The Last Lecture (well, workshop)

ER Program Design and Implementation

Extensive Reading World Congress, Toyo Gakuen, Tokyo
Friday August 4th, 15:30-18:00

At the beginning of next month I’ll be doing a pre-conference workshop at the Extensive Reading World Congress in Tokyo. This will be my last presentation on education.

The title is the same as the book I have been thinking about writing for the last few years. The content too. In a way, it’s the summary of the last ten years of my work as a teacher. I hope it comes together the way I would like it to. If it does it should be a pretty comprehensive introduction to all aspects of designing and running an extensive reading program at the institutional level.

It’s a workshop, so we’ll be doing work. I’m going to use the PDR (preparation, discussion, reaction) framework to structure the group discussions and will cover the following areas:

  1. Designing a Program
  2. Selling a Program
  3. Setting up a Program
  4. Running a Program
  5. Leaving a Program

If you come to the conference I hope you will consider spending a couple of hours with us on Friday. I can almost guarantee you will find it useful.

If you have any questions before the event feel free to post them in the comments below.

5 Jun 2017, 6:21pm
STEP Eiken tests
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Changes to the STEP Eiken Tests (June 2017)

There have been a few…

The STEP Eiken Test is probably the best-known and most widely-recognized test of English for Japanese schoolchildren. It is closely tied to the school curriculum and the organization that produces it is trying to get more involved with university entrance tests once they are mandated to be 4-skills (from 2020).

Recently there have been quite a few changes to the STEP Eiken tests, most of which took me by surprise, so this post is to give other teachers a heads-up as to what has changed and what the latest version of the test looks like.

It seems as though the Eiken Foundation is trying to make the tests more rigorous in line with the new Course of Study and objectives for English education in Japan (particularly with regards to the upcoming changes to the university entrance tests).

I’ll describe each level in detail below, but the general changes are:

  1. the test seems to have gotten harder overall (the vocabulary and reading sections seem more difficult to me)
  2. there are new written sections in levels 3 and pre-2 (2, pre-1, and 1 already had a written section)
  3. there are new, optional, online “speaking” tests for levels 5 and 4
  4. the interview tests for levels 2, pre-2, and 3 are more rigorous: you now have to pass each section in order to pass the test. Merely getting a passing score is no longer enough to pass (we had a student fail with 20 points last time)
  5. interview examiners can no longer keep the interview cards and manuals, which is going to make practicing more difficult in the future 😉

Grade 5

The grade 5 test is 25 minutes for the paper and 22 for the listening. It consists of:

15 vocabulary questions (choose the word that goes in the blank)
5 conversation questions (choose the phrase that goes in the blank)
5 ‘rearrange the sentence’ questions (put the words in order)
10 listening questions with reference pictures
5 listening questions where you choose a written answer
10 listening questions where you answer about a picture

Overall I think the test seemed similar to previous years. No huge changes.

Grade 4

The grade 4 test is 35 minutes for the paper test, and 28 for the listening. It consists of:

15 vocabulary questions (choose the word that goes in the blank)
5 conversation questions (choose the phrase that goes in the blank)
5 ‘rearrange the sentence’ questions (put the words in order)
10 questions based on reading passages (one easy, one medium, and one difficult)
10 listening questions with reference pictures
20 listening questions where you choose a written answer

The reading section seems to have gotten harder in this test. The final text was really hard.

Grade 3

The grade 3 test is 50 minutes for the paper test, and 25 for the listening. It consists of:

15 vocabulary questions (choose the word that goes in the blank)
5 conversation questions (choose the phrase that goes in the blank)
10 questions based on reading passages (one easy, one medium, and one difficult)
1 writing exercise where students have to write 25-35 words and answer a question giving two reasons. The question this time was: “Where do you want to go during your summer vacation?”. They seem to be using old questions from the level 3 speaking test for this section.
10 listening questions with reference pictures
20 listening questions where you choose a written answer

The reading section seems to have gotten harder in this test. The final text made me think. The new writing section is going to trip up students who haven’t done much writing or practiced for this section of the test.

Grade pre-2

The grade pre-2 test is 75 minutes for the paper test, and 25 for the listening. It consists of:

20 vocabulary questions (choose the word that goes in the blank)
5 conversation questions (choose the phrase that goes in the blank)
5 vocabulary and phrase questions (choose the words that go in the blank in longer passages)
7 questions based on reading passages (one easy, one medium, and one difficult)
1 writing question where they examinees have to write 50-60 words and answer a question giving two reasons. This time the question was: “Do you think it is better for people to eat in restaurants or at home?”.
10 listening questions with no visual reference
20 listening questions where you choose a written answer

Overall this test felt slightly harder. Again, the writing question is similar to past interview questions for grade pre-2. The pre-2 test feels too long now. I think they have given too much extra time for the writing section.

Grade 2

The grade 2 test is 85 minutes for the paper test, and 25 for the listening. It consists of:

20 vocabulary questions (choose the word or phrase that goes in the blank)
6 vocabulary and phrase questions (choose the words that go in the blank in longer passages)
12 questions based on reading passages (one easy, one medium, and one difficult)
1 writing question where they examinees have to write 80-100 words and answer a question giving two reasons. This time the question was: “Today, more and more young people are starting their own companies. Do you think this is a good idea?”
30 listening questions where you choose a written answer

Overall this test felt slightly harder. Again, the writing question is similar to past interview questions for grade 2. This test also feels a bit too long.


I haven’t seen the new grade pre-1 or 1 tests yet, but I presume they haven’t changed as much. You can see past papers and a lot more information at the STEP Eiken website.

Anything to add? How are you finding the new tests?

Duolingo for JHS Students in Japan

Pretty good, as long as you can avoid the pitfalls

Duolingo classrooms

Last year I recommended Duolingo to one of my students: a junior high school boy who had been struggling with English.

He got really into it, doing a lesson a day or so for the last six months. His score on the last school test of the year? 96%.

I’ve played with Duolingo to review my French, German, and Spanish skills, and to have a go at Swedish, but they also have a teacher dashboard where you can track student progress.

You can set up classes (see the image at the top of the post) and see class and student progress:

Class progress

Student progress

Best of all, it’s free and optimized for smarphones and tablets. You can also use it on a computer, but I think the mobile version is better (less typing).

Beginners and low-level students can start at the beginning, and more experienced students can take the level test and skip the easier lessons.

For students who don’t have their own smartphones, I ask them to install it on their parent’s and borrow it for English practice.

Not everyone is doing the optional homework, but the ones who are seem to be enjoying it.

I have run into two big problems so far:

1) some students click on ‘let’s get started’ instead of ‘log in’ and end up making new accounts that I can’t track. I haven’t quite figured out how to fix that one yet.

2) some students have found that their account is set to Spanish. As they don’t read Spanish they weren’t able to fix the settings. Fortunately I do read Spanish, so was able to do it for them.

Other than those two problems, I really recommend Duolingo for junior high school and above. It’s a fun and different way to get more English input and practice.

Anyone else using Duolingo? How are you finding it?

Cambridge Academy: Another Quantum Leap

The Academy Fluency Course

JHS 1st-year class doing verb exercises

We’re into week three of the new academic year, and we’re starting to see the results of the changes I wrote about in the previous update.

You can read previous Academy posts here:

  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)
  8. December 2016 update (December 2016)
  9. Cambridge Academy: Year Two and Three (March 2017)
  10. Cambridge Academy: Stocktake 2017 (March 2017)

Our new reading classroom (the second)

I have to admit I was a bit jittery before classes started on April 1st. I was nervous about the new materials for the output classes, I was nervous about teaching six nights/twelve hours a week, and I was nervous about the larger class sizes.

It’s looking like I needn’t have been 🙂

New Materials

We’ve been working on the Fluency course for about a year now. We have year one in draft form, and will be using it with the three classes (28 students) of JHS 1st years we have this year as an alpha trial.

If anything, the materials work even better than I had hoped. Students have responded extremely well, they are visibly improving already, and the classes are just fun to teach.

The course is based on the New Horizon content, but vastly expanded and designed to get the students speaking, reading, and writing fluently. The first year of the course is 15,000 words long (three times the amount in all three years of New Horizon) and students explicitly study 720 words in the 48 lessons.

Students do speaking and writing practice, speed reading, verb/pronoun exercises, and memorize and write dialogues. They are constantly working for 60 minutes. It’s a beautiful thing to see and teach.

We also use Quizlet (search for CA OUTPUT 1 to see our lessons) to preview and practice vocabulary and questions for the class, and students do Duolingo as optional language practice.

This year we will write the second year of the course, and next year we’ll have a beta of the first-year course at Cambridge and at another partner school, while we do the alpha of the second-year course at Cambridge.

Teaching Six Nights/Twelve Hours a Week

This also went way better than I had expected. I didn’t intend to teach six nights a week, but we had so many students wanting to join that we chose to add another day (Mondays), as well as increase class sizes (see below) to accommodate them.

The classes are fun, and even with the extra preparation needed for the first couple of classes, have so far not been too overwhelming. I have an assistant in each class but, to be honest, haven’t really needed them so far.

Larger Class Sizes

This might be the best thing of all. Up until this year, all our classes had a maximum of six students in. This year due to unexpected demand (we were expecting up to twenty JHS1 students: we actually got twenty-eight) we increased the class size to ten.

I was expecting it to be more difficult to teach. I was also expecting the parents to be unhappy.

The thing is, with our new fluency course, it’s easier to run the class as students need less individual attention. The atmosphere actually improved with more students in the room. In fact, I think this will work equally well (or better!) with twenty or thirty students.

Parents haven’t complained. In fact, many of them have told us their children are really enjoying the classes.

So if we can secure a larger space I will try to increase class sizes to twenty next year 🙂

iTDI: The Power and Joy of Extensive Reading

I’m taking an online course about ER through iTDI. We had the first session this evening. So far it’s a pretty good introduction to the topic.

You can see a recording of the first session here. If you like it, please consider joining the rest of the course.

Maybe see you on there!

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