Circle then talk: Try this fail-proof first draft reading technique

Writing has drafts. And reading has drafts, too, but that’s easier to forget. Today, I want to explain the “circle then talk” technique for first draft reading.

First, why should we make a first draft reading activity “fail-proof” for students?

When we teach a text, we’ve already read it a half a dozen times, and we may have taught it a few times already, too. On the other hand, students stop by our class as one part of a busy day. They haven’t reviewed, planned, and re-read this text. That’s an important consideration when we do whole class reading lessons. For most purposes, multi-draft readings will help students.

And first drafts in reading are just like first drafts in writing. They are a sloppy attempt at making meaning.

So how can we make interactions that students have with a text or an author more meaningful? Well, first I’d like to make it “fail proof.”  No, that’s not just a good phrase for a headline.  I want students to build momentum with their first draft reading, as they would with a free write or quick write. Make progress, see visible work done, avoid unnecessary frustration.

Some might suggest that it sounds as if I want students to avoid struggle with this fail-proof first draft idea. This is not the case, though. Alternatively, I think I can eventually push students to work harder and think more deeply about their reading and writing if they have some momentum behind them.

For the sake of example, consider this: You’ve had that student who hits a wall, right? Present him with a task that feels too hard, and he doesn’t move a finger.  But, get him started on a task that engages him, and he has much more potential.

The “fail proof” idea is to get kids over that initial hurdle, so they never hit a wall. Lots of structural metaphors here, bear with me.

Now, onto the first step in reading, which I suggest is the development of a literal understanding of the text. The common way to demonstrate this literal understanding is summarizing.

A fail-proof approach for text summary:

Here it goes:

Read the text aloud. As they listen, students circle three phrases that stand out to them. Then, ask them to turn and talk to partner. The catch? They need to deliberately use those three phrases in their explanation of the excerpt. Follow-up with small group discussions and a whole-class review. Record the shared phrases on the board.

Why does this work? When it’s time to talk, students already have text evidence that I can ask them to refer to during the discussion. Questions like “Did anyone else circle that part?” Or “Who found something similar?” Can help to generate a discussion where students are building off of each other’s ideas.

This approach is “fail-proof” because nearly all students can circle words and phrases on the text. This removes the barrier to entry, the activation energy, the friction in the first task. Consider how asking students to summarize a challenging text might leave a third of the students in class with little idea as to how to begin. But this “circle then talk” idea gets those kids started. Even if these students can’t perfectly explain the text to their partner, they have had a chance to revisit the language of the passage, and attempt to use that language as a way of making meaning. Additionally, they get a chance to hear their partner, who may have a better understanding, talk about the text and use its language.

A fail proof approach for text analysis

Of course, many teachers expect students to go beyond literal understandings of a text and into the more nuanced meanings. This is what I want for my students, too. However, present an analysis task in the wrong way to readers who are not adequately prepared or confident, and we will probably still be stuck at that first draft level.

The very complex approach for fail-proof analysis is…

Compare two excerpts from the same author.


Yes, that’s it.  Print out another excerpt, another poem, another chapter, by the same author and place it next to the piece that the students read for their fail-proof first draft reading. Now, read this passage aloud and ask students to listen for the moments when they hear or see something that reminds students of the stuff they circled in their first draft reading. Maybe it’s similar vocabulary. Maybe it’s the same use of white space or punctuation. Maybe it’s the same repetition or another rhetorical device. Maybe it’s something that students notice, but they don’t have name for.

Here’s an image of Kristen Letcchau’s notes from my work shop on teaching The Book, The Reading, and The Reader at the College of New Jersey in August (learn more about that here):


Notice how Kirsten has used cirlces to notice key phrases in two different passages of The House on Mango Street, then used arrows to connect passages that she found similar.

After selecting text, again kids can talk about their selections. You might say: Explain the similarities in these annotations, and explain why the writer might be doing these things over and over. Now students are idiscussing the writer’s craft and decision making.

The follow-up tasks can ask students to:

  • Explain in writing, with examples, why the author makes particular decisions
  • Analyze the effects that these craft moves have on them as they read
  • Emulate these craft moves in their own writing

I like to combine this fail-proof approach with cold calling because I know that all students can circle words on the page. After that, they can make a variety of comments, simply sharing the excerpt, explaining it in their own words or demonstrating some higher order thinking by talking about the intentions of the author.

Leave a Reply