Circling is the instructional practice of asking a series of prescribed questions in the target language about a statement in the target language.
Circling is used to provide students with contextualized repetitions of target structures. (A repetition is an instance in which a language learner understands a structure when she or he hears it or reads it.) Research shows that language learners need between 70-150 repetitions of a structure in order to acquire it into their permanent vocabulary. The range is so wide because (1) different researchers have given different numbers, (2) each learner has a different general ‘threshold’ of repetitions for acquisition, and (3) each structure requires a different number of repetitions for acquisition. The higher the value of the structure to the learner, the fewer repetitions will be needed.
In a nutshell: Begin by making a statement in the target language. The statement should contain only ONE new target structure (vocabulary term or phrase), and the rest of the statement should be completely comprehensible to students (previously acquired vocabulary, cognates, and proper nouns). Follow it up with yes/no, either/or, and open-ended questions, and restate/recast the original statement after the answer to each question is given.
Read through this example. The explanation of each step is in the right-hand column. *Click here to download a PDF version of this post including PDFs of all embedded images (it’s free).
Once a teacher has acquired the practice of circling, it is no longer necessary for him or her to ask EVERY question about EACH component of a statement. If we were to do this every time that we made a statement, students would quickly become disengaged. Once the teacher has acquired the practice of circling, the next step is to develop discretion: learning how to balance the number and variety of questions asked with the engagement level of students. To reduce the need to ask so many questions about a single statement (to get a high number of repetitions of a target structure from a single statement), use strategies like Personalized Questions and Answers and Storyasking that use the target structures many times in different statements. Instead of trying to elicit 20 repetitions from 1 statement, you can strive for 5 repetitions from each of 4 statements. Here is a demonstration of me using circling during a story asking session in Spanish 1:
I also created a poster for teachers to post in their rooms (it can be enlarged) for their own reference while developing the habit of circling. Place it in a location that is easily visible to YOU during typical instruction, and glance at it while you practice circling with your students to remind you of the possible questions to ask.