Extensive Reading, bring in team qualitative

I promise that this seemingly random image of a tank has something to do with this post.

I promise that this seemingly random image of a tank has something to do with this post.

I’m getting ready for a presentation on Extensive Reading for Nara JALT and don’t have much time to blog (or do anything really, except write and put together PP slides).  But I thought I might share a bit of what I’ve been thinking about as I put together my presentation.  If you’re going to be joining me in Nara on April 6th, I highly recommend that you stop reading now, or things might be a little dull as you wait for me to finish talking so we can all head over to the park, enjoy the cherry blossoms and get our drink on.

In my experience, Extensive Reading works.  I have numbers to back it up.  Over this school year my students average reading speed went from 128 words per minute to 185 words per minute.  The average number of words they could hold in working memory based on a read/think/write exercise (see my T-Dad post for more info) jumped from 4.21 to 6.63 words.  And total words produced in a…

Is that enough yet?  Are your eyes totally glazing over?

I had a friend who was a pretty normal guy.  He worked with me at the local deli.  He could fry a perfect Reuben sandwich, could fix a broken meat steamer, and was, in general a great guy to hang out with.  But if you got him talking about tanks, you were in trouble.  He knew the tread width of all the German Panzers; could compare artillery casing thicknesses; and got extremely excited about power to weight ratios. As he would talk on and on about tanks, he became less and less aware of whether anyone was listening to him.  More often than not, no one was.  But I was.  I was mesmerised by his ability to amuse himself with the minutia of tanks.  I sometimes wonder if when I talk about ER, whether I’m engaged in the same kind of self-amusement that Tom was wrapped up in.

You see, there’s an ever growing body of research showing that ER really works, but as popular as ER is becoming, it’s not an integral part of every, or even most language programs.  Probably in part because the best way to convince teachers that something is worthwhile is not by throwing a bunch of numbers around.  If you are talking to other researchers (or other tank enthusiasts), that might work.  But teachers know that there are individual stories behind that data.  And that in a real teaching situation, it’s probably those stories, the individual encounters of teachers and students, the actual engagement with a learner, a text, and a teacher, which is most important.  So pull out as many numbers from your magic bag of I’m-gonna-convine-you as you want.  It’s not going to work.

And let’s say a teacher is slightly moved by all those stats, and they go and look at some of the articles.  What do they find out, aside from the numbers?

From Mason and Krashen’s (1997) treatment section of an ER experiment: “The experimental classes in each institution read from graded readers.”

From Bell’s (2001) method section of a ER paper: The experimental group (n= 14) received an extensive reading program consisting of class readers, a class library of books for students to borrow, and regular visits to the library providing access to a much larger collection of graded readers (up to 2000 titles).

Even Richard Day and Julian Bamford’s Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom, which I think is a brilliant book and pretty much lays out everything you need to know to start an ER program, can only go so far in preparing a teacher for what’s going to actually happen in an ER classroom.  Basically, all of the advice out there for ER, is like the instructions for building IKEA furniture.  It looks simple enough on paper, but it leaves you (or at least it leaves me) with the sneaky suspicion that the most important part of putting it all together has somehow been left off the page.  And of course it has!  As good as designers are at making universal symbols, a set of directions for putting together a mishmash of 83 separate nuts bolts and planks which uses no words and only arrows, is by it’s very nature going to be leaving out the most important part of building anything.  How tight the screws have to be.  Whether once you put a bolt in place, will you be able to take it out again (often the horrifying answer is no).  How loud you will curse once you realise that the very middle shelf has been put in backwards.

So what am I trying to say with this mild rant about ER articles and people who talk about ER?  Not much, really.  All I’m trying to say is that instead of focusing on the big picture, we need to be spending more time presenting individual stories, small grain case studies of what students are doing in an ER classroom, and what role a teacher takes on with an individual student.  Because while you need some basic instructions to get going (see Bamford and Day’s Extensive Reading top 10, neither the big picture basic instructions, or the hard data of successful ER programs is going to convince teachers that they might want to implement ER in their own classes.  I think we have reached a moment in the development of ER and it’s penetration into the ELT community, where qualitative information has become much more important and valuable than quantitative information.  And as a case in point, I would like to share a short story of one of my students, Karin.

My school doesn't allow us to share photo's of students, so I asked my daughter to draw an image of Karin to help you visualise what's going on in the following case study.

My school doesn’t allow us to share photo’s of students, so I asked my daughter to draw an image of Karin to help you visualise what’s going on in the following case study.

Filed under: reads too fast

Karin is not a traditional reader in that she likes to sit down with a book in her native language and lose herself in the story.  But she reads huge amounts of material in Japanese every week because she is training to be a professional MC/announcer.  And not only does she read huge amounts of materials in Japanese, she also reads them out loud.  Probably with an eye to her future, she actively volunteers to read materials out loud in English class whenever she gets the chance.  So it’s not surprising that her reading speed is a much better than the class average at 210 words per minute.  In fact, at one point she was reading so many words per minute (almost 300), that I decided maybe a little intervention was in order.  I took her aside, complimented her on having a reading speed as fast as a native speaker’s.  I told her I was interested in hearing if she was able to use her “narrator super powers” when she read in English.  I had her select an early intermediate level text (800 headwords), pick a page, and gave her a minute to read it through one time.  According to the vocabulary test we had given at the semester break, Karin had a receptive vocabulary which covered about 90% of the first 1000 most frequent words in English and 70% of the second most frequent words in English.  So asking her to read out loud from an 800 headword text should have been quite a stretch for her, even after having read through it once.  I told her I was going to be timing her and asked her to read as clearly and quickly as possible.  She read smoothly, with inflection, at a rate of just under 200 words per minute.  Just blazingly fast.  And I think that most people listening to her would have thought she really understood what she read.  But when I asked her, “How much of that did you understand,” she shrugged and guessed 60%.  So we talked about why we measured words per minute (WPM) in class, and how extensive reading WPM score was pretty different from what an announcer was aiming for when it came to speed.  We kind of hit upon a bargain.  She would alternate between keeping track of two scores.  Her AWPM (yep, announcer’s words per minute) and her regular WPM.  When she was keeping track of her regular WPM, she would focus on enjoying and understanding the story.  When she was doing her AWPM thing, she would read out loud in a quiet voice and focus on speed and pronunciation clarity.  After our talk, both her WPM and AWPM fell below her feverish 300 mark and became a more accurate reflection of her reading speed.

Any Conclusions To Be Found Here

Now I realise that Karin is not your standard student.  But, when it comes to how and why students read, I pretty sure there is no such thing as a “standard student.”  Every student is going to have their own goals, problems, and successes.  When Bamford and Day explain that in ER, “Teachers guide their students,” they are giving us the IKEA instructions for what we need to do.  But I think it would be nice to have a centralised place to collect the stories of how that guidance played out in a real classroom.  A repository of case-studies, tagged with the issues or main features presented by each student, would go a long way in helping to provide a better picture of what is happening in ER classrooms around the world.  At the same time, it would provide the kind of detailed advice that teachers in an ER program often need when dealing with individual students.  And best of all, it’s just these kind of stories of real life problems and real life success which can help show interested teachers just what ER is all about.  Because marshalling an army of ER effectiveness data has only gotten us so far.  It’s time to let the individual stories of our students carry us the rest of the way.

P.S. If you are interested in ER, and would like more information, I highly recommend:

The Extensive Reading Foundation 

ER-Central

The JALT Extensive Reading Special Interest Group

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20 thoughts on “Extensive Reading, bring in team qualitative

  1. It’s quite mind blowing, from over here in Europe, to read a post about extensive reading. It’s not even rated here, barely features in lessons on the whole, including by the publishers of graded readers who don’t do anything at all to promote the readers they produce. Eye opening stuff. I’ll never understand why the focus is on coursebooks exclusively when stories have been part of human history since language began.

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    • Yeah, I was really surprised at TESOL Spain last year how little awareness there seemed to be of ER. Any improvement this year? And, wish I could have gone again.

      On the other hand, it seemed there was just CLIL all over the place and Japan is just starting to pick up on that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • at tesol no, not much. there would have been one if I’d got my proposal in on time. I’ll peruse the iatefl progranme and let you know. I feel a totally pointless campaign coming on so I might ask you for some stats. Will email you!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Nicola,

    Thanks for the return on the mind blow. I wouldn’t say that a majority of English programs have bought into ER here in Japan, but at least there’s a fair number of private, university and high school programs which have implemented extensive reading of some sort or another. It might have a lot to do with Rob Waring & Charles Browne (of ER-Central), and Julian Bamford being based here. But the fact that ER isn’t even on the radar in Europe is shocking. Wonder why there isn’t more interest? Especially in an EFL environment, the amount of comprehensible English a learner can be exposed to through ER is just so huge that I would think it would at least get teachers thinking about giving it a try. How about extensive listening programs, any interest in that side of things?

    Thanks again for the comment and giving me a glimpse of how things can be so very different over on that side of the world.

    Kevin

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  3. The more I teach, and talk about researching learning and teaching, the more I realize that growth and expansion is this profession is not about numbers and more about the stories. I learned that there is actually a term for that type research: narrative inquiry. Before this I just thought that qualitative research was this foreign concept, but couched in a narrative, it made a whole lot of sense. Your presentation is going to be such an eye opener for teachers. Just reading this post opened up my mind. I can see why you get all giddy about ER. You are a natural storyteller!

    Just had to say that this was one of my favourite quotes, next to the IKEA metaphor or course: “And that in a real teaching situation, it’s probably those stories, the individual encounters of teachers and students, the actual engagement with a learner, a text, and a teacher, which is most important.” Teachers know this is the most important. They just need to find other teachers who believe the same. You are giving many a voice Kevin. Exciting stuff!

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    • Josette,

      Thanks for the comment. I love the idea of narrative inquiry. The fact that education researchers sometimes use numbers to tell the story of a classroom simply means that practicing teachers are left having to guess what actually went down in class. I don’t think that we can just ignore qualitative data (without some measurable learning taking place, it’s pretty hard to get anyone interested in anything), but I do think that we are at the point where the data needs to be fleshed out with a bit more narrative. I know that my favourite conference presentations are the ones where I can recognise/see an actual classroom. If this post, and the conversation in the comments helps encourage more presenters/bloggers/action-researchers/anyone to try and capture more of what is actually happening in classrooms and give us those stories to help bolster the data, I’m pretty sure it must be a good thing.

      Thanks for taking the time to comments. Wish you were in Japan for the presentation, but I’ll drink a toast to you.

      Kevin

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  4. You’ve hit the nail on the head here. I did some research (with a small scale survey) on ER for my MA TESOL and I came across the exact same thing: lots of small-scale studies with detailed info on the quantitative methodology of the study but very little on the actual mechanics of how the ER schemes were implemented. You also need to people go back and look at how they can then be fine-tuned to cope with any issues raised during the pilot scheme. An account of an iterative development of an ER program over several semesters would be particularly helpful.

    I remember thinking: “How would I set up, run and evaluate an ER program myself if I had to?”. So your idea of having a central repository of case studies is a terrific one. Maybe you should bite the bullet and set one up yourself? 😉

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    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the comment and a heavy dose of understanding. When we were implementing our ER program 3 years ago, I read a flood of materials, read a bunch more during my dipTESOL, and have been reading again for the past month and I haven’t found many papers which deal with actual students in actual English classrooms; no real case-study stuff. And I’m glad to know you’ve had similar experience. You have really sussed out what I wanted to say in this post, but wasn’t really clare about myself. The real success of an ER program depends on how it get’s modified over time to meet the students needs. And I guess what I wanted to do in this blog post is call for setting up a place where we could gather the iterative development of different programs in case study form. But I think I was hoping someone else would say, “wow, nice idea, I’ll do it.” Guess that’s not going to happen. I’ll present the idea at the presentation in April and see if anyone is willing to help me out with getting that central repository together. But anyway, it’s very nice to have your comment and get a little better idea of what I’m trying to say.

      Thanks,
      Kevin

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    • Hello Ben in Sendai,

      Thanks for swinging by and for the comment. I tried to check out the link but I got a no-go on the videos from my browser. I’ll try it again at school tomorrow. But I just wanted to to say that I love the idea of a bunch of teachers getting together and presenting about how their ER programs are implemented and how they are working. I think allowing teachers to compare and contrast programs, hear how ER works with higher level and lower levels students, keen English learners and students who aren’t so hyped to be in a classroom, and all kinds of contexts in between is just the kind of dialogue that can really help to move teachers towards trying ER out in their own classrooms. Wish I could have been there for that series of presentations, but I’m looking forward to meeting you at JALT 2014 (you’ll be there?) and hearing more about what you are doing with ER in your school.

      Kevin

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      • Hi Kevin

        It’s looking likely that I’ll be at JALT national this year (pending confirmation from the overlords).

        Would love to have a chat. I’m always impressed with your blog 🙂

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  5. The reason ER is not an integral part of everyday language programs is for practical reasons often. Both quantitative and qualitative data has a role in providing arguments for the inclusion of ER in all language programs. However, qualitative data alone is limited, unless of course teachers want to select learning activities based on the experiences of only a few students. Validity exists in various forms, including external validity, and unfortunately qualitative data alone will never provide external validity. Further, there is a lack of quantitative data which allows researchers to make valid inferences. For example the quantitative studies you refer to are papers which first year masters students tear apart and are generally put forward as examples of how NOT to conduct quantitative research. Regarding your own data, unless your students conducted no other learning activities or you included an equivalent control group in your study, it is very difficult for you to argue that any measured gains are the result of ER alone. It would also be necessary to ensure that students were use to conducting timed readings by letting them practice for a few weeks and then collecting pretest data, otherwise any gains in reading rate are often partly the result of students getting use to the process of conducting timed-readings. Of course it is also necessary to provide evidence that comprehension during both pre and post tests.

    We both want the same thing, I just think we would be able to convince more people to conduct ER if we put forward the best arguments possible, and this requires mixed method data, Not qualitative data alone and not limited quantitative data from papers such as Bell (2001) or Mason and Krashen (1997). Further, department heads, universities and governmental bodies have the responsibility of assisting all students in their learning and so will always require empirical quantitative data of which their is a great lack.

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    • Hi Stuart,

      Wow, thanks for a thoughtful comment that’s giving me a lot to think about. I’m not sure I can address everything you touch on, but I wanted to give at least a partial reply.

      I agree 100% that we can’t just have qualitative data. But I do feel that right now, when it comes to ER research, things are very much heavily slanted to the qualitative side of the continuum. So this post is calling for more stories of the ER classroom. I think more qualitative writing, “narrative inquiry” (thanks Josette) is really needed.

      I also wonder if we shouldn’t take a step back and think about what ER is supposed to do. We have a lot of studies about ER. Some of them you point our are perhaps flawed. But the main goal of ER, at least when it started, was to provide time in the reading classroom so that students could get better at reading and learn to like to read in English. Now we have a lot of people looking at things like improvement on pre- and post-cloze tests and vocabulary acquisition, but in general, these seem to me to just be icing on the cake. If I take 45 minutes out of my week for ER and extension activities, and my students can read more fluently and enjoy reading in English more than when they started, it’s a successful program. Because if I didn’t run ER, my students wouldn’t like to read, would never think about reading in English for pleasure, and wouldn’t read nearly as quickly as they do now. And I think we have more than enough studies that ER improves reading speed and changes students attitudes about reading. But if universities and governmental bodies want empirical quantitative data which proves that ER flat out makes our students better at English all around, I think that’s expecting a little much. It is, after all, just one component of a reading program.

      I’m also a little lost as to how we can even show that ER (or any approach for that matter) actually works in our own classrooms. As you said in your own comment, “unless your students conducted no other learning activities or you included an equivalent control group in your study, it is very difficult for you to argue that any measured gains are the result of ER alone.” I’m not a researcher and have no resources to set up control groups. What I can do is take careful note of what happens in my class and share that information with other teachers. And I think a dialogue about ER which is composed of teachers sharing this kind of information is exactly what’s missing right now. This kind of conversation could be another part of the data set. And if there were more communication between teachers and researchers, I think triangulating this qualitative data with the quantitative data that is being collected really would allow us to present our best argument.

      Anyway, I have the feeling we are on the same side. I realise you are passionate about ER and also working to help change peoples minds in the community. It’s a hard thing to do. I hope you will let me know of any quantitative research which is stronger than what I’ve cited here. And while I might be tilting my blog at a windmill, I think I will keep on trying to get people to share their stories of ER classroom experiences. Maybe it will help convince a teacher or two, even if they don’t have much to do with universities or governmental bodies.

      Kevin

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  6. I agree 100% that we can’t just have qualitative data. But I do feel that right now, when it comes to ER research, things are very much heavily slanted to the qualitative side

    Stuart: I guess here you meant “quantitative side”?

    of the continuum. So this post is calling for more stories of the ER classroom. I think more qualitative writing, “narrative inquiry” (thanks Josette) is really needed.

    Stuart: Relative to vocabulary, grammar and even affect, ER has numerous qualitative studies. In part because is easier to conduct an valid qualitative study than a valid quantitative study.

    I also wonder if we shouldn’t take a step back and think about what ER is supposed to do. We have a lot of studies about ER. Some of them you point our are perhaps flawed.

    Stuart: Most of them are rather limited. The best include…

    Beglar, D., Hunt, A., & Kite, Y. (2012). The effect of pleasure reading on Japanese university EFL learners’ reading rates. Language Learning, 62(3), 665-703.

    Brown, R., Waring, R., & Donkaewbua, S. (2008). Incidental vocabulary acquisition from reading, reading-while-listening, and listening to stories. Reading in a Foreign Language, 20(2) 136-163.

    Horst, M. (2005). Learning L2 vocabulary through extensive reading: A measurement study. Canadian Modern Language Review, 61(3), 355-382.

    Horst, M., Cobb, T., & Meara, P. (1998). Beyond A Clockwork Orange: Acquiring second language vocabulary through reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 11(2), 207–23.

    Nishizawa, H., Yoshioka, T., & Fukada, M. (2010). The impact of a 4-year extensive reading program. In A. M. Stoke (Ed.), JALT2009 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.

    Robb, T., & Kano, M. (2013). Effective extensive reading outside the classroom: A large-scale experiment. Reading in a Foreign Language, 25(2), 234-247.

    Takase, A. (2007). Japanese high school students’ motivation for extensive L2 reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 19(1), 1-18.

    Waring, R., & Takaki, M. (2003). At What Rate Do Learners Learn and Retain New Vocabulary from Reading a Graded Reader. Reading in a Foreign Language, 15(2), 130-163.

    Yamashita, J. (2007). The relationship of reading attitudes between L1 and L2: An investigation of adult EFL learners in Japan. TESOL Quarterly, 41(1), 81-105.
    Yamashita, J. (2008). Extensive reading and development of different aspects of L2 proficiency. System, 36(4), 661-672.
    Yamashita, J. (2013). Effects of extensive reading on reading attitudes in a foreign language. Reading in a Foreign Language, 25(2), 234-247.

    But the main goal of ER, at least when it started, was to provide time in the reading classroom so that students could get better at reading and learn to like to read in English. Now we have a lot of people looking at things like improvement on pre- and post-cloze tests and vocabulary acquisition, but in general, these seem to me to just be icing on the cake. If I take 45 minutes out of my week for ER and extension activities, and my students can read more fluently and enjoy reading in English more than when they started, it’s a successful program.

    Stuart: I agree, but is this an argument for more qualitative studies?

    Because if I didn’t run ER, my students wouldn’t like to read, would never think about reading in English for pleasure, and wouldn’t read nearly as quickly as they do now. And I think we have more than enough studies that ER improves reading speed and changes students attitudes about reading.

    Stuart: Can you name them maybe I have not read them.

    But if universities and governmental bodies want empirical quantitative data which proves that ER flat out makes our students better at English all around, I think that’s expecting a little much.

    Stuart: I do not think anyone suggested that “empirical quantitative data which proves that ER flat out makes our students better at English all around” was necessary. However, we as our students time is limited and some of them are paying for their education as is stated by Nation and Macalister (2013) teachers should be able to justify all learning activities assigned. When Nation say this he means with empirical data.

    One other thing, researchers never prove anything, they provide evidence which allows them to support their inferences of the data.

    It is, after all, just one component of a reading program.

    Stuart: Fully agree. But I do not see what this has to do with the greater value or need of qualitative data or possibly the greater value of qualitative data relative to quantitate data. Qualitative data has greater value in given settings, usually those where the target audience are does not value quantitative data or are unable to understand it. Qualitative data has great value when explaining the findings of quantitative data. The number tell us what happen and to what degree, interviews give us an idea of why.

    I’m also a little lost as to how we can even show that ER (or any approach for that matter) actually works in our own classrooms. As you said in your own comment, “unless your students conducted no other learning activities or you included an equivalent control group in your study, it is very difficult for you to argue that any measured gains are the result of ER alone.”

    Stuart: It is a great problem, but presenting nor publishing is compulsory. Some teachers rope in teachers who do not conduct ER. For example Beglar, Hunt and Kite (2012) used a class taught by a teacher who conducts grammar translation as the control group. If you compare a number of past years when ER was not conducted and then a number of years when it was it is also possible (i.e., Nishizawa, Yoshioka, & Fukada, 2010).
    The other option is relational data, but as Grabe (2009, p314) states “The problem with correlational studies is that other factors may be the true causes for results, and it is hard to rule out the idea that students read more extensively as a consequence of being better readers.”

    I’m not a researcher and have no resources to set up control groups.

    Stuart: I do not think any of us are just researchers

    What I can do is take careful note of what happens in my class and share that information with other teachers.

    Stuart: And that is perfectly valid, and form one part of an argument for ER. But does that mean there is greater value or need of qualitative data or possibly the greater value of qualitative data relative to quantitate data?

    And I think a dialogue about ER which is composed of teachers sharing this kind of information is exactly what’s missing right now.

    Stuart: Totally agree.

    This kind of conversation could be another part of the data set. And if there were more communication between teachers and researchers, I think triangulating this qualitative data with the quantitative data that is being collected really would allow us to present our best argument.

    Stuart: totally agree, mixed methods are the way forward. But given a choice of qualitative or qualitative? Quantitative wins.

    Anyway, I have the feeling we are on the same side.

    Stuart: Totally.

    I realise you are passionate about ER and also working to help change peoples minds in the community.

    Stuart: Passionate about ER, validity and research. Good research leads to good informed classroom practice. Also just enjoy such discussions, and asking my bosses to justify their opinions would not go down well, so I don’t do this at work and have fun on facebook instead.

    It’s a hard thing to do. I hope you will let me know of any quantitative research which is stronger than what I’ve cited here.

    Stuart: Stronger than Mason and Krashen (1997)?, umm…. anything! Stronger than Bell (2001)….. a lot of it.

    And while I might be tilting my blog at a windmill, I think I will keep on trying to get people to share their stories of ER classroom experiences. Maybe it will help convince a teacher or two, even if they don’t have much to do with universities or governmental bodies.

    Stuart: I hope my comments and questions are not rude I am just asking trying to bring the discussion forward. Such discussion usually take place in work settings so being frank and truthful is often not possible.

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  7. Hmm. A repository of case studies could be interesting. I don’t have any experience in creating something like that. What would a good example of this be that would also be flexible enough for contributions from many people? Any ideas so far?

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    • Hello Ted (can I call you that here?),

      You know, I haven’t really thought it through. It would have to be an open system. I’m thinking maybe a wiki might be the best bet. But I’ll present on Saturday and see if there’s any interest from the audience (although I have a feeling they’ll just want to get to the cherry blossoms and sake). Maybe when I get to the JALT conference I’ll have a better idea of what I want to do and can start some more specifics.

      Thanks for the comment,

      Kevin

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  8. Pingback: My Extensive Reading Blueprint ;) | ROSE BARD – Teaching Journal

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