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What is Reciprocal Teaching?

Reciprocal teaching is a process developed by Palincsar & Brown (1984) where the role of “educator” is slowly passed from teacher to child, as students lead peer discussions and practice using four critical reading strategies:

  1. Predicting
  2. Clarifying
  3. Question generating
  4. Summarizing

Because reciprocal teaching – also called peer learning – is a discussion technique, students develop strong oral language skills as they work together to improve their reading comprehension.

And Palincsar & Brown, the creators of this approach, found that when students engaged in reciprocal teaching for as little as 15-20 days, their scores on a comprehension assessment increased from 30% to as high as 80%.

  1. Why Reciprocal Teaching Works
  2. The Importance of Active Learning
  3. The Research Behind Reciprocal Teaching
  4. What Reciprocal Teaching Should Look Like
  5. Using Reciprocal Teaching in Your Classroom

Why Reciprocal Teaching Works

Full disclosure, I’ve never been a teacher before.

I don’t have the same knowledge or years of hands-on experience in the classroom that a teacher or administrator might have.

Though I’ve worked in publishing for several years now, joining Abrams Learning Trends last year was my first opportunity to write for an education-based company.

But that didn’t stop my boss from throwing me into the fire very early on.

After working here only a few short months, I got the news that I was going to be attending a major national education conference in Los Angeles and talk face-to-face with actual teachers from around the country to explain our company to them.

That meant I was going to have teach the teachers about our educational programs and materials – and I only had two weeks to prepare!

Here's an actual shot of me after receiving the news: 

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See, as a writer, it’s easy for me to educate readers on the programs and materials we create, since I typically have books, informational guides, and good old-fashioned time to help me put it all together.

But the prospect of learning it all well enough to confidently answer questions and recite key details on the spot while speaking with professional educators seemed like an almost impossible task for me.

I spent the full two weeks doing everything I thought I needed to do to learn more about the program:

  • I read all the Program Guides and Teacher’s Guides I could find.
  • I watched dozens of videos of students and teachers actually using our materials in the classroom.
  • I even got a few one-on-one tutoring sessions from my co-workers.

I did everything I could think of to prepare. And when the conference started, I felt like I was ready.

Well, I was wrong. 

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Despite all my reading, watching, and listening, so much of the information I thought I knew simply left me whenever I had to explain it. I was constantly referring to guidebooks and brochures to answer teachers’ questions.

I felt a little ashamed as I fumbled my way through conversations for two and a half days. But by the end of the conference, something really incredible started to happen…

I started to get what I was teaching. The programs, our supplemental materials – I really started to understand how they worked and how they help and support K-5 teachers and students who use them.

I learned more in three days by actively engaging with our materials, answering questions, teaching others than I did in two weeks of reading, watching, and listening to others tell me about them.

Long story short, here’s my point…

When we learn something new -- anything, it doesn't matter what it is -- in a more active, hands-on way, we make that information more memorable and concrete in our brains.

And that's what makes the concept of reciprocal teaching so powerful.

The Importance of Active Learning 

Active learning strengthens knowledge retention and allows us to apply and extend our knowledge more effectively.

With reciprocal teaching, students are put in the driver’s seat and allowed to “be the teacher.” Through active discussions and questioning, they not only build their reading and oral language confidence, they also greatly improve their retention of the material.

A 1991 study by Palincsar and Klenk found that students who engaged in reciprocal teaching both improved their comprehension and maintained their improvement when tested a year later.

Even better, they worked more independently in the classroom, could summarize texts verbally and write accurate summaries, and were able to predict questions and detect inconsistencies in texts.

So why does the active learning part of reciprocal teaching work so well?

One theory was developed by educator Edgar Dale in the 1960’s. Dale believed that “learners retain more information by what they do as opposed to what they hear, read, or observe.”

This theory was the basis for what is now known as the Cone of Experiences, a model showing the benefits of an active learning routine.

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As you can see in the pyramid, students who engage in more active, hands-on learning practices – like teaching – are considered more likely to recall relevant information after a 24-hour period than students who are taught using passive learning practices.

It’s kind of like working out…

Sure, I could read about the benefits of exercising all day long. But I'll never start building stronger muscles or more endurance until I get out and actively do it!

The Research Behind Reciprocal Teaching

There are a number of studies from around the world that support the benefits of reciprocal teaching and active learning in general.

In 2013, a reciprocal teaching study conducted in the U.K. resulted in students' reading growth increasing as much as 9 months in just 3 months’ time

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Students who were involved in the study increased their comprehension by as much as 50 percentage points and showed “clear gains in verbal summarization and text evaluation.”

Most importantly, the reciprocal teaching was shown to have long last effects, as students continued displaying sustained improvement well beyond an 8-week period.

But one of the most powerful studies I've seen was conducted by teachers in Highland Park, Michigan, where they recorded the percentage of 4th grade students in the area who met or exceeded state reading standards over a 6-year period

Beginning in the third year of the study, students began receiving intensive instruction using reciprocal teaching comprehension strategies. 

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The students who were tested for this study attended school in a high-poverty area with few resources and overall low-student achievement.

And as the study found, the percentage of these 4th graders who met or exceeded the state’s reading standards increased by more than four times over just a six-year period.

One of the potential reasons for these students’ newfound success is that reciprocal teaching provides a crucial step in the reading process that children don’t always receive with traditional literacy instruction.

What Reciprocal Teaching Should Look Like

Reciprocal teaching -- or peer learning -- can help students better navigate the transition from guided reading groups to successful reading independence.

That's because it gives them opportunities to build their reading confidence and practice key comprehension skills like predicting, clarifying, question generating, and summarizing.

(Remember, reciprocal teaching is all about reinforcement. Students should already have a working knowledge of these strategies and feel comfortable applying them during teacher-led reading sessions before using them in peer reading settings.)

When executed correctly, here's how the process should look…

Step 1 – Pick a book

Start by selecting an appropriately leveled text for students in small groups to read together, like this one by author and reciprocal teaching expert Jill Eggleton. 

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Step 2 – Choose a Leader

When you select a student to be the Leader, they have the opportunity to “be the teacher” by guiding the group’s discussion as they read, make predictions, clarify new concepts, ask questions, and summarize the text. 

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Step 3 – Choose a new Leader and continue the process

With reciprocal teaching, it is important that every student have the opportunity to guide discussion and “teach” the group at least once. This helps build confidence and can motivate disengaged learners to get involved.

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Using Reciprocal Teaching in Your Classroom

Remember, the more involved students’ senses are in the learning process, the more information they retain.

When I actively learned by educating teachers on our wide variety of programs and educational materials, my knowledge and confidence skyrocketed.

That’s why it’s important to make learning more interactive and hands-on through processes like reciprocal teaching.

It allows you to reinforce key concepts and help students build their confidence and independence, while deepening their comprehension of a particular text or topic.

If you’d like to download our new Reciprocal Teaching Infographic, just click on the link below.

And be sure to send us your own experiences using reciprocal teaching in your classroom to let us know how it’s worked for you and your students!

 Download the infographic here!