Friday, September 11, 2015

Reading Circles - Part Deux

Now that I am in the midst of a new semester, I am doing some reflection on how the advanced level reading and writing course went in the spring. In particular, this reflection is tied to the Reading Circle experiment (see earlier posts 1 , 2). I plan to continue using the reading or literature circles based on several positive reflections from student portfolios last semester.

Here are a few examples of some of the comments. Several students did not mention the reading circles specifically, so these comments represent a biased sample where "circles" were specifically mentioned. Those that referred to the reading circles in their reflections said they were "an excellent idea" (MGA, 2015), "the best experience" (NT, 2015), and "a useful method." Some of the reasons they thought the circles were a positive experience is that they had specific roles to play which varied every two or three weeks. They had to learn how to think about the reading and hear alternative views and understandings of the work. According to one student, activities affected other reading experiences: "it helped me a lot in understanding the bottom line of the book that I am reading..." (JQN, 2015).

One huge benefit of the reading circle was that it helped to build a community in the classroom, a sense of responsibility for playing a role in their small groups. What made it work successfully in this classroom was the participation by 99% of the students. Without preparation, when a student was called on to contribute to their circle, they knew that they were failing their classmates - not the instructor. Each role counted since a "circle" was made up of five students, each playing a different role. In addition, a few students commented that they learned about different cultures through these discussions since one of the roles was "Connector." Often, students used this role to comment about how their experience growing up in another culture was very different from what was being described in an American context.

Another theme from the students who liked the reading circles was the feeling of empowerment that they gained from having others listen to their interpretation of a reading as a summarizer, discussion leader, or connector. Students didn't feel overwhelmed by trying to learn every new or unknown word and started learning how to infer meanings from context. They could count on one member of the circle explaining at least five new words from the article, and students could always discuss difficult vocabulary amongst themselves.

A final advantage and positive outcome of using Reading Circles was the opportunity to conduct formative assessments. When the students are involved in student-led discussions on the same readings, they face each other. This leaves the instructor free to move around the room and observe whether students are doing some critical thinking and learning to discuss ideas in English. At the end of the group activity, the instructor can merge vocabulary that came from the reading - put it on the board in its various forms (noun, verb, adverb, adjective). In this way, the whole class developed a common vocabulary list.

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