Swimming With Sharks

Download Swimming With Sharks and try it out in class!

On the lookout for games…

In my kids classes I am always looking for ways to anchor the question and answer dialogues they are learning with ‘real world’ application. Of course, there’s only so much that the ‘real world’ actually enters the classroom to allow repeated practice of such basic dialogues as What’s your name?, How old are you?, Where do you live?, Do you like…?. Do you have…?, What’s this?, and What’s that?  So I’m always on the lookout for games that can serve this purpose. Swimming with Sharks is one that I regularly use, and that the students really love to play.

Swimming With Sharks is a game that is introduced in Phonics & Spelling, Book 2, and is designed to get the students to practice reading and speaking the three-letter words they are learning. The game is very simple. Students place a game piece (an erasure, or some other small personal object) on Start. Then, each student takes turns rolling a die and moving their game piece that many places on the board. They have to then say the word they land on out loud.  If they land on “net”, they can climb over the net to the next space, thereby getting further along on the board to the goal of reaching the safe space of the ship. If they land on “red”, they must go back to the previous “red”, or back to start. And if they land on the “shark’s nose”, they must go back to start.

To use the same game to practice dialogues, I use a separate Swimming With Sharks game board that has blank spaces along the board instead of words. When students land on a blank space, they must ask another player a question. If the student cannot think of a question to ask, he or she must go back the same number rolled on the die. Likewise, if the student who is asked cannot answer the question, he or she must move their game piece back that many spots on the board. The same rules apply for landing on “net”, the color “red,” and “shark’s nose” as in the game in Phonics & Spelling, Book 2.

What games do you use to get your kids talking?

This “blank” version of Swimming With Sharks can be used with any set of questions-and-answer dialogues you want your students to practice. Download it!  It’s on us.   Let us know what games you use to get your students talking!

If you like to play board games in your classes, take a look at this Blank Game Boards Bundle from Donald’s English Classroom.  It includes Swimming With Sharks and a whole lot more!


Valentine is the 2nd reading from Stories For Young Readers, Book 1. Download this file and try it in class!

Introducing Valentine

I remember the first time I introduced my students to a story from Stories for Young Readers, Book 1.  It was a private class of 6 fourth graders that I had been teaching once a week for about three years.  I had followed the Phonics & Spelling series from ABC & Phonics, Book 1, and they were now starting Phonics & Spelling, Book 4.  I decided to introduce the story, Valentine, from Stories for Young Readers, to see how they would respond.

I handed out the first page, which includes a picture of Valentine and her sister, and the passage about them.  Before I said anything, I just let the students look at the page.  For a few moments they talked amongst themselves about the picture, smiling and wondering what it was all about.  And then naturally, knowing that the words above would tell them about the image below, they moved to the passage and started reading!

It was slow for them, yes, but they were doing it, saying with confidence the words they knew (which were most of them), and working out those that were new.  I simply walked around helping  as necessary.

I asked for volunteers and six hands shot into the air!

After they had worked on the passage for a while, I told them to follow the words on the page as I read it.  I read it twice, the second time a little faster than the first.  I then asked for volunteers to read, and six hands shot into the air!  They all took turns reading the passage, and I could see that they were all so proud of themselves!

I then handed out the second page, with the questions and puzzle.  Each student got a chance to read one of the questions, and everyone would work out the answer together, and then write it on the line provided.  Once this was finished the students dived into the puzzle, racing to see who could finish it first, and yet helping each other as they went.

From that introduction I knew I had the perfect supportive material for what the students were learning in the Phonics & Spelling series.  Every story sparked interest, and engaged the students with exercises that were useful and fun!


A Japanese Kindergarten

Because I’ve mentioned the Japanese kindergarten where I taught in several posts already, I think it is time to do a little explaining.  This will be helpful  in understanding the environment I was teaching in and, if you are planning to teach in Japan, the kind of classes you may be expected to teach.

First, a Japanese kindergarten is not connected to the public school system.   Kindergartens are often one of several types; privately owned, affiliated with a local temple (or church), affiliated with a university system (where kids are on an educational track), or city/prefecture owned facilities.  Kindergartens must follow guidelines outlined by the Ministry of Education whereas daycare centers offer no academic curriculum and simply provide baby-sitting services.

I taught at a family-owned, private kindergarten on the outskirts of Omiya City in Saitama Prefecture.  It held close association to the elementary schools of the city, the Omiya City Hall, as well as various civic organizations.  The kindergarten was seen as a cultural and educational hub for young families and held many long-term business alliances that went back to the post-war era.

Japanese kindergartens would probably remind most westerners of daycare centers, if for any reason, the population size.  The average kindergarten is a three-year program where students enter at three years old and graduate at six years old.  At the kindergarten where I taught, there were between 275 and 300 students enrolled with about 100 students in each of three levels.  (Those numbers are quickly going down with the decrease in the population.)

Besides the usual Japanese activities like sports events, holiday shows, entrance and graduation ceremonies, competing kindergartens offer a variety of extra-curricular programs that can include music classes, art classes, English classes, swimming and sports clubs, field trips, and even overseas travel experiences.  Imagine a summer camp that lasts an entire year and you get an idea of the kind of hectic schedule these institutions are expected to maintain.

I was the director and only teacher in the English program.  My classes started at 9:00 in the morning and ended at 8 or 9:00 at night.  I taught all of the kids at the kindergarten in rotating morning classes that ranged in size from 30-60 students.  I also taught extra-curricular classes in the afternoon to not only the kindergarten students, but elementary school students who graduated from the kindergarten as well .  On average, I taught 250 kids per week in the afternoon/evening classes with about 15 students per one-hour class.  My day started with three year olds and ended with twelve year olds.  My Japanese language ability was more about crowd control but was absolutely required as nobody, and I mean NOBODY, spoke English.  Ever.

I worked at the kindergarten for 16 years, but really, I think I had one year of experience that was repeated 16 times.  Though I got better at it, I had no idea what I was getting into when I started.  That first year, nobody explained any of it to me, if for any reason, it was simply assumed I already knew –  just like we in the U.S. have a preset idea of what a kindergarten is.  What’s to explain?

I’ll talk more about teaching at the kindergarten.  It was an amazing experience that changed my outlook on Japan, my outlook on my own American-ness, and how I approach teaching.

OK.  Now you know.

Now in Japan!


Stories for Young Readers, Books 1 & 2 are now available in Japan!

I.P.I. (Independent Publishers International), Japan’s leading distributor of language teaching materials from around the world, has officially released Stories for Young Readers, Book 1 and 2! We’re thrilled that teachers will now have these textbooks available at local bookstores!

You can purchase from David Paul’s ETJ Book Service for special discounts!

To be kept up to date on all our teaching materials, please add your name to our mailing list!

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History of Publishing

Stories for Young Readers was first published in 2000 when we three Kinney brothers, Donald (me), Robert (my twin brother), and Michael (the Younger),  were living and working in Saitama Prefecture in Japan.  Bob was teaching at a private, all-boys junior high school. Given few resources for teaching, he began creating his own lessons with pictures, questions, and puzzles that he hoped would inspire the boys to learn, or at least pay attention!  These lessons eventually turned into the first edition of the textbooks.

We solicited several of the big ESL publishing companies with our book proposals but were roundly, though politely, rejected.  Undaunted and confident that there was a place for our textbook ideas on the market, we took the bull by the horns, invested in desk-top-publishing software, and began designing the books on our own.

The first print run of the books was through a Japanese company that, unfortunately, turned out very bad.  The books arrived packed in newspaper, glue seeping from the spines, and ink that could be rubbed off with your fingers.  The books had to be returned twice before they were even tolerable! It was a nightmare.

Mike, our younger brother, took a stack of the books to a book fair in Tokyo, located the English Resource Bookstore kiosk and asked if he could place our books on their table.  Surprisingly, they agreed and the books sold!  A couple weeks later, they contacted us by fax requesting distribution rights, and so our publishing career began.

It took nearly three years to sell that run of books and we were learning to negotiate heavy boxes of books in our living space.  Over the years, the number of boxes became so great that we had to buy a large shed to store them outside.  We started by selling faxed orders for individual books but eventually convinced the English Resource to order by the box.   We also tried different methods for getting the books the one mile to the local post office; a large cart that rattled and swerved on and off the sidewalks, bicycles with one or two boxes strapped to the back, and finally a post office pickup system that worked as well as the drivers were grumpy and officious.

Nearing the final boxes of that first run, we were determined to make Stories for Young Readers better.  Bob consolidated the stories into a single textbook, and I designed a new cover on my new Adobe Illustrator program, replacing the cranky Quark Express that caused us so many printing headaches.  We located a printer in Singapore (half the cost of printing in Japan!), made arrangements for international shipping, and in 2003 Stories for Young Readers, 2nd Edition was born. A few weeks later, a 2nd edition of Q&A also arrived to replace the impossibly hokey first edition.  These were minimum 1,000-book runs and we were having to split the boxes between our apartments; books in the living room, books in the kitchen, and books in my bedroom!

(If you ever decide to have a book printed, I strongly recommend Saik Wah Press Media Pte Ltd in Singapore.  They are very professional, offer a quality product and their representatives are 100% there for you and your publishing goals.)

In the interim, I had written a five-book phonics series for the kindergarten students I was teaching.  In 2005, unsure if we could find  a place in an already crowded phonics market, we ordered print runs and submitted the textbooks to Nellies Bookstore (English Resource having been bought out). The series was curtly rejected.  A few months later, they contacted us and agreed to begin selling them.  Why the turn around, I’m not sure, but the phonics series solidified our presence in the publishing market in Japan.

By 2010, Bob had completely reworked Stories into a solid, grammatically sound series of graded readings.  By this time, we knew our time in Japan was going to be coming to an end soon.  We were longing to return to the U.S. but didn’t want to be saddled with inventory or have to manage inventory in Japan from the U.S.  That was when we learned about print-on-demand publishing at CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon.com.  It was a perfect solution for us and the Global Edition of Stories for Young Readers debuted on this printing platform.  Just as we were getting ready to leave Japan, our books were opening up to a world market through Amazon.com.

We made licensing agreements with I.P.I. (Independent Publishers International) who took on the phonics series and bought out our inventory – but was still on the fence about the newest Stories for Young Readers series. This year, 2017, I.P.I. agreed to begin publishing Stories, and we are thrilled that these textbooks will continue to be available in Japan.

The Last Story

When Robert passed away in June of 2013, he had plans for a third book in the Stories for Young Readers series.  This was the first installment in that book and the last story he wrote and illustrated.  At the time that he wrote this, he was teaching at Saitama University and was deeply interested in fairy tales and their histories.  As he said in a discussion, he thought the story was useful as a parallel to larger cultural issues and would be useful for promoting discussion in class.  You can click on the image to make it larger.  Enjoy.