Cambridge Academy: Year Two and Three

Takeoff

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.

Overall

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? 

Cambridge Discovery Interactive Readers

Great news

cambridge discovery interactive readers

Last year I took another look at the excellent Cambridge Discovery Interactive Readers (full review coming soon) and was disappointed to see that a lot of the content was set up to be accessible to a single user for a limited time. It seems the publisher assumes they will be bought by individuals and used as a kind of textbook.

Of course, this is very different to how ER program administrators look at books.

For me, I am not interested in the interactive questions or even videos (although it would be nice if they were on a public site accessible by anyone), but I am very interested in having the audio files available so I can make CDs for our students.

I reached out to our local Cambridge University Press rep, who is a very thorough and approachable guy, and told him I was very interested in having access to the audio files. He asked some questions about my teaching situation, I answered them, and he said he’d talk to the main office.

I assumed that would be the end of it. Few publishers understand ER as practiced in Japan (particularly with regards to the importance of word counts, etc.) and I wasn’t expecting much more than ‘sorry, we can’t do anything at this time’.

This morning I was proved completely wrong. I received an email telling me that the audio files for the first couple of levels are online and can be freely used by teachers and students. Apparently the rest of them will be going up soon.

This is great. I’m really happy to see a big publisher listen to local teachers and help them with their teaching situation. Big kudos to Cambridge for making this change -I hope you’ll check out the series and download the audio. Positive reinforcement works wonders!

Shadoku Explained

Adding shadowing to beginner extensive reading has immense potential

IMG_6753

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. I’d like to thank Yuko Suzuki, who first told me about the huge potential of incorporating shadowing practice into extensive reading classes for beginners/lower-level students. If you have a chance to see one of her presentations I recommend you take it -she’s a very effective teacher and presenter.

So what is shadoku? Well, it is a term coined by me as a gag over lunch at a seminar in Fukuoka. I’m kind of chuffed that it has been adopted somewhat by the community 😉

Shadoku is shadowing and tadoku (extensive reading).

Shadowing is a type of speaking fluency practice that involves attempting to speak along with another person or an audio source. It is different from repeating. When doing read and repeat, for example, the source would speak first, then the learner would repeat. In shadowing, the source would speak, then the learner would attempt to say the same thing at the same time with the smallest lag possible. One feature of shadowing is that learners are encouraged to imitate the speaker’s tone, intonation, emotion, and pronunciation.


This video gives a brief explanation of shadowing.

So how does this work with tadoku (extensive reading)?

Well, I have only been experimenting with this for a few months, and we rolled it out to all the beginner students in the Cambridge Academy last week.

I have adapted (messed up?) Yuko’s technique slightly, so I will introduce my version of shadoku below.

For beginners (mainly junior high school first years and elementary students) I am planning to do shadoku as described below until they reach YL 0.4, at which point I may allow them to read and listen instead, or we may continue with shadoku if that seems appropriate at the time. Basically this year is another learning experience for me.

How to do shadoku

There are four steps in my version of shadoku, so a student will read each book four times.

Step one: look at the pictures, think about the content. At YL0.1-0.3 there are plenty of pictures in the books and students can guess a lot of the content just from that. This step takes a minute or two, and we encourage students to look closely at details in the pictures.

Step two: listen to the audio and read along silently. This step allows students to focus on how to pronounce words and how the English sounds when spoken.

Step three: listen to the audio, read along, and shadow out loud. This step allows students to shadow assisted by the text.

Step four: listen to the audio and shadow out loud. Do not open the book. This step allows students to use their listening skills and short-term memory to shadow successfully. I also encourage students to think about the meaning of what they are saying during this step.

Introducing shadoku

For the first three or four classes I have students do shadoku as a group, with me leading them. I introduce each step (I have a notebook with the four steps that I show to remind students), play the CD when necessary, and give students feedback and advice. Students shadow together as a group, which makes them feel less self-conscious and allows more confident/keener students to set a good example.

Shadoku diagrams
I use these diagrams to explain shadoku

After a few classes and once students are more confident, we do group shadoku at the beginning of class and then students work individually with headphones and personal CD players in the latter half. They are also expected to continue practicing in the same way at home.

The benefits of shadoku

I haven’t been using shadoku with my students for long, but already I am really happy with how things are going. I’ve been asking all our new students (starting at YL 0.1) to do shadoku, and am currently planning to have them continue until they reach YL 0.4 or so.

The main benefit is that students are much more involved in the task.

Previously when we did reading while listening some students were clearly zoning out. I had a couple who appeared not to have made any progress mid-year so I had to have them go back to the beginning and do intensive work reading to me, etc.

I can’t see that happening this year, as I can hear the students practicing and can monitor if they are getting the right pronunciation, intonation, etc.

The students also seem happier and the atmosphere in class is much better than last year.

Conclusion

This is still a work in progress. So far so good, but we’ll see if students get bored or some unexpected problem pops up. We’ll also have to see where it would be appropriate to stop doing shadoku in class and transition to reading and listening. I suspect it’s going to be when students move from YL 0.3 to 04, but I’m not sure and look forward to trying it out in a couple of months’ time.

Anyone else using shadoku? Anything to add?

English Skills of Japanese Students

Business as Usual

JHS English survey 2016

Japan Times article. NHK puts a positive spin on the data. Less positive commentary.

Apart from unsurprised disappointment, my first reaction is to question what exactly the government thinks the equivalent of Eiken 3, pre-2, or 2 writing skills are that 40-odd percent of students have (given that these tests don’t have a writing section).

Is it that ridiculous ‘rearrange these words in the right order’ section? Because if they were using the words ‘writing skills’ in the form that the rest of the world understands, I think it would be a struggle for any Japanese junior and senior high school students to demonstrate proficiency.

I wrote about English education in Japan a couple of years ago in my ‘if I ruled the world’ series:

The JET Program

University English Education

High School English Education

Junior High School English

Elementary School English

I don’t think a huge amount has changed since I wrote those. One thing that has changed for me is seeing how effective an extensive reading and listening course is. I will be doubling my efforts to get local schools to start their own programs -wish me luck.

Cambridge Academy (six months in)

Extensive Reading for Secondary Students Part 2

Well, we’ve been running the Cambridge Academy for about six months now.

150426 Cambridge Academy prep 1

Academy classroom

Cambridge Academy (see previous write-up here): so far so good. We’ve run into some problems and changed course a couple of times, but the program is shaping up and it’s time for a big recruitment push. In this post I will talk about some hiccups we encountered, solutions, and future plans.

Problems so far

1. We still don’t have enough books

2. Some books don’t have commercially available audio

3. We don’t have a coherent program beyond the beginner level (over YL0.9)

4. Some students (10%>) are not performing well

5. Writing activities are not a good fit for an extensive reading class

Solutions

1. We continue to buy books and process existing ones (label and put into database and reading checklists) so that students can use them. We’ve probably doubled our existing readers since April and will probably continue doing this for the foreseeable future. Practice is making better, and our processing is getting much quicker now.

Processing new books

Processing new books

Processing new books involves the following steps:

  • open box, remove plastic wrapping etc.
  • find YL/word count information
  • label books with SEG labels
  • input book information into our reader database
  • copy CDs and put away the masters
  • put books and CDs into ziplock bag sets
  • add book/set information to reading checklists
  • put books on the shelves

The two major problems are if books don’t have YL/word count information, and if books don’t have CDs/audio. Right now we guesstimate YL and count words if the books are short enough. For longer books we try to find the word counts online. This site is great to find US-published series.

2. For books with no commercial audio available, we have been making our own by reading the books out loud into an iMac using Audacity to produce mp3 files that we then burn to CDs using iTunes. So far this is working very well, but it takes quite a long time and we still have over 500 books to make CDs for!

Recording audio

Recording audio

3. None of our students have gone beyond YL1.0 yet, but a couple of them will reach it soon. Before that happens we need to make sure we have enough books for them to read. Another problem is what to do about audio. I suspect that by the time students go over YL1.0 audio will be less important, but I am not 100% sure.

The other question is whether to continue grouping books into sets or to move to having individual books. If individual books, what will the checklists look like? I suspect all of this will get worked out over the next six months or so.

4. We have two problems with some of our students. The first is that a small number of students (two or three) seem to be exaggerating the amount they read or reading in a very perfunctory way (just looking at the pictures). I’m not sure how much of a problem this is, as they may well still be getting some benefit from the audio input. If it is a problem, I don’t really know what to do about it. I have tried talking to them, asking them about the content of books, and had them read the books out loud to me, but I am still not happy about the situation. Work in progress.

The other problem is potentially more serious. So far only one student seems to have run into it. Basically the student seems to have hit a wall around YL0.3, and is reporting that they cannot understand anything in the books at that level. I have tried talking to the student and explaining that it’s not necessary to understand everything but rather important to try and catch familiar words and think about the meaning, but I am not sure how helpful that was or how to solve this if it comes up with other students. Another work in progress.

5. Our initial model bundled extensive reading and writing practice (through weekly writing assignments) into one class, with speaking activities in the other. However, this model has several important drawbacks and we’ll be changing it in the future. Our ER classes have up to 12 students in them, so checking each student’s writing in 55 minutes is really hard and quite stressful for the teacher. Checking writing assignments in the ER class also means that our teaching assistants cannot take the class (they would be able to if it was just ER). Finally, having writing assignments in the ER class makes the class more stressful and less fun. Students are worried about finishing their writing instead of just relaxing and enjoying the reading class.

From next year we will include the writing assignments in the communication class (output), while the ER class will focus on reading and listening to the accompanying CDs.

Future plans

We have a few plans not mentioned above. The first and most important is that now that the program is getting into a half-decent shape, it’s time to try to expand it and recruit more students. So far all our students joined from within the school. Only half a dozen or so joined the school once the Academy was running, and we haven’t been actively advertising the course.

Advertising business cards

Business cards for advertising

From this week we will start actively trying to recruit new students, through our new Academy webpage and various advertising campaigns. Our goal is to have 100 students in the Academy by December 15th this year.

Planning the website

Planning the new website

Our website is getting a bit dated so we plan to get a new one made in November this year.

We are also going to explore whether the ER class is a standalone product. At first we went off the SEG model, which pairs an ER class with a communication class, but my friend DE suggested that the ER class might be our main product, with the communication class as an optional extra. This would be much easier to provide logistically, so I am excited to see if it is true over the next couple of months.

Another thing that we need to work on is making the ER classroom more comfortable. Right now it is set up with school-style desks and chairs, but we are planning to make more of a cafe-style with more comfortable chairs and funkier design/lighting/etc. Ideally it should be a welcoming space that students want to spend time in, and prospective students are attracted to. Work in progress, but I hope to post some pictures in the next update.

We need to find another couple of teaching assistants so we can train them before expanding the number of classes. We’re looking for 2nd-year university students at the moment.

Eventually we are hoping to open new branches in other parts of the city. I think that will be an option once we have 200 students at the original location. Another work in progress!

Any questions or advice? Please comment below.

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