One of the things I enjoy about attending conferences is meeting new people. At CAMTESOL this year I had the pleasure of meeting Neil Millington at the Presenters’ Reception. Although Neil and I presented at the same time on Saturday morning I was able to get a sense of his topic and session. We had an interesting chat and decided to extend it here to the blog. I thank him for taking the time and we both hope it will be interesting for readers. After the picture of the interviewer and interviewee comes the interview itself. Enjoy!
Hello Neil. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. Can I get you a drink?
Hi Mike! Thanks, I’ll have a beer. Cheers!
Here you are. One Anchor coming right up. We met in Cambodia. Was this your first time there?
No, I’ve been to the CamTESOL conference several times. I like that conference because the participants are enthusiastic, and there is always a wide range of presentations to see. The timing is nice too. I don’t need to cancel any classes because it’s not in term time.
I like the conference for similar reasons, and where do you work?
I teach at a university in Japan. I’ve been in Japan for over 10 years now, and I’ve been in my current position for the last three years.
Right. I see. I noticed there were lots of teachers over from Japan. What were you talking about at the conference?
I was talking about a website a friend (Brad Smith) and I started about six months ago. It’s called dreamreader.net and it is a free website where learners can practice and improve their English reading skill. At the moment there are over 250 free reading lessons on the site, and Brad and I are trying our best to make sure there is a new lesson released every day. We’d like to get about 500 lessons on the site by the end of the year! It’s hard work though because we both have busy full-time jobs and I’m working on my PhD thesis!
Wow, you are busy. I will not complain to you about being busy then. I didn’t realize the site has only been around for 6 months. Best of luck with everything! Back to your session at CAMTESOL for a moment. Is there any truth to the rumor you were giving a bunch of stuff away in your session?
There were a couple of rumours going around that I was giving away free iPads! Unfortunately, they weren’t true! However, I did give away free color workbooks. I prepared a reading workbook using the materials from dreamreader.net.
Nice! Can you say more about the site?
Yeah, when we started the site, we had just academic readings. Each of these lessons has quiz questions along with a free downloadable PDF of the lesson and free audio. Learners can use this to help them with independent study while teachers can use it to supplement classroom learning. It was quite popular, and we had a lot of cool feedback, but several people told us that they wanted more variety and easier lessons. Over the last few months we have added four more categories of lessons to the site, so now the site has five different sections with a lot more variety and a lot more content.
Cool. What are the sections?
The site now has five different kinds sections.
1. The “Easy English” section is aimed towards beginner learners and tests basic sentence-level reading comprehension. Basically, in these lessons, learners look at a photograph and answer questions about it. They actually work equally well as listening activities.
2. In the “Interesting English” section, learners who are interested in the “nuts and bolts” of English can find articles about English language, vocabulary and grammar. There are lessons on idioms and proverbs at the moment, but we’ll be adding lessons on synonyms and slang in the not too distant future!
3. The “Practical English” section gives learners a taste of English being used in authentic materials (such as reading road signs, coupons, or business memos).
4. The “Fun English” section is meant to offer learners a chance to read short articles on a mix of interesting topics such as video games and pop music.
5. Finally, the “Academic English” section is full of lessons and quiz questions in the style of a standardized English test. These work well as preparation materials for the reading section on the TOEFL or IELTS tests.
Have you used the site with your students? What did they say?
Yeah, I’ve used it in speaking and writing classes. I also encourage students to use it to do some independent learning. The lessons in the Fun English section went down really well. They proved to be good jumping off points for discussions and journal writings.
What are you looking to do on the site in the future?
Of course, we’re still creating more materials for the site. We’d like to have around 500+ lessons on the site by the end of the year. I’m also making workbooks and textbooks to put up on the site. Hopefully, they’ll be ready by the summer.
That sounds great. Can you share your motivations for starting the site? I read the blog post on “The story behind the site.” I wonder if there is more to say on this?
The idea of making our own materials was really forced upon us. We were given the role of developing a reading and vocabulary course, and then we were assigned a textbook to use. The textbook was okay, but there wasn’t enough reading material in it! We started to look online, but couldn’t find enough suitable and free content, so we started making our own. Around this time I went to the CamTESOL conference, and talked to a lot of local teachers, and some of the students who were volunteering there. They all told me that getting hold of good and free materials was difficult. we therefore thought why don’t we put up the materials that we made online!
In the process of working on the site have you had any, “I wish I knew that when we started!” type moments? And related, do you have any advice for people trying to get their own sites off the ground?
Oh yeah! Many of them! My first piece of advice would be if you have an idea, just do it! We spent about two or three years writing academic materials for the site, and then started to put it up. Only after getting feedback did we realize that people wanted more variety! We should have started to put up materials earlier and listened to feedback. We could have saved a lot of time. My second nugget of advice is that if you’re thinking of starting a site, you need to be committed. A friend who has an established site told me that you’ll need to spend two hours a day for two years if you want it to be successful. I am now starting to realize that might even be a little conservative.
Thank you! I think that is very helpful and even inspiring. And now we move on to the random and rapid fire portion of the interview…
What is the funniest thing you have ever heard in class?
It didn’t happen in class, but I did have a student shout across the university cafeteria to me “Neil, why I fail?”
Haha. What is the weirdest Kit-cat flavor you have tried? How was it?
Green tea. It was erm, interesting!
Do you like
soccer football? Which team do you support?
I don’t have a snide comment to make so I will just move along. What kind of things do you read for pleasure?I’m writing my dissertation for my PhD so I have temporarily given up reading for pleasure!
Fair enough. What do you love about teaching?
Everything apart from the administrative work!
What do you think you’d be if you weren’t a teacher?
Probably a student!
Nice answer. Thanks so much for this, Neil. I really enjoyed it and I hope to see you around in the future. Again, best of luck with everything.