Riding the ARC: Experiences with Academic Reading Circles

This post will briefly explain the principles behind ARC, offer some general thoughts and ideas based on my experiences, and finally summarize my students’ perspectives on ARC.

ARC Principles

Academic Reading Circles is an EAP idea developed by Tyson Seburn. He has a great little book about it with a lot of detail, but the basic idea behind it is that students independently read an academic text. As they read the text, they also take on a specific role (leader, highlighter, contextualizer, visualizer, connector) and produce a handout following specific guidelines for that role. This handout is then used as part of a discussion in which students from other roles come together to discuss different aspects of the text.

The idea here isn’t to compartmentalize the reading but to read following a specific perspective and build upon these perspectives in subsequent ARCS. By following a single perspective, students are given focused practice on skills L1 readers naturally combine and utilize. For example, when reading an academic text, we don’t just read from start to finish, comprehending everything as is at face value. Instead, we pay attention to main ideas and important details (leader), we stop and look-up unknown vocabulary (highlighter) and, more importantly, unknown concepts (contextualizer, visualizer), we form pictures in our head to aid in our understanding (visualizer), we assess tone (highlighter), and we form connections between the text and our experiences (connector). These are skills that are not normally taught in reading classes because we are not always conscious of them during the reading process. ARCs give students the practice they need in each of these areas. It is hoped (and, from experience, it needs to be stressed) that when they read outside of ARC in English (or their native language) doing all these things will make them better readers and help them better understand the text.

General ARC Thoughts and Ideas

  • It doesn’t always need to be 100% authentic. ARC was developed with authentic texts in mind, but the level of difficulty really needs to be based on what your learners can do, not what you want them to do. if the text is too hard, the quality of the ARC and the information presented will be diminished.
  • Start simple. Even if your learners can handle complex authentic texts, it is better to start simple in order to scaffold the entire notion of an ARC. After one or two simple ARCs, you can begin to use more difficult texts.
  • Scaffold the handouts. I learned very quickly students will have more successful ARCs if they learn to do them correctly. Now, when I introduce ARCs, I follow this process.
    1. I use a text we have already read.
    2. I introduce them briefly to the roles and their purposes. I also provide access to a more detailed document about the roles.
    3. I introduce the students to each roles’ perspective by doing a question-based activity in which students discuss questions and identify which role would use these questions.
    4. We then go through each role together, building a mini-worksheet for each one. For example, for the Leader role, I have them write one critical thinking question, find and summarize the first section, and have them write a discussion question. See my SETESOL handout about for an example worksheet.
    5. After mini-worksheets are finished, I divide students into groups, give roles, and have students fully develop their worksheets. At this point you can have students come together with other students of the same role (for example, all leaders or all visualizers) and have them work together. This makes giving feedback much easier.
    6. Finally, you can have your first ARC with a well-scaffolded and well-put together handout.
  • Use Newsela. Newsela.com makes an excellent source for authentic and graded articles. They use authentic articles and reproduce them at numerous different levels. For example, you can access the max level (the original, authentic article) or a 10th grade level, a 7th grade level, and even a 5th grade level. Each level offers a shorter reading with simpler vocabulary. It’s perfect for almost any reading level. Newsela made an excellent source for readings.
  • Teach sectioning. Having students section an article when the topic changes is skill that I realized is very important to teach. This can be done by simply drawing a line between paragraphs. It helps students tackle longer articles by focusing on smaller parts and then integrating those parts into the whole. It also helps better-organize the structure of the discussion. I have found that discussing the article section by section works very well. The Leader gives a summary of section 1, and then each role contributes information for that section if they have it. Then, the Leader moves to section 2 and so on.
  • Use paper and digital copies. I found it important to provide both digital and paper copies. Paper copies were useful for marking up (notes, vocabulary, sectioning) as well as referring to specific vocabulary or ideas by using line numbers. Paper copies were also useful to have during the discussions. Digital copies were good because they often contained more images, but more importantly, they often contain links to related articles – something that I encouraged contextualizers to explore.
  • Integrate ARC principles into coursework. I was able to integrate ARC principles throughout my reading course by always giving students opportunities to develop conceptual questions, find research opportunities in text, make connections, find topic-relevant vocabulary, and so on. By doing this, all students are getting practice with ARC principles and important reading skills beyond the ARC work. I recommend always finding a way to integrate at least one skill with whatever intensive text study you are already doing.
  • Integrate with the coursebook. I found that students thought the articles were more interesting when they were related to whatever topic we were working on in the book. By integrating topics between your coursebook and ARC, you also create an additional opportunity for the connector (see below).
  • Join in. You are not there to simply monitor a discussion. It is important for you to join in where possible. We made sure to sit with each group for about five minutes, listening, contributing, and clarifying things for them. Students enjoyed this and we were able to get a deeper sense of their understanding.
  • Use technology. I used Google Classroom to distribute handout templates for each ARC. This made it easy for students to create consistently formatted handouts that were neat and easy to print. In addition to handouts, each week I distributed pertinent ARC documents, including role guides and a rubric. If you don’t have access to Google Classroom, Doctopus can accomplish the same thing. Here is an example handout template that all students used. It would also work well with Blackboard or Canvas.
  • Have a rubric. We wanted our ARCs to count towards students’ grades, so we developed a simple rubric to assess their discussions. See an example of my rubric here.
  • Give a chance for feedback. It is important to give students a chance to get feedback on their work. Feedback was given in two ways. Before several of our ARCs, We grouped students by role and had them work together to develop ideas and discuss their perspective of the article. This gave them more confidence and we were able to get everyone starting off on the right path. I also gave feedback was through Google Classroom. The night before an ARC, I checked students handouts and give comments on what I thought needed to be improved. This also allowed me to check which students had not begun their work, which gave me clues as to the quality I could expect.
  • Use follow-up activities. Follow-up activities are important to assess students understanding of the article. A good follow-up activity should focus not only on the article but on the discussion itself. One thing we did was have students write up a summary of the article and then a summary of what they had learned during the discussion. We did not have a chance to use Seburn’s other ideas presented in the ARC book. However, some additional ideas would be to have students work on a group summary, have students respond to discussion questions in writing, and have students individually compile the handouts given to them to form a small report. As Seburn points out, these segue nicely into practicing important writing skills. There should definitely be a written follow-up for each ARC.
  • Give quizzes. We also gave quizzes after the ARC. My colleague and I both felt quizzes were important to assess individual understanding of the article. It is possible for students to have a complete ARC discussion and still miss vital details and concepts.
  • Try Academic Discussion Circles. I first adapted ARC for listening and speaking classes. I wrote about them here.

Role-Specific ARC Thoughts and Ideas

  • Leader
    • Use Bloom’s taxonomy. I used this Bloom’s taxonomy chart to help students understand the different levels of questions they should be asking. Essentially, levels 1 and 2 are detail questions, levels 3 and 4 are comprehension and conceptual questions, and levels 5 and 6 are discussion questions. I think this helped them immensely when it came to question construction.
    • Ask many questions. Typically, the leader develops a bulleted summary which is provided to students in a handout. One idea that developed because a students did their role slightly incorrect was for the leader to ask numerous questions (detail, comprehension) in lieu of giving a summary. By answering these questions, students go over the same information they would have in a summary, but in a more Socratic way.
    • Have students summarize together. For a particularly difficult text, I had leaders leave the summary blank. Then, during the discussion, students had to work together to complete the summary. This is another idea that could be used, and it leads to negotiated and more accurate readings, as well as stronger group-ownership of the work done.
    • Sections, section summaries, and section questions. Have students break the article down into sections. Get students to summarize each section in 3-5 bullet points. You could also have students write questions for each section.
  • Highlighter
    • Keywords can be difficult. The highlighter’s job is to find keywords, topical vocabulary, and tonal language. Students had some trouble with keywords. They seemed to choose any difficult word, but we tried to stress that keywords are not just difficult but repeated. However, it was the case that often repeated words tended to be topical in nature. Instead of keywords, I think a focus on collocations (specifically prepositional collocations) may be more useful for students.
    • Tonal language can be even more difficult. Students also seemed to have a great deal of difficulty understanding and finding tonal language. I think this part is important for the reading process but needs to be better introduced (and integrated) before it can be successfully used by students.
    • Re-examining context for vocabulary is important. I made sure to have my students include line numbers. When discussing the vocabulary, I stressed the importance of not just saying the meaning and moving on but looking at it in context and discussing the meaning of the sentence in which it was found. I think this is very important for highlighters. I made sure all articles had line numbers to assist in this.
    • Use close reading. Check out my post on this!
    • Group vocabulary by synonym. A student had her own method of doing the highlighter’s role that I did not discourage. What she did was group unknown vocabulary not by topic but by shared meaning. For example, in this article on freeganism, she grouped the words uneaten, tossed outwantonly, and excess as having a shared meaning. Likewise, she grouped stale, bruised, misshapen, and scarred. I thought this was very ingenious of her and encouraged others to follow her example the next time they were highlighters. Here is another example from this article on Harry Potter.
      vocabgroups
  • Visualizer
    • I didn’t have enough students to have five roles, so I combined the visualizer and the contextualizer. I made sure the contextualizer always included a graphical element to their work, especially relevant charts and graphs. For the Harry Potter example above, i had the contextualizer include the original tweets from J. K. Rowling that the article was based around.
  • Contextualizer.
    • Cite and summarize the research. I found that some students simply wanted to copy informed from Wikipedia or another source. While Wikipedia could serve as a fine place from which to do research, I made sure all students included a citation to the research and a bulleted summary of information.
    • Make sure the research is pertinent. One thing students struggled with was making the research add to the reading. Some would choose a concept that needed to be research but what they presented in no way added to the understanding of the text. For example, for the Harry Potter article above, one student listed movie sale statistics and the titles of all of J.K. Rowling’s books. This is no way helped understand the text better. I had to work hard with contextualizers to help them understand their role better.
  • Connector
    • I had the least amount of experience with this role because of class sizes.
    • Integrate with the coursebook. When I did have students take on the connector role, they typically focused on their personal experiences. They did not have any prior coursework and they don’t pay attention to events enough to form connections. However, when we integrated the article with the coursebook topic, students were able to draw parallels and compare and contrast the ideas. I think this is worthwhile since a great deal of academic work deals with this type of analysis.

Comments from Students (from early 2016)

I was worried that students would not understand the point of ARCs. I imagined them asking the question: “Why are we having these long discussions? This is a reading class!”. Therefore, I made sure to stress on multiple occasions the importance of these skills. At the end of the course, I gave students a short survey about ARC. Each question had a 1-10 rating and a box for further explanation. The first question was whether they understood the purpose of ARC and all students stated that they did. I’m sure this is true because we stressed the importance often. I asked other questions, but not all questions and answers were insightful. Below is a brief synopsis of the important findings from this survey:

  • All students strongly agreed it was useful, though no explanation was given as to why.
  • Most students agreed that it improved their reading skills.
    • “I can read an article quickly”
    • “By looking at the main idea of each paragraph”
    • “I could realize what kind of reading method was good in different situation”
    • “Now I can get the main idea of my article easily.”
    • “Not a lot but it works. I spend more time reading.”
  • Most students agreed that they will use these skills in their own independent reading.
    • “I am actually using it for Bible and” the school newspaper
    • “If I just read a novel for relaxing, it’s not. But, if I need to read some academic paper, it’s good.”
  • Most students agreed that ARC helped them understand the articles better.
    • “One hundred percent – yes”
  • Some students felt the articles were too difficult for their level.
  • How can ARCs be improved?
    • “Shorter articles – this will be better”
    • “Everyone just pay attention to their own role. I think it can be improved. Let students have all-round development. Not just pay attention to their own job.”
      • Idea: make sure students have to write something for each role. For example, the leader could write a skeleton outline and the group members can fill in the rest.
    • “Having more examples.”
    • “I should have given it to you for feedback.”
    • “The teacher should choose each person’s role, students can’t choose it by themselves.”
    • “Maybe by making big groups…and more roles”
    • “I hope use article focus on TOEFL”
    • “Give students some TOEFL reading”
    • “Give us a little amount of time on reading it…we have much time to do it. That’s why we understand it. When we take the test, it wouldn’t help.”
      • Note: it’s probably important that students understand ARC is for preparing them for university-level work, not tests, but that these skills (especially the leader’s) is transferable to test-taking contexts.

Conclusion

The ARC concept is a great idea, based on sound principles. Tyson Seburn’s book makes a great basis from which to start. With a little experience, ARCs can be easily adapted to fit different contexts, teaching styles, and needs. I hope this long blog post was cohesive enough to provide some solid examples for teachers interested in using or improving ARCs on their own.

2 thoughts on “Riding the ARC: Experiences with Academic Reading Circles

  1. Tyson Seburn says:

    Great reflections and suggestions, Anthony. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through your post and seeing what ideas you’ve had now with experience and what your students had to say about ARC. There are some very helpful suggestions to supplement what’s in the book for any teacher.

    A couple things particularly caught my eye because I’ve dealt with these difficulties too. I completely agree that having the group work discussion go paragraph by paragraph is the optimal process, one that mimics real reading. Though I often start the first few ARC cycles with students doing as they wish (usually role by role), once they get the hang of the role duties, it’s easier for them to see how role by role discussion is rather artificial. Many come to the conclusion independently that it would be better to interject wit relevant information they have throughout the discussion instead. Others need a bit of prompting, but they see the light too. Another issue I’ve often noticed is students initially simply reading straight from their handouts during the discussion. This, I believe, has been reduced by reducing the amount of text required on the handouts themselves. Plus, I often demonstrate to them how boring it can be to listen to people reading ideas out loud instead of more natural conversation.

    For Highlighters, tonal language is always the last to be taught in my groups. It’s so difficult to pick up on in a second language. Generally, I leave this part of their duty for later in the course when I’ve had a chance to scaffold the awareness and exposure needed to pick it out. Let me know if you find effective ways to handle this in earlier ARCs.

    Anyway, that’s it for now, but thanks for using ARCs and sharing your experiences!

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Thanks for your reply! It’s been a great process for both myself, my students, and my colleagues. I have recommended your book to several others and they have also taken great interest in what we have been doing.

      I think the scaffolding approach you wrote about, of doing role by role and then paragraph by paragraph, as well as slowly building to tonal language, is the right approach and I will keep that in mind for next term.

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