Cambridge Academy: December 2016 Update

Academy beginner book section (YL0.1-0.7)

You can read about the Cambridge Academy in previous posts:

  1. Extensive Reading for Secondary Students (April 2015)
  2. Six Months In (September 2015)
  3. Year One (February 2016)
  4. Looking at Year Two (March 2016)
  5. Stocktake (March 2016)
  6. Shadoku explained (April 2016)
  7. Some improvements to the curriculum (April 2016)

Well, a lot has happened since my last post about the Academy (July 2016). We have had several schools visit, and I have talked to lots of people, and I have realised that in order for someone to start a program like the Academy in a school, the following four conditions are necessary:

  1. the desire and autonomy to begin a program
  2. the knowledge of ER to explain it to teachers, parents, and students
  3. a critical number of junior and senior high school students
  4. a large amount of money for books

So far I haven’t talked to anyone with all four of these, so we are putting our plans to license our system on hold. After all, if there are no potential customers it doesn’t make much sense to develop a product, right?

I’m still very happy to answer questions and give what advice I can though -feel free to leave a comment on this post or drop me an email.

Progress Report

We’re approaching Year Three for the Academy, and a lot is going well, and some things are going less well. We haven’t seen the growth I was hoping for (100 students are still out of reach), but we have a solid 70-some and next year is looking somewhat hopeful to break three figures.

1. Shadoku/Students that didn’t do shadoku last year

Our new first year reading curriculum incorporating shadoku is working extremely well. This year’s first year students are possibly doing better than last years’ (who are now second years). The second years are struggling a bit and I am trying different things to help them out, including having them re-read at a much lower level, etc. Not sure if the situation can be fixed completely, but at least we’ll do better going forwards.

We’ve also bought a lot of new books, particularly at the intermediate and advanced levels. Still not enough, but much closer to being able to meet our students’ future needs.

Academy intermediate book section (YL0.8-2.9)

A few of our students are really taking off with their reading, breaking the YL2.0 barrier and becoming more independent and motivated readers. It’s wonderful to see.

Academy advanced book section (YL3.0~)

I would say that somewhere over half our students are doing really well, and most of the others are doing okay. Maybe 20% are not doing well, and I hope some of them can be salvaged. Most of the ones who are not doing well started off badly, and I wasn’t skilled enough at the time to notice or help them.

2. Student reading targets

I’ve also noticed that students that read a certain amount are doing well, and those that read less are not. Using this data, I have come up with provisional weekly targets that we’ll start using next year with our students:

JHS1 2000-5000 words a week (100,000-250,000 words a year)
JHS2 3000-7000 words a week (150,000-350,000 words a year)
JHS3 4000-10000 words a week (200,000-500,000 words a year)
SHS1 4000-10000 words a week (200,000-500,000 words a year)
SHS2 5000-15000 words a week (250,000-750,000 words a year)
SHS3 6000-20000 words a week (300,000-1,000,000 words a year)

Based on these a student that joined our program in JHS1 and stayed with us until the end of high school would read 1,200,000 to 3,350,000 words. I predict this would provide them with some pretty decent English skills. The targets include in-class reading as well, so students with decent reading speeds might be able to clear the target just by reading in class for 55 minutes a week.

These numbers are provisional and we’ll probably adjust them after working with the students a bit next year. Looking at our current student data though, they seem reasonable. For comparison, in my university classes I require students to read 8,000 words a week to pass the course and 25,000 words a week to get a top grade.

3. Original junior high school output (speaking and writing) curriculum

We’re currently working on making our own curriculum for junior high school students for the output (speaking and writing) classes. As I mentioned in the improvements to curriculum post, the output classes have actually proven to be extremely important, and in the future we’ll be recommending students take both classes if at all possible.

Reading classes are much more profitable, but so far the results of students that only take reading are not satisfactory so we’ll have to abandon that idea as a profit centre 🙂

We should have the original curriculum for JHS1 ready to try from April, and then develop year two in 2017 and year three in 2018. Using the new curricula, we will now place junior high school students in their equivalent year class instead of trying to stream them by ability. High school students will be streamed by ability/level.

4. Assistant teachers

We have a couple of assistant teachers this year. They were students in the program last year, and are now attending local universities. We asked them to help us out as part-time staff.

The huge advantage of recruiting assistants like this is that they are very familiar with the system. It’s a win-win: we get dependable and skilled assistants that we know and trust, and they get to continue their English studies while doing fairly well-paid and interesting part-time work.

Best of all, this model should be fairly sustainable: I would expect we’ll have at least one suitable student per year graduating and we can keep them for four years while they are at university.

5. The next steps

Right now we need to do a few things before the end of the year. I would like to write a student guide to the curriculum that explains what they need to do. I think this will help students and their parents get more out of their classes.

We also need to buy some more books, although we can probably slow down a bit now.

Another stocktake will have to happen at the end of the year and book purchases to fill in holes.

We’re going to need more shelves soon too.

We’ll also be taking over another school and inviting their students to join our program from April. Hopefully this will build up our numbers a little bit.

All good stuff. I’m really looking forward to how the Academy develops as we go into our third year.

Anyone else working on extensive reading systems? Any questions or comments?

Hi Ben, still following your idea with great interest. I think that a critical student number and a lot of money to start the program aren’t necessary. For example, we have a well-established school with multiple classrooms and room to start a program BUT it would be a quite risky endeavor to move our entire student base into an ER program, abandoning our current curriculum (which works and does keep students coming to our school).

Rather, it would make sense to phase in an ER program in steps. Say, start in one April with new JHS-1 students and offer ER as an add-on. As we gain experience with the program, the students additional fees pay for additional future investments. We wouldn’t need to buy advanced-level books right off the bat, but instead start with beginner books and buy ‘up’ as students progress through the program in stages.

I think the read advantage in becoming your customer is the book list! I think I know enough about ER to start some kind of program, but the logistics of buying and sorting books sounds like a huge headache, very time consuming, and also cross-referencing book levels, headwords and wordcounts across different publisher’s ratings, takes so much time, I don’t know how to do it without having the actual books in my hand. You, having invested in the books and being able to physically read them and sort them, can provide your customers with a list of books to buy. I think that, for me, would be the real time and money saver and reason to buy into an existing program. I think it would save me hundreds of hours over the course of a year trying to get an ER program off the ground.

If you can make your program a kind of 6-step phase-in program, split into smaller investments, I don’t see any reason why schools with less students and investment capabilities wouldn’t at least want to try it, and then buy up into the program as their students move through the system.

Hi Michael

Thanks for the very positive input. I think you are mostly right: our product is the IP, all of which is publicly available but which has taken me hundreds of hours to put together into excel sheets and teacher/student manuals. I think teacher training and system design advice would also be valuable.

However, I think you may be underestimating quite how many books are necessary even for the first year of a program. Whether you have one student or twenty in a class, you’ll still need a large number of books/copies. Looking at our inventory, we have about 2500 books for JHS1 students (YL0.1-0.5). Some of these are multiple copies, but even the bare minimum is going to cost around 1 million yen.

I’d love to work with another school to set up a sytem though, so if you are interested in being a guinea pig please let me know 🙂

Actually, having thought about it some more, you are right. You wouldn’t have to start off with full ER classes at first, rather just do ER for 10-15 minutes per class as an add-on. That way teachers can get some practice, students get some benefit, and you wouldn’t need all the books that would be necessary for a full ER class. Hmmm.

I guess that would be ‘level 1’ of our curriculum. Very interesting 😀

Ben, I hope in the future you discuss your output classes for junior high. I am developing a curriculum as well. Perhaps we can benefit from sharing our approaches. I am also interested in learning about your elementary school program to see how you step them up to be ready for your ER curriculum. Thanks for sharing. I am a big fan.

Hi Cynthia

Thanks! You’re always the first to comment 🙂

I will definitely be writing about the input curriculum once we start trialing it. It’s quite different from commercial textbooks.

Actually the Academy curriculum is designed so that beginners can come in (it’s tough for them at first but they tend to catch up and cope). Our ES students at Cambridge start doing shadoku for 5-10 minutes in their eikaiwa classes in the 5th and 6th grades, which leads into the ER curriculum very nicely.


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