Improving comprehension using reciprocal teaching

iStock_000021006935XSmallReciprocal teaching is an instructional approach used to help students read for meaning and monitor their comprehension. It does this by enabling students to model their teachers’ instructional behavior. Students learn how to lead group discussions, emphasizing important concepts, asking questions to clarify ideas and connecting new information to previous knowledge.

Previous research on reciprocal teaching focused on whether students successfully acquired four comprehension strategies: predicting, questioning, clarifying and summarizing. When students predict, they activate prior knowledge to hypothesize what they believe will be discussed in the text. Predicting gives students a purpose for reading and allows them to connect the knowledge they already possess with new knowledge they encounter. Generating questions helps students to discover the main ideas by identifying the most important information in a passage.

With practice, students learn what makes a good question and how questions help them comprehend and remember information. Clarification prompts students to monitor their understanding; and summarization helps them to gauge whether they have fully understood the text.

These strategies can help students actively construct knowledge and link it in meaningful ways to what they already know. Research indicates that the quality of dialogue that occurs during reciprocal teaching is crucial to its effectiveness.

Most of the previous studies took place in highly controlled settings in which teachers were the disseminators of information. This research has been criticized for not assessing the quality of teachers’ instruction and its effect on students’ implementation of the four strategies.

To address the criticism and to study reciprocal teaching in more typical classroom settings, Michigan researchers Caryn M. King, Grand Valley State University, and Lara M. Parent Johnson, Holland Public School District, studied how reciprocal teaching was modeled in fifth-grade science classrooms and the influence this modeling had on students’ discussion and comprehension of science texts.

Students in two of the schools in the study were largely low-income and racially diverse, while the other two schools’ populations were predominantly white and middle class. Their teachers received a half-day’s training in reciprocal teaching and met with the researchers once a month to discuss progress.

King and Johnson observed each classroom on a monthly basis and read transcripts of observed lessons to judge teachers’ modeling of the strategies, guided practice and feedback as well as students’ engagement, group discussions and peer feedback. They compared students’ scores on six unit tests as well as the state-mandated scientific literacy test and conducted a follow-up study two months after reciprocal teaching was discontinued.

Classes using reciprocal teaching strategies did better

Results of the state-mandated scientific literacy test revealed that classes using reciprocal teaching strategies significantly outperformed their peers. On the researcher-designed tests of each science unit, students’ comprehension (of the scientific texts) improved and then remained constant at an average of 80 percent correct.

Analysis of teachers’ modeling of reciprocal teaching strategies and students’ subsequent strategy use showed distinct patterns. Teachers modeled the four strategies in a series of lessons. Then students practiced these strategies in small groups. Teachers guided students’ practice by providing feedback on their efforts. Teachers praised good discussions, checked to see if everyone in a group understood, and asked additional questions to help students elaborate their ideas and build deeper understandings.

Clear identification of strategies

All the teachers had their own ways of presenting reciprocal teaching strategies, but those who clearly and repeatedly identified each strategy as they used it, enabled students to use the strategies most effectively to discuss ideas in depth. Less effective teachers modeled strategies but did not clearly identify each one as it was used. Students in these classes were less successful in their strategy use. Although they might ask one another questions about the text, they were unlikely to elaborate from their own experience, predict what else they might learn, or check to see if everyone in their group understood.

Over time, group discussions in the most successful classrooms illustrated real engagement in the subject, with students elaborately discussing the text, effortlessly using the four strategies, comparing lots of information from their own experiences and discussing what else they might learn or need to know about the subject.

These students were able to elaborate on ideas presented in the text without guidance from the teacher. They were able to construct meaning by connecting ideas presented by group members to ideas presented in the text. Even after a two-month interruption in teachers’ use of reciprocal teaching practices, these students continued to create effective discussions when they were given a new unit to study.

King and Johnson concluded that reciprocal teaching provided a framework in which discussion enabled students to build meaningful knowledge from scientific texts. When teachers consistently modeled and clearly identified all four reciprocal teaching strategies, provided examples of constructive dialogue, and gave praise and feedback, students successfully used reciprocal teaching strategies to achieve higher scores on science tests.

At the beginning of the year, students needed considerable practice with the strategies to become proficient in their use. As the year progressed and they became increasingly aware of the importance of peer feedback and support, test

“Constructing Meaning Via Reciprocal Teaching” Reading Research and Instruction, Volume 38, Number 3, Spring 1999, pp. 169-186.

Published in ERN September 1999 Volume 12 Number 6

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