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.

We don’t set homework in junior high, either. I encourage kids to write on topics that we will be discussing in class the next week as a way to prepare for the discussion, and I help edit their writing while they are doing a free-talking segment in class. It is a great service that some students take advantage of and others don’t. No guilting people who don’t because I realize they have other demands on their time. The reward for doing the writing, however, is certainly there because we then have a discussion on the very topics they were encouraged to prepare for.

We decided to use Let’s Chat for the Year 2 group, and What a World Reading 1 for the Year 3 group. I like having a text that pretty much just sets the topic so that people know what to self-study at home. Reading grammar and pertinent vocabulary in context before being asked to apply them in a free conversation is helpful support. Since we don’t have extensive reading built into our curriculum (just available for those who want it), we really need text in the class time.

I, too, have been thinking a lot about how to improve the junior high experience in the past two years. I coach the first-years in how to sustain a conversation by drilling the formation of question words, making comments about something someone else has said, re-directing conversations, sharing similar pertinent information, etc. The topics in Year 1 are all based on family, hobbies, interests, likes, etc., and don’t require too much special vocabulary. Year 2 is an extension of that with different topics and more grammatical complexity, and Year 3 topics change from talking about ourselves and family to talking about the world, society, etc. That requires more vocabulary, but our goal is to expand our working repertoire of conversation topics by then. They already can chat comfortably about school life and family.

My goal in all of these classes is to recede into the background and offer support to people who get stuck so that the conversations can stay fluid. They seem to enjoy this experience, and even the kids who are very shy in a group discussion are quite conversational when the teacher gets out of the way.

Anyway, I am going in the right direction, I think, but I am interested in what ideas you come up with.

Interesting! Great to hear about your program. What’s your reasoning? (sorry, only saw the first couple of sentences) Do you explain it to parents?


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