I asked Clive to send me a summary of his ER program, and he kindly responded with an outline from a recent presentation for the Nara JALT chapter on the ER program at Tezukayama Gakuin U.
Click here to view the outline in pdf format. Then continue reading the interview excerpts below.
After receiving Clive’s outline, we progressed with a follow-up interview.
Can you tell me some more about the students you're working with?
They are all females in a 4-year liberal arts programme (Bungakubu). If you mean which ones am I teaching, I usually teach second year students, though I do sometimes teach first year. Starting reading levels in the first year range from Level N (Novicea step below EPER level G) to about Level 4 (EPER level D) mostly level 1 or 2. In the 2nd year the range is widerfrom levels 1 (G) to 5 (C) in the second year with a handful of level Ns. The reason we still have some low level students in the 2nd year is because poorly-motivated students make little or no progress in their first year.
Is the ER program you describe only for English majors?
It was when it started 9 years ago, but about 5 years ago, the numberof students in our faculty started to dwindle and we no longer have an English department as such. Now ER is part of the English offerings for all students in the Faculty of Liberal Arts.
How does ER fit into their English coursework? Your outline mentions listening-speaking and writing courses. Is ER done in a reading course? If so, does ER make up the bulk of the course? What else do you do in the course?
The ER course is one of three basic elements in the 1st and 2nd year curricula. Reading has always been once a week on Fridays, along with Speaking-Listening (twice a week, Tuesday and Friday - taught by a different set of teachers on each day). Writing is taught on Tuesdays - also once a week, to keep a balance of two classes on each dayTuesday and Friday. The original idea was that all students were placed according to their proficiency level, based on a placement test, and the 3 components - Listening-Speaking, Reading and Writing, would enable teachers to recycle much the same language while focusing on different skills. Originally Eng majors were required to take all three components for 2 years.
This course with ER has always been called 'Reading'. I was commissioned to create the whole ELT programme for 1st & 2nd year students back in '98, and managed to persuade all the reading teachers to adopt ER, as I had also been allowed to buy nearly 2,000 readers to be kept in the library, together with the EPER system of tests and other support materials. Up to now, as we have managed to keep the same teachers for the reading programme since its inception, ER is still the predominant method (doubtless with some variation in its application). However, since academic freedom continues to be more of a guiding principle than a common syllabus, this could change if the teaching personnel change.
The Japanese ER teachers (mostly working with first year students) tend to use class sets in class, and sustained silent reading of individually selected books out of class. I presume that's one reason why 1st year students generally seem to read fewer books per year than 2nd years.
Your program is one of the few I know in which several instructors take a coordinated approach to ER in all sections of a course. How did you approach bringing the other instructors on board and orienting them to the system, etc.?
See above. It hasn't been entirely successful. Although I wasn’t optimistic that the Japanese professors would accept new teaching methods and approaches, I was surprised at my luck in finding that the ones assigned to the reading classes actually seemed to take to ER and embrace our goals and approach.
Unfortunately, I had much less success in convincing professors to try the communicative, process-oriented approach proposed in our writing syllabus. Even discussing what should take place in the classroom was problematic, and I eventually had to drop efforts to prescribe any common approach for first year writing courses. So, while setting up the reading program went fairly smoothly, it would strongly depend on the individuals involved and the situation you find yourself in.
In your outline, you include several points on the orientation you take students through. Any key points about how you "sell" ER to students, e.g., explanation of purpose/goals, theoretical background, getting them into the books, etc.?
I reckon that 50% of what I say or do in class (and I always try to ensure that the students are saying or doing things in English more than I am) is aimed at training them in 'how to learn' (not 'study'). Here are some of the main points we cover:
- a rationale for learning English (questionnaires about their own goals if they have them; getting them to find goals if they don't)
- the importance of being able to read English (it's potential uses for them)
- reasons why most of them don't learn (as opposed to study) much English at high school
- taking responsibility for their own learning
- setting short-term goals (not just vague long-term dreams)
- setting up classroom procedures which optimize to likelihood of their communicating in English with each othernot just me
- techniques for teaching themselves vocabulary as a bi-product of reading
- and of course how to do ER.
Now, with small classes of about 20 or less, I can also manage to counsel almost every student once a week to check on her reading progress and give help and encouragement.
Is the homework for the course exclusively ER?
Basically, yes. Picking up from my previous answer, I often spend up to half of the class time (45 minutes) pointing out ways of reading efficiently or having them discuss their reading with each other, etc. The other half of the lesson is given over to individual counseling of students, while the majority get on with SSR (sustained silent reading) or writing book reports and recording what they've read. Students are also reading outside of classat least as much, and in most cases more, then they read in class.
What part of the course grade comes from the reading targets, reports, etc.?
Most teachers assign about 50% of the grade for the amount students have read and not more than 20% to improvement in reading leveldivided into units of 1/3 of a level (low, mid, high)and the rest for things like participation, attendance, quality of book reviews, etc. I don't impose a strict evaluation system, but all the teachers use the EPER Extensive Reading Testswhich we call “level checks”to gauge improvement in level. Academic year or semesters completed have almost no significance for evaluation. It's based on effort, diligence and level improvement.
I've seen the EPER Placement Tests, but not the Extensive Reading Tests, which you call “level checks.” Are they similar in format? How are they administered
They are not the same at all. Each level consists of one reading passage - a short story taken from a graded reader at the appropriate level, plus questions with mostly one-word, or a short phrase or sentence answers, and two or three multiple choice items. There are a total of about 30 points for each level with a roughly 50-50 split between easy questions (one point) and more difficult ones (2 points). They always take a pair of adjacent levels - G+F, E+D, C+B, or A+X to give a wider perspective than could be got from just one level. Each level test is 30 minutes - total one hour.
For readers unfamiliar with the EPER Placement Tests, it my be worth mentioning that they consist of a series of short passages - one for each level - of a couple of paragraphs, with particular words blanked out (semi-cloze type, but not every Nth word). Students write a single word on an answer sheet for each blank.
Do you find that the number of pages students read correlate well with their progress through the levels?
Number of pages of print' gives a much more accurate idea of how much a student has read than 'number of books'. However, for many students this does not correlate closely with progress. Some students seem to be much more efficient readers than others. It's possible that the EPER tests are not very reliablethough on average they do appear to be so. Some lower level students may be 'reading' the illustrations rather than the text. It may be that others select stories they already know from Japanese books or dubbed movies (e.g. Disney), or non-fiction topics they are already very familiar with.
Can you give me a bit more information on what happens in your reading class?
I think the crucial thing is for the teacher to give students as much individual attention as is practically possible, and to avoid spending more than 1/3 to 1/2 of any lesson on plenary class activitiesi.e. I do individual counseling much of the time, while the rest of the class get on with their own silent reading or paper work. Plenary sessionsusually about 20~30 minutestend to be devoted to drawing the attention of the class to how to read or write reviews efficiently or learn vocabulary. Recently I asked my 2nd year class for suggestions as to how to conduct the lessons (“What would you like to do more / less of?” “Is there anything you'd like to do that we're not doing.”). They all agreed that they wanted to spend more of the time on individual work in class (which means less time has to be spent reading outside class, of course).
Do you get a sense that some students actually latch onto this as an important, ongoing strategy for learning/enjoyment?
I think students who genuinely want to improve their English / study abroad / be able to read TOEIC test questions more fluently / etc. - regardless of their level - get a lot out of ER IF THE TEACHER TAKES THE TROUBLE TO GET THEM TO UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY SHOULD DO, WHY & HOW, AND GIVES THEM PLENTY OF INDIVIDUAL GUIDANCE. If not, even the self-motivated students may lose interest.
Along with Sakai-sensei (Denki Tsushin U., Tokyo), you're one of the few people I've heard talk about using REALLY low level materials, even below Starter levels of most graded reader series. Are some of us just missing the boat? How did you latch onto the need for these?
I started thinking about this because from the start there were some first year students and a few 2nd years at that kind of level (based on EPER Placement Test scores), and as the numbers of student applicants fell and consequently admission requirements too, I expected the numbers of 'pre-ER' students to increase. I'm pleasantly surprised to say that this has not been the case. But there are some every year. Having said that, the high school English programme seems to be giving even university applicants whose academic abilities are low, quite a lot of passive knowledge of English and a basic level of literacy that enables them to recognize and understand the most common 200 to 300 words. They can read words, but have difficulty interpreting strings of them (sentences). So I suspect it's more a fluency thing than starting at absolute zero. They're not totally illiterate.
Your large Graded Readers Library is in the University Library. Were there any keys to getting the collection into the library and supported by library staff?
We are extremely lucky in having an excellent library, because we have an excellent chief librarian and library staff, who are delighted to see students coming, borrowing books in and even reading them!! So it wasn't too difficult to get them to agree to including a small ER section. Initially I just asked them to create a small space for a hundred or so books at about 3 levels, which I then told teachers about and asked them to encourage their students to borrow them on a voluntary basis. One Japanese colleague got quite interested and I recommended he buy a class set or two, which he did, He then worked actively to persuade his colleagues as to the value of using graded readers in some way or other. From that point on, it has been relatively plain sailing, I’ve been able to spend 2-300,000 yen each year on them.
What are the library’s borrowing policies? I see you still bring books to class, too. Any further thoughts on in-class use of books?
Students are allowed to borrow up to 4 books at a time from the library. Many of the keener students at lower levels read 6 or more books a week. (Of course others read nothing.)
To each class, I bring along an assortment of about 50 readers at appropriate reading levels for students who have forgotten to bring one. They're not allowed to take these out of class, though, since they can go to the library to borrow and take books away.
I tried using class sets, but find that method rather limiting, because inevitably the level of any one book is not suitable for the whole class - let alone the content. I think short stories are easier to use in class, because you can deal with a whole story in one lesson. In fact I've been wondering whether to remove short stories from the library shelvesbecause it's hard for students to review themand use these exclusively for in-class reading. Otherwise, individual selection and reading works better I think.
As time has gone on, what have become your main criteria in selecting books for inclusion in your library’s collection?
Initially I just aimed to have at least 3 titles available to each student at a given level. Later, my aim was to increase that number of titles (choices). Now we have plenty, so I tend to buy either one or two copies of new titles or more copies of popular titles. We don't lose many books and have not even yet reached the point where some are too tattered to keepthough I think that day is approaching. This year for the first time we've included audio versionsone copy per title of existing popular titles (not short stories) or new ones.
Any more comments on the response you've had to your approach from other faculty, administration, library staff, etc.?
Another faculty have started following our examplethe most convincing evidence of approval I can give you. Generally, the attitude is very positive, even among teachers of subjects other than English.
Was there a particular experience, article, presentation, epiphany, etc. that got you started with ER?
I started teaching in East Africa as soon as I graduated (in History). I was expecting to teach History, but, after some initial training in Kampala Uganda, was sent to a school in Tanzania, which had too many History teachers and not enough English teachers. As luck would have it, there were a couple of guys at the university of East Africa - John Bright & Gordon McGregor - who were writing what became a classic textbook for teachers of English called Teaching English as a Second Language (if my memory serves me right). I went to ask Gordon McGregor for advice at the end of our training, as I hadn't taken any English teaching courses, and he gave a printed copy of their manuscript. It had a large section on using graded readers (in class - not SSR). That was in 1964! In 1998, the language training company I jointly owned in Kobe landed a large contract to create a first year English curriculum and recruit over 30 teachers to teach it for the new Japanese campus in Osaka of an American University. Each class was to have 15 hours of English per week. That was when I started frantically looking round for an advisor to help me set up an ER programmethough I didn't know it was called that or exactly how it worked at the time. I was just focused on the idea of finding a way to use graded readers somehow. I found that Beniko Mason had started the first ER programme in Osaka, and she helped me set it up and train the teachers.
You've been doing ER for some time? What are the main ways your ER work/program/system has evolved? Reasons for those changes?
I'm running out of time so will have to be brief. Mainly I’ve moved away from plenary teaching, away from teaching individual reading skills (a la Mickulecky) and towards greater individualisation, based on plenty of SSR in class and regular individual counseling of students.
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