Beyond the comprehension question: perspectives on using Academic Reading Circles for deep reading – by Tyson Seburn

updateA TysonIn this article, I present three perspectives on using concepts from my book, Academic Reading Circles . The first is my own: a reflection on the learning context that brought this book to existence. The second is from a colleague of mine who just last year learned about Academic Reading Circles and used them with her classes. The last, but arguably most important, is from one of my students, who experienced the entire process first hand.

Academic Reading Circles (ARC) is an intensive reading approach whose components work on the basis that language learners develop deep textual comprehension better through initial collaboration than if tackled alone. L1 readers take for granted the many aspects of a text that combine together to create meaning, but language learners do not. These are learners who must intensively read and understand texts covering a range of discipline-specific topics, be able to intellectually and academically discuss them, and synthesise them to support their written work. In ARC, they engage with a text through different lenses that draw attention to specific types of information, and they co-construct knowledge discovered from these lenses for a clearer overall picture of the meaning and significance of the text. These lenses provide learners with focussed tasks to accomplish while reading individually, which come together during collaborative in-class group work. ARC prepares learners to gain more from their texts, which in turn enables them to utilise these texts better in their coursework. ARC is the result of adaptations to an existing reading skills framework, research into reading strategies, and a great deal of trial and error. At its core, it is what it claims to be: a group of readers circled around a common text used for an academic purpose.

More than five years have passed since the journey of Academic Reading Circles began, both for my students and me. I didn’t realise then that my first foray into adapting literature circles for an EAP learner, nor the initial three posts on ARC I wrote on my blog sharing my experiences of these adaptations (Seburn, 2011abc), would collectively build an online audience of nearly 5000 views and result in interest by Luke Meddings and Lindsay Clandfield through their publishing collective, the round ( Looking back, I had little intention of this activity becoming a central figure in my pedagogical repertoire, the focus of many talks, or my first foray into vended publication. But I’m very glad it has.

Back then (and still now), the problem my students had been having was with the required readings of their content courses. They were unable to deeply discuss the text concepts. Their understanding of the author’s points was often warped or confused with a relatively insignificant detail. This lack of comprehension negatively affected their inability to refer to anything meaningful in the readings to support their ideas. The linguistic complexity of the vocabulary and cultural-specificity of the organisation were high challenges. Beyond these, the background knowledge of the topic needed to understand author meaning deeply enough to answer critical questions about it, let alone purposefully connect multiple sources together, was just not there. Lacking the tools to examine these texts in ways that would help them with their coursework, my students often fell back on old habits with second language reading: looking each unfamiliar word up in their dictionaries. Not only was this technique laborious, it ignored fundamental components to understanding higher-level texts: context, connections, and interpretation.

My colleagues and I struggled with effectively helping our students dig through the surface of a text in a way that was informative, relevant, and interesting. A teacher can do only so much pushing if the learners find the activities boring or fail to see the point. At the time, we attempted to apply an existing framework for literature circles in younger learner settings (Daniels, 2002) and EFL environments (Furr, 2004). Though these activities ticked the ‘interesting’ checkbox, the tasks involved were intended for fiction and therefore were neither informative nor relevant for our non-fiction, often academic texts.

Enter Academic Reading Circles. Over these last five+ years, with collegial feedback, literature circles have been extensively tailored to become roles and processes that suit the needs of EAP readers and writers. More specifically, within one ARC ‘cycle’, the class is assigned a common text and put into small groups of four or five, each with one role to play individually:

Microsoft Word - IATEFL handout.docx

After enough outside class time to work through the text on their own from the perspective of their role, groups make use of class time to bring together what they have discovered, negotiate meaning, and apply understanding to discussion.

Quite early on, ARC’s value became evident. Answering comprehension questions has become more on target and dialogue has embraced a more critical approach because of it. It has also had a noticeable impact on appropriate incorporation of textual information in written assignments. During the first couple ‘cycles’, acclimatising to the process and expectations can supersede effect, but concrete results do show and learners react to the text with more enthusiasm and less frustration.

While ARC’s evolution has never been a solitary task, with the support of colleagues willing to experiment and students embracing an unfamiliar classroom activity, my ownership over ARC has been ever present. I feel responsible to share it with other teachers, clearly explain its value, gather evidence of its effects, and adapt accordingly. As I do so, my enthusiasm for working with students in academic reading and writing classes grows with every passing ARC cycle. This enthusiasm, I hope, is infectious.

A teacher’s perspective on using ARC

By Alice Kim, University of Toronto

As a reading and writing instructor who has used the ARCs for the first time recently, I can state that it is an effective way to have students engage with any sort of text, academic or otherwise. Due to the different roles that each member has to fulfill in the group reading of the text, it instills in students the idea that comprehensively reading a text involves the interaction of different skills and sets of knowledge (including context, vocabulary, connections to themselves and outside the class, visual conceptualizations of ideas in the text, and simply comprehending the main ideas in the text). I think this was the most important lesson that students took away from the ARCs, in fact.

While there was a bit of a learning curve in the beginning, once students understood both their roles and how it fits within the bigger picture, the ball started rolling. In the end, it was an effective and very explicit way of breaking down the process of reading for learners. As for the students themselves, I can attest that they enjoyed the peer-to-peer discussions and wished for more time in class for more ARCs!

A student’s perspective on engaging with ARC

By Andrea Muñoz, University of Toronto

As an international student whose first language is not English I consider that sometimes learning this language can be overwhelming. That is the reason why it is really important to use an effective and entertaining method that allows the student to be completely involved with an English reading or text. In this context, the reading circle is an activity that accurately accomplishes this mission because it guarantees that the student deeply examines and understands the text. Consequently, after doing reading circles I have noticed that my abilities to both read and understand an English text have considerably improved.

More detailed information on Academic Reading Circles, how it can be implemented, and clear examples of each role’s duties on a common text is available in the book (available in paperback and for mobile devices). More information about the book can be found here:


Daniels, H. (2002). Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. (Second edition). Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Furr, M. (2004). Literature Circles for the EFL Classroom. Retrieved from

Seburn, T. (2011a, November 11). Academic reading circles. Retrieved from

Seburn, T. (2011b, November 21). ARC in practicum. Retrieved from

Seburn, T. (2011c, November 29). The interactions of ARC. Retrieved from


Tyson is Assistant Academic Director of International Programs at the University of Toronto. He holds an MA in Educational Technology & TESOL, and currently sits on the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG committee.

A version of this article first appeared in ELTAS News (2016) from the English Language Teachers’ Association of Stuttgart, and we thank them for their permission to reproduce it. More information about ELTAS can be found here.

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