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Tracy Cramer
Kansai Gaidai University, Osaka
English Department

Summary:

I asked Tracy to start with a brief summary/overview of an ER program he’s involved with.
This is an independent ER program—run by me, only for my classes. I use ER as a component in all 3 of my English Reading/Writing classes for 1st year students at Kansai Gaidai University. 25 to 27 students in each class freely borrow from their class library of about 150 books—levels 1 to 3, from all the major publishers. (Each class has its own collection.) I carry these to class in a box, and then spread them out across several desks. For every book they read, students submit a 4-5 sentence summary, and a 4-5 sentence reaction report in their ER notebook, (B5 sized Campus-style). Students are asked to read one book a week for a total of about 14 to 15 books per semester. They receive a grade for the ER part of the course (25% of their grade) based on the number of books read. Some students read more for extra credit. All the reading is out-of-class, with reading circles and book selection taking place in class. I have the students twice a week, 90 minutes each time, for 2 semesters. So we meet for about 60 classes altogether, with about half the classes dedicated to reading, and half dedicated to paragraph writing. (I should point out that after the ER component of the class is up and running, most of the reading class time is used for intensive reading activities.) I also teach them a bit of summary writing, grammar and style for their ER notebooks. An exit questionnaire helps me to gauge response and refine the program each year. I buy more books each year with my research funds. 


After receiving Tracy’s summary, we progressed with a follow-up interview.

Can you tell me a bit more about the course and its context?
This is a required reading/writing course for 1st year English majors. There are 45 sections, streamed according to TOEFL scores. The majority of students have a TOEFL of around 440 to 460. They also take an oral skills class from another teacher. Though we all have the same course objectives, another reading/writing instructor may run his or her class very differently. Students may or may not therefore continue with ER in their required 2nd year English courses. It depends on the teacher they get.


How did ER get started in your department? Is anyone else doing ER at Kansai Gaidai?
I believe I was among the first to begin doing ER in a “big” (a book a week) way in our department in 2003, but since teachers come and go, it’s hard to say for sure. I then had some conversations with the department coordinator of that time, and he decided to actively support other teachers becoming aware of ER by asking me to do a presentation on what I was doing in my class, and his overseeing the purchase of graded readers with school funds for our Teacher’s Resource Room (that teachers could then check out and loan to students.) Now there are other teachers doing more ER, and more systematically. I used to be known as the “ER guy”—a source of advice and ideas, but with other teachers now doing it, I am one of several ER resource people. I should add that there have always been, and still are, many other teachers using graded readers in other ways. For example, there are teachers who ask students to read 6 books a semester and write book reports. The students check those books out from the school library. Or there are teachers who have their own class sets of 3 to 4 different titles that the students read and discuss more intensively over the course of a semester. In addition, our school library probably has a couple thousand graded readers.


Since your school library now has a fairly large number of books, why did you decide to stick with bringing books to class each week?
“Bring the water to the students”, as Tina Ferrato says; and because I wanted to make sure they have a good selection, as the library often runs out of the lower level books. Just as importantly, bringing the books to the students also sends a clear message that I value this kind of reading and am willing to put some effort into it. Their ER notebooks, the semi-regular reading circles, and the time given to the students to informally chat about the books in their first language as they browse and choose a new one each week, also reinforces this. Students can also get books from my office outside of class times, and I take them to the school library at the beginning of the year to point out the graded readers collection that they can check out if they miss their class reading day, and don’t want to or can’t come to my office.


Can you tell me more about the students’ ER notebooks?
With my research funds, I buy B5 Campus notebooks for each student each year. They glue on the inside front and back covers a reading log sheet that includes spaces for the book title, the amount of time it took them to read it, the number of pages, and a space for how many “points” they give each book—a sort of quick and easy evaluation. Each week, on reading day, they turn the notebooks in. I read and return them on writing day, usually 2 days later. Since English 1 is also a writing class, I give them mini-lessons on summary and reaction report writing, grammar, and pointers on word usage in class. I also mark some grammar mistakes in their reports, give pointers one how to improve, and try to give brief encouraging comments on content, or ask them a question, as time allows. If the course wasn’t also a writing class, I probably wouldn’t give them so much grammar feedback. If students hand in their notebooks late, I deduct 10% for every class it is late. This is necessary to convey that this is a serious assignment, and to save me the unmanageable work of handling late assignments. The notebooks are also a permanent, concrete record of what the students have accomplished—including dialogs with me, corrections and pointers. The notebooks also fit in with my overall emphasis on the study skills of being organized, and of monitoring their own learning.

I also run a voluntary summer reading contest. Out of 25 students in each class, about 18 students read around 6 books each (with entries in the ER notebook). In the summer of 2006, one student read an astounding 35 books. She won the dictionary. All, however, receive extra credit, but the response went beyond what one would expect from that.


Do you give varying credit for reading books at different levels, e.g., level 3 vs. level 1?
No. It would be nice to have a system like that, but my overworked brain can't handle too much variation. In other words, the complexity of managing a system like that outweighs, for me, the benefits that might accrue to the students from such a system.


Do you split class time roughly equally between reading and writing? On reading days, what kinds of activities are you generally doing? More intensive reading, reading strategies, etc.?
Yes. One day a week is for reading (with about 2/3 of the class time going to intensive reading and vocabulary activities using Password 2 from Longman, and 1/3 going to ER related activities such as reading circles and book selection.) One day a week is devoted to paragraph, grammar, and fluency writing.


How much of the homework load for the course is ER?
It probably amounts to about a third of their time, or a little more.


Now some more general questions:
What are the central results (types of language gains, student attitudes, awareness raising, etc.) you're hoping for from your ER program?
I’m hoping that students will find pleasure in reading. I hope they have a positive language experience with text in another language, rather than dissecting a dead frog, as their intensive reading activities may sometimes seem to them, or me! Foremost, I want them to have the meaningful, entertaining, thought provoking, stimulating, and emotional experience that the author intended. I also hope and look to see expressed in their writing fluency journal, paragraph writing, and ER notebooks, a deepening of their English grammar and word knowledge. They are, however, also doing so many other things in English inside and outside of my class, and their other classes, that it would be hard for me to attribute any particular language gains to the ER alone. Most have indicated in the questionnaires that they do value the ER experience, and this is good enough for me!


What's your perception of how things are going/have gone? Any comments on student response, progress/benefits, attitudes, etc.?
Based on participation and comments in their notebooks and from exit questionnaires, I’m generally quite satisfied with how things have gone. I read comments such as, “I like what I’m doing,” or “This is one of the most enjoyable parts of the class.” Also, the ER work gets done consistently, more consistently than the grammar and writing homework!

 
Do you get a sense that some students latch onto ER as a key, ongoing strategy for learning/enjoyment? Do you observe students continuing to do ER beyond the end of your course?
Anecdotally, students do stop by in subsequent years to chat and ask, “Can I borrow a book?” or say, “I’m still reading books.” I think these may be somewhat special students, but yes, some students continue with it.

 
How does ER balance or fit in with the English work students are doing in other courses?
ER is one of the few for-credit non-academic language fluency practice activities that I’m aware of that the students get. Of course they must also be doing some oral fluency practice in their oral skills class, but ER doesn’t require public performance, and the actual doing of it is not evaluated. Other English classes such as phonetics, generative grammar, or business English that some of them are taking are intensive English study, I would think. Students have a lot of choice in what they’re doing with ER, whereas they often have little or no choice in other course-related tasks. So yes, I do think the ER provides some needed balance.


Any key points about how you "sell" ER and associated activities to students? Orientation? Explanation of purpose/goals? Getting them into the books, etc.
One important thing is getting the books physically in front of the students and dedicating class time to browsing, and some class time to reading after they’ve made their selection so they can exchange their book for another if they don’t like the story, or it wasn’t what they expected.

But to back up a little, I now introduce ER by giving each student a copy of The Elephant Man (OUP, Level 1) to look over. I explain they will read it and many others like it over the next 2 semesters. They take home a photocopy of the introduction, the back cover blurb, and the Before Reading questions to read and complete, and an example of the summary and reaction report, for a different book, written by a student from the year before. (I do it this way because I want to make sure they have the entire next class to read the book.) They return the books, and in the next class, while drinking tea, we all read it together, with the students each timing themselves, and not using a dictionary. After finishing, and they all finish, I talk it up a bit more by saying things like “What a great story! You will be reading more books like this for homework, but you’ll get credit for it! Can you believe it?” Many are able to start their first ER notebook in that same class, but all turn in the notebook in the next class. In 2008, I will do something suggested by a colleague: show a clip from the movie, The Elephant Man, in the ER introduction class. They will really get the idea that it is a powerful and moving story before reading it.

This first book also gives students a chance to gauge an appropriate level at which to start their independent reading. If The Elephant Man takes only 40 minutes to read, I recommend they go up a level. If it takes closer to 90 minutes, I suggest going down a level.

In the next class, we briefly talk about the benefits of ER, especially the need for speed—automaticity and chunking in reading. I demonstrate this by displaying cards one at a time to build 2 sentences. The first time, each card holds just one word. We see how slow this is, and how easy it is to lose the thread. The second time, each card holds a chunk/phrase (a meaning unit). We see how quick and easy it is to follow. I also give a short lecture that highlights the differences between intensive and extensive reading, so students are clear on what types of reading we’re doing and their purposes.

 Encouraging the development of community can also be a big factor. The reading circles in which students briefly report on and discuss their books, using their ER notebooks for support, make this possible. In addition, being able to more informally talk about their books in Japanese as they choose their new book each week, also creates this sense of community. And in one class this last year, there were several students who connected with each other, and challenged and encouraged each other to read more, or to try reading higher level books.


How long have you been doing ER? What are the main ways your work with ER has evolved? Reasons for those changes?
I’ve been doing ER for about 3.5 years (as of January, 2007). Regarding placement, I at first had the students do things that I learned were not so reliable or were more work than seemed necessary. For example, in the first year, I had the students circle all the words they did not know on some photocopied graded reader pages, for several different levels. I found the students placed themselves too high. The next year I had them do the EPER tests, but I found this rather time consuming, (though I think it did indicate their level.) In the end, most of the intermediate students ended up starting out reading at the 400 head word level (OUP level 1) anyway, and then moving on to level 2 for the second semester. So, considering the average level of the students, and the reading choices available, somewhere I got the idea of making the placement diagnostic the reading of a real book! Using The Elephant Man gives students a good first guess and serves other purposes as well. Students quickly adjust into their comfort zone once they start reading independently anyway. As I’ve gained experience with the students, I’ve also learned to lower my expectations for their reading levels—not in the sense of being disappointed, but rather in the sense of appreciating the need for lots of lower level books that students can read really easily. If I were starting again, I would buy only a very few books above the 600 head word level. In other words, 90 percent of the books in my library would be level 1 and 2, and lots of them, as it is now!

I’ve also changed the post-reading, “prove you’ve read this” task. At first, I had students complete the photocopiable quizzes from the Oxford and Penguin websites after each book read. But I found these actually require much more detailed recall than would be expected from typical reading for enjoyment. It was also discouraging to the students to do poorly on a quiz for a book they enjoyed because they couldn’t correctly order a series of trivial events such as whether Ebenezer Scrooge had dinner with his nephew before or after he ordered the Christmas turkey for Bob Cratchit and his family. So I scrapped these in favor of a brief summary & response report. I also assigned less reading when I started—just a few books each term. I was influenced by one of Professor Rob Waring’s papers recommending at least a book per week.

One more note on post-reading tasks. A colleague who is really into ER has made a quick quiz for almost all the lower level Oxford, Penguin, and Macmillan graded readers. I had my students take them in one class for a semester to help with his research. I think the quizzes do the job of answering the question of whether the student read, and understood, the book, or not. I’m now happily settled into the ER notebook routine, though, because I like to interact with the students through their summaries and reactions, because I think the students develop a good writing skill, and because they serve nicely as a springboard for their reading circles.  

 
Was there a particular experience, article, presentation, epiphany, etc. that got you started with ER?
Absolutely it was Rob Waring’s enthusiastic presentation on ER at a David English House course that I took in Osaka in 2003. He is an articulate and persuasive speaker who I’ve now heard speak several times. At that time I was teaching a speaking course and was looking for a way to give my students more to talk about. While listening, it occurred to me, “We could talk about books!” So I wasn’t initially focusing on reading gains. Shortly after that though it became obvious that ER was particularly suitable for the reading/writing classes I was teaching. (And if I had not subsequently developed a ton of speaking/listening activities for my speaking/listening students, I would certainly make ER a part of those classes as well.) I have to add that without question my greatest “teacher” has been the many experienced teachers who have contributed to the ER discussion at Yahoo Groups. A couple of years ago, I read all the archives, and I got a real education. Those archives are fantastic resource. I also got a lot of ideas for materials from extensivereading.net website.


Is anyone else in your department/school doing ER? Any cooperation there?
Some teachers have picked it up enthusiastically. This leaves me with the impression that ER will continue in some classes long after I am gone. But, your question makes me think of how much ER at KGU depends on whether a particular teacher does it or not. It really needs to a part of the curriculum, of course! I’ll talk to my coordinator about this! 

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