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 arrow-logo1into 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.

“Likewise, the more you engage with a reading, the less work you’ll need to do later when using it as part of your research.”
This remains a key result of ARC: the idea of saving time in the long run. How I try now to impart this wisdom upon new ARC groups is through experience. By explicitly connecting the content of ARC texts to a writing assignment, project, or some other form of  assessment, students more often realise that the effort they put (or didn’t) into their roles during the ARC cycle impacts the time spent re-reading and writing later on.

“And despite strong encouragement, it’s rare that any student will fully grasp how to engage even if they have the gumption to run with it on their own. This has been my experience.”
Still true, though I’d like to clarify that it’s through examining the text–first individually with a defined role, then within group work–that improved comprehension and deeper engagement actually happens. How this individual work leads to co-constructive building of text comprehension is detailed within each role in the book much more than any blog post or lesson plan I’ve written.

“Each role needs really to serve two purposes: help engage with material and practice research essay skills.”
Reading and writing are twines in the same rope and therefore incorporating research and writing skills into the ARC roles is a natural partnership. The way in which this is done, however, has drastically refined since the first iteration of these roles out of experience. For example, amongst other seemingly connected duties, Highlighters used to examine author reference to outside sources, gather and define all unknown vocabulary, and check for indications of text formality (i.e. punctuation use, grammatical flexibility, etc.). Through experience, it became obvious that too many fragmented tasks led to little skill transfer to research and writing. You can’t rest on what you’ve always done when evidence reveals its ineffectiveness. Now, Highlighters solely focus on vocabulary use in the text: key terms, topically-related vocabulary, and tonal language. Not only does this lexical focus bring a narrowed purpose to the role, but it connects awareness to application.

“Otherwise, the Discussion Leader, Summariser, and Connector roles are fairly self-explanatory.”
Gone is the Summariser role. RIP. Efficiency wins out in the end. The Leader role absorbed the duty of summarising key points in the text since a) the Leader already establishes a baseline of comprehension among the group so summarising is a natural fit; and b) the workload across the roles was not equitable. Now it is, at least moreso. Plus, now you only need five students per group (often only four) instead of six: much more doable for the average ELT class size.

“A new feature added in this year is to reflect on the process each week before moving on…Beware, the answers vary from the extremely wishy-washy…to the more meaty… .”
I draw your attention to the warning. As time went on, the six reflection points mentioned in this post drew far more of the former type of answer or worse, lip-service to what it seemed students felt I wanted to hear. The bottom line: the answers I was looking for arose from emergent comments during the group work. The written reflections have moved much further toward a practical function: supporting the next person to have the role.

“Here are two quick videos of students giving it a go: 1st Week – 16 students, mostly Mandarin-speakers; Week 2 – 28 students, mainly Mandarin-speakers, 1 Russian, 1 Indonesian” 

arcs_2500Did anyone watch these videos from start to finish? I’m not sure I can build an evidence-based argument for their value… I can, however, confidently argue for ARC purpose, timeline, role duties, exemplar tasks, and downloadable activities in the book. It’s not a research paper, but it’s informed by research, much of which is listed in the further reading. It’s not a student book, but it’s a teacher resource book entirely aimed at helping students with reading. I’ve taken a very long time to transform this from a couple blog posts to a concrete text.

During this week since the release of the book, I have repeatedly stared at the pages on the round, Amazon, and Smashwords sites, and my copy on my iPad, with awe and disbelief. Maybe this feeling will dissipate over time, but I can’t believe this part of the ARC journey is finished and the next part can begin!

A sincere thank you to anyone who uses ARC with their students. Please let me know how it goes when you have the chance.



I took photos of slides. I tweeted. I gave up and simply listened intensely. I typed up notes on my laptop. I switched to my iPad or phone. I sat in the back. I sat in the front row. I sat near the wall. I participated with others. I avoided participating. IATEFL sessions ran the gamut of circumstances for me. My takeaways from them, likewise, aren’t necessarily the intended point by the presenter, but what spoke to me.

Opening reception
Outgoing IATEFL president, Carol Read, welcomed long-distance fundraising cyclists to Manchester and followed with an enthusiastic oral embrace to all attendees in the room at the Manchester Central Convention Complex. I’d never heard her speak before but the crinkle in her nose when she smiled so sincerely and the joy in her voice as she spoke endeared her like she was my favourite teacher ever–a welcome counter to the abrupt ‘shush’ I received from another woman who seemed to ignore evidence of the chatter-filled hum that surrounded her. Then again at the opening plenary, Carol’s story of a mother mouse fending off a cat because of her foreign language ability only reinforced my admiration.


Donald Freeman (University of Michigan), opening plenary
IMG_0824If I said this image commented on language proficiency within the classroom our learners demonstrate, what commentary would you believe it represented? I’ll give you a second to click on the photo and really look at it… This is what I took away from the entire plenary: like how we can see a segment of the landscape from within this suitcase sculpture, the language proficiency our learners show us in class is part of, but not representative of the entire proficiency they have (or need) outside the classroom. Then he talked about skateboards and lost me.

IMG_0864Willy Cardoso’s talk on challenges in initial teacher training course design
I consider Willy a friend, a peer, and a guy whose investment in our industry is admirable, but he’s also somehow managed to escape leading a talk I attend, so I cornered him (i.e. I sat near the back in a room of 150 other participants). While his descriptions of teacher training course considerations and challenges kept me engaged,  the sudden appearance of a seemingly blank slide, which briefly interrupted his flow as he bowed his head and walked to the other side of the stage, exemplified how to keep an audience engaged. Moments after wondering what was happening, a clearer inspection of the slide unveiled words like ‘insert your own thoughts here for a minute’.

IMG_0899Luke Meddings’ people, pronunciation and play with the Queen
Queen E turns 89 today. “One wishes her … a very … happy birthday.” Insert gum into your mouth, clinch your teeth, tone each word sombrely, and you too can play with accents like the Queen’s. Through his masterful impersonation, Luke transforms pronunciation practice from simple mouth aerobics into lost inhibitions. Hilarity ensues. I imagine similarly in the classroom. In addition to our false regality, we acted annoyed, excited, and even like our L1 family members while saying the title of his workshop to our partners. Normally I’m not so engaged in active workshops, but this side of Luke mixed with a language point drew me in.IMG_0904

IMG_0926Harry Kuchah Kuchah’s ELT in difficult circumstances
We complain about uncomfortable or techless classrooms, but they are not difficult circumstances. From my office with my laptop, it can be easy to forget that the context ELT is for me, with my perceived problems, is not what the majority of language learners face, yet that majority is so grateful to be learning. Harry rose my awareness here. My takeaway is gratitude.

And then I went to, was engaged in, and left inspired by 5 times as many sessions and events as is mentioned in this post.

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IATEFL: yes, that massive collection of language teaching industry talks and professionals from across the globe, just concluded last Tuesday after five days of awesomeness. If you weren’t able to attend, there’s no realistic chance of replicating almost any part of it for you. Sorry. Believe me, this was my first time in person and while the streaming videos and live tweets were great in previous years, they do not compare to the live experience. The IATEFL bug has bitten.

I’ve wondered how I would meaningfully capture anything from the conference on my blog and it’s taken until this jetlagged zombie-in-daylight day to attempt to do so. I suppose I could summarise each valuable/enjoyed session, but honestly I’d be blogging for days (or like a madman–ask any of the roving IATEFL reporters). Instead, I elect to give bite-sized takeaways of sorts. Enjoy!

  1. IMG_0815The SIG PCE is worth it.  For me, attending the special interest group PCE (a one-day event tagged on the day before main conference or preconference event) as my gentle toes-in-the-water to IATEFL was an amazing experience. First, the talks in the Teacher Development SIG were spot on to at least one of my main interests (speaking of content summary posts: see my “problematizing for teacher development“). Second, you bond with and deeply explore topics with a group of people who, by default of selecting this SIG, share your interests–an excellent method for PLN expansion, btw. Between the speakers and the event organisers, four of my favourite (and oldest) PLN were represented: Mike Harrison, Willy Cardoso, Divya Madhavan, and Fiona Mauchline. Plus, I’m thrilled to have connected with Sinéad Laffar and Higor Cavalcante here.
  2. IMG_086730-minute talks are a good length for me.  Perhaps for the interactivity of a full-fledged workshop, additional time might be useful, but 30 minutes appealed to the attention deficit syndrome that living in the 21st century has caused. It made sitting through a talk that wasn’t going so well bearable. Finally, it’s not so daunting when you’re leading your own talk (NB: building further connections between these two subpoints is not encouraged). Overall, they pack a strong punch when used efficiently, plus you can go to so many more. On that note…
  3. IMG_0838Aim to see lots, but give yourself a break if you miss some. Attendee mistake 101: go to every talk you wanted to and burn out by the end of Day 2. Of course I wanted to see as many as I could. I diligently circled sessions in my program the night before. In many cases, I even agonised about choosing one of the three or four conflicting talks I’d end up seeing (NB for organisers: sometimes too much choice is a curse). Like so many before me, I quickly accepted this was an impossible task, and that breaks were needed to decompress… and mingle…
  4. IMG_0935It’s about the spontaneous as much as the planned. Scenario: you’ve just left one talk and have 15 minutes to go to the bathroom, get a coffee, and jaunt to the next talk circled on your list across the way. During this time, however, you run into an awesome PLN member, but who isn’t on quite the mission you are. Do you: a) say a quick hi and hug but that you’re heading for a talk you don’t want to miss? b) connect with them and have conversation, accepting you’ll just have to miss that talk? Ultimately for me, the talks are great, but it became obvious early on that this was my chance to spend time with people in person that I loved connecting with online. Plus, it’s these discussions that often matched the stimulation and learning that came from the talk I missed. Speaking of the people…
  5. IMG_0842Go with the flow in the evenings. Yes, the conference venue, talks, and exhibits were grand–above my expectation. No, they weren’t what I’ll remember most. It’s joining PLN for dinner, the talks unrelated to ELT, the surroundings where we spent time together. It can be exhausting after a full day of inspiration to go out for the evening as well, but it’s absolutely worth every minute. Even though I’ve known most of these people for years online and met many of them at least once offline, like any friendships, quality time develops them the most.

So this is what bite-sized looks like today. I might have another IATEFL post or two in me; we’ll see. :)

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