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!

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? 

REVIEW: Mr. Men and Little Miss Books

Really great. Much better than I expected!

I got these two boxed sets recently to add to our library at the Cambridge Academy. However, before I could use them with our students my granddaughter got her hands on them and insisted I read them all to her first -they are now her favorite books by far.

I’ve turned into a big fan too. I’ll run through what I think of each set briefly, then talk about how they might be used in a program.

The Mr Men My Complete Collection box contains 47 paperback Mr Men books in a very cool box.

The books are a bit hit and miss, but most of them are really entertaining.

My personal favourites are Mr. Tickle, Mr. Greedy, and the surprise hit Mr. Dizzy. We loved Mr. Dizzy because it contained several riddles aimed at young children, and Alyssa was thrilled to be able to answer them.

In fact, all the Mr. Men and Little Miss books are aimed at children, introducing slightly more adult vocabulary and frequently speaking directly to the reader, encouraging them to interact with the books. They also contain little moral lessons, but this is not too overwhelming.

The Little Miss My Complete Collection is similar, consisting of 35 paperback Little Miss books.

To be honest, I was a bit worried these would be very dated, or sexist. So far that has not been the case. We’ve only read half a dozen of these, but already I’ve found a couple I love: Little Miss Magic (where Mr. Tickle’s arms get shrunk) and Little Miss Hug.

In fact, I think the Little Miss books might even be better, because they tend to feature other characters and integrate them into the stories. Somehow they work really well.

From an ER library perspective, word counts and YLs for both the Mr Men and Little Miss books are in the Tadoku Kanzen Guide (with just a couple of exceptions for each box -the newest books). There is no audio, but I am planning to record our own -this would be a ‘two birds with one stone’ situation, as I could then give a copy to Alyssa too 🙂

The books are all YL1.5 or so, and 500-800 words, with simple stories and occasionally challenging vocabulary or grammar. The language is slightly old-fashioned, and some of the character names don’t mean what I originally thought they meant. Mr. Dizzy, for example, is actually stupid rather than off-balance, and Mr. Mean is stingy rather than bad-natured.

Here are a couple of pages to show the kind of language used:

Still, for the beautiful artwork and the wonderful stories, I really recommend this series. I can’t wait to introduce them to our students, and am even looking forward to making the audio for each one.

Does anyone else have these books? Anything to add?

Cambridge Academy: December 2016 Update

img_8650
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.

img_8651
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.

img_8652
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?

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