “slides” or story cards to the back of the entire set of cards, using the right hand, with exaggerated movements for dramatic effect and suspense. In addition, traditionally, storytellers engaged their audience by asking questions intermittently to create suspense and lure children to buy their wares (McGowan).

The storytellers told their story in a manner resembling puppet shows. They displayed their story cards in a wooden frame on stages in villages or in a box mounted at the back of a bicycle. Nowadays, teachers place the entire stack on the knees, firmly grasping them at the left side with the left hand, using the right hand to move the cards (Battino & Kataoka, 2007).

Notebook Kamishibai in the Writing Classroom

First, I demonstrate by performing a Kamishibai story, Momotaro, the Peach Boy, in English.  As I read the story, from a stack of 16 cards, students see the pictures displayed on the front of the story cards, just like a slide in PowerPoint presentation. The only exception is that the students see me read the text from the back of the last card in the stack. As I read, I make my voice appealing and as dramatic as is necessary for each stage of the story. Sometimes I remove the card slowly to match my pace of speaking or sometimes I move the card to the back of the stack using wide sweeping movements for dramatic effect. At the end of the performance, I ask comprehension questions and solicit answers from students.  Students get to examine the cards to see how they are designed.

Preparation for Writing a Process Essay

Prepare students for the task of writing in one of the rhetorical modes; the process essay writing, for example. Ensure that students have materials such as pencils, spiral back notebooks, scratch paper for writing an outline, and sticky post-its.  Students will use the notebooks as a flipchart to prepare their Kamishibai.

The Process Essay

  1. Students make a tentative outline for a process essay – making a dish – for example, on scratch paper.
  2. First, they turn the notebook horizontally, so that the spiral is at the top. As they continue writing, they must ensure that the spiral is always at the top. Then, they write the title on the first page.  Afterwards, they add page numbers in the top right hand corner of the second and third pages. Next, they write a part of the outline on page two; namely, they write the complete introduction.
  3. Second, they sketch an image, to match the message in the introduction, on a post–it. When they are satisfied with the quality and appropriateness, they make a bigger sketch on the right side of the notebook, landscape format (spiral at the top). This is page two. I encourage students to make their sketches of stick figures and shapes if necessary-this evokes lots of laughter and excitement. No words accompany the pictures.
  4. Afterward, they go back to page one and attach the post-it just like a postage stamp or a thumbnail.
  5. The students continue this process of writing out the paragraphs for the outline, adding the thumbnail, on one page and the picture on other, until the essay is complete. Between each stage they must add transition words to signal each step in the process after the introduction. Students are encouraged to write sentences to flesh out the outlines to ensure fluency in the presentations. I encourage students to complete most of the preparation in class and then to finish at home.
  6. Finally, they prepare a quiz page consisting of two questions, and a matching answer key page. They ask their classmates these questions at the end of their presentation.

Presenting to Peers

Unlike formal presentations, in which students stand in front of the class, the students sit and present for three to five minutes to small groups. To present, students do one of the following:

Presentation A

Students sit in groups of four. One person is a presenter who sits facing the other three persons.  The others are listeners who have small pieces of scratch paper for writing comments.  Each person takes a turn at presenting their Kamishibai. The presenter holds the notebook on their knees, or at a comfortable level with one hand, with the picture side facing the audience, and reads the paragraph from the back of the corresponding side. After each presentation, the presenter gives a quiz; the audience answers. The questions ensure that the audience remains engaged in its role. After the quiz, the listeners write comments telling the reader two things they liked, and one wish they had. While the listeners write, the presenter may edit the notes or make corrections if necessary. They give the notes to the presenter. The students take turns presenting until everyone is finished.  All presentations can be finished in a 90 minutes lesson involving 20 – 24 students.

Presentation B

In a more rigorous presentation routine, the class has four presenters stationed at four different places in the room. The remainder of the students in the class becomes the audience, which comprises an equal number of listeners for each presenter. The listeners sit facing a presenter.  After the four presenters perform for their audience, and give the quiz, the listeners write feedback on pieces of paper, for one to two minutes.

When a presenter is finished, the audience moves clockwise to the next station. The presenter is given a minute or so to edit the script if necessary. The presenter retells the story to a new audience. Retelling allows the presenter to polish his story and get better at delivering it. As students give feedback, they remain engaged and figure out how they can better their own presentations. Each presenter will speak four times.  This activity takes 20 minutes of the class time and is completed over the course of a week.

Discussion and Conclusion

Students do not make presentations after writing a draft as is usual in college. When students adapt the Japanese traditional story-telling method, Kamishibai, they craft outlines of their paper, make oral presentations to a real audience of their peers, and solicit feedback before they write out formal rough drafts. Both students and teachers benefit from using the Kamishibai as a strategy for organizing and presenting a paper because it requires low technology, few materials, and is readily adaptable for all kinds of writing. In addition, it provides a safe setting necessary for students to allay their fears and speak to a real audience. This activity is versatile and can be prepared with ease by students to test run their ideas multiple times before investing in typing or making a first draft. Students optimize the time they spend on a task by sounding out their voice, editing and rehearsing the template based on peer feedback.

I have used this method multiple times as a peer teaching activity and as a small group teaching activity for delivering part of a lesson or for giving instruction for the entire lesson. Students remain engaged throughout the process. Students may get tired and to alleviate that, I allow students who participate in the more vigorous presentation B, to retire after two presentations. However, in my experience, the students do not want to retire because either they want their friends to hear them or they are enjoying themselves so much they want to continue.  After the presentation, students write out the first draft of the essay which is rich with voice and academic style. They seem less anxious and more willing to make revisions.


  • Battino, D. & Kataoka, H. (2007). Kamishibai performance tips. Moon Leaf Arts. Retrieved from
  • Canning, C. (2002). Kamishibai English. The Language Teacher. Retrieved from
  • Fletcher, R. (1993). What a writer needs. New Hampshire: Heinemann.
  • Gungle, B. W,. & Taylor,V. (1989). Writing apprehension and second language writer. In Eds. D.M Johnson & D.H. Roen (Eds). Richness in writing: Empowering ESL students. New York : Longman.
  • Leki, I. (1992). Understanding ESL writers. New Hampshire: Heinemann.
  • McGowan, T. “Kamishibai-a brief history”. Kamishibai for kids. Retrieved from
  • McLeod, S. (1987). Some thoughts about feelings: The affective domain and the writing process. College Composition and Communication. 38, 426-435.
  • Rowe, A. (1997). Using a Japanese storytelling box to teach English. The Language Teacher. Retrieved from http//

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 11, November 2010

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