What are you doing, Superman?!

Yes, that’s what I first thought too. I’m sure we’re not alone. You, however, didn’t stop there I bet. You tried to figure out another explanation for what Superman could be doing.

Given what we know about Superman and his adventures, we know he’s not trying to defeat the villain with his bodily fluids. We know that superheroes don’t resort to this. We know that it wouldn’t befit Superman even if they did. We know this because we understand there is context to this image: its decades of cultural background embedded into our understanding of superheroes.

Imagine, however, that you didn’t know anything about Superman or superhero cartoons or hoses, for that matter.  If this were the case, we wouldn’t connect this apparent behaviour in this image with its hidden context. Our non-existent background knowledge wouldn’t fill in the gaps like it did above. We’d reside in the superficial layer of meaning.

This same issue with context and background knowledge occurs in learners exposure to texts they encounter in L2. So often authors utilise references to key figures, events and places to demonstrate and strengthen their points. When our learners read these texts in L2, these contextual references are often missed or flippantly skipped over, leaving comprehension inadequate.

role_contextualiserThe Contextualiser is one of five Academic Reading Circles roles that work collaboratively to engage learners and improve their textual comprehension in L2. The Contextualiser focuses on guiding learners to incorporate information about contextual references into their understanding of author meaning.

To learn more about this, check out Academic Reading Circles (ARC): a teacher resource book that describes this intensive reading approach  with language learning students and exemplifies each component in detail.

This post, the first of a short series on the background and intention of Academic Reading Circles roles, also appears on Linkedin here.

* Initial image taken from Superman: The Animated Series (1996).


Last fall, I was walking through Cabbagetown with Lou towards Riverdale Park West, a wide open space with four baseball diamonds where people not only play ball, but also cricket, do yoga, have picnics, and let their dogs run off-leash freely and quickly. I’d come there weekly for some time, walking the perimeter three or four times with Lou tagging behind me, stopping every so often to smell the grass or roll around in it and then run to catch up. It was an OK time to be with my thoughts, but it was also a little boring. One day in October would change my attitude toward these walks forever (and inspire a few ELT podcast dreams: one always has ‘teacher eyes/ears’ on after all. #nerd). 

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Nearly three years have passed since I wrote about academic reading circles here, the last being in September 2012 on the Visualiser role. I didn’t realise then that five posts on ARC would collectively build an online audience of nearly 5000 views. Looking back at the first ARC post ever, I had little intention of this activity becoming a central figure in my pedagogical repertoire, the focus of many talks, or my first foray into vended publication. But I’m very glad it has. While its evolution has never been a solitary task, with the support of colleagues willing to experiment and students embracing an unfamiliar classroom activity, my ownership over ARC has been ever present.  I feel responsible to share it with other teachers, clearly explain its value, gather evidence of its effects, and adapt accordingly. As I do so, my enthusiasm for working with students grows with every passing ARC cycle. So as the ARC book was released this week, it feels like a natural (and necessary?) time to look back at that first post and discuss the evolution from it to now.

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