Mono- and multilingual reading circles

Authors: Tony Shannon-Little, Veronica Brock and Ana Martiarena


This paper aims to: describe the research and findings; explore issues around this type of task in HE; describe a small-scale research project to encourage students to read and discuss extensively outside class time.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


Much of the language learning experience of students in higher education, as part of an institution-wide languages programme (IWLP), or a specialist degree award, is characterised by limited class contact, a heavily-loaded syllabus, an onus on out-of-class self-directed study, and an instrumental view of study resulting particularly from requirements to work part-time. The pragmatic tendency of students to negotiate the assessment hurdles as painlessly as possible rather than attempt to increase the quality of their learning can thus lead to underperformance, particularly in IWLP classes which students may not see as their main priority, resulting in a redirecting of effort under assessment pressure.

These constraints lead precisely to the counterproductive approach to learning characterised by Entwistle (1996) as ‘surface-atomistic’ (studying to cope with assessments, memorisation of individual data, lack of confidence, inflexibility, minimum fulfilment of course requirements, survival) as opposed to the ‘deep-holistic’ approach which he links to high quality learning (active and experiential acquiring of understanding, recognition of significance and links to other data, flexibility, self-determined decision-making).

Learners may vary their approach for different subjects/modules/lecturers (the ‘strategic approach’), depending on the design of the learning experience, the implicit or explicit ‘rules of the game’. How can we as course designers promote a deep-holistic approach by our students, one which rejects the limiting notion of ‘transmission of content’ (Ramsden 1992) and attempts the development of wisdom?

Tudor (1996) comments: successful language teaching:

involves the belief that education, in whatever field, should seek to provide students not only with discrete knowledge and skills, but also with the capacity to operate in an informed and self-directive manner in the skill area in question, within the wider context of their chosen life goals. In this perspective, education is seen as a means of empowerment (Tudor 1996: xi)

We learn by analysing new situations and problems, gathering information about them, and (crucially for language teaching) trying to express explanations for them; we don’t absorb knowledge from others, we construct personal meaning – most commonly through interaction with others. This involves not just acquiring new facts or skills, or even relating that new information to the real world, but to interpreting reality in a different way from before – a change in perception of reality (Ramsden 1992, Williams and Burden 1997).

The danger of students adopting or being forced into the opposite, atomistic, approach is even greater when they are operating in a second language, as they will be even more apprehensive and unsure and therefore more liable to resort to analysis of low level items of information than to try to see the wider picture. The duty of language teachers to prevent that is therefore all the more pressing.

The key to this is relevance. On the most instrumental level, students might feel that gaining a pass in the module, required to get a qualification and a good job is the only thing of relevance. However, a more complete view of the role of higher education would stress a number of other dimensions. Added to those instrumental aims, the list might include:

language proficiency in the foreign language
linguistic skills of language learning (for further languages)
academic ability to study (now and later in life)
vocational contribution to the economy (occupational)
disciplinary understanding own specialism (politics, business, literature, law…)
cultural understanding behaviour and values of own and target culture
personal maximising intellectual and emotional development

Obviously the paramount concern of the language teacher is language proficiency, but language is a tool which can lend itself to a great many purposes, even starting from a very limited command, and tutors should exploit their freedom in selecting activities to make the students’ limited time ‘on task’ richer and more motivating by challenging them in all of the areas above.

Task design

Continual assessment is commonly used to provide incentives to maintain high levels of participation. At the University of Wolverhampton, particularly in the department of English as a Foreign Language, this takes the form of task-based assignments prompting an experiential approach, using e.g. simulation or investigation of a case/topic and the presentation of results in either written or oral form (Weil & McGill 1990, Ramsden op cit). The tasks utilise the local (and virtual) environment as a resource for information and language learning, and usually involve group working. Successful completion of the task has equal weighting with linguistic accuracy and appropriacy, emphasising both goal-oriented face validity of tasks and development of linguistic, communicative and cultural competence.

As part of the presentation of results, students review their performance on the task to evaluate their success and their learning from it, often providing insights which contrast what they gained from the task with what the tutor intended (see Nunan 1989: 20). Process is therefore emphasised as much as product, and an experiential learning cycle (see Kolb 1984) formalised. Group working is commonly used for three main benefits: logistics, as group assignments mean less marking; educational, with collaborative use/review of target language and generally higher quality of peer or co-operative learning (Roger & Johnson 2001); and social, with increased motivation and support, and the stimulus which an audience provides to enhance the quality of the language generated (Willis 1996).

As far as the other domains listed above are concerned, the linguistic, academic and vocational all have a great deal in common (and can be nurtured simultaneously), as they all relate to the development of self-reliance, time management and positive interaction with others in processing and analysis of information: transferable language learning competence (Holec et al 1996) as linguists; ‘study competence’ (Waters & Waters 1992) as successful students; and ‘enterprise skills’ (Guirdheim & Tyler 1992) or ‘transferable personal skills’ (Assiter 1995) as employable graduates.

Disciplinary knowledge and cultural competence can also be developed through a task-based approach which utilises, or allows students to choose, materials which reflect their interests and permits them to contrast institutions, attitudes and beliefs across the two cultures.

The last element, the personal dimension, overlaps with the others, as they all contribute to the development of the individual’s identity and self-esteem, whether positive or negative. There is a special emphasis in this dimension however, on affect, the emotions, which have a pervasive influence on the other areas, and so need to be monitored and ‘managed’. A student who is unaware of, or ignores, their emotional state will not work effectively and may jeopardise relations with others. Similarly, a teacher who is unable to harness students’ positive emotional states and nullify negative ones, who cannot structure activities to allow peer support/learning, or who is unable to personalise the learning experience for them in some significant way, cannot motivate them fully.

In the design of EFL assessment tasks, the process of learning is given as much emphasis as the product. Tasks which foster individual and collective responsibility, reflection on process and opportunity to adjust behaviour (metacognitive awareness), and positive affective response with real scope for individuality and personal responses, are valued as promoting a virtuous circle of deep-holistic learning, from personal development and satisfaction, to improved learning and back again.

The rest of this paper will describe one assignment developed by Veronica Brock (VB) and modified with Ana Martiarena (AM) for use with students of Spanish, to promote such a virtuous circle.

Background (VB)

A few years ago I (Veronica Brock) took over responsibility for a credit-bearing module in General English at upper intermediate level for EFL students, catering for learners from a wide range of academic disciplines with varying backgrounds and needs. Few of these students are language specialists.

In addition to 3 taught hours per week (over 12 weeks), the learners are expected to undertake 7 hours of independent study outside the classroom. Generally this time is under-utilised.

While at Wolverhampton, although the EFL students tend to form strong relationships as an international group using English as a lingua franca, they find it difficult to break into and form relationships with the native English speaker student community.

As part of the module, the learners were required to complete a ‘Portfolio’ assignment. They were asked to choose and summarise four current newspaper/magazine articles that interested them, to select, define and comment on the usage of items of new vocabulary, and to give impressions/reactions to the content of the article.

Although ostensibly allowing choice, the majority of the learners regarded it as a purely mechanical exercise to be done at the last minute by picking 4 articles at random from a single source. In general, the summaries were poorly written and relied heavily on the wording in the article. Similarly, vocabulary definitions were copied out from a dictionary and often did not fit the context, while the reactions tended to run to a couple of uninspired lines.

As a reader, I had little motivation to carry on with my reading, let alone the grading. Similarly, as most of us appeared to have gained little from the task, it was time to redesign the assignment.


It is good practice for students to undertake writing tasks with the reader’s requirements in mind: therefore, as principle reader, I wanted the texts to be stimulating. Fundamentally, I am interested in my students as individuals and language learners, in their interests and social networks. I want to read about how they learn, use and work with English; their relationships with UK and International students and their experience of living in Britain.

The module is primarily designed to develop transferable academic skills using General English topics. The most effective results in the classroom have been the construction of texts that have been motivated by genuine interest in a topic and written informally in a ‘base’ form, and which have then been transferred into a more formal genre, for example, turning instructions for ‘making an omelette’ into a report, or written up as an experiment. Any redesigned task ought to replicate this transfer from ‘base’ to formal procedure.

Another source of inspiration for a redesigned task was one of the Autonomous Learning modules, the discussion/reading group, delivered by Helsinki University.

With these thoughts in mind, the new task had to develop the key academic skills (reading & summarising texts, working with vocabulary, etc.) through a process which should genuinely motivate the students, encourage them to utilise their self-directed study time more assiduously and effectively through collaboration on reading, and ultimately inspire them to write. It should, if possible, also provide them with an opportunity to break into native speaker circles.

Reading circles - Year 1

The re-designed assignment took the form of a Reading/Dicussion task and aimed to give the students an opportunity to read and write extensively, and to encourage each other to read and discuss in English.

Small ‘Reading Circles’ were formed and arranged to meet once a week over four weeks. Although the actual form of meetings was left to each group, all students were required to choose and discuss short texts from a variety of sources - newspapers, magazines, books - and to make sure that everyone contributed to the meeting. They were also required to discuss feelings/opinions on the articles and to list and comment on all memorable new vocabulary items that they encountered.

The second part of the assignment required the students to keep an individual journal in which they commented on their own reading and gave an account of what happened in the weekly meetings, from both a linguistic and social perspective. Additionally, they had to write a short account on their individual reading habits in English; how often they read, what they do or don’t read and all the reasons why as well as techniques they use to make sense of the text while reading and afterwards.

As a reader, what I was most interested in was the meeting; what happened and who did/said what.

Although this was a pilot initiative, I was pleased to see that the task took off and the students organised themselves smoothly and met regularly. Commitment to the task varied, from highly inventive (e.g. readings on the topic of health were practically illustrated by an introduction to aromatherapy from one of the group members), to minimal compliance.

Even so, most journals contained full and interesting entries, with results which were still far more interesting to me as a reader than the portfolio project, and made a comfortable bedtime read. The writing itself was far more fluent, and reflected a genuine interest in the task. Explanations for choice of articles and reports on meetings were highly interesting and reflected increased levels of motivation. The vocabulary entries were slightly improved but not as much as I had hoped. The most valuable insight was reading about a single meeting from a number of different points of view. One unforeseen spin-off of the new task was that one of the learners, who had missed all the meetings, was able to still take part by tracking down and reading his group’s journals in order to reconstruct the sessions for himself.

Although the redesigned assignment satisfactorily achieved its learning outcomes, it still hadn’t addressed the need for the learners to break into English native speaker circles. However, as a number of native speakers of English studying MFL were also concerned about difficulties in striking up relationships with native speakers of French, German, Spanish etc. it seemed logical to bring the students together through a joint assignment.

Reading circles -Year 2

A strength of the language provision at Wolverhampton is the sharing of good practice and integration among the different language areas with, for example, similar assignment regimes. EFL provision has always been a vital part of this and not merely relegated to a service department as in many other institutions.

As the EFL modules attract a large number of Spanish students, the following year I decided to collaborate with a Spanish colleague (Ana Martiarena) so that the same assignment could be run with learners of Spanish. As a result there would be variety of groupings: multi-lingual EFL groups (as in the previous year), monolingual groups of UK students studying and working through Spanish, and ‘Group Xs’ – mixed groups consisting of UK students studying Spanish working with Spanish students of EFL. In this group, the native Spanish speakers would choose texts in English and write in English, and the UK students would choose Spanish texts and write in Spanish. Half the meeting would be conducted in Spanish, the other half in English.

Results and reflections on year 2 (AM)

Building on its initial success, the revised format brought important additional benefits. Before presenting these, it has to be said that when asked to collaborate in this project I jumped at the chance to try something new and very interesting. Like my colleague, I was rather frustrated with boring assessments which did not really measure the knowledge nor the progress the students were making in the FL, but just showed how much effort they had put into preparing themselves for those specific tests. Also, with this exercise I was sure I could prove to the students what I always try to tell them. If a ‘real’ FL atmosphere can be created, surrounding the students as much as possible with the FL, a close-to-total submersion can take place (even when not in the country of the FL) and consequently, facilitate the learning. The advantage of this exercise was that a ‘real’ FL atmosphere would be created outside the classroom giving the students a further chance every week to put into practice their knowledge of the FL.

So what advantages did the exercise bring for the students in general?

Most, if not all, of the students were more motivated because of the feeling of freedom they had throughout. They had freedom to choose who they wanted to work with, to decide how, when and where the sessions would take place, to select the reading materials (source, style, topics, etc.), and they had freedom to determine the writing style of their diaries.

There was a clear change in attitudes towards the whole idea of reading. After the exercise they no longer believed that reading was boring or something they did to find out information or because they had to. Now they really saw it as something they could do for pleasure, even in the FL.

Nearly all the students commented on how enjoyable and useful the whole exercise had been. They found themselves reading several articles every week in order to select the most appropriate one to take to meetings; they realised that they found it quite easy to speak in the FL even though they were outside the ‘formal’ environment of the classroom and, of course, they were learning a great deal of vocabulary, expressions and aspects of the culture of the country of the FL.

The students also commented on how valuable the assessment had been to get to know each other, to make friends and give support.

Finally, they now knew that one can read anywhere at any time, and that texts were just waiting for them: newspapers, magazines, songs, short stories, advertisements, etc., and that they did not need to go very far to find them, as they could always use the World Wide Web.

And as for Group X, what particular advantages did the exercise bring?

Of course, the first advantage was the contact with native speakers, which gave them the ideal opportunity to practise in a more relaxed and ‘authentic’ atmosphere.

There was a greater improvement in knowledge of the foreign style of life, foreign society, foreign current affairs and foreign culture in general, not just through the texts but also through the native participants.

There was also a significant increase in vocabulary in relation to the texts read but also to spontaneous topics that came up during the meetings, and to a lesser extent, a reinforcement of grammatical knowledge of the foreign language.

Linked to the first point, there was a clear increase in fluency and improvement in pronunciation due to the contact with the native speakers.

And last but not least, the British students had a wonderful opportunity to get to know more foreign students, above all Spanish, who were part of the circle of friends of the members of Group X, which consequently helped them to practise the foreign language even more.

So, it can be said that most of our students in higher education can be trusted to take responsibility for their own learning as long as they are presented with interesting and enjoyable teaching and assessment methods. Of course they still need instructions, clear objectives and occasionally ideas, but all of these within an ‘unrestricted’ environment. In doing this exercise they have proven to themselves and to us that they are capable of speaking in Spanish amongst themselves, even in the typically English environment of a pub.


Although this assignment throws up many issues such as marking criteria, group dynamics and further exploitation of the texts produced, it does provide an example of a learner-centred process-oriented task, rich in relevance on a variety of levels, which successfully initiates a virtuous learning circle, and which makes well-structured use of resources readily available in universities (i.e. native-speaker students themselves).


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