ARC: Engaging learners with texts by digging deeply into the meaning

Welcome to a new series where we feature great books for language learners and teachers. This month we are featuring the book, Academic Reading Circles, by Tyson Seburn (@Seburnt). We caught up with author, Tyson Seburn, who shared these thoughts about the book:

When you have learners read a text, you may have noticed that quite often they seem to get it, but when you push past surface-level comprehension questions, it becomes evident that they may not. Beyond this, it can be challenging to engage them with their reading since it’s often a very isolating endeavour. These are two problem areas I’ve struggled with in my classes at the University of Toronto with first-year international students. On a discussion level, my students were unable to deeply discuss the text concepts. Their understanding of the author’s points was often warped or confused by a relatively insignificant detail. This lack of comprehension negatively impacted their ability to meaningfully refer to the readings to support their ideas. The linguistic complexity of the vocabulary and cultural-specificity of the organisation were big challenges, too. On a more practical level, 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. Thus, I needed to figure out a way to approach intensive reading differently so that they could not only use the information from our texts in their written assignments less superficially, but also help them see how collaborative reading can be both a more fruitful way to co-construct understanding and a more enjoyable process. I wanted to create an approach that would distinguish these different aspects of critical reading so they could be practised individually, but then foster an environment where these individual parts could be put together as a whole, like a sort of puzzle. This is where Academic Reading Circles (ARC) derived from.

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. In ARC, they engage with a text through different lenses that draw attention to specific types of information (see graphic below), 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.

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:

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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.

One student remarked about her experiences with ARC as follows: “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 and how to purchase it can be found here:

Tyson Seburn is Lead EAP instructor of Critical Reading & Writing and Assistant Academic Director of International Programs at New College, University of Toronto. He holds an MA Educational Technology & TESOL from the University of Manchester. His main interest focuses on public spaces for exploring teacher identity and development. These include an EAP discussion group, #tleap (; his blog, 4CinELT (; and his work on the IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group committee ( He is the author of Academic Reading Circles (The Round, 2015).

Each week we scour the internet to find incredible books to highlight on our various social networks (@TESOL, @AmericanTESOL, and @ESLWebinars). Check out our past favorites here.

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