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Academic reading circles (ARC): The first ARC appearance ever

EDIT: This is the first ever appearance of Academic Reading Circles online. Some information, including roles, have been since updated in the book. Click here to see. If you use any information from this post, related ARC posts linked below, slideshares, or the book itself, please attribute it to Tyson Seburn, with a link to the related post, presentation, or book. Thank you!

My students very often tend to do the required course readings once, struggling not only with comprehension, but also relating the content from week to week. In order to both improve comprehension and dig deeper, this post is about pushing students to engage with the readings. 

One lesson I’ve tried to instill in new university students is that to understand material and get the most from a reading, you need to engage with it, like having a conversation where you go down various tangents, inspired by the original discussion, but always being able to bring it back.  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.

Giving examples or even practicing engagement in a class or two and expecting them to do it on their own simply isn’t enough.  Learners need the skills broken down into separate functions to recognise and practice.  What do we do to engage with readings? How can they be divided into clearer, concise roles to practice before being put together? 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.

Last year, my colleagues and I tried out a version of reading circles in the vein of Furr (2004) with the readings required by the History credit course our students concurrently took.  Though it seemed to help them understand the primary and secondary sources, in-class discussion infrequently moved into true discussion. With several factors potentially contributing to this, this year I kept the same general timeline, but determined that I’d control certain factors: 1) modify the roles to suit our students’ needs and our goals, 2) require student reflections after the in-class discussions, and 3) choose the readings myself.

Each role needs really to serve two purposes: help engage with material and practice research essay skills.  With this in mind, I tweaked Furr’s explanations of the role responsibilities a little.  I also added a few roles.  Interpreting, evaluating and integrating visual media from readings and into essays is a vital skill at this level. As a result, I added in a Visualiser role, along the lines of the Artistic Adventurer (Daniels 2002) .  Another change was emphasise critical thinking regarding bias, reliability and context.  In comes my Contextualiser role.  Finally, I collapsed the Word Master and Passage Finder into the Highlighter. Otherwise, the Discussion Leader, Summariser, and Connector roles are fairly self-explanatory.

I allow students to choose their weekly roles, exceptions: there must be a Discussion Leader and not same role twice in a row.  This gives a certain control back.  To do this, they update this Google spreadsheet so I can monitor more effectively.

A new feature added in this year is to reflect on the process each week before moving on. So far, I’ve given two groups the following points to consider and asked them to email me their reflection:
a) how your partners contributed to your understanding of this article
b) how critique of what you prepared helped you
c) how the extra help (I wrote questions to consider for each role on the board during the discussion to help students fill gaps in their preparation – EDIT: November 19 – see photos of my board at the bottom of this post) was similar to or different from what you’d prepared and what you could use to fill in your role
d) who was most/least vocal, why and what could be done to better manage the discussion next time
e) which role you think appeals to you the most and why

With one group, I asked them to answer all.  With the other, I asked them to reflect on all, but submit one they felt was significant to them.  Beware, the answers vary from the extremely wishy-washy:

a) As the Discussion Leader, [Joe] has led us to understanding this reading and we can get a common view of a whole group. As the Highlighter, [Mark] has shown us the main sentence of the article and explained the complex or topical vocabulary. As the Contextualiser, [Charles] gave us the background of the event.

to the more meaty:

a) …Thirdly, I want to talk about our visualiser, [Smith]. I got really surprised about things she found. Showing the picture about the how Haitian works in the Dominican Republic, map of the Haiti and Dominican Republic, and an introduction video about the film “The Price of Sugar”, really helped me a lot. Because I didn’t find these information when I want to find some information to better understand the article, I got surprised, especially the video. That gave me the visual impact how bad the situation is in Haiti, and helped me remember it better than just reading the words.

I collect these ungraded reflections and use them as examples to differentiate fluffy content from substance as well as see what the students themselves feel the value is.

It’s great to have choice, especially when reading for pleasure, but when it’s meant to practice certain skills for high-stakes assignments, I’d prefer to take the reins for the time being. Last year, our purpose solely was to have students understand the required readings of the History course.  This worked and it didn’t (see above).  This year, we decided not to use the required readings themselves, but take another page from the reading circle roles, Connector, by choosing related readings that provide extra context, interesting connections, quotable ideas, and topical discussion. We’ll use increasingly lengthy articles as time goes on and success at how to perform the roles increases.  I also plan to choose readings that demonstrate great personal bias, technically challenging vocabulary and increasingly complex, less obvious connections.

After the in-class reading circle discussion, I post next week’s article on Blackboard as well as extra information (e.g. link to download the article, citation example, date of in-class discussion).  To enhance students’ preparation, I often add links to extra material for the current article (see Week 8 example on the right).

Here are two articles my students have used so you can see an example of how they relate to the History reading/lecture of that week:
Week 8 & 9 History topics: The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)
Week 8 RC article: Terral, Ben. “Haiti: the price of sugar.” Review of The Price of Sugar, by Bill Haney (dir.), Global Research. November 19, 2007, (download)
Week 9 RC article: Peguero, Valentina. “Teaching the Haitian Revolution: Its Place in Western and Modern World History.” The History Teacher Volume 32, no. 1 (November 1998): 33 – 41. (download)

One final task is to submit a group report one week later.  This includes a formatted submission of what they prepared for their roles, as well as modifications based on the group discussion. Little by little, the students seem to be getting more and more from the readings. More and more their desire to investigate more autonomously is improving.  And I’m pleasantly surprised by many of their reflections suggesting something to the effect of them being helpful.

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

Some photos of guided questions during discussion

Works consulted
Daniels, H. Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. (Second edition). Portland, ME: Stenhouse; 2002
Furr, M. Literature Circles for the EFL Classroom. 2004. Available at (accessed on November 11, 2011).
Shelton Strong, S. “Literacture Circles in ELT.” ELT Journal 2011. First published online July 18, 2011 doi:10.1093/elt/ccr049 (accessed on November 6, 2011).

Related posts
ARC in practicum, a concrete example of how this activity worked in reality.
The interactions of ARC, which details interactions with instructor and each other.
The highlighter role, details of how this lexically-focussed role works
Context is important, a preview the Contextualiser role
Using visuals to represent concepts in texts, introducing the Visualiser role to students
ARC workshop slides, from #toscon12, #tc12 & #tesolfr

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Hello Tyson
Using this technique of reading circles gives the students meaningful reasons in order to learn. If students are learning English, the circles give them an opportunity to practice their target language besides learning the content.

I use reading circles and I know they work in many contexts. Thanks for the great post and video. Ellen


This is amazing. I just attended a workshop by Oxford University Press about Reading Circles and learned how this method can be used with secondary students.
Thank you for adding to my knowledge about this efficient way of getting the students to develop their reading, discussion and note taking skills.


Our local OUP representative did a workshop and showed the teachers how the reading circles work. I mean, we acted as students and went through the whole process. That was something new for me, and I am waiting for the right moment to do it with my students.


It is great to see so many people using reading circles! I have been using Literature Circles in my classroom since 1985 with great success. I put all of my notes together and wrote a teacher’s manual called Literature Circles, and Creative Teaching Press published it in 2001. I agree with everything you have said about helping students learn to talk about what they are reading. Conversation is the key. 🙂


I first learned about lit. circles from reading Donald Graves. He is one of the first educators I read in 1983 who started thinking about reading/writing connections in the classroom. I loved his common sense approaches to how students learn to comprehend. He died in 2010, but I continue to use and modify his ideas with my 8th grade English classes. He proposed that student of all ages read aloud in small groups to help each other with voc., expression, and just to make sure they did the reading at all. There was a question or task of the day to focus on and a facilitator to pick up reading materials, etc. I use these roles in lit. circles: Connector, Literary Luminary, Discussion Director, Summarizer and Illustrator. I have handouts on these roles if you like. email me at if you want to see any handouts, etc. 🙂 Have a peaceful day!

Wendy Jackson

I really like your roles handout Tyson. It is clear, easy for students to understand and gives their reading a very clear purpose, which I think helps to improve engagement with a text. Is it possible to share your handout with other teachers with attribution? Hanks for a great post.

[…] Academic reading circles | 4C […]

Sharon Turner

Hi Tyson,

I really enjoyed this article. I have been looking for something like this and the learners have now tried out all of the roles in my classes informally but I had been looking for something to bring it more together. Thank you for sharing all the worksheets and admin as well and the video. This has really helped in how to use it. I agree with having control on the roles when they are getting used to it or else some of them just continue to stay in one role that they are comfortable with but also they need to exercise all of these roles bit by bit over time. It reminds me of apprentorship to mastery learning. A really great article and ı also loved the imaged you posted that went with it.))) Have a good week:)


James Taylor

Great post Tyson. I had a great time using Reading Circles with literature, as they were originally intended. To see your adaptation for academic purposes is very interesting and I’m sure I’ll be using your handouts in the future.

I mentioned reading circles to your pal Ceci at TESOL France, and I’m sure she’ll be interested in what you’ve written. I’ll be sure to pass it on.

James Taylor

I used to teach reading and writing to English teachers in Korea, and Monday was our literature day. My biggest ‘hit’ was with ‘Of Mice and Men’ a wonderful book, but not much use in terms of new vocabulary. What the reading circles did was enable them to get involved with the narrative in the way that I wanted them to, as real readers interested in the story, characters, setting, authors intentions etc.

To have asked them to go straight into a discussion of the book would have been too demanding. The reading circles enabled them to build their discursive skills so that over a few weeks they became not only able to more confidently and critically discuss the novel, they were able to do it for longer. It reached the stage where I only had to say “it’s reading circles time” and let them get on with it for an hour. It was one of the most successful things I’ve ever done in the classroom, and I’m delighted to see how you’ve adapted it for EAP.

James Taylor

I also lived in Seoul from 2008 to 2010. I loved it and missed it loads. It’s a fantastic place, and I loved my job. Would go back tomorrow if I could!

James Taylor

Yes, I know what you mean, I met plenty of people who didn’t like it that much either. I was never quite sure what was keeping them there to be honest!

I was lucky in that I was there long enough to enjoy it, but not long enough to become stale. Still, I wasn’t ready to leave when I did.

I moved because of my partner’s job, but I can’t complain because that’s what took me there in the first place!

You certainly picked an interesting time to be there. Where were you working?


The first two years I worked for both a hakwon (BCM Language Institutes) and university (Konkuk) near Kundae Station. The last three I predominantly worked at another hakwon (Pagoda) near Jongro 3-ga station.

Sharon Turner

How could we not talk about….your article Tyson.))? A ncie angle on Russian women and propaganda to compliment the history course. Funnily, we are about to start women’s roles in ancient Greece focusing on Athens and Sparta as an introduction to the type of work learners will have to cover in Social and Political Sciences.) Again an interesting twist to the issue. I was also curious to know about your situation: Who your students are, how your programmes work, your role etc. Seeing as you keep me company in the middle of the night when writing it was time to know more about you.) To answer your questions:

1-My students-Our uni is an English medium uni. in Turkey. So our students are in the foundations year programme to build their English inorder to be able to study for the next 4-5 years in English. My current students are about 10 weeks away from retaking our English proficiency exam for Faculty entry. We also have complete beginners and Intermediate who on average stay with us for a year and a half. However, our job is not really exam oriented teaching it is about getting them ready to be able to study in faculty, to be able to function in an academic environment in English. So our courses reflect the Freshman programmes. Because the uni is interdisciplinary all learners for the first two years follow a programme of:

Freshman Year

Social and political Sciences
Freshman English
Natural Sciences
Turkish Language and literature (to ensure they develop their skill and knowledge of Turkish academically.

So in our courses we have literature in all of these areas apart from Turkish (.)))))))). All of the skills are integrated so we don’t have seperate writing, literacy classes. Instead I see my students for 4 hours a day and we cover the whole gambit when it comes to academic English. We as teachers also have task groups where we develop our programme based on various research areas. Mine are the Listening and Reading task group and we have been doing research investigating our department and then faculty and I am also on the English for maths and Science Team amd we run a compulsary part of our Upper course directed at maths and science.

2-As to the roles: I have been working on building all of these roles to prepare the ground for something more formal by placing them in these roles without formally telling them but with various class activities. We have just done our initial read aloud together as they are now ready to do this. So now I was looking for something that would give them the roles and was about to prepare something when I saw your article.)) I will definately let you know how it goes.))

Have a good day on your side of the world.)) Bye for now from mine.))


Sharon Turner

Hi Tyson,

How is it going? I just wanted to let you know that I used your Academic Reading cicrcles with the learners on Thursday on a text about the history of the silk road. The learners were really engaged and asked tons of questions that they don’t generally do if only question and answer is used. I wanted to ask you several questions:

1-In your post you said you gave them some extra help. How much and could you give some examples?

2-Are there any roles that are essential? F
or example discussion leader?

Thanks in advance.)


Sharon Turner

Thanks for that.) I am really visual so that helps a lot. Stylish board work by the way.) Thanks also for the explanations above. Sometimes you don’t realize something until you put it into practice. Two groups decided not to have a discussion leader. I managed to get around it by using the summarizer as a kind of starter and facilitator but it would have been better with a discussion leader. You live, teach and then learn.))

Sharon Turner

I am looking forward to that.) A life of colour.

[…] Academic Reading Circles (introduction) […]


Hi Tyson,

I’m working on the development of an academic reading course for social science students in the Netherlands (social work and pedagogy). One of my immediate concerns was how to get away from the conventional method of presenting and practising time-worn strategies such as skimming and scanning, and getting the learners to become more active. Your ideas seem to offer an excellent solution.

The approach is solidly grounded on social constructivism à la Vygotsky (mentioned in your Furr article) and, imho, offers a great way to animate reading classes.

I will adapt the roles to reflect better the social science context (more personal experience; less historical context). Looking forward to trying it out next semester!

Have you any more feedback to share since your last posts?

[…] ARC […]


Clicked to enlarge the image with your beautiful board work and lost my comment…
Anyhow, I’ve given a workshop on Reading Circles (developed by a colleague) and this is definitely an interesting take on and adaptation of the idea. I also like the way you combined the Passage Finder and Word Wizard (in my case it’s Collocation Collector) into a new role – that of the Highlighter

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