Adapting Academic Reading Circles for a short pre-sessional course

Knitting: Like Academic Reading Circles, but different.

Knitting: Like Academic Reading Circles, but different.

This has been Week 2, or the first full week (minus the bank holiday) of the pre-sessional course. The students have been learning about thesis statements and how to organise their ideas in their essays, what it means to participate in a seminar, how to get the most out of a lecture, and they’ve done a timed essay. And on top of all that, they’ve had a bunch of reading to do in preparation for writing a managed essay on World Englishes. I had two two-hour sessions with them in the middle of the week to use as I saw fit to help them engage with the readings in an academic fashion.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do with them. We had already talked about managing long texts and the work we were doing on paragraph structure would continue to help them there.  We had been provided with some comprehension questions relating to each of the six texts but I wasn’t sure how best to use them. Then I came across Tyson Seburn’s Academic Reading Circles (ARC) idea.  If you haven’t heard of this here’s a super quick summary of it as I understand it:

  • Being an academic reader involves playing different roles simultaneously – understanding the text, putting it in context with regards to the academic debate on that topic, identifying the key points, determining the author’s stance, judging the strength of their argument, and deciding one’s own response to it.
  • This can be hard. It’s even harder in a foreign language.
  • Divide and conquer with ARC. Students take on one of the roles each and looks at the text from that point of view before coming together to discuss the text and share notes.

Tyson’s method involves giving the students a week to prepare for the discussion. His five roles can be described thusly:

  • a leader, who summarises the key points and leads the discussion
  • a contextualiser, who looks at references mentioned in the text and why these might have been chosen
  • a visualiser, who provides graphic illustrations of ideas in the text
  • a connector, who relates the text to other texts and experiences
  • and a highlighter, who highlights and looks up key topical terms and any unknown words deemed relevant

wpid-img_20150903_11161922.jpg.jpgWe had only two days and 8 students, so I adapted the roles so that the contextualisation and connecting were done by the same people. I asked the two students who had the same role to prepare their notes in class together, before splitting into two groups of four to present their thoughts, and use the comprehension questions as a guide to discuss the text. They had the run of the classroom – all the whiteboards, the IWB, the visualiser and the computer. And of course I was there to offer support and guidance. After the discussion, I asked the students to reflect individually on their reading and discussion.

We tried this on Wednesday with one long text, and although it was fairly successful, we thought it was perhaps too much to do in one two hour session if the aim is to get to the bottom of it. So when we repeated the activity on Thursday (swapping roles), I asked the students to use their skimming skills to decide which parts of that day’s text should be focused on.

Other ways we adapted the task after the first try:

Highlighter: The unknown and topical vocabulary tended to overlap. I think next time I would limit the role to key vocabulary (one of my colleagues tried something similar with her class and called it a “key term wizard”)

By BenHeine, 2008 Image found at

McDonaldisation. Does the spread of English as a lingua franca also mean the spread of homogeneity?

Visualiser: On the first day they wanted to try mindmapping, but it turned out to be too texty, and too similar to the summariser’s notes. The next day the visualiser came up with some memorable images that reflected the main points of the text.

Contextualiser:  On the first day, the contextualisers did an exhaustive job of looking at every reference and considering the stance of that writer and how it compared to the stance of the text’s author. On the second day we limited it to 5.


Although I encouraged them to connect ideas to other texts in their reading pack, I don’t think they did this, so if there are enough students to have a connector this might be useful. Or it could made be a focus of the discussion.

Unfortunately the students couldn’t prepare and share written notes or handouts, although they did take pictures of the key points that the summarisers made and the visuals.

Our essay question and the key points of an article on the topic found by our summarisers.

Our essay question and the key points of an article on the topic found by our summarisers.

What I would do differently next time

It’s important that as well as engaging deeply with a text, students relate it to their research or essay question. I know that some of the students touched on these ideas, but it wasn’t an explicit task, so I would set some mandatory discussion questions:

  • Does the author have a strong argument?
  • Do I agree with the points this author makes?
  • How would the author of this text answer my essay question?
  • Does this text support my thesis statement?
Apparently she's bad with directions.

She’s WEARING a map! Apparently she’s bad with directions.

Bonus section: What do a t-shirt and a text have in common?

One of the students in second class came to school last Tuesday wearing this t-shirt. She said it had come in handy that morning

I got pretty excited about that but this one really got me going because I’m obsessed with metaphor and between-ness. What does text mean? I mean, what does it really mean, etymologically speaking (Is that what really mean means? Question mark on that)? Well, you might be surprised to know that it comes from textere which means to weave. Which we all already knew from the word textile, of course. So when we write or read a text we are weaving meaning in and out of all these words. Which you might call the thread. You might say that writers or storytellers spin us a yarn. And what we did in the ARCs was to take a text and pick it to pieces, and try to pick holes in the argument. OK, I’m out. Got any more?


  1. j3ssm3ss · · Reply

    Loving this idea Emma, will definitely bookmark for future EAP possibilities!!!

  2. Tyson Seburn · · Reply

    I’m so glad to read about your use of ARC with your pre-sessional students, including the adaptations and limitations of doing so on a very short course. I have often been asked (or perhaps I ask myself) how I would adapt them to very time-limited contexts–quite opposite to the time afforded in the courses they are initially created for–and it’s definitely interesting to see it put into practice in yours and a few others. Maybe I would clarify that the three types of vocabulary that the Highlighter intends to find are often conflated (or at least sequenced) among the Highlighters for any particular week, like you’ve done. In any case, something to consider for the 2nd edition of the book when I get to it.

    Thanks for trying it out and continued luck on your students’ use. 🙂

  3. Wow. This is a thorough plan. The roles are a great idea. Thanks!

  4. Great post! I’ve liked Tyson’s ARC idea since I first heard about it, but like you, I only ever get to teach on short EAP pre-sessionals and wondered how I could squeeze it in. It’s good to know that it can work in some form and to hear about your experience with it. Now I’ve just got to hope that next year I find myself on a pre-sessional programme with enough flexibility to include it. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Julie! I hope you do too. And me!

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