I recently had the opportunity to try out an SRA Reading Lab for a couple of weeks (thank you, David from McGraw-Hill in Tokyo) and was very impressed with the material.
We tried Reading Lab 1a (there are three levels, as well as a developmental level below level one) with elementary, junior high school, senior high school, and adult students.
The kit consists of a teacher’s manual, a student record book, a CD-ROM that allows you to do tests and record keeping on a computer, and twelve levels of ‘power builders’, short reading texts with comprehension questions. There are ten power builders at each level, and the first two levels have pictures and sentences instead of a reading passage.
Each power builder has an answer card so students can check their own, or alternatively they can do the questions on a computer, which has the advantage of recording the student’s score for the teacher to check later.
The questions on each power builder consisted of comprehension questions and questions that help students deepen their knowledge of vocabulary and language (for example, at some levels the questions deal with prefixes and suffixes, and their meanings, or ask students to decide which particular meaning of a word is used in the passage). One of our students commented that this was very ‘deep’ learning, and I thought this was a good way to describe it: it is a far cry from the superficial comprehension questions students are used to.
Students could work on the power builders by themselves, and check their answers using the keys supplied, so it was easy to use the materials in mixed-ability classes: students work at their own pace and teachers only have to answer questions when students run into problems.
Our students all enjoyed the materials and commented favourably on them.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of things that may prevent me from using SRA Reading Labs at our school. The first reservation I had (and this is a minor one) is that at the lower levels some of the vocabulary used is not very frequent, and thus there is almost no chance of EFL learners knowing it. This makes for a considerable mismatch between the skills being practiced (phonics, decoding) and the knowledge necessary to be able to answer the question. Our students were able to decode the words, but had no idea what a ‘rod’ was, or that ‘led’ was the past tense of ‘lead’. This is not the end of the world, and it could be argued that this provides an opportunity to learn this kind of vocabulary, but it was somewhat frustrating for our elementary school age students.
The real dealbreaker is the cost: 130,000+ yen per set, or over 1.5 million to get all of them. Much as I and my students enjoyed using the materials, I am not sure I can justify the cost. It is a real shame as the SRA Reading Labs were a great match with our current curriculum and aims, and they are very easy to use in class.
It seems from the websites that these materials are mainly used in public schools in the US, thus the relatively high prices, but I would have thought that the economies of scale would result in lower prices. Certainly the product cannot cost all that much to print, no matter how good the design values are (the boxes do look great, and students are attracted to them).
I am interested in whether other teachers are using SRA materials in Japan. I estimate that if the SRA Reading Labs cost half as much, they would sell a lot more than twice as many (although I don’t know how many they sell now). We would certainly be interested in purchasing several.
If you are interested, please contact McGraw-Hill Japan and they may be able to provide you with a loan box so you can see for yourself. Alternatively, if you are currently using Reading Labs in Japan, please comment below.