Celebrate Reading!

A recent survey of Japanese children produced the depressing result that about half of children read books for “zero minutes” per day. That number of non-readers starts at about 30 percent for students in the first three years of elementary school. By high school, two-thirds of students do not read books at all.

This result is especially worrying because so much evidence exists that reading extensively strongly improves language development and academic results. Kids who read do better in almost everything.

MY has a class that fights against this trend. MY’s Tadoku lesson is an extensive reading class for young learners. In MY’s Tadoku classes, students spend 50 minutes weekly reading for pleasure books that they choose.

Why do I like Tadoku?

I trace one reason that I like Tadoku back to my experience in elementary school. My favorite class time (after P.E.) was the time that we called “Sustained Silent Reading.” It was a lot like Tadoku–we picked our own books and read on our own. There were no tests. There was one simple rule: read.

A Tadoku class for young English language learners is different from extensive reading for native speakers.

A Tadoku class for young English language learners is different from extensive reading for native speakers. English learners can read at varying levels of English, usually much lower than the levels of native speakers. Books have to be carefully graded to the appropriate levels of the students. However, the benefits of reading can be similar for native speakers and language learners alike.

Books offer excellent contexts for meaningful langauage. Reading builds vocabulary and grammar, turns people into better speakers and writers, builds general comprehension and understanding of the world, and develops learner autonomy. Children grow when they read. The huge gains in English ability, general knowledge, and confidence among our Tadoku students are many of the reasons why I like MY’s Tadoku class.

Tadoku students in profile

In this blog post, I am profiling two of MY’s Tadoku students, Reota and Mae. Reota is a junior high school student in second grade who has been in the Tadoku class at MY for about six years. Mae is an elementary school first-grader who joined the Tadoku class this year in May.

Reota chose to continue in the Tadoku class in junior high school because he enjoys reading in English. According to Reota, he does not read for pleasure much in Japanese, only in English. Reota enjoys the realism of the books that he reads in English. Reota’s favorite book series currently is the Atama-Ii books, which are long, choose-your-own-adventure novels.

After reading, Reota often gives a brief oral summary and book review to his teacher. It’s O.K. not to like a book. The goal is to share with others about our reading and explain why.

Over the years, Reota has read over 10,700 English books in the Tadoku class. Although he has lost count of precisely how many words he has read, this adds up to well over one million words in English. This huge input of English has improved Reota’s comprehension and turned him into a much stronger English speaker.

Mae is in our first-year elementary class. She is still in the process of learning simple phonics and combining single letters into short words. In Tadoku, she practices reading many letters and sounds that she has not studied yet. Mae uses audio recordings of the books to read along a second time after trying herself. After reading or between reading, she plays games using the books that she has read. Alongside her classmate, with a little support from her teacher, Mae challenges herself to read as much as possible every week.

Mae usually reads five or six new books every week. Doing this weekly for four months, she has read 61 books and over 3500 words. In comparison, Mae’s classmates in her regular Finding Out class just read their first book in English the same week that Mae finished her 61st book in Tadoku. What a huge boost to Mae’s vocabulary, grammar, and reading skills!

Mae enjoys the variety of books that Tadoku offers. She likes being able to choose her own reading material. While Mae likes some books and dislikes some others, she does not have any specific series or category of books that is her favorite. Mae also reads at home in Japanese on her own and with her mother. Every week she is building reading skills in two languages!

Opportunities and skills

Anyone can read for pleasure on their own, but it can be hard to make time for reading. Building a library of foreign language books at many levels at home can also be challenging and expensive. Public and school libraries may not have a wide variety of books in English. Students on their own often don’t know what levels of books to choose. Without a teacher, many students may struggle to develop reading-related skills on their own. MY’s Tadoku classes give students these opportunities.

Reota and Mae offer snapshots of the two ends of MY’s Tadoku program. MY’s Tadoku class offers students like Mae and Reota the chance to enjoy reading and build language skills and general knowledge about the world. These skills and knowledge will benefit them in school and as English speakers for many years to come.

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MY Training Day with Lesley Ito

Teachers talking together about teaching is one of the highest impact practices schools can use to boost student learning.  We become better teachers when we reflect and share ideas.  Since I started at MY, MY has annually set aside a number of days when we close all of our schools and gather for training.  Over the years, we’ve experienced some fantastic, memorable sessions that I’ve learned from immensely and that have changed the way we teach at MY.  But it’s easy to become insular if we’re always talking among ourselves, so, this year, we are branching out and inviting outside speakers to two of our training days.

Our first outside speaker this year, Lesley Ito, visited
MY this past weekend.  Lesley is a school
owner in Nagoya and has been active in publishing and presenting around Japan
for many years.  On Saturday afternoon,
she presented two sessions:  Teaching Grammar to Children and Extensive Reading for Young Children.

I deeply enjoy conference sessions where the speaker is a
couple years ahead of me in identifying and working out a problem.  In the first session, Lesley shared some of
her research into how children learn grammar and react to error
correction.   MY’s students check their
own homework, after which teachers check, which has many good aspects.  However, as we’ve become more and more
structured in this homework check system, I’ve begun noticing, especially this
year, a lot more stress among our youngest elementary students.

Usually students are smiling, energetic, excited to start
class, and having a lot of fun by the end of their first month of lessons.  This year, many are, but I’ve also noticed many
young elementary students crying and showing other signs of stress after they
arrive for lessons, even a month or two into the year, which is abnormal.  Lesley’s explanation of how younger kids
process grammar and error correction may help explain why this is, and it has
me thinking of ways we can do better for our stressed first-graders.

Hearing Lesley talk about kids’ ER didn’t give me a
similar “Aha!” moment, but it was gratifying. 
MY’s extensive reading program is in its third year.  There’s very little researched and written
about kids’ ER (and about kids’ ELT in general).  While there are a few schools that can serve
as models, building a kids’ ER program mostly requires trial and error.

MY still has a lot of work to improve our ER program, but seeing the benefits of ER for kids in Lesley’s presentation was a strong reminder about why we created the class.  We especially need to do more to sell ER to our students and parents—yes, reading for an hour without the teacher choosing the book, checking comprehension, or grading results is an excellent way to improve language!  In the past two years and two months of ER classes, we’ve stumbled on a number of ideas and practices for how to do ER with kids, and it’s nice affirmation when another respected teacher like Lesley has independently arrived at similar conclusions and adopted many similar practices.

I’m already looking forward to our training weekend with Mike Griffin in October!

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