Stout began his workshop by going through the history of the reading circle, from its beginning in Chicago as a social book club, to its developing use in L1 education, and then finally crossing over into L2 pedagogy. The fundamental premise of reading circles is that small groups of students (4-6) read a common text. They discuss it afterwards, and during the discussion, each member has a role. Students then change roles after one cycle. Ideally students have a chance to perform in each role.
It was explained that there is no single orthodox way of arranging reading circles, and many educators have their own ways of defining roles. However, while there may be many kinds of different roles, the one constant is that there must be a leader.
In his academic classes, Stout had his students undertake five roles, the first being Leader. The Leader prepares a summary of the text, writes six discussion questions, and makes an agenda for the group discussion in class. The second role is Contextualiser. This person finds contextual references within the text that helps place the story in a time and place, and also does some research into the social and cultural background to the story. The third role is that of Visualiser, which entails creating two different types of visuals related to the text. These visuals could be a mind map, a timeline, a photo, a drawing, chart or graph. The Connector is the fourth role. This person considers ways in which the text connects with other texts, such as stories, movies, songs, familiar events or personal experiences. The final role is that of Highlighter. The Highlighter is required to find five unknown key vocabulary in the text, and provide a definition and example sentence(s) from the text. Each person has preparation to do before the class, a role to perform during the class discussion, and then a follow-up task after class that entails writing a reflection piece on how he/she performed that role.
One potential challenge to reading circles is finding a suitable number of common texts to which everyone has access. Stout recommended ‘Project Gutenburg’ as an online source of older texts that can be accessed for free, with authors such as Oscar Wilde and Henry James. The groups created a report together on Google Docs, but were not officially assessed on this report.
During the second part of the workshop, participants were put into reading circles. Each group member was allowed to choose a role. Groups then read a short, short story, which they discussed together in the same way that students would do. Experiencing a reading circle firsthand provided an insight into the challenges and rewards that students might have when doing this. As all classes are unique and have different dynamics, it is best if teachers take the basic principles explained by Stout and adapt them to their own teaching context.