What is Karuta?

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Karuta is a Japanese word for a game that is, I’m quite sure, played everywhere. It’s basically “Snap!” but without turning the cards over.

It’s really quite simple:

1. Lay out all the cards face down on the table or floor

2. The students put their hands on their heads

3. The teacher calls out one of the cards

4. The first student to “snap” the card keeps it.

5. When there are no more cards, the winner is the person with the most.

That’s it, in a nutshell.


Of course, Karuta wasn’t originally intended for teaching foreign languages! So, here are a few things you might like to consider when playing it:

* The way to play it outlined above is really just a “Receptive Skills” game. That is to say, all the students have to do is be able to process what the teacher says and correlate that to a particular picture. Listen –> Snap!

Nothing wrong with this. This is the way I play it the first couple of times with a particular lexical set.

But once you’ve done it a couple of times–unless you work with younger elementary kids–you’ll want to start getting them to practise PRODUCING the language as well. There are two ways that I do this:

1. I tell them we’re going to play Karuta. But first they have to go through the vocabulary and check, in groups, that everyone in the group knows all the vocab. I set a time-limit of 3-minutes for this. It always takes 5 because they realise after the first minute or so of “Yeah, sure, no prob, I know all this” swagger that, they actually DON’T know all the vocab and that means they won’t be able to win the game! Then as you start saying “30 seconds!” they start shrieking “No, no! We need more time!” So you comply after much frowning and give them another minute or so.

Ha ha! Too funny, huh?

You might also like to point this out once or twice to your class, letting them know that the reason you’re giving this extra time before you start playing is so that everyone has the chance to do some last minute revision and has a more even chance of winning.

2. Once you’ve finished playing and they’ve “snapped” up all the cards, the only way they can legitimately keep the cards for the final tally is to be able to SAY what they are (or whatever target phrase or sentence you set for this stage. An easy example might be with “jobs”, say. For this stage they have to say “S/He’s a ________ ” in order to keep their card).

The other members of the group monitor each other and if someone who managed to “snap” the card can’t produce the associated language, they forfeit that card. It DOESN’T go to another player who CAN say what it is, that player just loses that point.

You THEN tally up the final points.

2a. As an extra option–and this one needs to be done delicately (which I’ll come back to in a moment), you can also set a rule that anyone who scores ZERO (or one or two or whatever is reasonable with a large set of cards) has to come out and recite X number of cards chosen at random by the teacher.

Now, this note about doing it delicately: This should never be done in order to humiliate someone. And it should never, ever, ever be done as a “surprise!” at the end of the game. No, no, let them know this rule right up front if you decide to play it and let them know that the reason you’re setting this rule is because you want everyone to try their best. Nobody’s perfect all the time. Not even the top-scorers (what’s that thing about Babe Ruth? Struck out more times than he hit home runs or something…)

The POINT is to TRY!

Also, the “penalty” should be conducted in a light-hearted way, with a lot of:

Shucks, y’know, Peirre, that’s too bad! I know you know this vocabulary, but maybe you’re not a gunslinger, y’know… [obviously I wouldn't use the word "gunslinger!]… so, uh, let’s see… you have to name any five cards…” [fanning the cards and hamming up the secrecy element, go to another group and get them to pick one]… then pick a couple of REALLY easy ones that you know the student will get… and then one more “secret crowd pick” and then another easy one….

And so on…. I’m sure you see where I’m going with this.

Then END by saying something like

“Okay, not bad, Pierre. Next time I’m sure you don’t want to be up here again so, uh, y’know do a bit of study, eh?”

This last comment is somewhat barbed, and it’s meant to be. To show the students that I mean business; that if I’m going to go to the effort of preparing cards and props for fun stuff, they had better be bothered to actually do some study.

If they don’t want to do that, that’s okay, we can just work through the book one page after the next. No skin off my nose. They need to understand that it’s a two-way street. But this is stuff for another article.

The point is that you end with a “You need to pull your finger out, but it doesn’t mean I don’t like you as a person or I think you’re ‘bad’ in some way” kind of message to both the “penalty receiving people” and to the class as a whole.

Okay, another point that I think worth mentioning is whether or not you can play karuta with adults. Actually, I haven’t tried to be perfectly honest! But I see no reason why you couldn’t. I definitely would not have them put their hands on their heads, though! This is something children have to do and I would feel strange doing it (in fact, I demonstrate for the elementary kids while doing the gestures “hands… hands… on your heads… heads….” and even that makes me feel a bit weird as an adult!). So definitely no hands on heads. Maybe “hands behind your backs” or something?

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Right, final point about Karuta: There is a penalty for “bezerker snappers”. This game in the language classroom should be about listening, processing the input, and then doing something with that input, in this case selecting the correct card before other players.

But there’s always some kid (adults are probably the same, I’ll have to test it and see) who just randomly snaps one card and then the next and then the next until the body language of the other students lets him (usually a boy) know that he’s hit on the right one. So…

… there is a rule of the game that says “If you snap the wrong card, you miss a turn”. That is, you have to sit out of the circle for the next round.

It’s a good rule. It reduces beserker-snapping and I use it to my advantage in the following two ways:

1. If there are items of vocab that are similar-sounding (e.g. “angry” and “hungry”) or which use the same starting sounds (e.g. “snow” and “snowman”), then I do the following:

(i) if, say, “snow” is left on the table (i.e. we’ve already done “snowman”), then I say “snowman!” There will always be one “beserker-snapper-in-training” who gets caught out on this. It’s never intended to make anyone look stupid or anything like that. In fact, the kids LOVE it when I do this! They giggle their heads off! But they then listen even harder for the remainder of the game and the next time we play.

(ii) I almost NEVER say the last card without doing a few “stooge” runs before it. Two or three is enough. They love this too because it’s down to the wire, y’know… it’s the last card… who will get it? They’re leaning in as close as they can… and then suddenly… STOOGED!

2. Anyone who misses more that X-turns (I usually set it to 3 or 4) has to come out the front and go through all the vocab with me! Of course this reduces the instances of little vikings on drugs in my classroom. But there’s often one so the way we do it is to show the card to the now more meek bezerker and if he can’t tell me what it is, I show it to the class and they all yell it out. Move onto the next one.

Once again, this should not be done in a way to humiliate the kid! It’s just a nice little way to kill two birds with one stone:

(i) it goes some way to reducing subsequent bezerker-snapping because he knows he
needs to pay attention when you’re drilling the new vocab

(ii) it makes for a nice little final-drill / wrap-up to the activity

And that’s it! How to play Karuta and get the most of it in your language classroom.

If you have any other tips for making it even more effective and fun, please leave a comment!

Till next time,

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2 Responses to “What is Karuta?”

  1. Doniazad Doniazad says:

    :cool: Thank you, it’s really nice game, i teach 9th,10th and 11th grade, I’ll apply it because has a lot of benifits in language classes.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    •  Leslie says:

      I’m glad you like it! :smile:

      Please let us know how it goes with the older kids.


      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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