Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reading Circles for Cambridge Exam Preparation

Every time I teach a Cambridge Exam preparation course, I try to do something different. This time, instructors were asked to consider doing 'reading circles' around one of the set texts for the Cambridge Advanced Exam. Even though 'The Pelican Brief'' by John Grisham was published back in 1992, it was one of the two texts chosen by Cambridge for the fifth writing task.

Using assigned roles, such as Discussion Leader, Connector, Word Master, Passage Finder, and Summarizer, we experimented with 'Reading Circles.' In principal, a class of ten students could be split into two groups with each person playing one of the roles. However, depending on the level of motivation and commitment of the individual students, it can either work beautifully or fall into an off-the-top-of-the-head /seat-of-the-pants type of discussion. We found that the 'circle' approach worked best with the whole class together with students sharing roles. Because students were unfamiliar with 'circles, it was necessary to often reinforce the value of reading circles (e.g., can use higher level vocabulary and language than what is used in everyday conversation, can explore a topic in greater depth, can learn about sociopolitical processes that result in socio-cultural differences between people, can examine values such as importance of protecting nature, and so on) in preparing for the Cambridge exam. However, most effective was setting a date for completion of the book with the promise of viewing the movie version, giving students something concrete to aim for. As a result, we completed 'The Pelican Brief' in six weeks (reading from six to ten chapters/week=45 chapters).

Having read one of the set texts for the CAE Paper 2, the students had the option of tackling Question #5. Students with a solid grasp of the book (we read the full-length version in paperback form) were encouraged to attempt this question if it was the best topic for them. That is, they were encouraged to choose this writing option for Part 2 of Paper 2 if they really had something to say, could expand with some details (characters' behavior, events, settings, personalities, etc.), and could view the story in some 'real world' or broader context. Students were also given some practice writing an essay and review of the 'The Pelican Brief.'

In addition, after viewing 'The Pelican Brief' (starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington), we had a lively discussion comparing the written and film versions of the story. Since I saw the movie years ago before reading the book, I must say that this time, the mystery was much easier to follow, with the novel in my head. The viewing promoted discussion on other film interpretations of books, such as 'Jurassic Park' and 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy.

Based on this experience, I can highly recommend reading circles as a way of engaging students in literature and exam preparation. I look forward to trying other approaches to implementing reading circles in future classes.

NB: I have tried shorter reading/film activities. One that stood out as highly successful was a two-week afternoon activity with an intermediate level group. We read 'Sarah Plain and Tall' first, followed by a viewing of the Hallmark TV special, starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken. The students really loved the movie, which followed the book quite closely using many lines directly from the book and had outstanding acting performances. The movie brought the story to life and stimulated lots of discussion about gender role stereotypes, rural vs. city people, living in the American Midwest vs. Eastern seaboard, human relationships, man vs. nature, and so on.

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