17:Reciprocal Teaching

Paulo Freire (1970) proposed that the roles of teachers and students are not as clearly demarcated as we educators sometimes believe. Feire’s book often confounds readers for a variety of reasons; it was written in a time and place and about a segment of the world’s population about which teachers in western classrooms today understandably know little. One concept, however, that we think has nearly universal appeal as an educational goal is that of the teacher-student, students-teachers.  Simply, teachers have a role as learner in the classroom, and students have (or should have) a role as teacher or leader of their own and others’ instruction. Often, Freire’s ideal sounds good, but how it works in the increasingly political world of education seems elusive. One classroom structure with potential to help students become the subject or agent for their own learning is reciprocal teaching.  In this structure, the teacher models the particular behaviors of good readers; later, students learn to take on the role of teacher to facilitate discussion and model the cognitive strategies of good readers.

In conventional reciprocal teaching, students work in small groups with the teacher who employs a cognitive apprenticeship model (Bruer, 1993; Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991) with the aim of making the invisible and complex processes of reading visible to the student, a novice reader.  Cognitive apprenticeship calls for teachers to employ teaching methods that permit students to learn how expert readers, in this case, think about difficult texts.  These methods include the following: 1). The teacher models the expected performance, 2). Students perform a task as the teacher coaches through observation and facilitation throughout the apprenticeship, 3). The teacher makes the task manageable and explicit through scaffolding (Eby, 1998), 4). Students are given the opportunity to verbalize what they have learned and how they process their thinking, 5). The teacher models reflection and provides opportunities for students to do so, comparing their performance with others at the same time, 6). Teachers model and encourage students to pose and solve problems (Freire, 1970) that arise as they think about the content and process of reading a given text. Reciprocal teaching also relies on the idea that learning should be situated in authentic tasks (that is, actual reading of texts rather than isolated instruction in the skills of reading) and that it moves from global conceptualization of the whole task before consideration of the parts.

In approaching difficult reading, students must learn strategies that efficiently direct attention, through self-monitoring, to those aspects of the text most likely to be relevant to the reading task as it is situated in a larger context, say a content-area classroom. In designing reciprocal teaching, Palincsar and Brown (1984) identified four cognitive strategies that their research showed as characterizing the thought processes of good readers.  These four cognitive strategies appear in all the adaptations of reciprocal teaching since the researchers first explained their classroom structure in 1984.  The four strategies are: summarizing (see section 2, strategy 11), questioning (see section 2, strategy 9), clarifying (see section 4), and predicting (the subject of this book).  As you have, by now, come to realize, these four strategies are inter-related, so taking a global approach to instruction relying on reciprocal teaching is of particular value.

Reciprocal teaching, in its original configuration, called for a teacher to work with an individual or small group of students.  Many teachers and researchers, sensing the appeal of the structure, have devised a variety of adaptations to make the reciprocal teaching intervention instructionally useful in classrooms with 20 to 40 students in them (e. g., Carter, 1997; Marks et al., 1993). In each variation, the teacher plays a significant role, but students assume increasing responsibility over time for use of the strategies to foster comprehension, monitor comprehension, and advance the group discussion.  In the process, the students have an opportunity to see expert modeling from the teacher of the four cognitive strategies, to compare their performance with that of others, and to take on the role of expert reader with scaffolding by the teacher and peers.  Engagement with reading tasks is likely to increase for students as they have the opportunity to interact meaningfully as agents (capable of acting independently) in the reading process with the teacher, their peers, and the text (Oldfather, 1995).

Step by Step

Determine a format for implementing reciprocal teaching that promotes the concepts of cognitive apprenticeship and student use of the four cognitive strategies: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. Marks, et al. (1993) observed three possibilities:

  1. Students are divided into large groups of approximately eight students. Within each group, the students are assigned to pair up with one other student. Paired students read the text together, preparing questions, summaries, and clarifications and summaries; the teacher monitors this interaction. After reading, the students return to their large group and a student leader initiates discussion while students address each other, using the initial paired-reading conversation as a scaffold, rather than addressing the teacher.
  2. Students are asked to read the text preparing summaries, questions, clarifications, and predictions, in advance. They then join a large group discussion (a whole class of 7 to 12 students in a special education setting, as reported by Marks, et al. 1993) where a leader calls on students to share the products of their cognitive preparation; e. g., summarization, etc. The teacher may participate by modeling a question at the inferential level (see section 2.8, for examples) and so on. The student leader may not elect to call on the teacher right away. In this adaptation, students progress through the large-group discussion by considering one cognitive strategy at a time.
  3. The teacher provides a graphic organizer which characterizes the structure of the text (see section 2.3). Students read the text independently noting as they read one prediction, one clarification, a question, and one summary at one point in the text. The teacher provides some instructional mediation in generating questions of various levels of complexity, summarization, and so on. Once students have completed this task, they return to the class but sit in small groups representing learning teams or cooperative learning groups.  Using the notes generated that represent the four cognitive strategies, students discuss these within the small group for a pre-determined time period.  Recalling the coaching nature of reciprocal teaching, the teacher circulates among the groups listening to discussion and interjecting from time to time.  When time for small group discussion is over, the students return to the whole-class configuration with the teacher now leading the discussion.  Groups may be given time to confer and present their best question for the rest of the class to deliberate.  Group presentation of their discussion results including summaries, and reports of prediction and clarification continues.
  1. Ensure that students have ample opportunities to practice the strategies with support from the teacher, in small and large groups with their peers, in response journals, and, of course, any time they are asked to (or choose to) read and study difficult materials.
  2. Provide job aids, such as posters and bookmarks, which remind students of these thinking strategies and perhaps provide opportunities for students to include their thoughts in text by writing directly on the text (glossing) or using sticky notes to do so. Encourage students to share these written products of their thinking with each other and with you, the teacher.
  3. Students will not be proficient at all the skills called for in reciprocal teaching, at first. Expect that their performance will improve as they observe models from teachers and peers and monitor their own comprehension over time with multiple texts.

Applications and Examples

Sara Fratrik uses reciprocal teaching as a classroom structure with the students who receive special education services to help them engage with texts they find challenging.

Figure 17.1 In her own words, Sara Fratrik of Aberdeen Middle School in Aberdeen, Maryland.

Teachers need to model these processes as they read aloud to show students how to enhance their comprehension.  The final step in this process is to allow students to practice using the four skills of predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing on their own.  It is important to model the process for a sufficient amount of time and allow many opportunities for student practice for this process to work.  I plan to begin modeling reciprocal teaching in my classroom with our social studies unit on early modern Europe.  One of the content objectives for this unit is that students will understand the rule of Queen Elizabeth and how it affected England then and now.  Our literary objective will be that students will read for information.

The reading assignment I chose to begin with is a one-page excerpt from a section in the book about special people that were relevant to the civilization we are studying.  This book series involves age-appropriate pictures and content at a lower reading level.  The page includes a picture of the person and a thought provoking, author and you (Raphael, 1986), question at the end of the reading. This book and section of the content and history may be challenging for my students, so reciprocal teaching is a perfect fit for my students, the text, and the learning objectives.

For the first time introducing reciprocal teaching I will read the text aloud while they read along to my students while stopping myself to predict, ask questions, and clarify.  The first sentence of the text is a good place to set a prediction.  It tells that Queen Elizabeth was only twenty-five when she became queen. At this point I would ask the students if they thought she would be a good queen or not.  I expect that some will say yes, because she is too young and will not know what to do, while others will say no and believe that twenty-five is old.  I will continue reading and revisit this prediction to have students determine if they predicted correctly, incorrectly, or still want to read to see what else they can learn.  When you read on a little more, the text tells of the Spanish Armada invading England.  The text specifically asks the reader if they will win. This is a great point for a prediction and it is generated by the text.  I expect some of my students will use their prior knowledge about what they learned about England and say that it is a big country so the Spanish will not win, while others will say the Spanish will win because Queen Elizabeth will not know what to do.

During the reading my students will also need some clarification on a few words and concepts.  They will probably need to clarify the word armada.  The best strategy for this would be to read on for clarification.  After the word is introduced the text defines the word.  Even if the text did not define the word, reading on would be appropriate because it talks about sailing and warships, thus helping the students to see that the Spanish armada was a group of Spanish warships.  Another difficult concept may be the short mention of William Shakespeare in the text.  I would recommend that the students research further to better understand the text.  The best way would be to use the Internet and read some of his work.

As we read, the students may have some questions.  Two questions I predict the students might ask include why the Spanish invaded England and why England set their own ships on fire.  The best way to answer these would be with a class discussion during and after reading.  These questions involve a lot of on your own thinking as they are not pointed out specifically in the text. Finally, students will need to learn to summarize what they have read.  Summarization is important because it teaches the students to pick out the important information while putting less effort into the unimportant information.  To introduce this part of the strategy I will have a summary, see below, of the text for my students to review and thus have an example to base their future summaries on.

Sample Summary:

Queen Elizabeth was a young queen and many people were unsure if she would be a good queen.  She proved herself by defeating the Spanish at sea when they invaded England.  She was thought to be a good ruler because England became a powerful nation and she took time to be with her subjects.

The key to making reciprocal teaching work is modeling until students can begin to generate questions, predictions, clarifications, and summaries on their own.  Once they are able to do this, many opportunities for practice will help the students to do these things whenever they read and this is the whole point to reciprocal teaching.