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Reciprocal Teaching Builds Reading Comprehension

By Doug Buehl,
Madison East High School teacher
Member, Wisconsin State Reading Association

May 2001

As I worked alongside Robert, I watched and learned . . . how to wield a cant hook . . . how to set the dogs into a log on the carriage . . . how to position a log for the most efficient first cut . . . how to figure a series of cuts in advance to avoid waste . . . how to square up a crooked log . . . how to feed boards into the edger.

Robert was the sawmill operator at a woodshop where I spent several summers earning money for college. As I guided the freshly sawed planks off the blade and onto the rollers, I observed him at work. Frequently, he would share his thinking as he problem-solved turning logs into lumber, asking me questions and sometimes soliciting my suggestions. On occasion, Robert would even allow me the controls, while he stood by, offering supportive commentary and encouragement. During those summer days, under his guidance and tutelage, I was being introduced to the trade of sawyer.

Consider similar experiences that you have had in learning-in the home, on the job, mastering a skill. Much of the most important learning that we have achieved in life-whether it is baking pastries, fishing for walleyes, or throwing a pot on the wheel-has been in the role of apprentice to a master craftsman, an expert, an accomplished veteran. We learned by witnessing the expert engaged in an activity, and as we collaborated and received feedback on our performance, we gradually moved from novice status to independence.

The Strategy
Reciprocal Teaching (Palincsar and Brown, 1984) is a strategy for building reading comprehension that capitalizes on this master/apprentice relationship for learning. The strategy models four essential components of comprehension: questioning, summarizing, clarifying, and predicting.

Step 1: Teacher think-alouds are an excellent method for modeling the cognitive behavior involved in reading comprehension. Periodically, share a piece of challenging text that you are reading, and model your reasoning as you attempt to understand it. Students need opportunities to listen in as real readers struggle with real world texts. Your think-alouds underscore that proficient readers are constantly engaged in an active mission to make sense of what they read.

During a think-aloud, make explicit reference to the four comprehension behaviors you are employing. For example, use questioning to talk your way through a passage: Why does the author tell me this? What seems to be most important point or idea? Did I understand this correctly? Some questions will relate to salient details, but many of them should target your understanding of the passage as a whole.

Next, recap what you read by summarizing: "Basically this section is about . . ." When modeling summarizing, note that a proficient reader hits the pause button every few paragraphs and paraphrases what was read to "make sure you got it." Emphasize that summarizing targets the main idea or gist of a passage and is not merely a litany of details.

Clarifying is the process of identifying aspects of the text that were not totally clear. A proficient reader might use a number of fix-up strategies to clarify: re-reading, going on to hope that confusions will be eventually resolved, zeroing in on difficult vocabulary, consulting with another reader, and so forth. Clarifying might also point out shortcomings in the text, and focus on what an author might have done to make a passage more understandable.

Finally, a proficient reader is constantly thinking ahead, predicting where a passage may be heading. Sometimes the predicting goes beyond a text, as a reader infers certain attitudes or beliefs on the part of an author. Predicting helps to develop a purpose for reading, as readers continue on through a text to confirm or disprove their hunches about the material.

Step 2: Lead the class in using reciprocal teaching to problem-solve their way through a piece of challenging classroom text. Display segments of the text on an overhead transparency and model this process with the opening section. Then solicit student volunteers to generate questions, summarize sections, clarify meaning, and make predictions.

For example, students struggling with a biology textbook chapter packed with detailed information and unfamiliar vocabulary begin to obtain a feel for talking themselves through dense and challenging material. Examples of useful questions might be: "How are vertebrates different from invertebrates?" "What characteristics do all vertebrates share?" "What are some examples of vertebrates?" Why does the author provide the information in this paragraph?" Students might focus on difficult vocabulary as they move through the clarification phase. Individuals are called upon to summarize each section, and familiarity with textbook features may prompt students to use visuals as well as text information to make predictions for what will be discussed in the next part.

Step 3: As students become practiced with reciprocal teaching, they can follow this procedure in cooperative groups. Students trade off assuming the role of "teacher" in their groups, as they lead their classmates through the four comprehension phases. The student "teacher" asks questions about a section and members of the group respond. The leader searches for anything that was confusing or not totally clear and comments as the group tries to resolve the problem. Finally, the "teacher" summarizes the section, and makes a prediction for what might be next. The group goes on to read the next portion of the text, and a new student assumes the roles of "teacher."

Reciprocal Teaching is regarded by researchers as a highly effective method for teaching reading comprehension. This strategy accrues the following advantages:

  • Students are provided a window into the thinking of proficient readers as they problem-solve their way toward meaning;
  • Students are conditioned to approach reading as an active and strategic process;
  • Students learn behaviors that will help them become more independent readers, capable of handling increasingly sophisticated material.

Further Resources:
Palincsar, A. & Brown, A. (1984) Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Comprehension-Monitoring Activities. Cognition and Instruction. 1(2), 117-175.

Posted April 19, 2001


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