Doing Extensive Reading with SCRUM

scrumTo promote extensive reading, we show how teachers can use Scrum (Sutherland & Sutherland, 2014), an established method for efficiently managing projects. Our preliminary results show that Scrum may markedly help students increase the amount they read, possibly contributing to a 60% increase in reading word counts.

First, we outline a 10 step process for using Scrum to promote extensive reading. (1) Pick the General Scrum Reading Manager (the teacher). (2) Make teams of 3-4 members who will meet for a weekly Scrum. (3) Pick Reading Scrum Masters for each team. (4) Using post-its, each group makes a “Book Pile” of books that they want to read. (5) On their post-its, each member estimates how long a book will take to read. (6) Students set Reading Sprint Goals for the week. (7) Students make work visible, using the Scrum Board. (8) During Weekly Scrum, group members ask each other the three key Scrum reading questions. (9) Every 2 weeks, groups Report and Review their progress to the class. (10) At each Report and Review, groups reflect on how to improve.

During a period of four weeks, 27 students did a total of four reading Scrums. We then compared student reading word counts between the four week period before they did Scrum and the four week period while they did Scrum.

The results were encouraging. During the four week period before Scrum, each student read an average of 28,670 words. During Scrum, each student read an average of 46,919 words. This is nearly a 64% increase in reading amount.

At this point, we cannot claim that Scum will greatly increase student reading amounts. There are other variables that may have contributed to the increase for our students. However, this study does show the potential of Scrum for helping students read more, and we suggest that other teachers and researchers try Scrum in more rigorous experiments to see if it really works for promoting extensive reading.

This paper was presented at the 9th Annual Extensive Reading Seminar held at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan on October 1, 2016. The original title was “Applying Scrum Principles to ER Instruction,” by Joseph Poulshock and Douglas Forster. Click here for a PDF of the talk.

Sutherland, J., & Sutherland, J. J. (2014). Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. New York: Crown Business.

Reading Offers Huge Benefits

Reading Offers Huge Benefits to Individuals, Society

By Joseph Poulshock, Special to the Asahi Weekly, Sunday, June, 29, 2014


Joseph Poulshock, Special to the Asahi Weekly

In Japan, students usually do not read for pleasure in English. They read hard texts, meeting 20 to 30 unknown words on every page. This kind of reading is not a joy. It’s suffering.

Sadly, these learners probably do not know about “tadoku,” or extensive reading (ER). ER is an enjoyable and powerful way to learn English. How do you do extensive reading?

ER has three rules. The first rule is “Read easy.” You should know 95% to 98% of the words in a text. This helps you read without a dictionary and makes reading more enjoyable. ER books are graded into levels, so you can find books at the right level for you. The second rule is “Choose freely.” You are free to choose what you want to read. The third rule is “Read big.” This means read a lot! What happens when you follow these rules? You get results!

Click on the image for the full article.

The “RISE-&-GO” Principle

Whole big wall covered with lot of books

How does Big Reading relate to retrieval, interleaving, and spacing?

As we clarify our purposes for teaching, we can focus on the sciences of learning and linguistics. For the Purpose Principle, we can find purpose in three general ways (1) by creating a work or doing significant deeds; (2) by experiencing something or encountering people; and (3) by the attitude we take regarding suffering (Frankl, 2006, p. 75).

For general learning principles, we help students better learn when they do Retrieval, Interleaving, Spacing, Elaboration, Generation, and when they learn to Opine positively about their ability to succeed. I call this the RISE-&-GO principle, the content of which is summarized in the excellent book “Make It Stick” by Brown, Reedier, and McDaniel, (2014). RISE-&-GO actually stands for 6 separate principles that work together to promote learning.

Retrieval and Interleaving

First, with Retrieval practice, we ask students to recall from memory words, grammatical structures, ideas, events, and stories. “Retrieval strengthens memory and interrupts forgetting” (Brown et al., 2014, p. 3). Flash cards, simple quizzes, and self-quizzes are good ways to do retrieval practice, and they work better than reviewing notes or rereading a text because reviewing and rereading give us the illusion of knowing as we become familiar with the material, but familiarity does not always mean that we can retrieve information from memory.

Second, with Interleaving, we mix different batches or units of content as we do retrieval practice. For example, a ukulele player who needs to learn three songs might be tempted to master one song at a time, but that would be a form of shorter-lasting massed-practice. Rather, if he interleaves separate songs and spaces out the practice, he would find it more effortful, but that effort would produce more lasting learning.

In language classes, we can do interleaving by having students interleave retrieval practice of vocabulary words from different units or lessons. We can have them memorize three separate super short stories, jokes, proverbs, or quotations where they mix up (interleave) their memorization efforts for each separate text, or we can have students interleave the retrieval of grammatical structures as opposed to reviewing one at a time.

Spacing or Spaced-Practice

Third, learners often do cramming or massed-practice. But with Spacing or spaced-practice, students do retrieval after a space of time, after some forgetting sets in. Spacing makes the retrieval harder and feel less productive. But these feelings are deceptive because when students make the effort to retrieve items from memory after spacing, the extra effort produces learning that lasts longer and is more flexible for various applications.

Flash cards or self-quizzing are good ways to do retrieval, interleaving, and spacing. In my classes where almost all students share the same first language (L1), we do this kind of retrieval, interleaving, and spacing for new words. First the students read an easy story where they might meet 5 unknown words. Each student writes down their new English words on flashcards, with the target English word on one side of the card and the L1 translation on the other.

Then in pairs, the students quiz each other, from English to Japanese and Japanese to English. I tell students that it is best to practice the retrieval of English words from the L1 since they are trying to acquire the English words. This is a simple form of retrieval practice. We will do this once after the students read the story and maybe one more time right before the end of class (spacing). Over the term, students will read more stories, and repeat the process. However, during the retrieval time, we will also practice spacing with interleaving. That is, students will quiz each other on words from three or four stories. They can quiz each other on words from one story at a time, and they can mix the words all up.

Elaboration and Generation

Fourthly, in addition to retrieval, interleaving, and spacing, we can do elaboration with generation. With Elaboration, we make new material meaningful by putting it in our own words and connecting it with what we know (Brown, et al., 2014). Following the above vocabulary activity, students make sentences with their new words. When doing this, they only use one unknown word in the novel sentence, which is the one they are trying to learn. In this way, they elaborate on the new words using words that they already know.

Fifthly, we look at generation. With Generation, we try to solve a problem before seeing the solution (Slamecka and Graf, 1978). In a content-based lesson, pairs of students can try to answer comprehension questions before reading the text. After reading, they can circle new words and try to guess their meanings before using a dictionary, and they can share their guesses in pairs or with the class. In a typical cloze activity, students can guess all the answers before listening, which can result in better memory and learning than simply reading the text.

This kind of generation is basically trial and error leaning, but it works! “Generation has the effect of making the mind more receptive to new learning” (Brown, et al., 2014, 208).  Even if students get wrong answers, they benefit from the process of generating the answer. They see more clearly the holes or gaps in their knowledge. They process the questions and content more deeply, and this prepares their minds for remembering more than by being given the answers.

Opining Positively (The Growth Mindset)

For the last part of the RISE-&-GO principle, we look at how to help students Opine positively about their ability to learn and grow. This is the idea of the “growth mindset” (Dweck, 2007). The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset, the idea that intelligence is fixed at birth. A fixed mindset causes us to avoid challenges and reminds us that failure is proof of our so-called stupidity. But with a growth mindset, we come to understand that we can change our brains and our intelligence, and this helps us to take on challenges and not give up so easily.

The growth mindset is based on believing in a simple fact. That is, our mental powers are not fixed; we can change them. Dweck says our success depends less on IQ and more on courage, curiosity, and stick-to-it-iveness. And, as mentioned previously regarding the Purpose Principle, we can add some healthy purpose into the recipe. That is, we can recall a deeper purpose for overcoming a particular difficulty. For example, if as a teacher, I fail to give a good class to a group of students, I can remind myself of a simple purpose: “always improve yourself,” and then ask myself, “How can I give a better class next time?” The wonderful thing about a growth mindset is that we can teach it to students, and it can have a wonderfully positive effect on their abilities to learn.

Most of all, in order to help students develop a growth mindset, we need to teach them the contrasting concepts of fixed mindset and growth mindset. We can teach them the simple truth that intelligence (and this includes linguistic intelligence) is not fixed at birth, and that we can change it by effort, and we can also tell them stories about the power of a growth mindset.

Dweck (2010, p. 67) tells a story of a young man who was struggling with depression. It was his first year at university, and it was his first time to be away from home. He didn’t have any friends. His classes were very difficult, and as time passed, he became depressed. In spite of his feelings, he worked hard, but as more time passed, his feelings were not getting better. He was still homesick. His classes were still hard, and he didn’t have friends. The situation became so difficult that he found it hard to get out of bed in the morning.

Nevertheless, he did get up. He showered, shaved, and did all the things he was supposed to do. He attended class. He did his homework. He took all his exams, and he did well on them, yet he was still lonely and sad. Finally, he went to get help. The counsellor asked him, “Are you attending classes, doing your homework, and doing well on your exams?” The young man said, “Yes, I am.” At this point, the counsellor said something rather strange. She said, “Then you are not depressed.”

In fact, he was depressed, but, according to Dweck, he was coping with his depression with a growth mindset. If he had a fixed mindset, then maybe he would have given up. The fixed mindset would tell him: “You just can’t do this. College life away from home is not for you.” But this is not what happened. His growth mindset helped him respond positively to this difficult situation. He listened to the voice of the growth mindset: “You feel bad, so get up, change yourself, grow, and solve the problem.”

Four Steps to a Growth Mindset

Dweck (2010) suggests four steps to help teachers and students develop a growth mindset. First, we need to recognize the voice of the fixed mindset. That is, we must identify the voice of the fixed mindset when it speaks. When facing challenges, the voice of the fixed mindset might say, “If you fail, people will call you a failure.” “Maybe you don’t have the talent to do this.” “Maybe you are just not smart enough.” We must recognize this voice as a liar, telling us a false story that we cannot grow.

Second, Dweck reminds us that we have a choice. That is, we need to choose to respond to trouble with a growth mindset. Do we choose to look at the challenge from a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? If we look at it from a fixed mindset, then we may give up or not even try in the first place. But if we look at challenges from a growth mindset, we will think of ways to develop ourselves and keep trying. The choice is this. The challenge may be hard, but learners can grow and change to meet this challenge.

Third, we can learn to speak with a growth mindset. That is, we need to disagree with the fixed mindset and speak to it with a growth mindset. By this Dweck means that we “talk back” to the fixed mindset. Maybe the fixed mindset says, “You don’t have enough talent to meet this challenge.” But we talk back with a growth mindset. “Maybe I can’t do it now, but I can work and grow, and then I will be able to do it.” The fixed mindset might say, “It’s not your fault. Your teacher is not good.” But the growth mindset doesn’t blame. It takes responsibility, so you respond, “If I take responsibility, then I can meet the challenge.”

Lastly, we start to act and live by the growth mindset. That is, we take action based on the growth mindset. We take on challenges and try our best. If we fail, then we learn from our mistakes. We value failure because it can be a great teacher. In this way, Dweck reminds us that we need to be aware of the voice of the fixed mindset so that we can (a) respond with the voice of the growth mindset and (b) follow the voice of the growth mindset with positive effort, courage, and confidence.

RISE-&-GO with Extensive Reading

The RISE-&-GO principle provides teachers and learners helpful tools to learn, remember, and constantly grow, and it represents sound educational psychology that we can directly apply in language teaching. By way of conclusion, I would like to comment on how RISE-&-GO works with extensive reading (ER) because this principle raises a big question. As mentioned above, reading and rereading a text creates an illusion of knowing. If so, then what is the value of reading? If reading and rereading only bring familiarity with material and not long-lasting knowledge, then how should we view extensive reading? If RISE-&-GO helps us make information knowledge, then what about reading?

These are big questions that we cannot fully answer here. Nevertheless, ER still applies RISE-&-GO albeit in a different way. When we read extensively, we practice a kind of retrieval, interleaving, and spacing with vocabulary and grammar. That is, as we read extensively, we encounter lexical and grammatical structures over and over. If we understand this lexis and grammar, then at some level we do mental retrieval with these structures. Moreover, as we read extensively, we interleave and space the retrieval of grammar and lexis by virtue of our exposure to large amounts of text. Additionally, if we read deeply in a subject, we can move beyond familiarity and into knowledge of that subject, elaborating on new knowledge by connecting it to the old.

Therefore at some level ER does employ the RISE of the RISE-&-GO principle though readers need to intentionally practice Elaboration and Generation as they read. In the end, we need to look more closely at how RISE-&-GO relates to ER, but we shouldn’t be discouraged about extensive reading. It fits with RISE-&-GO, and reading still remains one of our main ways to filter knowledge through the RISE-&-GO principle, not to mention a great way to enjoy a life of art and learning.


Brown, P. C., III, H. L. R., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Reprint edition). New York: Ballantine Books.

Dweck, C. (2010). Mindset | How can you change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? Retrieved May 19, 2015, from

Frankl, V. E., Winslade, W. J., & Kushner, H. S. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning (1 edition). Boston: Beacon Press.

Slamecka, N. J., & Graf, P. (1978). The generation effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4(6), 592.

The Scientific Education Group: SEG


Rain pours down on grey streets. The sky turns darker. People rush in and out of the ginormous and labyrinthine Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, popping their umbrellas. As we wait for a taxi, our feet get wet. It’s hot, muggy, and uncomfortable.

But it’s worth the trouble. Our taxi takes us to the famed SEG Campus. SEG stands for the “Scientific Education Group.” Now people may call it an after hours cram school, but it’s different. Word has it that this place loves life-long learning, not just high stakes test prep.

At SEG students study chemistry, mathematics, world history, and English. But we are here for the English program because SEG is big on “TADOKU,” that is, extensive reading, or as I like to call it: Big, Easy Reading. My student is doing a graduation thesis on the topic, and I came with him to observe this famous and extremely successful school.

Today, we are lucky because we will observe a “TADOKU” class taught by the president and founder himself, Dr. Furukawa. The schedule is simple: from 5:15 to 6:25 students read silently. At 6:25 to 6:30, there will be a brief time of “shadowing.” Then at 6:30, students will do a “reading speed check.”

It sounds simple, almost too simple. But there’s more. First, there’s the classroom. There are 36 desks. They fit snugly in the room, but it’s not cramped. There are two flat screen TV’s on either side, but they are not turned on.

Eight boys sit on the left side of the class, and five girls sit on the right. The class starts. Students eagerly read. During the break after the class, they talk about what and how much they read. It’s impressive. But there are two other impressive things. One: wall to wall books. Bookshelves surround us on all sides. In the back and sides of the room, thousands of books stand six shelves high. And the selection is broad. There’s even a shelf in the front of the class, three shelves high under the whiteboard. Dr. Furukawa says there are about 20,000 books in this classroom, and he has 28 classrooms just like it. That’s over 500,000 books. As far as books go, this is impressive.


Then there is the impressive Dr. Furukawa himself, with his long hair in a pony tail and his horn rimmed glasses. He’s a book guru, mathematics wiz, and the boss of a company that, according to the SEG website, grossed 13.5 billion yen last year. He is the most impressive factor and actor in this room because he appears to know all the books, and he sometimes disappears and brings books from other rooms as well. As we observe, he brings us many books with a smile on his face. And we read.

I read Piggybook, a story about a typical family, 2 boys, a father, and a mother. The mother works tirelessly for the boys and father who take her for granted. And there are pictures of pigs hidden all over the book, on doorknobs, faucets, and wall sockets. Eventually, the wife leaves, leaving a note that says, “You are pigs.” With the mother gone, the men are lost, and the house turns into a pigsty. And just as all hope is gone, the mother returns. There are apologies and forgiveness. The boys and the father begin to help around the house. The wife fixes the car. It’s an amazing story. And it packs a punch.

Dr. Furukawa is not messing around. He gives me Out, a gay coming out story. A girl falls in love with a boy, with whom she has been friends forever. Just as she is about to confess her love, the boy comes out to her. He’s gay. She is broken-hearted, and her love remains silent to the end. Dr. Furukawa gives us a “Three Little Pigs” story, turned upside down. It’s the three wolves. They are good; the pig is mean and badass. But at the end, the story has a great twist of kindness. He gives me a book about a tadpole and caterpillar, which tells of a budding love and a break up. Time passes. Separated, the now butterfly and frog long for each other. The butterfly returns, looking to reconcile, only to be eaten by the frog who, after his meal, continues to long for his love. I read a story called The Harmonica from Iranian cinema, and another called Clueless George, which is a Curious George style illustrated slam on George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove. Boom!

I find the recommendations mesmerizing. The choices are bold, and they work for me. Furukawa is an expert book whisperer. And he knows it. He walks around the room passing out books left and right, and the students read. It’s the best session of free voluntary reading I’ve ever seen, supported by a superb classroom library and Dr. Furukawa’s wizardry with books.

Near the end, we do 5 minutes of Shadowing. Dr. Furukawa plays a tape. Students shadow aloud as they listen to and read the text. The tape is loud and clear! The students shadow it twice. Done.

After the shadowing activity, we do a timed-reading. Dr. Furukawa gives us a timer. Hit start. Read the story. Hit stop. Then answer the questions. As we read, answer sheets are passed out. We check our answers and write down our reading times. Class is over!

After class, Dr. Furukawa looks at my student’s reading speed time and says “slow.” Ouch. He looks at mine and says, “fast.” He leaves and comes back with the classes timed-reading results. Some are slow, but some are even faster than mine. Wow!

After a break, Neil comes in, a native speaker from New Zealand who leads the next session. The students are boisterous, but they work on meaning-based, communicative activities, not drills, and not high stakes test prep. It’s intensive reading, but done well. Great students, keen on study; they talk noisily in Japanese, but always about the lesson. Neil expertly manages this content-based class, and he keeps the focus on learning interesting content through English. During the whole evening, Neil and Dr. Furukawa say nothing about tests, exams, and getting ready for examination hell. It’s real education, a curiosity-filled time of learning.

Today it’s just 2 classes; there’s so much more to take in, but not enough time. Afterwards Dr. Furukawa shows us SEG’s book storage room. Tons of books. Multiple copies. Books in boxes waiting to be stacked. Overwhelmed, I asked to come back to learn more about all the books. Dr. Furukawa kindly agrees.


Doctors Poulshock and Furukawa

We say “Goodbye” and “Thank you” and walk away into the Tokyo night; the rain has stopped, and the sky is clearing. I’m impressed, inspired, and deluged. This seems like after school education at its best. But how can one learn to be a book whisperer like Dr. Furukawa? Since his knowledge of books seems encyclopedic and his ability to “book whisper” seems telepathic, before leaving I ask him where he finds time to read. He says, “in the schema.”

Perhaps this is a Japanese usage of the Greek word, meaning “form or figure.” But it’s an answer that big readers often say. Read in the schema. Find time to read in the cracks and corners of daily life. Make reading a part of the form, figure, and contour of your time on earth. Teach your students to do the same. This is one way to open up, change yourself and the world around you. Because reading is change, read whenever and wherever you can — because curiosity, language, and life ask it of you.

Review: Reading in the Wild

Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer's Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits
Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In “Reading in the Wild,” Donalyn Miller provides tried and tested advice for helping teachers inspire “wild” reading in their students. Wild reading is a habit of independent reading, a lifestyle of reading, and ideally lifelong reading. Miller seems to have read practically everything her students might read, so the book is full of highly recommended books that young students may like. The book is also full of hands on material that teachers can use to inspire a life of wild reading.

View all my reviews