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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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.

Stocktake!

Counting, Sorting, Checking

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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)

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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

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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

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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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