Experiences of an English Language Teacher

Exam Rituals from Asia: Lesson Plan

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Prompted to write a lesson plan from a news article

Today, I read an a very interesting article on the BBC News website about rituals students and their parents undertake before a very important examination. Being inspired by such a reading, and something that would generate conversation in an English language classroom, I thought I would create a lesson about this news article.

  • Aims: By the end of the lesson, students will learn more about exam rituals from South East Asia and extend their cultural awareness.
  • Level: Intermediate or above
  • Timing: 60 minutes or more
  • Focus: Conversation and Scaffolding Emergent Language
  • Materials: Images, Headings and Text (sourced from BBC News)

Step 1: Warmer

At the beginning of the lesson, write up the following questions on the whiteboard for students to discuss in pairs or small groups:

  1. Have you taken an exam recently? What?
  2. What did you do to prepare before taking the exam?
  3. How did you do in your last test?
  4. What would you do differently for your next test?
  5. Would you take any lucky objects with you to the exam? If so, what and why?
  6. Would you eat a special meal the night before the exam? If so, what?

You could give a dice to the students and then get them to ask the question corresponding to the number on the dice that they roll. Monitor learners during the conversation and provide feedback or scaffold language where required.

Step 2: Introduce Images

Hand out the following pictures for learners and ask them to guess why they are lucky and which country these could be from and why there might be particular superstitions related to them.

If learners are having a bit of difficulty, you could get them to look at the images and ask them what they are or what they represent.

Step 3: Matching Exercise

Tell students that they will receive headings related to the images above and that they have to match the headings to the images. Demonstrate with one heading as an example and write it up on the whiteboard. For example, you could write up “Avoid washing your hair” and ask students which picture it is related to. Students should be able to match it up pretty quickly and then ask them why people would avoid washing their hair. Tell them that they need to match up the remaining headings to the pictures.

  1. How KitKat got lucky
  2. An apple a day
  3. Avoid washing your hair
  4. Going nuts over exams
  5. A slice of luck
  6. Praying for success
  7. Lucky watch versus slippery soup
  8. Chicken power
  9. Wear red underwear
  10. Pray for mercy from the “Bell Curve God”

Give students a bit of time to work together and allow them to discuss and link up the pictures. Then once students have finished, you could check as a whole class which images match the headings.

Step 4: Text Matching

The next part of the lesson is for students to match the remaining text to the headings and images. Give the students the text cut up in to ten corresponding parts. Read the first sentence and ask students what image/heading it corresponds to. All text is available on the website but is also available below.

How KitKat got lucky

Traditionally, Japanese students would eat Katsudon before or on the day of an exam, comprising a warm bowl of rice topped with egg and a deep-fried pork cutlet. The dish name’s likeness to the word “katsu”, meaning “winning” is thought to bring students luck. But KitKat in Japan has also been marketing itself as a bringer of good luck. Pronounced as “kitto katto”, the chocolate’s name is similar to the phrase “kitto katsu”, meaning “surely winning”, making it a good candidate for a good luck charm.

An apple a day

Canteens across Hong Kong University campuses serve apples, and a variety of apple dishes, in the run-up to the exam period. “The pronunciation of apple in Chinese is “ping guo”, which also means “safety”. So it’s considered that you will safely pass the exam,” says Chong Wang, from Nanjing in China.

Avoid washing your hair

In your vicious cycle of all-night revision, microwave food and highlighter pens, you may have forgotten to have a shower. But not to worry – in South Korea, it’s thought that washing your hair could wash all the knowledge out. “There was one boy in our class who didn’t wash hair before exams. The rest of the time he was very clean, but once you came to know his exam ritual, you didn’t want to go near him,” said one student about a classmate.

Going nuts over the exams

Around a month before exams start in Hong Kong, students in clubs, societies and residential halls, will gather for “superpass”, or going guo. “Superpass” is a series of activities aimed at helping you pass your exams with a top score. The first part is the superpass dinner, which is usually held at a Chinese restaurant. It’s important that students eat pork cubes with cashews, one of the signature superpass dishes. The Chinese word for “cashews” sounds like the word for “wish to pass”, and “pork cubes” sounds like “desire for a distinction”. Homophones, or homonyms, play a big part in ritual and superstition in many East Asian languages.

A slice of luck

Returning to the hall, it’s time for everyone to have a turn at slicing through a giant roast pig, considered to be an important sacred offering in China. Each participant is given one try at cutting the pig into two halves. Those who succeed are thought to go on to pass all their exams the first time round, and those who fail, will have to re-sit some. This is followed by eating kiwis, as the Chinese word for the fruit sounds like “easy to pass exams.”

Praying for success

Many students in East Asia have the attentive support of their parents, whether they want it or not. “Some parents wait for their children outside the exam hall praying for them to pass,” says South Korean teacher Ji-Youn Jung, “My mum did, but my test results turned out to be awful.” Ultra-keen parents will go as far as praying at Buddhist temples every day for the 100 days leading up to the exam.

Lucky watch versus a slippery soup

In South Korea, the slipperiness of the widely-eaten seaweed soup is thought to mean you will lose all the knowledge from the notes you’ve been revising like mad. “I try not to have seaweed soup before important plans like exams or interviews. But if I happen to eat it without consciousness, I don’t worry too much,” Ji-Youn says. But Chong Wang from China says: “My personal tradition is to have noodles for breakfast on exam day, as noodles mean “everything goes smooth” in Chinese. But I also take my lucky watch.”

Chicken power

A bit of sugar might give you an energy boost, but South Koreans also believe that this sugary snack could have exam-passing powers. Yeot, a traditional sticky food, is eaten before important exams, especially university entrance exams. Ji-Youn explains: “Yeot is a sticky sweet, and the Korean words for “sticky” and “pass entrance exam” sound the same.” Or else drink some chicken juice, which is thought to give your brain a boost. Students in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and China tend to drink this while revising for exams, and on the morning of the exam itself. “It’s nothing superstitious,” says Dylan Lee Soon Yoong, a Singaporean student at University College London. “I drink chicken essence on the morning of the exam… you down it like a shot after heating it up. It’s supposed to help your concentration and is marketed pretty heavily to students in Singapore.”

Wear red underwear

Red is widely believed to be a lucky colour in China. So many believe that it’s a good idea to wear some red clothing, or more specifically red underwear, during an exam. When a person is particularly successful, there is a Chinese saying, “Are you wearing red underwear?” But Chong Wang warns: “Some people may avoid wearing red during exams because in China, fail scores are written in red on score sheets.”

Pray for mercy from the “Bell Curve God”

The Bell Curve God is an embodiment of university students’ fears of the bell curve grading system used in Asia’s top universities, such as the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University. Bell curve grading means not just measuring how well you did in an exam, but rather how you did in relation to everyone else in your class. In an already high-achieving country, that pushes competitiveness to the max. Shrines to the Bell Curve God have been set up at both universities, where food and candles are left as offerings to the “God”.The National University of Singapore has gone as far as setting up a website, Facebook and Twitter account for the Bell Curve God, so that students can pray electronically. “As students, we are subject to the omnipotent, inscrutable force that is the Bell Curve God. He is the arbitrary being that decides our grades,” Dylan Lee Soon Yoong explains.

Step 5: Text Analysis

As a final activity, you could get students to read the text in more detail and do various activities such as underlying or highlighting particular words or vocabulary which learners are unsure of, getting students to write up questions for the text or for you to scan the reading and then come up with your own questions.

Step 6: Describing Examination Preparation Habits

As a final activity, the students could then share their own personal examination preparation habits with their peers. It is a useful exercise and you could exploit it further by getting students to write about their preparation habits or experiences of examinations.

Let me know how this lesson goes and if you have any feedback and I hope your learners enjoy this lesson. It can really prompt learners to share their own experiences of exam preparation in relation to their own country or culture.


  1. Hello Martin,
    Your ideas are just amazing! Thank you very much. My students are normally examined once a year, and the next time I’ll take this lesson plan into consideration when helping my students to get prepared. It seems these rituals are a lot of fun!

    • Martin Sketchley

      Thanks for your comment Anna and your kind words. I haven’t had a chance to try this lesson out myself but I will once I have some older learners to teach next week. Let me know how the lesson is in the future.

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