Kasuko Shimizu – Teaching Literacy to Refugees in Japan with Words in Color

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


From 1984 to 87, I taught ethnic Japanese who had recently been repatriated after spending the years since World War II in China. My students ranged in age from 10 to 75, and included war orphans whose parents had been killed in China, or died in displaced persons’ camps in Manchuria, and who now came to live in Japan with families of their own. Some were highly educated doctors and teachers while others had received very little education or were illiterate as a result of living in conditions of extreme poverty.

A further complication was that, because Japanese and Chinese can both be written with the same system of “characters” based on meanings rather than sounds, some of the students who were literate in Chinese could actually read Japanese without any familiarity with its pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar. Some others could speak Japanese to a limited extent but were unfamiliar with the characters in relation to either language.

Japanese sound/color chart

Caleb Gattegno – Japanese sound/color chart © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

Using the Sound Color Charts for Japanese, in which there are no written signs — only blocks of color — enables me to provide a common and equal starting point for all my students.

Although some could read but not speak Japanese and others speak but not read, they could all start producing and reading the sounds of Japanese being triggered by the colored rectangles. Because I had this powerful tool which Dr. Gattegno had created, I didn’t have many problems when illiterate students were studying along with those with higher education in the same class.

Among my memories of those busy days, I remember well a certain elderly Chinese woman, married to a Japanese war orphan. In comparison to some of the other adult students, she was much quicker to “read” colors and could soon point to each sound of a word precisely on the Sound Color Chart. She then proceeded to the “Fidel” charts, on which the written signs for Japanese were arranged according to the sounds and printed in the same colors, and wrote the sentences which she had uttered in the class.

Japanese Fidel charts

Caleb Gattegno – Japanese Fidel charts 1988 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

It was obvious that she was enjoying writing those Japanese scripts — the very first that she had ever written in her entire life. And even though this first experience of writing was not in her native language, she wrote clearer and better shaped scripts than some other students with much more extensive educational backgrounds! This made me aware that the ability to make distinct and well-balanced written characters requires a sense of balance and shape that is not necessarily related to one’s previous schooling or level of education.

If I had been able to work only with the written characters for words (such as those on Dr. Gattegno’s Japanese Word Charts) from the beginning, those who had previously received higher education might have found it easier and those without might have been intimidated and discouraged. They might even have refused to participate. The Sound Color Chart freed the students from preconceptions about their own abilities and enabled all the students in the class to stand at the same starting line to enter the language.




Four of the Japanese word charts - copyright C Gattegno. 1988

Caleb Gattegno – 4 of the Japanese word chats1 988 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

Most of us are equipped with many types of abilities in order to perceive colors and distinguish them, to produce sounds, and to change our energy levels to form melodies. If we use these abilities properly and free ourselves from useless preconception, we can make great progress in any language. This is one of the things I have learned from Dr. Gattegno and his work.

© Kasuko Shimizu
The Center for Language and Intercultural Learning, Osaka, Japan

The Science of Education in Questions – N° 15 – February 1997





Creative Commons License

“Teaching Literacy to Refugees in Japan with Words in Color” by Kasuko Shimizu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.