Adapting “Academic Reading Circles” for the Listening and Speaking Classroom

I stumbled upon a post on Lizzie Pinard’s site about an IATEFL presentation by Tyson Seburn called “Academic Reading Circles”. As an EAP teacher, it immediately piqued my interest and I carefully read the blog post. I was excited to find that there was a small book with the same name being published by The Round. Unfortunately, I did not have time to acquire that book before my upcoming term, but I knew I wanted to implement the concepts immediately.

My class schedule for the summer term did not include any upper-level reading classes. However, it did include an upper-level listening and speaking class. Academic Reading Circles (ARC) are based on “texts” and “texts”, in ELT jargon, does not necessarily mean written texts but also spoken and visual texts as well. Therefore, I made “Academic Discussion Circles” (ADC) an integrated part of my listening and speaking class.

Now that I have had time to read Seburn’s book, I realize my adaptation varied markedly from his but was nonetheless effective at getting students to listen and academically discuss various aspects of authentic “lectures” in the form of TED Talks. TED Talks, as I have written about before, are short and highly engaging academic-ish lectures that many students enjoy. What’s more, this spoken text also includes a transcript, therefore providing more of a traditional text to exploit as well.

Seburn’s ARC framework is quite simple to understand (though not necessarily easy to implement the first time around). It is based on students utilizing a common text and “provides the opportunity for learners to co-construct their comprehension of the text by
sharing their individual discoveries and interacting with them” (p. 42).

Students’ achieve this by working in groups and having individualized roles. There are five roles, including:

  • Leader – the leader asks conceptual questions (focused on questions not related to specific details but deeper understanding), incorporates other students and their roles in the overall discussion, and finally asks inferential discussion questions to round out the discussions at the end.
  • Visualizer – the visualizer finds elements within the text that can be represented visually (as photos, charts, etc.) in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Contextualizer – the contextualizer takes not of references (direct and indirect) of people, places, events and concepts and presents them to their group in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Connector – the connector finds connections between the text and other courses, familiar events, or their own lives and then explains these connections in order to add to the understanding of the text.
  • Highlighter – the highlighter finds high frequency and likely unknown vocabulary, technical or topical vocabulary, and words and phrases that signal tone or emotion and presents these to the group in order to add to the understanding of the text.

The book concisely and illustratively provides more information on these roles, but as you can see, they can be easily used with non-written texts. I further adapted Seburn’s idea to place more focus on speaking and discussion strategies, as this was part of a listening and speaking class. I adapted the roles to the following, keeping in mind I wanted students to not only discuss and build their comprehension of their TED Talk, but also practice useful and valuable discussion skills (including phrases and strategies). Due to class size, I combined two roles. I also renamed them.

  • Leader – the leader asked comprehension questions, made sure every student was involved and shared their opinion (which included the use of discussion phrases), and made sure all students completed their roles.
  • Connector – the connector thought of how the lecture connected to their previous coursework and shared experiences. They were required to not only explain how the lecture connected to something outside the text but also ask “connection” questions that got students to think about and discuss their own connections as well.
  • Researcher – the researcher found more information about the people, places, events, and ideas discussed in the lecture and presented the information to the group. The researcher had to use phrases for citation and referencing other sources.
  • Linguist – the linguist highlighted interesting vocabulary, including individual words, phrases, structural vocabulary, stress and intonation, and accent, and presented them to the group. The linguist had to use phrases that asked about the meaning of words, and were used to define words and their usages.

I assigned a large set of TED Talk videos somewhat related to the week’s topic and had students choose a single video together. They then had the weekend to listen and prepare for their roles. Every Monday, we held an academic discussion. Some of the discussions were recorded and I provided individual feedback on both language (grammar, pronunciation) but also their discussions skills (role fulfillment, use of discussion phrases and strategies, etc.).

Overall, I was pleased with the Academic Discussion Circles and I know my students got a lot out of them. However, after reading Seburn’s book and having a better understanding of ARCs, I feel I could further adapt ADCs to be not only more effective but also run smoother.

Some things I have learned from reading about ARCs which I would recommend adapting to ADCs include:

  • Students should create handouts relevant to their roles in order to aid not only their discussion but the other students’ understanding.
  • All roles should be done “in order to add to the understanding of the text”. I repeated this phrase several times in describing the roles of ARC because I realized my ADCs often got off-topic or the information students brought to the table did not necessarily add, aid, help, improve, or deepen the understanding of the lecture.
  • Presenting information through “turn-taking” is not very useful for a “discussion”. My students naturally defaulted to each role having their time to present their information. This does not really provide the interaction wanted. Luckily, the ADC roles required questioning and therefore more interaction occurred, but not as much as a discussion that went through the text from beginning to end, as Seburn suggests.

From my experience using ADCs as a modified ARC, there are a few things instructors should keep in mind:

  • Modeling – I can’t stress how important modeling is. For these types of discussions, modeling not only means modeling the flow of the discussion, but the analysis of the text, the question generation, how to find visual aids, how to find and integrate relevant research, and how to notice and research interesting language features. My recommendation, similar to Seburn, is to analyze a text (spoken or read) and introduce all these elements without telling them about discussions or roles. The teacher can pre-plan and introduce all the information at once, or the class can co-construct together questions, research, and so on together. I would also recommend explicitly modeling a whole-class, teacher-led discussion where the teacher fulfills all roles (interactively) in order to show students what is expected.
  • Feedback – depending on the goals of your class and course, your feedback may vary, but feedback will be essential to help students progress in terms of understanding the text, fulfilling their roles, or being able to hold an academic discussion. In any case, teachers should provide feedback. I left feedback as comments on a recorded discussion, but live-delivered post-it notes or an after-discussion write-up by the teacher would also be fine.
  • Follow-Up – There must be some follow-up to the discussion. Seburn touches on some follow-up ideas, including writing advice for the next person who takes their role, writing a group report on the discussion, or responding to the discussion in writing. Further follow-up ideas could include skill remediation or refining based on what was observed during the discussion. For example, maybe you noticed students struggled with a particular area of the text due to some difficult structural language, or maybe you noticed students had trouble correctly using phrases for agreement or interrupting. These would be great post-tasks to complete with students, targeting a weak area that is common among them. Similarly, for a class with more grammar or language focus, highlighting some language mistakes (grammar, vocabulary, syntax, pronunciation) and working on those would also be prudent.
  • Assessment – This is one area missing from Seburn’s book. Because we are likely to have multiple discussions going on at one time, we are not capable of gauging everyone’s understanding and contributions. Therefore, some kind of assessment of the students’ understanding of the text might be important. In particular, if we are using formative assessment, these weekly discussions give us a weekly opportunity to assess students’ text comprehension and reading skills, which is, after all, one of the main goals of our efforts. I have several assessment ideas, including:
    • Quiz – provide students with a clean copy of the reading and give students a basic reading quiz that asks questions with answers that should have been discussed during the discussions.
    • Authentic Quiz – In university, our students will be expected to read and comprehend material and then take a quiz pr test that asks them not to simply regurgitate facts or details but apply what they have learned. We can simulate this experience by creating a more authentic-like content-based quiz that students could expect in undergraduate classrooms. Using an authentic assessment such as this makes the discussion experience more meaningful, as it makes the whole task cycle (independent reading, Academic Reading Circles, quiz) more authentic because it simulates what happens in the real world (independent reading, study group, assessment).
    • Pre/Post Quiz – give a short reading quiz (online?) before group discussions and after group discussions to judge their ability to understand the text on their own and after group work.
    • Student-Generated Quiz – have students generate quiz questions as a follow-up activity. Pool the questions, select the best ones, and give a reading quiz the next day. Questions can be made based on details, concepts, inferences, references, and language use.

I hope I’ve given you some ideas for using both Academic Reading and Discussion Circles, how they can be adapted, and general overall motivation to try out this wonderful idea. I highly recommend purchasing Seburn’s book and experimenting with these ideas on your own! My own teaching schedule includes an upper-level reading course, so I will definitely be using these again starting in a few weeks. Happy teaching!

3 thoughts on “Adapting “Academic Reading Circles” for the Listening and Speaking Classroom

  1. Tyson Seburn says:

    Hello Anthony,

    I enjoyed reading about your adaptations of ARC to listening/speaking. It’s been suggested to me a few times and I’ve always thought it would be a great adaptation to try out. I’m glad to see it’s working for you too and that whatever new understanding you’ve gotten into ARC from the book supplement your adaptations!

    What impressed me was your emphasis on the need for role work to add to the understanding of text concepts, be they written, oral or visual. Absolutely! It’s a struggle with my students too at first (and maybe in some cases continually), particularly with the Visualiser’s selected images. I also agree wholeheartedly that modelling is essential, something that is best done throughout each ARC cycle in one form or another. I tend to find modelling one role thoroughly myself in each ARC cycle isn’t too overwhelming.

    I have toyed with different versions of feedback and assessment with ARC over the years, but as none felt wholly germane to the process (i.e. it often felt like it was attached more to motivate than was very productive), I realised that for me, the point of ARC for reading is more to influence use of these texts in written assignments as an product, which are assessment in themselves. This is probably why the book avoids too much suggestion on this. It’s great that you have found a way perhaps that works for your purposes. Maybe I’ll write more about this in the 2nd edition. 🙂

    In any case, I’ll keep an eye out for any further updates you make about “ADC”. In the meantime, I have been bookmarking posts-related to ARC on its website ( Would you mind if I add this one?


  2. Anthony Schmidt says:

    Thanks for your comments!

    I am definitely trying to find ideas that emphasize modeling without overwhelming the students or myself. I think I will choose a short class text that we have already studied and work through each role as different classroom activities. Then, I will have students prepare for their roles and submit their handouts using Google Classroom, which will allow me to give feedback without eating up class time. In the future, I would love to do the role groups where all Leaders meet, all Contextualizers, etc.

    As far as assessment goes, it is important for me, especially since I do have to grade students. The first few weeks, I plan on all groups having the same text. This will be easier to assess as I will give quizzes generated by both myself and the students. The last few weeks, groups will select their own texts, and this will be a bit more difficult and require more individualized assessment in the form of write-ups.

    I’d be honored if you linked to my article!

    Thanks again!

    • Tyson Seburn says:

      Good thoughts. Usually to introduce all the roles the first time, we do them on a common text and then work through all the roles together on that text before they ever need to try it out on their own. Then when they do, that’s when I focus on just one role at a time, while they do them all. I have a colleague who also groups the Leaders together, the Visualisers, etc. She believes it helps them see bits they may have missed, before going into their actual groups. Good luck!

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