TOKYO – The Nintendo DS isn't just fun and games anymore for English students at Tokyo's Joshi Gakuen all-girls junior high school.
The portable video game console is now being used as a key teaching tool, breaking with traditional Japanese academic methods.
A giggly class of 32 seventh-graders used plastic pens to spell words like "hamburger" and "cola" on the touch panel screen — the key feature of the hit console — following an electronic voice from the machine.
It's a sort of high-tech spelling bee. When the students got the spelling right, the word "good" popped up on the screen, and the student went on to the next exercise. The first five students to complete the drills were awarded colorful stickers.
"It's fun," said Chigusa Matsumoto, 12, who zipped through the drills to get her sticker. "You can study while you have fun."
Like many other Japanese youngsters, she has the DS at home and plays DS games like "Mario Kart" and "Animal Crossing." But she insisted her favorite was her English class software.
The drills, which the school began using earlier this year, are the first linked to a widely used Japanese public-school textbook series, according to Yasuhiro Yamamoto, manager at software maker Paon Corp., which made the DS English program.
"This is quite revolutionary for a Japanese schoolroom," he said.
Japanese education has long been infamous for failing to develop English conversation skills and instead focus on rote memorization and grammar.
The DS boasts a series of brainteasers and puzzle games, designed to improve math and other academic skills, as part of a larger effort at Kyoto-based Nintendo Co. to appeal to newcomers, older people and women.
The company's Wii — with its baton-like "Wiimote" for fishing, tennis and golfing games — has also been a huge hit.
The DS, which is being used in a handful of school on a trial basis, was part of a course that included video of an American ordering at a fast-food restaurant, as well as audio of the dialogue that the students listened to on headphones and repeated.
"Two hamburgers and two colas please," they chanted together.
"Very good. Good job," exclaimed teacher Motoko Okubo, who seemed to have little to do but cheer the students on, as they switched from one gadget to another.
Okubo acknowledged she has never before seen the kind of enthusiastic concentration the DS classes have inspired in her students.
Principal Tsuneo Saneyoshi said that views about the initiative were mixed among teachers who are more accustomed to keeping games and other distractions out of classrooms, not welcoming them.
The school is getting 40 DS machines and free software for agreeing to be part of a test in a real classroom.
"Some teachers aren't quite convinced this is good," Saneyoshi said, adding that the verdict is still out on the educational value of DS.
The school's vice principal, Junko Tatsumi, was won over.
"There was no opposition from the parents," she said. "It wasn't that difficult a decision for us. We thought it was a great idea."