Reciprocal teaching for deeper understanding

Most of our students won’t go on to study psychology after their A – Level course but one of the things we can teach them that will help them whatever they do next is to read effectively.  In the past it has surprised me how a student might be able to read a complex text very fluently, yet have very poor comprehension and retention of what they have just read. One way of increasing the effectiveness of students’ reading is to use the reciprocal teaching technique originally developed by Palincsar and Brown (1984).

In the form in which I use it, reciprocal teaching is done as a small group activity (4 per group is ideal).  The group is given a text and decide who will take the ‘teacher’ role first.  The routine is:

  • All group members silently read a section of the text.  While they are reading, the ‘teacher’ must think of a question about that section of the text.
  • Once all have finished reading, the ‘teacher’ asks their question of the group.  The group then discusses and agrees on an answer with the ‘teacher’.
  • When the ‘teacher’ is satisfied with the answer, they summarise that section of the text.  A new ‘teacher’ is chosen and the cycle begins again.

The power of reciprocal teaching comes when you establish as a routine in your classroom, and practice is important.  What is crucial is the quality of the questions the ‘teacher’ asks.  They have to be genuine questions that require deep thinking, rather than ones that can be answered simply by pulling a word or phrase out of the text.  For this reason it is helpful to model the process of thinking up a question and discussing it with the class before handing over to the students.  I also find it useful to circulate and monitor the quality of the questions, intervening where necessary. With regular use, reciprocal teaching becomes just ‘our way of reading’.

Reciprocal teaching has been extensively tested and is associated with substantial learning gains.  Hattie (2008) reports an effect size of 0.74. Much of this research has focused on younger learners, many of these with poor reading relative to age, so it is sometimes overlooked that it also has a positive effect on apparently proficient learners of high school age (Alfassi, 2004).

One problem I have encountered, however, is finding suitable texts for my students to use with the technique. Research papers and more advanced undergraduate textbooks are potentially too difficult for students to access, especially if they are new to psychology.  However, the typical A – Level textbook is laden with intrusive ‘pedagogical features’ that deprive the students of opportunities to ask each other good questions and generally ‘grapple with the text’ in productive ways.  Consequently I have ended up preparing a number of my own.  These are written to be ‘just difficult enough’ but kept short enough for students to process them in a lesson phase lasting 15 – 20 minutes or so.  I’ll be tagging these as ‘reading’ when I post them up.

Alfassi, M. (2004).  Reading to learn: Effects of combined strategy instruction on high school students.  Journal of Educational Research, 97 (4), 171-185.

Hattie, J. (2008).  Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.  London: Routledge.

Palincsar, A.S. & Brown, A.L. (1984).  Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities.  Cognition and Instruction, 1 (2), 117-175.

4 thoughts on “Reciprocal teaching for deeper understanding”

  1. This research for the European Journal of Special Needs Education, promotes reciprocal teaching for its structure in dialogues and how students learn to apply those dialogues based on the reading taking place in instruction.

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