Reciprocal teaching is one of the methods that are used to teach comprehension-fostering strategies to students. Reading scores have usually improved as a result of this instruction.
Until the 1980s, students were seldom provided with any help in reading comprehension. In a class study, Durkin (1979) observed 4,469 minutes of reading instruction in grade 4 and found that only 20 minutes of this time were spent in teaching students how to comprehend what they were reading. Durkin found that teachers spent almost all of the instructional time asking students questions, but they spent little time teaching students comprehension strategies they could use to answer the questions. Duffy, Lanier, and Roehler noted a similar lack of comprehension instruction in elementary classrooms: “There is little evidence of instruction of any kind … Seldom does one observe teaching in which a teacher presents a skill, a strategy, or a process to pupils, shows them how to do it, provides assistance as they initiate attempts to perform the task and assures that they can be successful” (1980, p. 514). As a result of these astonishing findings, investigators developed and taught students to use specific cognitive strategies that were designed to help them perform higher-level operations in reading. Palincsar and Brown (1984) referred to these strategies as “comprehension-fostering” activities.
Teaching students to ask questions about the material they are reading is an example of a comprehension-fostering activity. Asking questions, by itself, does not directly lead in a step-by-step manner to comprehension. Rather, in the process of generating questions, students need to search the text and combine information, and these processes serve to help students comprehend what they read. A cognitive strategy, then, is a guide or a scaffold that serves to support the learners as they develop the internal procedures that enable them to perform the higher level operations.
Two of the major and most researched cognitive strategies have been teaching students to ask questions about material they were reading and teaching students to summarize passages.
The cognitive strategy of asking questions was usually taught by providing students with a list of signal words— who, what, when, why, how—that students could use to form questions. The strategy of summarizing was frequently taught using a legs and table procedure in which students first list the major details (the legs) and then use the legs to compose a summary sentence (the table).
In many of these studies the cognitive strategies were taught directly by the teacher. The teacher first presented a list of signal words and then modeled the use of these words to ask questions about the material in a story or a passage. Then the teacher guided the students as they began to generate questions about the material, and, finally, the students asked questions independently, without much supervision.
Students were taught to use the legs and table strategy the same way. First, the teacher modeled how to select the main points (the legs) and then use these points to develop a summary (the table). Then the teacher supervised the students as they practiced identifying the legs and the table. The teacher would guide the students as they practiced by first summarizing a paragraph, then several paragraphs, then a passage, and then a larger unit. Finally, the students worked on their own, with minimal supervision from the teacher.
Reciprocal teaching, a term and practice developed by Palincsar and Brown (1984), is a variation on the traditional teaching method. In reciprocal teaching the focus is also upon teaching students specific comprehension-fostering strategies. Palincsar and Brown taught students four strategies: asking questions about the text, summarizing what was read, predicting what might happen next, and attempting to clarify words and phrases that were not understood. But in reciprocal teaching, the practice of applying these strategies takes place primarily in the context of a dialogue between the teacher and the students.
In reciprocal teaching, students read a passage of expository material paragraph by paragraph. During the early stages of the lesson, the teacher assumes the major responsibility for instruction by explicitly modeling the process of using these strategies on a selected text. The students then practice the strategies on the next section of text and the teacher supports each student's participation through specific feedback, additional modeling, coaching, hints, and explanations. The teacher adjusts the difficulty of the task according to the current level of the student. As Palincsar and Brown (1984) explained:
The teacher models and explains, relinquishing part of the task to novices only at the level each one is capable of negotiating at any one time. Increasingly, as the novice becomes more competent, the teacher increases her demands, requiring participation at a slightly more challenging level. (p. 13)
During this guided practice the teacher invites students to initiate discussion and to react to other students' statements. Student participation can include (a) elaborating or commenting on another student's summary, (b) suggesting other questions, (c) commenting on another's predictions, (d) requesting clarification of material not understood, and (e) helping to resolve misunderstandings.
The teacher supports the students by rephrasing or elaborating on their answers, comments, or questions, and by providing hints and instruction when needed. In the course of this guided practice, there is a gradual shift in responsibility from the teacher doing much of the work to the student taking over the major thinking while the teacher observes and helps only when needed.
At this point, the practice becomes a dialogue: one student asks questions, another answers, and a third comments on the answer; one student identifies a difficult word, and the other students help to infer the meaning and give reasons for the inferences they made. The emphasis throughout is on a cooperative effort by the teacher and students to bring meaning to the ideas in the text, rather than merely restating the words. In addition, during the dialogue, students are provided instruction in when, why, and where these activities should be applied to the text.
Reciprocal teaching, then, has two major features: instruction and practice of the four comprehension-fostering strategies and the use of the reciprocal teaching dialogue as a vehicle for learning and practicing these four strategies.
The process of gradual introduction of a skill by a teacher who provides assistance to students as they practice is similar to the guided practice described by Hunter (1982), Good and Grouws (1979), and Rosenshine and Stevens (1986). In reciprocal teaching, however, much greater emphasis is placed on encouraging students to provide instructional support for each other.
Two different types of tests were used to study the effect of using reciprocal teaching methods. Some investigators developed their own tests while other investigators used standardized tests in reading. Some investigators used both their own tests and standardized tests.
When experimenter-developed tests were used in the reciprocal teaching studies, the results were usually statistically significant and the average effect size was .88. An effect size of .88 means that students who scored at the 50th percentile in the experimental group would have scored at the 88th percentile if they had been in the control group (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994). When standardized tests were used the average effect size was .32. This result means that on the standardized tests, students who scored at the 50th percentile in the experimental group would have scored at the 63rd percentile if they had been in the control group. An effect size of .88 is considered to be very large.
As noted, asking questions has also been taught in traditional settings, without the reciprocal teaching addition. When experimenter-developed tests were used in these studies the results were also usually statistically significant and the average effect size was .89. When standardized tests were used the average effect size was .34 (Rosenshine, Meister and Chapman, 1996). This result means that the same statistically significant results were obtained for teacher-led instruction when only the question-asking strategy was taught as were obtained using the reciprocal teaching format when four cognitive strategies were taught. These results suggest that the teaching of cognitive strategies is a useful instructional procedure for raising student achievement, and these strategies can be successfully taught in both a traditional and a reciprocal teaching format.
Palincsar and Brown (1984) suggest that what the students learned was not simply how to ask questions and summarize. Rather, the new strategies enabled and required the students to perform deeper processing of what they read, to engage in making sense of what they read, to be aware of what they did not understand the material, and to engage in additional searching when they encountered comprehension difficulties, and it was the learning and practice of these processes that led to the improved comprehension.
Brown, A. L., & Palincsar, A. S. (1989). Guided, cooperative learning and individual knowledge acquisition. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 393–451). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Durkin, D. (1979). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 14, 581–544.
Duffy, G., Lanier, J. E., & Roehler, L. R. (1980). On the need to consider instructional practice when looking for instructional implications. Paper presented at the Reading Expository Materials, University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Duffy, G., & Roehler, L. R. (1987). Improving reading instruction through the use of responsive elaboration. The Reading Teacher, 40, 514–521.
Hunter, M. (1982). Mastery teaching. El Segundo, CA: TIP.
Good, T. L., & Grouws, D. A. (1979). The Missouri mathematics effectiveness project. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 143–155.
Palinscar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 2, 117–175.
Rosenshine, B., & Meister, C. (1994). Reciprocal teaching: A review of the research. Review of Educational Research, 64(4), 479–530.
Rosenshine, B., Meister, C., & Chapman, S. (1996). Teaching students to generate questions: A review of the intervention studies. Review of Educational Research, 66(2), 181–221.
Rosenshine, B., & Stevens, R. (1986). Teaching functions. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed., pp. 376–391). New York: Macmillan.