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

2 thoughts on “Academic Reading Circles in the University Classroom

  1. Hi Anthony,
    I’d just like to say thanks for the post. I’ve been following your blog for the past couple of years and I honestly can’t think of another ELT blog that has been more helpful in my development as an English teacher.

    I have an advanced level group (C1 CEFR) that are going to benefit enormously from setting up an ARC.

    Thanks again.

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Thanks Mark! I really appreciate the comment. I hope your students enjoy ARC and please let me know if you need any help.

Comments are closed.