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Kunihide Sakai
Denki-Tshushin University, Tokyo
Denki-Tshushin Department


I asked Sakai-sensei to start with a brief summary/overview of an ER program he’s involved with.

My ER course is for first year science/technology majors at Denki-Tshusin University, Tokyo. I teach around 140 students divided into three classes, each of which meets once a week for 90 minutes. I describe the details because bulk of reading is done in class, plus voluntary reading done outside the classroom. I have about five thousand books in and around my office and I take several hundred books to class, from which students each pick out one or two and take them back to their tables to read. After they finish or give up on a book, they go back to find books for additional reading. Students progress through the levels at their own pace, but everyone starts with picture books—Oxford Reading Tree–Stage 1 or Longman Literacy Land–Foundation Step—neither of which contain any text except for titles. Students generally read around 100,000 words a year (rough estimate) and reach a 2nd or 3rd grade elementary school reading level on average. No evaluation is done on how much or how well they have read, with grades mainly based on attendance and in small part on a final 15 minute Cloze test administered to fulfill university requirements. To put the course in a nutshell, they just read the whole year through. No activities, no vocabulary building of any kind, no grammar teaching, no evaluation. Must see to believe.

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

Is this a general education, "general English" course that you decided to make into ER-oriented classes, or were you asked to teach a "reading" class?
It is a general education English course which I've decided on my own to focus on reading. Because I am a “loud” person, no one objected, and now I think everyone in the English Department seems to understand that ER is working quite well with many students. So I don't hear public complaints about my approach to “general” English courses.

Is this a required course? Do students have a choice of taking a different course with a different emphasis?
I’m actually teaching five ER courses this academic year—three sections of a required course for freshmen, one section of a required course for second year students and one required elective, meaning that students must take a course, but can choose from a range of options. Although first and second year students must take general English courses, they can request particular sections.

How do you purchase most books?
With Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research from the Ministry of Education, Culture、Sports, Science and Technology, my own research allowance from the university and some special funds from the administration.

Why start everyone at such a low reading level? After several of these "textless" books do students move on up through further levels freely?
I'd say 80–90% of my students are fed up with English and/or English classes. Also they have been taught to put everything into Japanese. To overcome these handicaps, the only way is to start from scratch. In the first few months I guide them to higher levels and sometimes to lower levels if students seem to be having a hard time reading at their current levels. Eventually they are able to navigate on their own.

This class style has got to be a surprise to many students. Do some take it as an excuse to do nothing?
Yes, the three ER classes for freshmen have a 10–20% “sleeping rate.” That amounts to 4–8 people who come to my class solely to make up for lost sleep.

Can students borrow these books for further reading at home and/or do they have access to books outside of class time, e.g., the school library or your office? Do many students do extra reading?
I tell them to take two books for reading outside the classroom, but I don't insist that they do outside reading. I just ask them to read if they have time and feel like reading. They can also borrow books that are in the hall in front of my office. I'd say about half of the students read outside the class.

Do you see many students latching onto ER as a important, ongoing strategy for learning/ enjoyment?
Yes. About half of the students who started one of my ER courses keep on reading until the end of their third year. Many such students also start to independently listen to audio materials, read newspapers, prepare for TOEIC with Grammar in Use (CUP), etc.

How do you “sell” ER to students? Orientation? Explanation of purpose/goals? Getting them into the books, etc.
By now I don't have to “sell” it because the courses are so unique in numerous ways, and many students know what to expect. A few (say 10–20%) opt for ER because they see them as “Mickey Mouse” courses, but more than half the students become “converted” to ER, and it's great fun to have them for the second or third year courses.

Do you explicitly explain the differences between intensive and extensive reading? Any need?
I do, at the beginning of the course, and give further explanation through individual “consultation” during class time.

Since other students at the school are taking more "traditional" or "communication-based" classes, do you get any sense of how their progress compares with that of your students? Is it a case of similar progress, but your ER approach seems more enjoyable & sustainable? Or is the difference greater than that?
I'm not good at scientific evaluation of anything, let alone my ER courses. The only thing I can go by is how my courses are welcomed by the students who take them for a second or third year. If I may make so bold, students seem more satisfied with the ER courses than with some others. Actually there are 10–20 students every year who come to the bookshelves outside my office and read extensively on their own with no desire to get credits. I don't think that happens with many other courses at the university.

You mentioned a final Cloze test. Do you do a Cloze pretest, as well, to roughly gauge student progress?
No, there are no pretests, I'm afraid. The end-of-the-term Cloze test meets school requirements for the inclusion of some kind of objective measure in grading. I'm not doing it to evaluate the course or student progress. Actually the benefits of ER are so obvious that a test doesn’t seem necessary to point them out.

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 course?
I used to aim at “reasonable English reading skills” for university graduates, but the apparent success of ER courses has raised my hopes quite a bit. I'm now raising my sights toward bilingualism—that is, students developing English language capacity similar to their ability in Japanese ability. This would require beginning ER long before university, and I’m spending a lot of time advocating this approach.

Is ER sufficient for all students’ language needs? If not, what other types of language work are needed?
ER takes care of input through the eye, so to speak, and there should be other courses that cater to the ear for further input and the mouth and the hand for output. I'm now fairly confident in the ER courses I have established for university students, and will be looking at ways to build on the results of ER in the areas of listening, speaking and writing.

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 in one form or another for over thirty years. The first twenty-five years were sheer frustration—ER should work but I couldn't seem to make it work. Change came when I introduced three golden rules: 1) No dictionaries while reading. 2) Skip over difficult words and phrases. 3) Quit reading when the book is difficult or boring. That and better availability of really easy books to read have made all the difference.

Was there a particular experience, article, presentation, epiphany, etc. that got you started with ER?
Epiphany is the right word. I had several before I set out to do ER officially, and I keep having them— lots and lots of them, literally dozens, if not hundreds, and almost weekly!

Is anyone else in your department/school doing ER? Any cooperation there?
Yes, there is one American colleague who is doing ER. No one else is working with us at this point. But I have found out the hard way that that's par for life in general.

Any comments on response you've had to your approach from other faculty, administration, library staff, etc.?
I suspect there’s a general view of me as something of a “henjin.” They don't seem to know put a handle to me. I enjoy the reputation.

Another question comes to mind. If you were assigned by the university to teach a "conversation" class or a "writing" class, would you modify your ER approach to accommodate that? Or would you strongly keep the same emphases? I ask, because a number of people have commented on how their implementation of graded reading changes with the type of course they're teaching.
No, I wouldn't change the nature of my course if the university assigned something other than what I want to do with my teaching. I'm old enough to be selfish and the university knows that my courses have been successful, so they can't force me to do anything I don't want to do. On the other hand, the nature of my courses is going to change rather drastically because I'm now targeting aural input and oral and written output as possible “growth areas.”

Having said that, I'd advise people to proceed carefully with their school administrations. You can do a lot of harm by being too insistent/stubborn in your policy. As I always say to newcomers to ER, my best advice would be, “Start small, and see if ER's sustainable or not.”

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