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February 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Combining Timed Reading Tasks with the Academic Reading Circles Approach

Martin Cooke teaches at the International Trade Institute (TAITRA)  in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He has been teaching in East Asia for the past decade, and has delivered workshops and presentations at conferences in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Email:



Our institution runs intensive one and two-year foreign language and business skills courses for graduates of Taiwanese universities, and learners complete a Reading Skills course in their first term. A sub-objective of Reading Skills is to increase the learners’ reading speed through faster reading and skimming, which encourages learners “[to] quickly [run their] eyes across a whole text for its gist” (Brown and Lee, 2015). Timed reading exercises from More Reading Power 3 (Jeffries and Mikulecky, 2012) are used.  

Our institution runs intensive one and two-year foreign language and business skills courses for graduates of Taiwanese universities, and learners complete a Reading Skills course in their first term. A sub-objective of Reading Skills is to increase the learners’ reading speed through faster reading and skimming, which encourages learners “[to] quickly [run their] eyes across a whole text for its gist” (Brown and Lee, 2015). Timed reading exercises from More Reading Power 3 (Jeffries and Mikulecky, 2012) are used.  

Paul Nation (with Quinn and Millett, 2007) recommends that timed reading activities follow these principles:

The readings should be easy.

The questions should test general understanding rather than detailed knowledge

The focus is speed – if learners are getting all the questions right, they are reading too slowly.

Students should not use their fingers or pens to trace words.

The whole activity should take less than ten minutes.

Speed reading should be an isolated activity – scripts should be handed back as soon as the students have finished.

Students should record their time and score (number of words read per minute).

Timed readings are approximately 550 to 600 words in length, appearing on one side of a page, with (usually) eight questions on the opposite side. Learners read the text, mark how long it has taken them, and then turn to answer as many questions as they can without turning back to check.

Most learners who complete our Reading Skills course say that they enjoy it, and – just as importantly – do improve their reading speed. However, in subsequent terms the ability to quickly read texts sometimes dissipates, especially as learners encounter more challenging and detailed texts relating to their business courses. To mitigate this, in 2016 we began creating timed reading exercises based on articles from (e.g.) The Economist, Entrepreneur, and Inc, carefully selecting articles of 600 to 700 words – to fit on a single side of A4 - and developing comprehension questions. It was hoped that these focused timed reading exercises could complement the textbook for the Business Reading and Discussion (BRD) course our learners complete in their second term, enabling the teacher to introduce each unit through exercises that also reinforced faster reading.

However, as I discovered when teaching BRD in 2017, by trying to promote the continued application of timed reading, we had perhaps overlooked its limitations. Nation himself (1979, cited by MacAlister 2011) states that using comprehension questions to gauge understanding of a timed reading “may have a role to play in practising reading [but is] unsuitable for teaching learners how to read”. Additionally, Chang (2010), following a study of Taiwanese university students, found that motivation, prior knowledge, and tiredness played a role in determining whether students learned to read English faster, and even when students did improve their reading rate, this did not automatically result in greater comprehension.

Our own adapted texts had not provided the anticipated ‘boost’ for learners in the BRD course, and many students returned to reading slowly. This led to further problems in mixed ability groups where the slower, more deliberate readers showed signs of frustration at having to read at a quicker pace than they were comfortable with, while faster, more confident readers seemed to resent being ‘held back’. I responded by modifying my lesson plans and creating additional tasks for the fast finishers, and this, along with the good level of rapport I enjoyed with the 2017 groups, meant the BRD course met its overall objectives. However, I still felt that it could be improved.

In the end-of-course feedback, I found that the students had appreciated and enjoyed the timed reading exercises, but many indicated that they would have preferred the opportunity to consider the context in detail, rather than speed-reading to answer comprehension questions before moving on. The feedback also signalled why some had returned to a slower reading rate: focused timed readings appeared more relevant to their studies and career plans than those in More Reading Power. It was too late to accommodate this request with the 2017 groups, but I felt that it was worth considering ways to enhance the overall approach for those who would undertake BRD in the future.

I had recently read Tyson Seburn’s Academic Reading Circles (ARC) (2015), in which learners adopt one of five approaches – visualizer, connector, contexualiser, highlighter or leader – to approach a text from different perspectives. According to Seburn, ARC “works on the basis that language learners develop deep textual comprehension better through initial collaboration than if tackled alone… if learners are unable to both skim for gist and deeply understand the author’s meaning, intent, and purpose, they will lack the ability to complete all required reading and to use information from the text meaningfully” (italics added). 

I felt that Seburn’s model might fit my own aims for future BRD courses, and therefore developed a system combining timed reading exercises with an adaptation of ARC (as my own context does not focus on academic English, I have used the term RC to refer to my adaptation). This would hopefully utilize top-down and bottom up processing skills interactively, with meaning “created through the interaction between reader and text” (Richards 2015, citing Carrell et al. 1988), accounting for the view that “in practice, a reader constantly shifts from one focus to another” (Nuttall 1996, cited by Brown and Lee 2015). 


The learner groups

I taught BRD to group 5 (‘G5’) and group 4 (‘G4’) during the 2018 autumn term (October to December). They are all Taiwanese (Mandarin Chinese L1) and were mostly in their mid to late twenties at the time. Their level of English was mostly CEFR B2. I taught each group twice per week, with each textbook unit covered over two weeks, meaning that the timed reading + RC exercise was used once per fortnight. 

The system I planned was:

  1. Learners should aim complete the timed reading within ten minutes. 
  2. If they complete the reading and answer all the questions inside this period, they can silently read the text again.
  3. Once ten minutes have elapsed, learners come to the front of the class and take a card. Learners do not know their role - contextualiser, connector, highlighter or visualiser - until they select one. I chose to omit the leader role that appears in the original ARC, partly because this would make it easier to divide roles equally (both classes had twelve students). 
  4. Learners form groups with fellow contextualisers, connectors, etc. and spend a further ten minutes researching. Visualisers can use devices such as smartphones.
  5. Answers from the timed reading are checked.
  6. The groups present their findings to the class. 

All the above would take place within a 50-minute period. 

I felt that a ten-minute time limit for the timed reading would accommodate faster and slower readers, and that assigning roles randomly ensured learners read the text the same way, rather than to mentally prepare for a role they knew would follow. Enabling groups to present their findings also facilitated a shift from text-centred reading to student-centred discussion.

I provided a demonstration of the activity in the first lesson of the term, and also provided learners with a recorded ‘talk through’ that they could refer to.. Learners were also sent descriptions of the four roles, all of which were based on Seburn’s 2016 originals:


A Contectualiser

Authors often refer to significant people, places, events, and outside sources in order to provide context to their reader and to give examples that support their points. There can be anywhere from a few to a hundred external references in one short magazine article.

The contextualiser’s main role is to recognize the references worth exploring further, so that we better understand the author’s point.

Some references are explained within the text or are easy to understand. Look for references that would slow down readers who are unacquainted with the context.

Questions to ask:

  • What does the author really mean?
  • What does the author expect the audience to already know?
  • Does the text contain cultural or other references that might confuse someone from outside the author’s home region?

B Visualiser

Information in any text can be represented in a visual manner. Sometimes photos, graphs, charts or videos are included by the author. Other times, readers are left to decipher meaning through text only.

The visualizer’s role is to relate key concepts from the text to different types of visuals, and to explain any visuals that are included.

Question to ask:

  • How might images help us to understand the text better?


C Connector


Even actions and details we are reading for the first time can elicit thoughts which affect how we relate to them. Language learners may not attempt these types of connections at first, partly due to insecurity in their abilities with the language.


The connector directs readers to make these types of connections to their previous experiences, other things they have read (or seen), and concepts from other courses they have taken / are taking.


The connector should consider ways in which the text connects to information from other studies/courses, familiar events, and personal experiences.


The connector should also find ways to ‘transfer’ the context from (e.g.) Europe or the USA (where the original article was written and where it intended audience is based) to Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific region.


Questions to ask:

  • What does this mean for us?
  • Does this type of event or situation happen here?
  • Do we have any similar experiences that we can use to relate to the text?


D Highlighter

Some readers may skip over familiar words assuming they know the meaning, but missing the connotations presented by the author. Others become fixated on individual words, looking them up in the dictionary but missing the overall point.


The highlighter’s role is to raise awareness and improve comprehension.


Questions to ask:

  • Are any words used in ways that differ from the definition we see in a dictionary?
  • Are there any idioms or metaphors that we ought to pay attention to?
  • Do any of the words carry special connotations?



In the first iteration of the timed reading + RC activity, with both G4 and G5, ten minutes was sufficient for all students to read the text and answer all or most questions correctly. This may have been because some of the vocabulary had been previously covered in other courses. Additionally, learner motivation may have been positively affected by recognition of the topic’s relevance to, for example, individual career aims.  However, the subsequent RC stage required intervention as some learners were unclear on what they needed to do, particularly the highlighters, who had become distracted and seemed to have ‘rushed’ their task. It seemed this was because they had scanned the text solely for new and unknown vocabulary, not recognizing how seemingly familiar terms were being used in ways worth deeper consideration. Meanwhile, the visualizers had encountered technical issues that required my assistance. By the end of the lesson, I felt these issues had been addressed in a way that minimized the risk of recurrence. 

Over the next few weeks, I used the timed reading + RC activity several times, making small adjustments and ‘tweaks’ along the way. The previously slower readers did increase their reading speed, possibly because they knew they would have a chance to analyse aspects of the text a few moments later.


In most cases, students produced correct responses to the questions and could identify which area of the text confirmed them. While the complexity of some of the questions perhaps needed to be considered, the frequency of correct responses led me to believe that basing timed reading tasks on familiar topics and/or topics of interest to the learner group may increase the likelihood of all of the comprehension questions being answered correctly. This would represent a shift from the original aims of timed reading exercises as outlined by Nation (2018).


Meanwhile, the outcomes of the RC activity helped to build the type of contextual understanding Seburn states is central to ARC; this could not have been achieved if we had only completed the timed reading task.  



The effectiveness of focused timed reading, as opposed to the type of timed reading exercise promoted by Nation, arguably depends on whether it is seen as a means, rather than as an end (which is arguably what occurred in our 2016 and 2017 BRD courses). While it may be advantageous for slower learners to boost their reading speed, faster reading alone is insufficient. It is also arguable that the skim reading abilities developed through normal timed reading tasks can become problematic if applied as a ‘default’ (Wolf, 2018). 

I should also consider that my general teaching may have improved, and that my understanding of reading processing skills is more nuanced than when I first taught BRD.  Additionally, the previous study and work experience of the 2018 groups may have enabled many of them to deal with the timed reading + RC task in a way their predecessors might not have. However, bearing those caveats in mind, I feel that the RC stage did lead to improved motivation and learner participation. Adding the RC stage may have enabled my 2018 groups, to borrow Seburn’s words, “to both skim for gist and understand the author’s meaning, intent, and purpose”, albeit in a more compact fashion than Seburn’s original Academic Reading Circles (2015). 

Since 2018, I have used the timed reading + RC approach with several groups, making adjustments and improvements along the way. For instance, with some groups, I have allowed learners to select their own roles rather than assigning them at random. Many visualiser groups have also utilised social media such as LINE to send pictures and images instantly to their classmates’ devices instead of the classroom projector.

Teachers wishing to adapt this system to their own environments might prefer to begin with dedicated timed reading texts, such as those in Jeffries and Mikulecky’s More Reading Power or via the links on Paul Nation’s Wellington University page at When students have established the ability to read at a faster rate, the reading circles extension activity may be introduced. Teachers will need to explain each role carefully, and may need to demonstrate the entire activity at least once, dealing with problems as they arise. However, over time the students should become more confident, allowing the teacher to hand over the entire process to the group, intervening only when necessary. Learners may still appreciate feedback at the end of the activity, especially on language. The process of finding and selecting focused texts that are more advanced and context-specific than normal timed reading exercises is indeed time-consuming, although it does allow for greater differentiation and the opportunity to select texts that match the specific needs, preferences and culture of the learners.



Seburn, T. (2016) Academic Reading Circles, UK, The Round ( Kindle edition

Quinn, E., Nation, I.S.P and Millett, S. (2007) Asian and Pacific Speed Readings for ESL Learners, New Zealand, Victoria University of Wellington accessed 8th November 2018

Nation, P (2018) interview with Extensive Reading Podcast

Wolf, M (2018) Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound article published in The Guardian newspaper 25th August 2018,

Brown, H. Douglas, and Lee, Heekyeong (2015) Learning by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy, USA, Pearson

Richards, J.C. (2016) Key Issues in Language Teaching, UK, Cambridge University Press

Chang, Anna C-S (2010) The effect of a timed reading activity on EFL learners: Speed, Comprehension, and perceptions, in Reading in a Foreign Language, October 2010, Vol. 22 No. 2, accessed and downloaded via



Class Textbooks

Jeffries, L., and Mikulecky, B.S. (2011) More Reading Power , USA, Pearson

Trappe, T. and Tullis, G. (2005) Intelligent Business Intermediate, UK, Pearson


Please check the Practical Ideas for Teaching Advanced (C1-C2) Students course at Pilgrims website

Tagged  Various Articles 
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  • Combining Timed Reading Tasks with the Academic Reading Circles Approach
    Martin Cooke, Taiwan

  • Exploring the Effects of Comics in Communication
    Hoang Giang Trieu, Vietnam