Cambridge Academy: December 2016 Update

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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.

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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.

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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?

Making a New JHS and SHS Curriculum

Fluency Practice and Clarity

fluency

This year we are creating a new curriculum for the Cambridge Academy output classes. I’ve written (and thought) a lot about the Academy reading program input classes, but over 90% of our students also take an output class.

Output classes are small group (up to six students) communication classes focusing mainly on speaking and writing. This year I am taking a closer look at these classes because I have noticed that they may be far more important than I realized.

I believe the reading program delivers most of the benefit to our students. Extensive reading and listening for at least an hour a week is going to complement everything else they are doing at school and outside and give them the amount of input they need to start internalizing the language. However, in our input classes students work alone reading and listening to texts. They don’t necessarily notice the progress they are making, nor do they form emotional connections with their classmates or teachers.

That’s where the output classes come in. Students do pairwork and communicate through speaking and writing. If they enjoy the output classes they will be more motivated and have a positive view of our school.

In a way, the output classes are the heart of the program.

Which is why we are trying to improve them this year. Last year the output classes were a bit of an afterthought, and did not produce the results or the atmosphere we wanted. This year we are shaking things up with some major changes.

No homework

Two things prompted this: I read some articles about how homework doesn’t do much for students and they really resonated with me, and we noticed that only about half of our students were actually doing the homework we set.

Now, I think the benefits of formal homework could be debated, but for us the negative aspects of students not doing homework were far more important. First of all, it was very disruptive to have some students do the homework and others not. We had to take class time to help them catch up at which point that students that actually did the homework got annoyed. Asking/nagging students about homework also created a negative atmosphere in the class, and made some students not want to come to class merely because they felt bad about not doing the homework.

This is why from this month we will not be setting formal homework in our Academy classes. Students have self-study they can do (extensive reading and listening, vocabulary study with Word Engine, listening practice with elllo) but nothing compulsory.

The no homework policy is going well so far.

Fluency practice for speaking and writing

This came from reflecting on university classes based on the PDR method, as well as Yuko Suzuki’s take on shadoku. I have come to believe that our students need fluency practice, ie doing relatively easy linguistic tasks in order to acquire automaticity. What this looks like in practice is doing question and answer drills, timed writing, and repeating speaking activities multiple times.

Again, based on a couple of weeks: better atmosphere, happier students, more satisfied teachers. We’ll see how it goes as students get over the novelty and potentially start getting bored over the next few months.

The Longterm Plan

In the longterm I would like to create an original curriculum for junior and senior high school students that doesn’t require commercial textbooks, based on the principles we are exploring in our output classes. Such a curriculum could be useful not only to Cambridge Academy, but potentially to other private language schools and even junior and senior high schools interested in running a communication class once a week.

More details as this project progresses.

Cambridge Academy: Looking at Year Two

Still Evolving at a Rapid Rate

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Since I wrote my last post a few weeks ago the program has continued to evolve. This will just be a quick update as we head towards the spring break and our planned stocktake and preparation for next year.

Conceptual Breakthrough

The most exciting development is a conceptual breakthrough I had a couple of weeks ago. As our library expanded, we continued buying more of our existing books, as well as new series. The new books mostly worked, but some are a better fit for our students than others. We started to run out of shelf space, and my reading checklists were getting crowded.

I also had to decide if we were going to buy multiple sets of the new books. If we did, would we continue making most students read all the books at each level? Even if the number of books at each level continued to grow?

Our system was getting twisted out of shape.

Then I had a conceptual breakthrough. It seems really obvious now, but it took me a while to spot it. We actually have two kinds of books in our lower level collection: core books, which most students should read, and supplementary books, which can be given to students that might enjoy them or need extra practice. We need multiple sets of core books, but only single copies of supplementary books. There should be a limited number of core books, but we can pretty much buy anything as a supplementary book.

In practice this means that most students will read the core books. Some students will read supplementary books if they need more practice at a certain level. Others may read supplementary books if they seem like they would enjoy them.

This breakthrough has made it easier to think about and plan the program.

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Testing

We have decided to introduce a number of tests to the Academy in order to provide us with data, to motivate and encourage students, and to reassure parents.

We held the TOEFL ITP (pre-TOEFL) last week at the school. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically given my rant post about using Eiken tests appropriately, we gave it to all our students, including the JHS ones. This was a mistake as it was far too hard for some of them.

In the future we will only use the TOEFL with our more advanced students.

We are also planning to use the JUMP and ACE tests from ELPA (for JHS and SHS students respectively) twice a year in April and December.

This will cost money and take class time, but I think it will help motivate students by showing them their progress and give our school and program more respectability.

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Preparing for Next Year

Before April, we need to:

  • do a stocktake and find out how many copies/sets of each book we have
  • add missing book information to our database
  • order more books to fill in gaps in our collection
  • prepare new student files and checklists
  • buy more CD players (a couple have broken)
  • think about the interior design of the reading classroom (it’s fine as it is but I would like it to be more welcoming, comfortable, and relaxing)

The Academy from 2016 will have around 60 students. This is far fewer than I was hoping for, but broadly in line with my expectations.

In my experience it takes a few years for word of mouth about a program to take off, and the nature of an ER-based system is that results take years not months to emerge. I am still hopeful that our enrolment will take off in a year or two (year three or four of the program).

Wish us luck!

Cambridge Academy: Year One

150426 Cambridge Academy prep 1

This is the third post about the Cambridge Academy, a private English program for junior and senior high school students. You can read the introductory post here, and the six-month update here.

The Academy started in April 2015, so this is the eleventh month of operation. It seems like a good point to review the year and talk about what we have learned since the last update.

The Good

There have been several positive developments. Best, and most important, of all is that our current students still seem to be enjoying their classes and reading well as far as I can tell. We have a range of outcomes depending on motivation, how often the students miss class, and ability, but even the least motivated students have read around 40,000 words this year. The students I mentioned in the last update who had run into problems now seem to be back on track.

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Intermediate-level books

We have figured out what to do with intermediate students. Once students go past YL 1.0 we class them as intermediate and give them more freedom to choose books. Up until 1.0 we do ‘guided ER’: class teachers give them their reading material and keep track of what they have read. Once they become intermediate they can choose their own books (teachers give advice until they get used to taking responsibility for their reading) within an appropriate level range.

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Coloured vinyl tape

Levels are now indicated with coloured vinyl tape. We use ten colours for beginner, and the same ten colours for intermediate and above, as follows:

Colour – Beginner YL – Intermediate+ YL

  • Pink – 0.1 – 1.1-1.2
  • Red – 0.2 – 1.3-1.4
  • Orange -0.3 – 1.5-1.9
  • Yellow -0.4 – 2.0-2.4
  • Light Green – 0.5 – 2.5-2.9
  • Green – 0.6 – 3.0-3.9
  • Light Blue – 0.7 – 4.0-4.9
  • Blue – 0.8 – 5.0-5.9
  • Purple – 0.9 – 6.0-6.9
  • Brown – 1.0 – 7.0+

The tape is easily available on Amazon or in stores. Putting it on books and ziplock bags is a bit of a pain, but it really helps teachers put beginner sets back in the right place quickly, and students find books at an appropriate level in the intermediate levels.

The reason I use tape and not stickers, despite the extra time it takes to measure and cut the tape, is that it is far more durable and pretty much doesn’t fall off (unlike the stickers).

We had some very good explanatory sessions with parents and students (sanshamendan) where we asked parents to come in for fifteen minutes and gave them a quick status report on how their child was doing. I was able to share their reading numbers and talk about what we do in class. This also gave parents a chance to ask questions or raise concerns, and a few of them did which meant we were able to set their minds at ease. We did the sessions over a number of weeks in November and December. I’m not sure if we will be able to continue doing them if student numbers grow, but will try to do something similar at least for all students in their first year.

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Books waiting to be labelled

We have bought a lot more books. We took delivery of about 1000 in January, and I am nowhere near caught up on labeling them and sorting out the audio. The good thing is that I think we’re probably okay for breadth at the beginner levels now. The next thing is to work on the intermediate levels, particularly on getting really appealing series of books, so that students can find something they like and read lots of similar content.

The Bad

Somewhat predictably, we are still finding it hard to recruit students from outside of Cambridge English, the parent English school. I was hoping to have grown the student body to around one hundred by the end of this first year, but instead we have seen slight attrition as students quit to focus on entry tests, move away, or get busy with other activities.

Student numbers fell by about 15% as current students decided they didn’t like the new system (fair enough as most of them were in normal eikaiwa classes when we unilaterally moved them to the new Academy format). We have another 10% or so who will graduate and go away to university. Somewhat making up for that, we have up to 40% who will come up from Cambridge English, and about 10% of new students who have booked trial lessons this month.

If all goes very well, we should end up with slightly more students than we had this time last year.

We weren’t able to redesign the website last year so that is a future project.

What happens next?

Well, the most urgent thing right now is to make sure the current students stay and as many prospective new students as possible join. We also need to tweak the program slightly to move writing practice into the ‘output’ classes and reduce the amount of formal homework students have. This year we found that most students did not do homework, which interfered with the smooth running of classes. Next year we will have no set homework but instead introduce lots of opportunities for language practice so that more motivated students can do it and the others don’t feel they have to.

I am really looking forward to seeing the students’ progress going forward. We have half a dozen now who are into our intermediate level, having read 300,000 words+. I am hoping that we (and they) will start seeing results in terms of their school studies and general English proficiency. This is where the program is going to live or die, and where our future students are going to come from. It will also make all the hard work worthwhile.

I imagine we will continue buying books too 🙂

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.

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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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