Making a New JHS and SHS Curriculum

Fluency Practice and Clarity


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.

Starting a Reading Program from Scratch

Do This (thanks, Derek Sivers)

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I received an email last week. The writer (thanks for the inspiration Brett) asked for advice on how to start a reading program from scratch. No current resources, tiny budget.

What readers should be bought first? What else needs to happen?

This post is the start of an answer.

What is the purpose of the reading program?


You will need to think about the following questions. What is the reading program for?

  1. Is it to complement existing classes? Create new classes?
  2. How old are the students?
  3. What level of English and reading do the students have?
  4. How much time and money are you willing to put in?

What activities will be done?


The first question is will you use class time for reading? I strongly suggest you do so. In my experience, ER done only outside of class has a low uptake and most students do not do it regularly.

The next question is will students listen as well as read? For beginners and students below intermediate level (around YL 1.0), I strongly recommend listening while reading. It makes a huge difference to student progress and enjoyment.

Finally, will you do shadowing activities? Shadoku, shadowing tadoku (ER) is a very powerful technique, especially at the lower levels. Yuko Suzuki introduced me to the idea, and I will be doing a post soon describing the technique.

What books should be bought first?


With a limited budget, you should buy the following books:

Beginner level:

  1. Oxford Reading Tree core stories (probably the best materials)
  2. Story Street (unfortunately out of print now)

Lower-intermediate (JHS3, SHS beginners):

  1. Foundations Reading Library
  2. Building Blocks Library (level 4+ only)
  3. Story Street (level 4+ only, but out of print now)

Make sure you also get the CDs so that students can listen and read, listen only, and do shadowing activities.

What admin is necessary?


You will need to store books. I recommend either having each single book with a CD in the back (use soft CD cases from the 100 yen shop, taped into the back cover) or group the books in sets using ziploc bags (one set with CD per bag). Both approaches work.

Student should keep track of their reading. Counting the number of books is the easiest way, but for a long-term program I think tracking words is more useful. You can find word counts on the books, in the Tadoku Kanzen Guide, or online.

You’ll need to think about how to lend books to students. We use the honour system, but keeping track will reduce book losses (but take time). It’s a decision you will have to make in the context of your program.

Any questions?

Leave a comment below.


Counting, Sorting, Checking


We spent the last couple of days counting and organizing books at Cambridge.

This gave us a chance to check all the books were in packs, the packs were labelled correctly, and CDs etc. were in the right place.

It also showed the gaps in our library. I am aiming for at least four packs of each of our ‘core’ sets, and right now we don’t have that -I feel a large book order coming up 😉

We also had a chance to reorganize our shelves to make classes run a bit more smoothly.

Right now our collection broadly looks like this:

YL: #books

0.1: 377
0.2: 384
0.3: 587
0.4: 396
0.5: 401
0.6: 345
0.7: 303
0.8: 183
0.9: 170
1.0: 149
1.1: 276
1.3: 140
1.5: 190
2.0: 190
2.5: 55
3.0: 100
4.0: 85
5.0: 7
6.0: 9
7.0+: 5

Total: 4352 (we also have a couple of hundred books that haven’t been processed yet, or that are sets missing books. I hope to get those integrated soon)


The lower levels (YL 0.1-1.0) consist mainly of sets. We have 1-6 of each set of core books, and mostly one or two sets for supplementary books (see this post for more detail about core and supplementary).

My experience with ER is that libraries are never finished, and it always feels like there aren’t enough books. At the moment the Cambridge library is adequate for our needs (around 60 student in the Academy program, along with about ten who are just borrowing books) but as students move into the intermediate level (YL 1.1+) we’re going to feel the pinch.

We’re also lacking at the advanced level. So another year or two of book buying on the horizon.

Actually, who am I kidding? We probably have decades of book buying on the horizon 🙂

This is one reason I am not too worried about competition in this space. In order to create a similar program, a competitor would need the know-how, millions of yen, and the confidence/desire to make it work.

Our current collection, assembled over the last 13 years, is probably worth well over 3 million yen and we are still ploughing back a big chunk of revenue into books.

Even if someone did manage to create a competitor program in our area, I think there are enough students in Sendai to go around.

I’ll be writing a post about how to start from scratch next, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t have any books or budget right now.

Cambridge Academy: Looking at Year Two

Still Evolving at a Rapid Rate


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.



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.


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.

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.

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.

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 🙂

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