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

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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?

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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!

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