Socratic Circles as Assessment ~ the Why and How

Happy 2018-19 school year!

I wanted to take the time and share a strategy, or better yet, a framework for learning and assessment that I use as one of the tenants in my Spanish IV classes and at the end of Spanish III.  This framework is preparing students for a Socratic Circle or Socratic Seminar, and this post will explain how they function in my class setting.

When I think about the proficiency levels of our students, my level III and IV students’ proficiency levels fall in the range of novice-high to intermediate-high.  Fortunately, I have found that a Socratic Circle performance assessment allows for success for all students that have been present in class learning about the topic. I continue to use Socratic Circles because they empower students to think and use real language.

I would like to take a moment and give a shout out to my dear friend, Amy Wopat, @wopatdc, who teaches in DC public schools.  It is because of Amy that I began using Socratic Circles with the framework that she designed for her classes.  Together we have presented on the topic and the Socratic experience has evolved in different ways for both of us.  This blog post explains how I use the Socratic Circles in my environment, and my hope is that readers are able to take these ideas and make Socratic Circles their own to enhance their world language curriculum.

The goal of a Socratic Circle experience is for students to lead a formal discussion for 30 to 45 minutes in the TARGET LANGUAGE without help from me.  As the teacher, I say very little during the Socratic Experience because the students have prepared to be the experts, ask questions, ask one another for clarification, and listen to each other while having a civil discussion. (Elfie Israel has a good working definition of a Socratic Seminar here).  When thinking about 21st century skills in education, a Socratic Circle provides a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking, collaborative learning, and communication.  Through a World Language lens, the 5 C’s are also fostered (Communication, Connections, Comparisons, Community and Culture), especially if the topic and question posed for the Socratic Circle is relevant to culture and community – which mine are.

Socratic Circles and Backwards Design: Logistics and Preparation

For the Socratic Circle performance days, I look at how many students I have in my class and decide how many “Seminar Circles” I will need.  I believe the best number of students per “30 to 45 minute Seminar Circle” is 7 to 11, meaning a class of 24 students would need 2 to 3 “Seminar Circles.”  Depending on your bell-schedule, you may have to dedicate multiple days to the performance assessment with different tasks for your students each day.

Setting up the classroom in an Inner circle/Outer circle(s) arrangement– see picture here – allows for the “Inner circle” students to discuss the posed question while the “Outer circle(s)” students are tallying how many times their “partners” are speaking during the Socratic experience and/or writing information that the “Inner circle” students are saying (this additional part may be key in keeping a third Outer circle of students engaged if your class numbers require three circles).  I will continue to define this in the Grading and Rubrics section of this post.

The daunting experience for students to stay in the target language for 30 to 45 minutes about a real topic requires preparation.  Since my Socratic Circle experience is a culminating assessment, students are saturated with the topic at hand so they have the necessary vocabulary and structures to easily communicate their thoughts about the topic and posed essential question(s) for the unit.  Throughout the unit of study, students begin to make connections and think about how to respond to the essential question(s) because I reference it often during class. For any Socratic Circle or Seminar experience, students must be reminded that the experience is not a debate but rather a discussion, and multiple viewpoints should be considered throughout the discussion.  This piece is important for me as an educator because I hope it builds empathy and the capacity to see topics from multiple perspectives for my students.

For example, in our district we end our Spanish III course with the students’ first Socratic Circle about Immigration to the US.  This is a controversial topic that requires all of us to see the issues from multiple perspectives.  Throughout the unit, we include many sources that show different perspectives. The sources that we choose to work with serve as the anchor sources for students upon which they can build their fundamental understanding of a topic.  This of course does not mean that our students do not bring prior knowledge about the topic nor that we do not encourage self-study on the topics – in fact, students must find additional sources and refer to them during the Socratic Circle experience to support their comments.

In preparing for the Socratic experience, students must evaluate and annotate sources, and then make reference and cite their sources as they make claims during the discussion.  These are crucial skills for preparing students for many of today’s standardized exams including the AP World Language and Culture exam.  For example, on the AP World Language exam, for the presentational writing task, students must write a persuasive essay requiring them to cite from three sources while presenting an argument including multiple perspectives or viewpoints.  The presentational speaking task requires students to compare and contrast a topic from the perspective of a target culture and a student’s own culture. In preparing students for the Socratic experience, I provide language and structures needed to help a student compare, contrast, express agreement/disagreement, change topics, defend a point of view, and support an opinion.

My role as the teacher is to prepare the students to be successful and accomplish the daunting task that I have given them.  I continue to use Socratic Circles because my students are amazed that they can successfully do it. They are so proud of what they have accomplished in the target language and it empowers them and helps them see that they can use real language and communicate on topics relevant today.

Here is an example unit plan for my Spanish IV unit on the Cuban Revolution. The unit plan also includes the requirements for the actual Socratic Circle experience.  It is important to note that students are still learning language when reading, viewing or listening to the anchor sources. These sources provide a great deal of the unit’s content and needed background for the topic. For this reason, I must assure that the sources are comprehensible for all students by using strategies to help students successfully interpret them.
Resource:  Sample Unit Plan with Culminating Socratic Circle Assessment: the Cuban Revolution

Assessing the Socratic Circle

In many ways I feel that a Socratic performance assessment is just like an IPA (Integrated Performance Assessment) because all skills of communication are needed and can be assessed: interpretive, interpersonal and presentational.  This all being said, since I feel these types of assessments are more performance-based and students can prepare for them, I have worked to hone my rubrics and grading strategies to help more students “listen and respond to” instead of simply “responding with memorized or language that is read aloud.”  Ultimately, I want an interpersonal dialogue to be taking place while they use their resources to defend their claims and/or point of view.

The following is the breakdown of the requirements and grades for a Socratic Circle:

Prior to the Socratic Circle Experience:

Interpretive Reading Grade: Students must find, read or view, and annotate 2 articles and/or 1 audio/visual source (usually in target language) that have to do with the essential question of the Socratic Circle.  I also provide them this Current Event Analysis Sheet that they must complete per source.  Points are generally given in this fashion per article:  5 points for annotations on the article that include questions, connections to the essential question, and marking main ideas [you may have to teach how to annotate] and 10 points for the Current Event Sheet.  These annotated sources should be used when the student is in the Inner Circle.

During the Socratic Circle Experience:

Interpersonal/Presentational Speaking Grade 1:  When a student is in the Inner Circle, she has a list of requirements that they must accomplish during the 30 to 45 minutes allotted.  The task of keeping count of these requirements is assigned to a student-partner who is seated in the Outer circle.  [What I have found works best is when I determine the mix of who will be in the Inner Circle and who will also be their partners; this way I pair up students based on abilities, which helps with their capacity to listen for key factors.  It also helps to have a variety of students in the Inner Circle at one time].

There is one Speaking Grade based on this content.  For an A grade, the Cuban Revolution example requires students to complete these tasks:

  1. Ask 3 questions
  2. Respond to 3 students’ questions or comments
  3. Make 3 statements referring to a class/anchor source
  4. Make 3 statements referring to their own sources

The grades are determined based on how many times a student did the above task requirements.  Again the student’s Outer circle partner (and often the student herself) is checking off the requirements, which she will turn in to me.

Here is an example of a Socratic Circle Student Reference Sheet with the Outer circle grading.  Each of the 4 task requirements is worth 5 points with a student earning 3 points once she makes reference to each task.  Students’ grades will vary based on how many times they complete the 4 required tasks.  It is important to note that yes, students can accomplish two tasks at once for example by (B.) responding to a student’s questions while (D.) referring to one of their sources.  Also, during the Socratic experiences the Outer circle partners can silently communicate with their Inner circle partners and when there are 5 to 7 remaining minutes, I allow them to have a quick conference so that students know what else they may need to include in the discussion.  Generally speaking, prepared students score very well with this grade because there are many supports in place for their success: clearly-defined task requirements, a conference time with their partners, and use of their source articles (and sometimes notes, depending on the level and time of year).

Interpersonal/Presentational Speaking Grade 2:  My last note about students using notes is precisely why I have created this 2nd speaking grade.  After many tweaks, I am pretty happy with this rubric.  During the Socratic Circle, I am filling out these rubrics for all Inner circle students based on whether or not they are (1) Speaking or Reading from notes (when they are permitted to use them – Spanish III end of year and first Socratic in Spanish IV) and (2) Use of Vocabulary as it pertains to the unit and Academic vocabulary (that I provide).  This grade is worth 14 points.

In my opinion, these 2nd Speaking grades are optional, and please know, that it is not grading students on “correct usage of language.”  I have found that this grade was necessary to push my students to not read from their notes but rather really speak in the target language; it also pushed students to use more of the Academic language that they need to begin to internalize.  I have seen great results with implementing this grade with respect to students accomplishing the task of genuinely speaking and listening about a topic.  By design, it does not require me to be punitive with their communication errors and gives me a chance to write down some feedback to share with each student.  In all truth, some of my students over prepare for the Socratic experience and rely too heavily on online translation, and this is exactly what I am trying to hinder.  On a positive note, some of my best Socratic discussions have come from those students who did not prepare at all because I know they are creating all of their language on the fly.

Interpretive Listening Grade: When students are in the Outer circle or (Outer-Outer circle, if you have 3 groups), students must write down 5 to 10 comments or questions that different students have said while in the Inner circle. This additional measure is in place to emphasize that all students must pay attention even while not in the Inner circle.  In general, I give 2 points per comment, so the grade is 10 to 20 points respectively.

Post Socratic Circle Experience:

Presentational Writing Grade:  Following the Socratic Circles, there is an in-class written essay or short-answer assessment about the essential question and what has been learned from the experience.  This assessment is completed in the target language. I will often ask students to reference comments made from all Circles (again 1, 2, or 3 based on class-size) and to continue to incorporate academic vocabulary in their responses.


I hope that this post has provided you with some resources to possibly implement a Socratic Circle or Seminar in your own classes. My colleagues and I feel that by incorporating them, our students are able to develop their target language voices on relevant topics to life and history and make more connections to other subject areas than we are able to do with just narrowed topics.  Of course this post is no where near the be-all to understanding Socratic Circles or Seminars but it could serve as a starting point for you to help push students to listen and think on their own in the world language context.

Have a great school year!

Here is a quick template to help design a Unit with a culminating Socratic Circle/Seminar!

A special THANK YOU to Cindy Hitz, @sonrisadelcampo, for the weekly reminders this summer via Twitter to get this post written – the public accountability worked!

New Year’s Reflection #3: Spanish IV

To keep each of these posts a bit different, I am going to work backwards and deconstruct how I structured my Spanish IV classes for this semester and write about each unit. To provide the context, this junior class has always had one less section of classes, so I only have two sections with relatively small numbers at 14 and 10. I have only taught four of these students before because two years ago I only had one section of Spanish II with 12 students in many grade levels. These four students loved learning from stories and songs and frankly their retention was wonderful so I wanted to make it a goal to include as many stories and songs as my semester would permit. Since I am the only Spanish IV teacher, I get to explore and take my students to any place I would like as long as I am preparing them to AP Spanish Language and Culture [which is my mindset anyway and I am also doing this]. So let’s reflect on the semester.

Spanish IV – Semester 1 Reflection

Overall this year’s students all came in at an intermediate low or mid level and I attribute this to our evolving mindset as a department and what we are asking students to do in Spanish – go team!!!

This is the 3rd year I have taught this course and I am constantly modifying the content. This year I switched the order of my two novels: first teaching Vida y muerte en la Mara salvatruchas published by Fluency Matters and then during semester two I will teach La Casa Dividida published by TPRS Books. These two novels are super compelling and last year students loved both of them.

In order to prepare students to read Vida y muerte, to participate in a Spanish only Socratic Seminar (a 2018 goal is to blog about Socratic Seminars soon – although come to OFLA’s annual conference April 5-7 in Cleveland for a three-hour workshop with co-presenter Amy Wopat), to have an interpersonal interview with me as a part of the midterm, and to work on developing their sentences and essay writing in Spanish, here are many of the things that I did for each unit of study.

When we began the year, I had a good idea of the “I CAN” statements that I wanted to include on the midterm although these evolved a bit during the semester. So during class I would make students discuss and write about these “I CAN” statements/topics by responding to questions in pairs or as a class, developing their ideas and thoughts thematically, asking questions, and ultimately recording answers individually or having conversations and writing using this template to help them develop their thoughts and sentences. I provide this same format on their quizzes and they must incorporate these terms in order to exceed expectations on my writing rubrics, which can be found on my resource page. And wow, what a difference this scaffold makes and in time, they are including the transition words with ease.

With regard to speaking grades, this is one area with which I have been experimenting. For the first two speaking grades, I provided the questions and many of my students prepared their responses and responded with beautifully well-developed Spanish (which was not read). This is great on one hand but bad on another because could they do this spontaneously without the preparation? For the following two assessments, I had them work with random partners and ask questions about the topics (yes they prepared these ahead of time but they did not read them) and their partner had to provide shorter answers (about 20 seconds like on the AP Lang and Culture exam), this way it is more like a conversation. I think I will continue with this strategy for more interpersonal like speaking assessments and do others that are more presentational for lengthier responses.

Now for the units, which are below with Essential Questions, I CAN statements, and Themes/Topics.


  • What is my role in my community: my city, school, home?
  • How do the places in my city/community reflect how and where I live?

I can express myself and ask questions about the following:

  • What I like, love, dislike
  • My personality and how I look
  • My home life, where I live, my origins
  • My city and community where I live and go to school
  • Spanish civilization, religions of Spain, and the development of the Spanish language

For this unit, I wanted to get to know my students and have them become very comfortable for many of the novice type questions and I CAN statements. I have always been bothered that my students could possibly do very well on a Socratic Seminar and talk to me about literature and/or politics without being able to respond to questions that we hope they learned in earlier levels. I find this beginning unit is great for all students regardless of their strengths and weaknesses.

I reviewed and taught many structures using traditional TPR and also TPR with subjunctive commands like “Pido que Ud. / I ask that you…,” “Exijo/Mando que Ud./ I demand that you…” and “Sugiero que Ud. / I suggest that you…” This was great this year and I will continue to incorporate it in Spanish III also.

There was a lot of Ben Slavic’s Card Talk, PQA (personalized questions and answers), and a few stories done as well as two beloved songs: Me encanta by Pierre Louis and Señor Wooly’s Sé chévere.


  • What are my goals?
  • How do I define success?

I can express myself and ask questions about the following:

  • My goals, dreams, and future
  • My successes
  • What I have done and I have not yet done
  • My responsibilities

I began doing this unit after backwards planning the book Vida y muerte en la Mara Salvatruchas. So many of the words that my students would not have known were about goals, dreams, and reflecting on what one has already done; so it has been perfect for junior students.

For this unit, I make students describe, defend, give reasons, explain, converse and interpret information about goals and dreams. I use a few stories and a Movietalk and embedded reading based on the rather sad short-film Kiwi. Thanks to Laurie Clarcq and Michele Whaley for their concept of embedded readings and training; using embedded readings has been a staple of mine now for many years and I continue to use them because of how they build confidence for all students. Check out for more information.

I also incorporated the songs No importa la distancia from Disney’s Hercules sung by Ricky Martin or now by David Bisbal too, and Defying Gravity from the musical Wicked (see my resources). These two songs deal with the themes and we learn a lot of vocabulary from the songs – here are two of my Quizlet sets for “No importa la distancia” (shortened list and longer list) that align with some vocabulary in the Vida y Muerte. Thanks to song expert Lisa Reyes, who shared her No Importa la Distancia materials with me many years ago.


  • What does friendship mean to me?
  • What should one look for in an ideal partner?
  • How does one country’s turmoil affect the lives of its people, community, and culture both in the country and in the world?
  • Socratic Seminar Question: Should the USA feel responsible for the rise of gangs in Latin America?”

I can express myself and ask questions about the following:

  • My friendships, relationships, ideal partners
  • Keeping secrets
  • Being a member of an organization/team
  • Loyalty and faithfulness
  • Trust
  • Pride
  • Crime and punishment (including war and gangs)

During this unit we explore the Civil War in El Salvador (1980 – 92) through a film study of Voces Inocentes. This year we also had pre- and post-discussions about types of governments, politics, and global issues, which were all spontaneous and real conversations. To help prepare my students, I went to that one “folder I know I have in one of my four very full filing cabinets” and pulled the National Spanish Exam word lists for these topics and copied them for my students. In 2007, I did quiz all of my students on these words but fortunately for my 2017 students I did not. Instead students just used the words to help them engage in conversation and it was successful. Students did have to demonstrate their knowledge of the themes from the film in both presentational forms: speaking and writing. Again as I mentioned earlier, although I do know that they are rehearsing and preparing these responses, I have concluded that this is one way that I help students reach Intermediate mid, high and Advanced levels. It is through my expectation of developing their thoughts (which does include some rehearsing) and it has been very successful for many students and in years when I did not require it as much, students were not reaching those levels.

In preparation for the crime aspects of the text Vida y muerte, I have created a story that I tell students. Then we read the text with a lot of success because I had already exposed them to so many of the words from the text. Fortunately for our us who use the novel, Carrie Toth has blogged about her many reading activities that I have used over the years to teach this novel (but these ideas could be applied to teaching any novel). I really enjoy reading this novel with the students. The chapters are rather short and they hold the students’ interest. Each day this year, students were speaking about the topics above and what was happening, happened, or will happen in the novel. It was very successful and it was apparent that I have taught this novel now four times.

One recommendation I have is to have students read the Prologue at the end; the language is difficult. For me it serves as a terrific segue way to the Socratic Seminar question: Socratic Seminar Question: Should the USA feel responsible for the rise of gangs in Latin America?” This year I chose to show a National Geographic documentary that I found on Youtube instead of using the film, Sin nombre (we were out of time) but I will still use it in the future.

The day of the Socratic Seminar my students spoke only in Spanish for their allotted 30 minutes (for a group of 7 students (two rounds during the class) and 45 minutes (for a group of 10 (1 round). The Seminar is evidence based and students must refer to class sources and their own articles that they have found and annotated. The first year I started doing these Socratic Seminars in Spanish, the students were terrified but they almost all report having grown tremendously from the experience. We have since implemented a first Socratic Seminar experience at the end of level III, which has helped ease the fears in level IV. In level IV, last year I had to develop a rubric that looks for spontaneous speaking and not prepared reading. This change in evaluating has helped more students to really listen to what is being said and responding off the cuff, which is a part of the goal for this assessment which has elements of all three communication modes: interpersonal speaking, presentational speaking and writing, and interpretive through finding and annotating articles in Spanish and following the seminar.

To round out the semester, I have a 4 part midterm: the spoken interview, Interpretive Reading, in class written essay, and a structure/grammar piece. I always fight myself internally about this 25% grammatical content piece. But this year I chose to include it so that they would review many tenses of higher frequency verbs, word relationships, and the gender of tricky nouns. I have brought this aspect back after waffling for so many years because my conclusion is that it is in this level they need these aspects of structure and language to help them grow. The studying did not harm them and they appreciate that in general I do not give too much daily “busy”-homework.   As I always tell people, I have been an AP reader for many years and language accuracy is not the focus of the rubrics but rather the task completion and its development. This being said, if students produce work that is more accurate with regard to spelling, more polished with agreement, and using a variety of tenses and vocabulary in addition to completing the tasks and development, then the product has a chance to be scored better. If I do not create learning opportunities to enhance these aspects then they may not get them. I know there are many other ways to work on this accuracy and this is one way that I am using.

Overall I am filled with Pride for these students (another beloved song that I taught this semester, Orgullo (This is For) by PitBull. These students have worked so hard and they all feel success, which is wonderful. I know this after seeing their happy faces talking and asking me questions during their midterm interviews. I am very pleased with their progress, and I look forward to Semester 2. Thanks for reflecting with me. As of now, I am not sure what I will write for my 4th New Year’s Blog Post – I have yet to be inspired