Reciprocal teaching is a teaching and learning strategy in which students take turns acting as the teacher in small groups.
Students are taught four teaching strategies that they apply when acting as the teacher in their group.
The 4 strategies used in the reciprocal teaching method are:
Students are taught to use these four strategies on their peers, thereby acting as teachers for one another.
This teaching method was developed by Palincsar and Brown in 1984.
The strategy is most commonly applied for reading and comprehension activities.
The Reciprocal Teaching Method: 4 Strategies
When students take on the role of the teacher, they are expected to scaffold their peers’ learning using the following four techniques.
The teacher should model these strategies using guided practice before letting students have a go themselves.
Questioning prompts students to reflect on their text and ensures they understand it effectively.
Without questioning, students may passively read the text. By asking questions, your student must actively engage with what they are reading.
Questions can begin with the phrases:
The teacher will need to model questioning strategies and potentially provide cue cards that students can read off. A cue card might contain an image with the phrase “Who?” or “What?” beneath it.
As students progress and become more comfortable with questioning one another, cue cards will not be required.
Summarizing requires students to explain the ‘big picture’ succinctly.
A summary should explain the key events or elements of a text and be paraphrased (in your own words). It needs to get across the important information without getting caught in too many details.
This capacity to identify what is important and what is not important is a skill that shows a student has successfully comprehended the text.
Summaries can include questions like:
- Write the main idea of the text in one paragraph.
- List the order of events in bullet points.
- Outlined the main characters or locations in the text.
- Explain the 5 key points.
- Explain the 8 elements of a story.
Clarifying involves 2 steps:
- Identifying when you don’t understand or have lost your place.
- Using strategies to clarify or ‘patch up’ your gaps in knowledge.
In the first step, students need to be open about what they don’t understand. If the group is reading together, the student might speak up and say “I need clarification” or “I am now confused”.
In the second step, students seek clarification by using the example strategies below.
- Re-reading a confusing passage.
- Identifying cues such as images or sub-headings that help guide their comprehension.
- Looking for important keywords that might help reorient the readers.
- Discussing the issue with peers to triangulate comprehension.
Students make predictions about what they will expect to occur based on the evidence they have at hand right now.
A prediction does not have to come true. Simply, the student should make a prediction of something that may occur and be able to state why they feel that way.
Readers might use the title, images and contents pages to help students make informed predictions. If the front cover of a book has images of rabbits on it, there’s a good chance the book will be about rabbits, etc.
- Look: Students look together at the front page of a book.
- Predict: One student asks another to predict what will happen. They should start their sentence with “I predict…”
- Evidence: The student then asks their peer “Why do you predict this?” Their peer should respond “I predict this because…”
How to use Reciprocal Teaching in the Classroom
To teach these four methods, teachers need to slowly release responsibility to students using the guided practice method:
1. Explicit Modelling
The teacher has the group as a full class practice the four strategies explicitly. At this stage, the teacher retains control and asks students to practice the strategies in a very structured manner.
2. Guided Group Work
The teacher gets the students into small groups. The teacher retains control over the pace of the lessons by having students practice each of the four strategies one at a time. After practice, the teacher gets the students to turn to the front of the room and discuss how they went using the strategies with the whole class.
3. Independent Group Work
The students are each given a role (questioner, clarifier, summarizer, predictor). Each student must execute their role. At this stage, the students control the pace of their small group discussions. The teacher walks around the room supporting the students.
4. Individual Work
Once the group work has completed, the students should have internalized the strategies and will be able to use them when individually working away at their private reading and homework.
Sociocultural theory highlights the importance of:
- Discussion and social interaction for helping students progress their thinking.
- The use of a teacher as a ‘more knowledgeable other’ to guide or ‘scaffold’ learning.
- The use of group work to have students help educate one another (peer learning).
- The importance of language and ‘public speech’ in helping students to internalize knowledge.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Reciprocal Teaching
- Comprehension-fostering: The approach is comprehension-fostering, meaning it helps students to develop comprehension skills. By asking students to explicitly use comprehension strategies, students learn the processes required to comprehend written texts.
- Comprehension-monitoring: The approach is also comprehension-monitoring, meaning students internalize the four reciprocal teaching strategies and will begin to use them regularly. When successfully internalized, students will learn to use the skills whenever they read in order to test their own comprehension. In other words, the strategy develops from an explicit to metacognitive approach.
- Distributed teaching: By teaching the students on how to scaffold one another’s learning, the teacher distributes their ‘teaching role’ around the class. Students support one another, freeing the teacher up to spend more one-on-one time with remedial students.
- Differentiation: The teacher can differentiate instruction, for example by providing different reading tasks to different small groups.
- Group work skills: Students need very strong group work skills for this to work. The teacher will need to spend a lot of time teaching students how to behave in groups.
- Peer learning: Some students may find it very difficult to learn from their peers. Arguments and bitterness can sometimes pop up, which the teacher needs to be aware of.
- Consistency: Many students start to forget or stop using the strategies. Prompts and cue cards are often required to help students to keep using these strategies. Similarly, the teacher may need to occasionally use refresher lessons.
- Level appropriateness: This comprehension strategy may not work if the students have not got sufficient reading skills already.
Reciprocal teaching can be an incredibly effective strategy when it goes well. Students feel empowered when they are given the freedom to ‘play teacher’. It can be a motivational strategy that simultaneously gives the teacher freedom to facilitate learning rather than be bogged down in explicit instruction.
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Palinscar, A.S., & Brown, A.L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2): 117-175.
Pilonieta, P., & Medina, A. L. (2009). Reciprocal teaching for the primary grades: We can do it too!. The Reading Teacher. 63(2): 120–129. doi: 10.1598/rt.63.2.3.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Williams, Joan (2010). Taking on the role of Questioner: Revisiting reciprocal teaching. The Reading Teacher, 64(4): 278–281. doi: 10.1598/RT.64.4.6.
Yu-Fen, Y. (2010). Developing a reciprocal teaching/learning system for college remedial reading instruction. Computers and Education, 55(1): 1193–1201. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2010.05.016.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]