12 Aug 2017, 10:55am
Academy curriculum


Cambridge Academy: Year Three Mid-year Update

Incremental Change

Monday junior high school first-years

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)
  11. Cambridge Academy: Another Quantum Leap (April 2017)

We’re almost halfway through year three of the Cambridge Academy. As I wrote about in the last update we’re trying out our new Fluency Course this year along with larger classes (up to ten students). I’m also teaching six nights a week.

Right now we have 79 students:

  1. 31 junior high school first years (28 regular, 2 reading only, 1 advanced)
  2. 21 junior high school second years (15 regular, 4 reading only, 2 advanced)
  3. 8 junior high school third years (5 regular, 3 reading only)
  4. 8 senior high school first years (5 regular, 3 reading only)
  5. 6 senior high school second years (4 regular, 2 reading only)
  6. 3 senior high school third years (2 regular, 1 reading only)
  7. 2 ronin students (2 regular)

So far, so good. The Fluency Course is going well with the first years, who are using it as their only materials. For the second and third years we have been using the first year timed reading texts alongside our original question cards and workbooks, as well as commercial textbooks.

From this month the third years have been trying our second year Fluency Course. Right now we only have the first month written, so we have to write each month in order for the students to use it the following month. I am writing the second month as we speak (well, actually I am procrastinating by writing this blog post instead!).

The junior high school students are streamed by school year (we have three first year, two second year, and one third year class), apart from advanced students who either get private classes or join a senior high school class. Senior high school students are streamed by level/ability, and we currently have three levels/classes.

We made another big book order for YL0.3 and 0.4 taking us to roughly ten copies of each set, and I think we’ll probably do the same for 0.5 and 0.6 later in the year.

The main developments have been in the input (reading) classes, and how we approach them now and in the future.

At this point it seems like our current first years are doing better than our first years last year. I can think of several reasons. We made student manuals to help explain the system. We modeled what we wanted to see in the reading classes, both at the beginning and several weeks in when we saw that some students were going off track. We introduced a read to the teacher extra step when students finish a set.

It seems likely that we should be able to aim for our students to reach intermediate level (YL1.1+) by the end of the third year of our course, having read over half a million words. If they then choose to stay with us during senior high school, we can try to get them to the lift-off stage where they go on to read 1-2 million words over the following three years.

However, we are still not achieving the results that some of the best ER programs in Japan boast. This month I attended the Extensive Reading World Congress and was able to attend some very inspiring presentations by Japan Extensive Reading Association members.

I learned two important things:

  1. The results reported by some programs seem to be outlier students chosen for effect and do not represent the average student. In the case of SEG, they have three levels of class (advanced, normal, and low-level). Due to their student demographics (large number of returnees and kids expecting to get into Tokyo University), our student population is closest to their low-level classes, and we are achieving similar results so I feel much better about our program now.
  2. With guided ER it is important not to increase student levels linearly, but instead to have them fluctuate up and down. This is expressed in the concepts of kirin (giraffe) reading, where students read above their baseline level, and panda reading, where they read below. Through judicious use of these two variations, we should be able to have our students progress slightly faster than they have done until now.

We have identified three types of student at our school, each of which requires slightly different treatment.

Fast students: can advance quickly, only reading a couple of books/sets at each level. Goals are to get to intermediate then find a series they enjoy in order to do narrow reading. I think our current approach is fine with these students, but we might be able to do better at introducing books/encouraging them to stretch themselves.
Normal students: can advance at a normal pace, reading about 2/3 of our readers at each level while also doing kirin reading and panda reading. Goals are to level up as quickly as possible without getting ahead of their understanding. I think we can help these students move quicker by judicious coaching.
Slow students: can advance only slowly, often requiring extra reading at each level before moving up. Kirin reading may help these students and is something we will investigate. Perhaps we could provide more support by reading with these students or helping them understand/interact with the texts.

Compared to SEG, we have about half the in-class reading time, and much more importantly a much less motivated and academically-gifted student body. Despite these restrictions, I am hopeful we’ll be able to help most of our students achieve meaningful progress in their English skills.

The obstacle is that even for SEG it seems to take 4-5 years before the effects really start to show. Getting students (and their parents) to persist until they reap the benefits of their effort seems to be the tricky part. We’re getting better at this, and are losing fewer students than we were in the first year.

Last year we almost filled our three classes of ten. It looks like we’ll have around thirty students coming up from elementary school classes, so should have similar numbers in April.

Things I need to figure out before next year:

  • Do we increase our class limits to twelve? I think it would work pedagogically, and of course it would make the classes more profitable, but we’d really be stretching the physical limits of both our input and output classrooms. Right now ten is snug, so twelve might be too tight.
  • Who is going to teach the classes? We could go in one of four directions: I keep teaching both input and output classes, alongside other teachers and our interns. I teach all the output classes, and leave the input classes to our interns. I leave the output classes to our teachers and teach all the input classes. I ask our teachers and interns to teach all the classes, and float, observing and helping as needed. I think it might be a bit soon for the last option.

Running the Academy is still one of the most fun and interesting things I have done as a teacher, and I am really looking forward to figuring out how to make the program even better over the next few years.

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 🙂

29 Mar 2017, 10:25pm
Academy stocktake

leave a comment

Cambridge Academy: Stocktake 2017

Even more stocktake

Our new reading classroom is slowly taking shape

So I finished our annual stocktake today. It’s always interesting to go through and get some numbers. You can see last year’s post here.

This year we have lost some books, but not many , and still not enough to make me want to look for any kind of tracking system for lending. If we started losing a lot more books, or if we got bigger I might consider it, but for now things seem to be okay.

We’ve also bought quite a few books this year. The main acquisitions were intermediate books as more of our students moved into that range, and beginner books to get ready for our 30-odd new JHS1 students who will start next week.

We have also modified how we write yomiyasusa level. Instead of 0.1-9.9, we have changed it to 1-99. Laura M. suggested this to me years ago, and I wish we’d switched earlier 🙂

We’re not going to bother relabelling books, so for a long time we’re likely to have both. I put a section in the student manual to explain so hopefully it won’t be an issue.

Beginner Books (YL1-10)

Big increases in YL1-2 books

You can see the general increase at all levels, and the large increase in the first two levels. I think we’ll have to make similar purchases this year as this cohort moves up, so by next year we should be seeing more robust YL3-5 as well.

Intermediate Books (YL11+)

Still a long way to go!

We’ve made some progress, but our library is still a bit thin at the higher levels. We’ve got a handful of students at YL30 or so, so I predict we’ll be making constant purchases of individual books at these levels this year.

Total Numbers

Just over a 60% increase

Based on this and our needs going forwards, I reckon the library will be over 10,000 books this time next year. Our maximum intake is going to remain 30 students a year for the output classes (looks like we’ll have at least that many next year), so we shouldn’t need to expand the beginner levels for a while after we finish boosting to enough books for 30 students in each year.

Classes start on Saturday, so we are spending a lot of time making new files, replacing the checklist (we’re on version 2.3 now), and I’m trying to finish the student class manual. Wish me luck!

Cambridge Academy: Year Two and Three


The Academy appears to be taking off. We have over 30 JHS1 students starting next month, including half a dozen new prospects that found us through word of mouth (some of our students are doing very well in school) or from our new website. Our new fluency-based curriculum is ready for testing. We’ve rented a second reading classroom and are buying a lot of new books.

We haven’t reached 100 students yet (how naive that goal seems now) but we’re getting closer. We should definitely hit it next year if not before.

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)

More importantly, we have learned a lot over the last few months and should be able to improve class content and avoid operational issues next year.

2016-17 Academic Year

Some highlights from this year:

  • shadoku has been a huge success
  • our students are starting to make real progress
  • we had incredible eiken results this time round
  • word of mouth from our success stories seems to be very positive
  • students love graduating from guided ER to independent ER
  • varied reading materials work very well (particularly comics)

Some lessons learned:

  • we had a ‘pre-Academy’ course this year for elementary 6th grade students that just did reading but I am not at all happy with the results so we’ll be discontinuing it
  • scheduling was a huge pain this year and some parents got annoyed with us
  • our textbook choices were not great -need to tighten up the output class content

2017-18 Academic Year

A few big changes next year. The biggest is that I’ll be teaching all the junior high school classes, both input (reading) and output (communication). I’m doing this because I want to really work on the curriculum and trial our new fluency materials. We will have over fifty JHS students from April.

We’re increasing class sizes. Until now we’ve had output classes of six, but from April we’ll have up to ten students in a class. I think this should be okay, but I’ll have an assistant for each class just in case. For input classes with the new classroom we’ll be able to increase our max class size from 12 to 22.

We’ll be trialing our new fluency materials with thirty JHS1 students. Limited trials so far seem to indicate that the materials are interesting and easy-to-understand for students. We’ll see how they do over an entire academic year.

We’ll finally have some student manuals that explain the program and what students should be doing in Japanese. Based on my experience of using manuals with university students I expect this will make things more efficient. It will also help parents to understand what we are doing and why.

We’ll be making some administrative changes too to reduce friction and paperwork. The most important is that I already know what days of the week will be JHS1 classes from April 2018. This means we can tell parents about them sooner and have them sign up in January for classes (first come first served). We’ll be asking them to pay the annual fee in order to register, which should reduce sudden cancellations (or at least compensate us somewhat for them).

We’ll be buying a lot of books. I just ordered 300,000 yen’s worth of books for our YL0.1-0.2 library (to deal with those 30+ JHS1 students coming in next month). This will last us a few months, but then we’ll have to make a similar order for YL0.3-0.4, and so on. It looks like 30 is going to be our capacity for a while, so this should be a one-off this year.

I also expect to continue buying intermediate level (YL1.1+) books to expand our collection.

We rented a second reading classroom this month, and will be using it for the JHS1 classes. We’ll keep our current classroom but move the lower-level materials to the new classroom and keep the old one for older students.


So things are looking good. Growth is slower than I was expecting, but seems to be taking off. Next year should be a big improvement in class quality and I’m hoping to document what I do to make it easier to have other teachers run the classes. We intend to trial our JHS2 fluency materials in 2018 and JHS3 in 2019.

Finally, I think I have figured out how to share the Academy program with other schools. We are creating something called the Academy Mentor Program (AMP) which is basically a time-limited franchise (schools stop paying fees after a few years and can continue using the program). I think it’s a win-win-win. If all goes well we’ll be doing a Beta in 2018.

Anyone else doing interesting things with junior high school students? Would you be interested in getting support/materials/knowhow to launch your own Academy program? Any good books in the YL1.1-3.0 range? 

The 2016 That Was

I like the end of the year. I normally have a few days off, and it’s a good time to reflect.

Since 2013 I’ve been doing annual reviews and plans. This is a wonderful habit to start if you’re not doing it already. Really helps you think about what you want to be doing with your hours.

This year has been pretty quiet here at sendaiben. I’ve been putting most of my blogging energy into my personal finance site RetireJapan so there haven’t been as many posts here.

In fact, I only wrote 38 posts this year.

Teaching-wise, 2016 was quietly successful. My university classes are pretty nailed down, but we still managed to come put with some solid improvements for our extensive reading and discussion classes on last year.

The Cambridge Academy developed a lot this year, and next year is looking extremely promising too. We should have finished our homebrew curriculum for 1st-year junior high school students in time for the April start. I will, of course, be keeping you posted.

How was your 2016?

  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • %d bloggers like this: