One More Thanksgiving Lesson: Four Skills and Synthesis Writing

What do you do when you have finished a project the day before and there is one more day before a 4-day holiday? Games? Party? How about some reading and writing?

I love games and fun days “off” from teaching in the classroom, but I wanted to gives students some context and substance for the day they might be celebrating – one which seems like a big deal to many Americans: Thanksgiving.

Newsela provided the source material, which I adapted into a jigsaw, similar to my previous Thanksgiving post.

I began the lesson by asking students about the food they have heard about or eaten for Thanskgiving. I showed a picture of a Thanksgiving spread and went through some of the common foods: turkey, stuffing, potatoes, salad, pumpkin pie, etc. I then asked them why we eat these foods and had them recall the story of Thanksgiving. There were vague notions of harvests and thanking the land. I gave a very brief overview of the story of Thanksgiving, including explaining who Pilgrims and Native Americans are. Then, I introduced the activity for the day. We were going to answer the question: Did the Colonists eat the same foods in 1621 that we eat today?

I explained we would read some information, share it with each other, and then write about it.


I showed the introduction to the article on the screen so that everyone had the same background. We read and discussed it together.

I then gave students each a different section of the article to read. My adapted version can be downloaded here. In my adapted version, there were four sections: What about Turkey?, Please Pass the Eels, No Pie?, and Modern Thanksgiving.

After reading it for five minutes and me helping students with unknown vocab or concepts, I put students together in groups, jigsaw-style, so that each group member had read a different article.

Speaking and Listening

Students had to share what they had learned from their article. While listening, students had to take notes. I gave about 10 minutes for this activity. Students worked to give their information, clarify (for example, the difference between clams and mussels), and finally, ask me any questions.


Finally, for the remaining 15-20 minutes, I told students they would need to describe, in writing and using both their article and their notes, the foods eaten during the first Thanksgiving and why our modern Thanksgiving menu is different. I reminded students about writing a clear topic sentence and gave a model outline, though students were free to organize their writing in any way they wanted. I gave feedback as they wrote.


I was actually very surprised at the quality of the work. They were able to incorporate many of their partners’ details and most write in a very logical way. I felt, though I did not explain, that this was good practice for synthesizing information, and I think I could use this similar framework for teaching synthesis in the future. I wish students had more time to write, but given the brevity of the class, what they turned in (about a paragraph) seemed very good. I will give some general feedback and return their papers in December. This activity also gave me a chance for informal assessment of writing organization, grammar, mechanics, etc., which I will definitely incorporate into our final weeks together.

Like my previous Thanksgiving lesson, this one was not “fun” in the traditional sense, but was received as very interesting and, as I explained, would make a great conversation topic for anyone sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast.


Comparing Stories of the First Thanksgiving – A Lesson in Understanding Author Perspective

I’m no historian, but I am a fan of History. I have binge watched Crash Course, attended local history events, enjoy reading history books for fun, and from time to time, teach a US history-themed course. Whenever I can, I inject US history into my classes, not as a form of patriotism, but because it provides a great platform for critical thinking and contextual / cultural understanding.

Thanksgiving is in several days and I was inspired to do something related to the holiday in my reading class, where most of my critical thinking instruction happens. I found a great lesson plan from the New York Times called “What Really Happened? Comparing Stories of the First Thanksgiving“. In this lesson, students are supposed to investigate competing stories of the first Thanksgiving and by doing so consider evidence and author perspective. They link to several general articles about Thanksgiving, several articles written from a Native American perspective, and several from a more conservative or right-wing perspective.

The articles they link to are great, but are written in a way that is very inaccessible to English language learners, even at advanced level. Furthermore, the lesson plan as they described it would likely take several hours or class sessions. Given that my learners are advanced but still would struggle with the readings, and that I simply wanted to do a one-off pre-Thanksgiving lesson, I heavily adapted their suggestions and did the following in jigsaw reading lesson in class:

  1. I found three suitable articles, one from each perspective, and simplified the language so that they were short (could be read in less than 10 minutes) and relatively easy to understand. You can see the articles I used here.
  2. I divided the class into three groups and gave each group copies of their respective articles. They had 10 minutes to read the article.
  3. Students then discussed the article in their groups. They had to answer the following questions:
    1. What were the main events of the article?
    2. What was interesting or surprising about the article?
    3. Who wrote the article? Why do you think they wrote it?
  4. After about 10 minutes, I broke the students up into new groups, where 1 student from each article came together to form a group of students who read different articles. I then gave them the final discussion question:
    1. Briefly summarize your article.
    2. What differences exist between the stories?
    3. Why do you think the stories are different?
  5. I walked around, monitored and facilitated student discussions, hinting at them to check the article’s authors to help answer the last two questions.
  6. Finally, we came together as a whole class and I asked them about the last question. We talked about perspective and the need to understand who the author is and why they may be writing something.
  7. We then briefly review each article and why they were written. I frame this debriefing discussion in terms of “myths” and explain how all countries have them, and that the story of Thanksgiving is an important founding myth of out country.
    1. The First Thanksgiving” from National Geographic Kids is the typical story of Thanksgiving, but it is simplified story missing many details. This is due to the general audience, trying to take a neutral stance, and the fact that kids should probably not be exposed to violence. We talked about what a neutral stance means and the fact that this may be the only story Americans are exposed to.
    2. The Real First Thanksgiving” is told from the Native American perspective. It is described as one event in a long series of injustices against the Native people, and it is mostly historically accurate. I reviewed briefly how Squanto and the Wampanoags are treated in these first two stories. (Note: despite its unprofessional look, the website contains information that is very accurate – I checked them against several other sources).
    3. The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” is told from a conservative, right-wing political perspective. Students generally have little background on what this means in the American context, so this needs a brief explanation. I also point out that the article focuses on individualism, capitalism, and American values, but it has debatable accuracy (something that is explained more in this New York Times article).

By the end of this lesson (which, by the way, I taught for the first time), students were shocked by the details of Thanksgiving, but they also really enjoyed seeing a story from multiple perspectives and they told me they realized how important it is to not only judge an article based on where it was published, but also on who wrote it, and that this may actually have an effect on how something is interpreted.

This is a lesson I will definitely reuse again, as it was very timely and interesting for the students, and introduced a powerful lens of critical thinking. Hopefully, next time I can take more time and get students to do deeper reads on this and similar topics.


What Does “Intensive” Mean in “Intensive English Programs”?

I’ve worked in several contexts that have been called “intensive”. Most recently, I have spent the last three years teaching in one full-time – an “intensive English program,” or IEP. Despite knowing the pedagogy and politics of these programs, I have always wondered what the word “intensive” really means, and how teacher’s and administrator’s (and maybe student’s) interpretation of this word effects instruction.

Based on IEP organizations such as EnglishUSA and UCIEP, and communication with colleagues at other IEPs, it seems that there is a lot of variety in terms of how a program is structured, but there are also some common features.. Common features typically include 8-week terms, a minimum of 18-hours of instruction per week (required for F-1 visa holders and therefore a staple of IEPs), multiple levels of instruction per skills-based course (e.g. Reading, Grammar, Listening), faculty with a minimum of Master’s degrees, being part of or associated with a university, and being accredited by an outside organization. They also share the word “intensive” despite this word not being defined by any standards or mission statement I have seen.

What does the word “intensive” means in terms of language stud? Maybe I’m being obtuse, but, to me, this word seems to have two important definitions that, when applied to pedagogy, are at odds with each other:

  1. thorough, rigorous, in-depth, concentrated
  2. fast, accelerated, vigorous

An intense workout can be rigorous, in that it works out multiple areas of your body thoroughly. It can also mean a fast-paced workout that hits key areas of your body. Despite being described by the same word, the exercise takes on different forms and likely has different results. Applied to language learning, I’m not sure the second definition, the one that focuses on speed, is apt. Or, at least it shouldn’t be. Yes, 8-weeks is an accelerated period in which to learn language, but that is not the I’m talking about. Students are not expected to master English after 8-weeks. Eight weeks are the period in which they can hopefully improve key skills which can put them on a trajectory towards their ultimate goal of entering the university.

The speed I’m talking about is in the sense of covering multiple units, hitting multiple curricular goals, addressing a bunch of grammar points or reading skills, or churning out essay after essay each week. I’ve seen colleagues do this. By the way published coursebooks like to cram so many units into a single book, they expect us to do this, too. However, to me, language is not learned by rushing through it.

I like to take my time when I teach, being as detailed as possible and working with language from multiple cognitive and linguistic aspects. In almost all my classes currently, we are only on the second unit after one month of instruction. Adaptation and supplementation, assessment and reteaching really slow things down – but in a good way. Most terms, I feel bad because only a portion of the coursebook actually gets used (another charge against the notion that we even need coursebooks!). In my writing classes, students spent the first several weeks on research, planning, subskills, and drafting, and now they are doing it again. We’ll be feeling time pressure at the end of the term when trying to finish our third paper. Yet, I know some instructors who try to get an essay done each week. I’m not sure how they do it! The adage of “quality over quantity” comes to mind.

The meaning of intensity as rigor and not speed was brought home to me the other day by an observer in my class who commented that my class seemed “intense in the sense that [my students had to] do/accomplish a lot during the class hour.” This was interesting. We really only had two or three activities, but those activities demanded a lot of students. It was a lesson based on reading, and this lesson involved them in vocabulary review, re-reading and highlighting, discussion, and critical thinking questions. This may seem like a lot, but we took are time and moved naturally from activity to activity, doing about three-quarters of what I had planned. They did accomplish a lot, but they also worked with a text in-depth, from multiple angles, and were challenged on both linguistic and cognitive levels. To me, this fits the very definition of intensive: thorough, rigorous, and in-depth.

As teachers – language or otherwise – time is always against us, and in that sense, there is always some element of speed to our teaching. However, it should not be a defining element of pedagogy, and it certainly should not be seen as a key aspect of intensive English programs.



ARC Priming: A Quick Idea for Getting Students Started with Academic Reading Circles

If you are a reader of my blog or a follower on Twitter, you will probably note that I am a big fan of Academic Reading Circles. I have convinced at least one other faculty member to use them regularly, and I have given several presentations about ARCs. I own the e-book, but hope to get the paper edition one day, signed by Tyson himself.

Anyway, I am always trying to find new ways of tweaking ARCs to fit student levels, class needs, and in general, improve the quality of the work students do. Sometimes, the biggest struggle is getting students to analyze texts in-depth from the different perspectives (roles). It’s not uncommon for students to ask superficial questions as the Leader, choose irrelevant vocabulary as the Highlighter, or unimportant references as the Contextualizer. A lot of this comes down to introducing and scaffolding ARCs in the right way.

We typically build an abbreviated version of ARC handouts together as a class, working with all roles. I also get students of the same role to work together during their first ARC so that they can work together to build knowledge of their role, and so I can easily give feedback. We also work on the different microskills that ARCs encourage throughout the term, such as working with contextual references during non-ARC readings.

However, I have also found one other idea to be very effective at introducing and maintaining ARC perspectives: priming articles with guiding questions. I believe Tyson has mentioned this before, but I’m not sure where – I don’t think in his book. What I mean by priming is giving students articles that are annotated with a few questions meant to get them thinking and reading through the lens they have been assigned. I always provide printed copies of the articles and add line numbers for ease of discussion. I also provide comments in the margins that ask different roles questions. I have found that this priming is effective at getting students in the right mindset, assuring deeper analysis, and, in turn, a quality discussion.

Check out my example below:

A recent "primed" article given to students for an upcoming ARC.

A recent “primed” article given to students for an upcoming ARC.


The Coming War in EAP (Writing)

I write this post at a time where Donald Trump has just won the 2016 presidential election and the future of international education is uncertain. Perhaps this has got me thinking in terms of politics and political metaphors, but the war I am talking about is more detached and niche from the current state of American politics, and even international education.

In fact, the notion of a “war” itself comes from one of Christopher Tribble’s (2016) latest articles in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes, called “ELFA vs. Genre: A new paradigm war in EAP writing instruction?”. It deals with the current tensions within English for Academic Purposes Writing Instruction (EAPWI, or what we could call #eapacrwri for cool hashtag purposes). The article has a particular emphasis on the native vs. non-native speaker dichotomy and its (mis)application to EAPWI, but I will save that for a future ELT Research Bites post.

In his article, Tribble outlines four major EAPWI paradigms that are now being placed at odds against each other:

  • Intellectual/Rhetorical, based on North Americans freshman comp classes, process writing, and the “essayist” tradition. Think your typical 3.5 paragraph essay.
  • Social/Genre, based on genre analysis, reading exemplar texts, and writing based on disciplinary conventions of moves and stages.
  • Academic Literacies / Critical EAP, based on challenging existing power structures (e.g. professor vs student, university vs student), “subversive discourse” (see Bensch, 2009), and assuming “alternative identities” (see Canagarajah, 2009).
  • English as a Lingua Franca Academic (ELFA), based on the rejection the unequal power structure in which students are forced to conform to native-speaker norms.

While reading the descriptions of these, I couldn’t help but notice loose parallels to major political ideologies in America. For example, the Intellectual/Rhetorical approach seems to share similar ideas to libertarianism, where individual rights are priority and only minor interventions from government are tolerated. In terms of writing, as Tribble argues (p. 31), the Intellectual/Rhetorical tradition favors “individual inventiveness” in the essayist tradition, and follows rhetorical conventions without concern for discipline (read: greater society). The Social/Genre approach seems to be aligned with conservatism, favoring tradition (i.e. genre conventions) over individual inventiveness. However, it also promotes analysis, emphasis on audience, and eventually challenged , mirroring more liberal and democratic socialist approaches. The Critical EAP approach is akin to social activism or Marxism, focusing on and challenging power structures. Finally, the EFLA approach parallels anarchism, the absence of authority. Here, all native-speakers and their linguistic products are seen as overly authoritative, and any English that is to flourish must do so without any authority. Again, these are loose parallels drawn while reading with the previous election season still burning in the back of my mind.

Where social activism/anarchism and these EAPWI paradigms really depart is in, as Tribble points out, Critical EAP and EFLA having made little to no impact on pedagogy and instruction (unlike these approaches, social activism and anarchism have made important impacts on society). In fact, he wonders whether it is even worthwhile to critique from the context of pedagogy such approaches that may exist solely to raise issues rather than to be instructional. However, as ELF is making some (and what Tribble considers positive) effects on pronunciation instruction, it must mean EFLA is trying to affect pedagogy in some way. How it is doing so is unclear at this point.

Tribbles explains that Jenkins has put these approaches into a hierarchy, where the Intellectual/Rhetorical and Social/Genre approaches are seen as conforming and therefore lowest on the hierarchy and easiest to negate; Critical EAP is seen as challenging but worthy of the top-tier (Tribbles muses it may be because challenge is doomed to fail), and ELFA is at the pinnacle, seen as a paradigm shift even though, as Tribble points out, it offers no pedagogical applications, and, therefore, what paradigms are actually to be changed is quite opaque.

So, ELFA is setting itself up as the ultimate challenger and is hoping to cause disruptions in other (conformist, challenging) writing approaches. This is mostly achieved by focusing on dichotomies, especially the native vs non-native dichotomy. Tribble does a great job taking apart this notion of native vs. non-native dichotomies in EAPWI. While this is something I will write about in a future post on ELT Research Bites, I’d like to shift back to the “paradigm war” that Tribble refers to.

ELFA is not a sign of a coming war; the war has already been waging for years. The real war here is that the war between the Intellectual/Rhetorical (I/R) and the Social/Genre (S/G) approaches that have been raging for quite some time. Not only is the I/R approach winning in terms of published materials (most major EAP writing coursebooks follow the process writing and I/R approach), but they are still the dominant approach in many university-based English language programs and ESL courses (perhaps because of the coursebooks?).

What’s interesting is that the very foundation of the I/R approach, that is, freshman composition, is actually moving away from essayism and a focus on literature, and instead moving towards the genre-approach. I recently attended a talk by Christine Tardy from the University of Arizona. She talked about the rise of the genre analysis approach in freshman comp, and what is preventing it from flourishing. The subtitle of her talk, based on her research with graduate students teaching English courses, sums it up: “It’s complicated and nuanced, and it takes a lot of time.”

How do you teach genre awareness and genre-based writing if students do not know their major, are from vastly different majors, will have to write in a variety of genres during the beginning of their academic career, or have issues in their language skills that may be better addressed by more traditional approaches to writing? Is the I/R approach more generalizable than the S/G approach? Some research has pointed to the inadequacy of the I/R tradition for preparing students for academic writing. However, S/G may not effectively address these concerns.

Critical EAP and ELF (but not ELFA) have raised valid issues, but don’t seem to be offering anything in the way of real solutions or pedagogical implications. As Tribble points out, “it is necessary to adopt paradigms that will help to meet the needs of our students, rather than attempting to introduce new paradigms which do not appear to be premised on an understanding of how academic written communication differs from speaking” (p. 40). As the new war wages in the distance, mostly in academic journals, the old war still burns bright in the hearts and minds (and hands) of teachers and students, reminding us that the search continues for the best method, even if there is no best method.


Benesch, S. (2009). Theorizing and practicing critical English for academic purposes. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(2), 81-85.

Canagarajah, S. (2004). Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses, and critical learning. In B. Norton, & K. Toohey (Eds.), Critical pedagogies and language
learning (pp. 116-137). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tribble, C. (2017). ELFA vs. Genre: A new paradigm war in EAP writing instruction?. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 25, 30-44.


Research Bites Now Has Its Own Site!

Research Bites, a series I started on this blog in order to share concise and teacher-friendly summaries of ELT research, now has its own site: The new ELT Research Bites is a collaborative effort between myself, Mura Nava of EFL Notes, Clare Fielder, and others based on Twitter and around the ELT blogosphere.

While I will still be writing research-based posts on this website, (Is it time for a new name? Suggestions welcome!), posts dealing specifically with summarizing single articles of research will be found on ELT Research Bites. However, the Research Bites posts I have already made will remain on this site permanently.

I look forward to contributing to ELT Research Bites, reading work by other contributors, and sharing interesting research with all those interested in language and ELT!


Academic Reading Circles in the University Classroom

This is a companion post to my 2016 Innovation in Teaching and Learning Symposium at UT. You can click here to download my presentation and handout.

Academic Reading Circles (ARCs) is an intensive reading activity that is meant to improve reading engagement and deep processing of text (as opposed to superficial engagement) while at the same time promoting independent reading, learner inquiry, ownership of knowledge, and collaborative meaning making. In other words, It was originally designed for foreign and international students studying English for Academic Purposes (EAP). However, the ARC approach can be easily transferred to any university classroom where reading and discussion are commonplace.

In addition, there is a lot to suggest that ARCs are effective at improving comprehension. First, they are based on literature circles, which have a great deal of research behind them. The research on literature circles shows improvements in comprehension, even in struggling readers (Williams, 2015; Murphy et al, 2009). Increases in motivation have also been observed (Covert, 2009). While much of the research has been conducted at the K-12 level, there is some evidence that it is effective at the college level as well (Thomas, 2013).

ARCs are very similar to literature circles; however, rather than fiction, semi-academic and academic texts are explored in-depth. The types of skills and strategies that ARCs engage, as well as the social nature of the discussion, lend themselves to comprehension improvement. The range of strategies that are utilized is large: summarizing, rereading, monitoring, questioning, critical thinking, evaluation, visualization, researching, synthesizing, and connecting to name a few.

Below is a basic outline of ARCs. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend checking the links at the end of the post or purchasing the book, Academic Reading Circles by Tyson Seburn.

The Process

  1. A common text is given to students to read independently outside of class.
  2. Students read the text-based on an assigned role and produce a handout following the role’s requirements.
  3. Students bring copies of their handout for each group member and discuss text.
  4. Students complete a follow-up activity (optional).

The Text

The text can be any non-fiction text that you find suitable. Examples could be academic journal articles, magazine or newspaper articles, textbook chapters, primary sources, government documents, white papers, and so on. This text must be the same for all members in a group.

The Roles and Handouts

  • Leader
    • Asks critical thinking to ensure foundational understanding of text
    • Sections text by idea/topic (n.b. journal articles, conveniently, often come pre-sectioned!)
    • Provides summary of key points of each section of the text
    • Asks discussion questions to promote greater analysis of text
    • Promotes group member participation
  • Highlighter
    • Focuses on meaning and use of topical/discipline-specific vocabulary
    • Focuses on meaning and use of repeated and important keywords unrelated to topic or discipline
    • Asks close reading questions to promote analysis of language usage
  • Contextualizer
    • Identifies important references to key people, places, events, or ideas (that are not fully explained in the text) in order to improve comprehension of article
      • This may also include background knowledge of concepts mentioned in the text
    • Gives short, bulleted points about references and provides an explanation as to why the author mentioned this reference
  • Visualizer
    • Uses visuals to help students understand important concepts in the text
      • Photos, charts and graphs, maps, timelines, infographics, etc.
  • Connector
    • Find connections between the text, outside sources, and personal experience
      • Typically, students find connections between the text and other readings in the course, other courses, current events, and personal experience

The Handout

The handout can be made in any way that suits your teaching context and needs. Typically, students make the handouts and print them out – one for each member of the group. The quality of the information on the handout can be assured through a scaffolded and guided process during the first ARC. For information on what is included on a handout, you can check Tyson’s original book, or read my post here, which includes example student handouts and more detailed information.

The Discussion

Discussions are typically 50-75 minutes and require a great deal of interaction from students. Discussion usually follow this format:

  1. Leader asks critical thinking questions.
  2. Leader gives line numbers (if available) for each section of the text.
  3. Leaders gives summary of section one, followed by group discussion. This discussion could include adding or amending any points.
  4. Highlighter discusses important vocabulary in section one, if any.
  5. Contextualizer discusses important references in section one, if any.
  6. Visualizer presents visual information in section one, if any.
  7. Connector discusses important connections in section one, if any.
  8. Leader moves to section two and the process repeats for each section.
  9. Finally, the leader asks discussion questions.

The Follow-Up

It is important to take the great effort, learning, and momentum of the discussion and direct it towards a coda. This could be anything pertinent to your class. Examples of follow-ups could be a whole-class discussion/debriefing, a group summary or written report, short writing assignments, or group or individual quizzes.

Conclusion and More Information

I hope that you can see the value of employing ARCs in content classes. For more information, please check the following links:


Covert, K. (2009). Literature circles and their effects on student motivation and reading comprehension (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from

Murphy, P. K., Wilkinson, I. A., Soter, A. O., Hennessey, M. N., & Alexander, J. F. (2009). Examining the effects of classroom discussion on students’ comprehension of text: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), 740.

Thomas, D. M. (2013). The effects of literature circles on the reading achievement of college reading students (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from here.

Williams, C. (2015). What impact does literature circles have on struggling readers’ comprehension? (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from