The Academy Fluency Course

The Cambridge Academy is a six-year English program for junior and senior high school students at Cambridge English School in Sendai. 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)
  12. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Mid-Year Update (August 2017)
  13. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Student Progress (October 2017)
  14. Cambridge Academy: Year Three and Four (February 2018)

Background

The fluency course was not originally part of the Academy plan. Originally I wanted to run the Academy purely as an extensive reading course that would supplement what students were doing at school (and cram school/juku). This is much easier logistically and makes scheduling and running classes very simple. It’s also more profitable as you can fill classes with students of different levels.

This first iteration of the Academy did not work well. We found that without help it was difficult for students to learn English just from reading. We also found that students did not form a social bond with the school or their peers and thus missed out on motivation. Some students did well with the ER-only model, but many did not.

The second iteration of the Academy imitated SEG in having reading classes and communication classes. For the latter we used commercial textbooks. This worked better than ER-only, but there were problems with the tone, content, amount of material, and amount of repetition in the textbooks. The classes also worked well if run by an experienced engaged teacher but less well with less experienced teachers.

In order to deal with these problems, we created the Academy Fluency Course. It was written from scratch, extensively trialled with our classes here, and is designed to provide students with huge amounts of repetitive practice in reading, speaking, listening, and writing. Fluency is gained by repeating tasks you can already do, and the goal of the Fluency Course is not to teach students new language (although they do encounter huge amounts of new vocabulary and grammar in the course) but rather to allow them to practice enough to internalise some of the language they know and become fluent in using it.

The Cambridge Academy now consists of 140 minute classes: 20 minutes of workbook/school work/individual study, 60 minutes of input (extensive reading and listening), and 60 minutes of output (fluency course).

The Academy Fluency Course

Junior high school 1: Year One (these materials are in beta and are described in detail below).
The theme for this level is the students daily and school lives.
Junior high school 2: Year Two (these materials are in alpha).
The theme for this level is Japan. Students read and talk about different areas/aspects of Japan.
Junior high school 3: Year Three (these materials are not written yet).
The theme for this level is the world. Students read and talk about different areas/aspects of the world.
Senior high school initial course for first and weaker second years: (these materials are not written yet).
This level will provide a transition between the junior high school materials and the advanced course below.
Senior high school advanced course for stronger second and third years: (this is being written now).
This level is based on the PDR method and involves students reading, thinking, discussing, and writing about topics each week.

In 2017 we ran classes using the Year One materials. Halfway through the year we started writing the Year Two materials with the second and third graders. The plan is to write Year Three this year alongside the advanced high school course and to use them with the third year JHS and our advanced high school class.

Fluency Course Year One

The first year of the Fluency Course is based on the first year junior high school textbooks and has the following student components:

  1. 12 4-week student textbooks (April to March) with a total of 512 pages and 84,249 words
  2. a 48-unit student writing workbook
  3. 12 monthly reference sheets with questions and vocabulary
  4. 3 4-month student record sheets

There are also reference/class/teacher components

  1. 240 index cards with questions and answers (you will need one set for every two students in the class for pair work)
  2. 48 verb exercise answer sheets (you will need one for each student in your largest class)
  3. 48 Quizlet vocabulary and question datasets (available through the Quizlet website)

The main component is the student textbook, split into twelve montly booklets. It provides the vocabulary and questions for all the other components. The April book is slightly different from the others because it provides a gentle introduction. Each book contains the following:

Week One and Two
Vocab quiz (15 items from the timed reading texts, previewed by Quizlet)
3 timed reading texts with questions (April 45 words, May-July 60 words, August-November 80 words, December-March 100 words)
Verb conjugation table (to be read aloud -one verb per week)
Timed verb translation (30 items)
Example dialogue for reading and memorizing (April-July 3 exchanges, August-November 4 exchanges, December-March 5 exchanges)

Week Three 
No example dialogue. Instead students write their own (length as above).
April has example dialogue.

Week Four
Instead of three short timed readings, there is one reading with three times the word count.
Teacher corrects and chooses the best student dialogues, then prints them for students to practice with.
April has example dialogue.

Results

The Fluency Course depends somewhat on the fact that students are also learning English at school. It is designed to cover the gaps in students learning, mainly speaking, reading, and writing exercises, and particularly drilling these.

So far results have been very encouraging. Our students are not all particularly academic or motivated, and it has been very encouraging to see all of them improve and succeed using the Fluency Course. More able/advanced students are able to challenge themselves within the course, while weaker ones can support themselves and keep up.

I will write a description of an output class in a future blog post.

Cambridge Academy: Year Three and Four

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)
  12. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Mid-Year Update (August 2017)
  13. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Student Progress (October 2017)

The Academy is still going well, although we ran into an unexpected problem this year. I’m still having a lot of fun and the students are doing extremely well. I’m particularly encouraged by the fact that all our struggling learners have built a solid base and are no longer struggling!

Good news

There is quite a bit of this. We have finally taken the plunge and rented a new classroom next to our main classroom. This will give us a dedicated Academy classroom (that will be used by other classes in the daytime) and allow us to have all classes do reading first and fluency second. This matters because doing it the other way around results in students trying to read at the end of the day when they are tired from actively speaking and writing English. It also means that we will be able to increase fluency class sizes to twelve.

In the schedule for next year I am not in charge of any classes. I will definitely be there every day, at least to start with, and will work with all the teachers to set up routines and address problems. Once the classes are running smoothly though, I plan to cut down to 3/4, 1/2, or even 1/4 class time. I think at least for now I will want to go to each class at least once a month at a minimum.

We’ve started working with a marketing expert to redesign the school website, improve our online advertising, and write new copy for all our marketing/informational materials. So far it’s been really helpful, and I’m excited to see if it makes any difference to our recruitment. Just having the website say what we mean more clearly has been completely worth the cost so far though.

We’ve been filling holes in classes by having the odd student join and also by persuading students to shift from input only (extensive reading) to input and output (fluency course). We currently have space for five more new second years and ten more new third years.

The fluency course materials are really coming along. We made some great little tweaks this year and the course is a lot more solid. We have pretty much finished the second year materials and are thinking about what the third year will look like. I’ll write a post about the fluency course soon.

Bad news

There is one piece of bad news, but it’s a doozy. Last year pretty much all our elementary school sixth grade students joined the Academy when they moved to junior high school. This year we had 31 sixth grade students and we assumed (hah!) that they would pretty much all join. At the same time we made some changes to how we handled the signup and explanation sessions.

Well, right now we only have 19 students signed up for the input+output course, and one for input only. We have a couple of trial students who are interested too, but as our capacity is 36 this is pretty bad.

I’m hoping a combination of some people changing their mind, some people introducing their friends, and some people seeing the new website will help, but otherwise instead of three classes of twelve we’re looking at one class of six, one of four, and one of nine. One of the best things about the fluency classes is the atmosphere from larger groups, so I am a bit worried about the smaller classes.

We have two months to find another 16 junior high school first years to join the input+output course. Wish us luck!

Next steps

We need to buy a lot of new books and get ready for next year. We are hoping to hire one more intern to join our current three. I am planning to write a couple of blog posts (one about the fluency course and the regular stocktake post). We need to get the new classroom set up once we get the key on March 1st.

Any questions?

Cambridge Academy: Year Three Student Progress

Encouraging developments

Second-year junior high school students in the output class

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)
  12. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Mid-Year Update (August 2017)

The Academy is still going well. I’m having a lot of fun and I think at least some of the students are enjoying it too 😉

We lost one more student on average (lost three, gained two), but I think this is normal and it isn’t something that worries me. The students who are leaving tend to be our older students who started before the Academy existed and haven’t benefited as much as our newer students will from improved lessons and system. Here are our latest numbers:

Right now we have 78 students:

  1. 32 junior high school first years (29 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. 7 senior high school first years (4 regular, 3 reading only)
  5. 6 senior high school second years (5 regular, 1 reading only)
  6. 2 senior high school third years (2 regular)
  7. 2 ronin students (1 regular, 1 reading only)

It looks like we’re going to fill our first year output classes, as one student has changed to output after a few months of tutoring, and a trial student last week is going to try to do the same.

Today I’m going to share the students’ reading numbers. This gives some idea of how much our students are reading given an hour in class (probably more like 50-55 minutes) and for a few of them also reading at home. All numbers are up to date as of today.

First year (six months or so): 16,885-111,509 (most students are in the 30,000-50,000 range), YL0.2-0.4
Second year (eighteen months or so): 75,850-354,976 (most students are in the 120,000-160,000 range), YL0.3-0.6
Third year (thirty months or so): 197,892-748,564 (most students are around 300,000), YL0.6-4.0

You can’t really tell from the numbers above, but each year is reading more/better/faster than the years above them. Our current first years seem to be doing much better than our current second years did in their first year, who did better than our current third years did in their first year. I predict our current first years will be hitting 500,000 words by the end of junior high school, which should set them up to read a couple of million by the time they finish high school.

We need to continue buying intermediate books, and I am working on that. I am trying to find more leveled readers and books aimed at native speakers rather than graded readers (which tend to be a bit more dry). We already have mostly graded readers anyway. Students who find a series they like (Magic Tree House is very popular) and then read all the books in the series tend to do very well in terms of motivation and reading progress.

I have pretty much decided not to increase class sizes above ten, mostly due to the physical constraints of our current classrooms. I think we could do twelve easily, and probably up to twenty, but we just don’t have the room.

In terms of who will teach the classes, I am hoping to assign a teacher to each class next year. I will then join certain classes to model, observe, give feedback, etc. This should allow me to develop the system and get more of a birds’ eye view. Eventually it should allow me to take a step back with regards to the actual teaching too (and maybe open another school, but that’s a different blog post).

What do you think? What are your students’ numbers like? Any good intermediate books/series I could get?

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.

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? 

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