Teachers and students use prior knowledge and dialogue to construct a shared meaning of the text and improve reading comprehension

Dimensions: Equity pedagogy

Title and Location:Reciprocal Teaching
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Contact Information: Professor Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar
University of Michigan
School of Education, Room 4121
610 East University Ave.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1259


Reciprocal Teaching is an instructional approach in which teachers and students take turns leading discussions about shared text. Four comprehension strategies are employed: prediction, clarification, summarization, and question generation. These strategies are modeled by the teacher, and then practiced by the students in cooperative groups. Teachers monitor the discussion and provide cognitive scaffolding. Reciprocal Teaching strategies have resulted in improved reading comprehension during reading lessons and the transfer of skills to content areas in the regular classroom setting.

Program History and Description

Reciprocal Teaching (RT) is an instructional approach developed from research conducted by Annemarie Palincsar and Laura Klenk at the University of Michigan and Ann Brown at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. According to Palincsar and Klenk (1991), "reciprocal teaching is an instructional procedure in which teachers and students take turns leading discussions about shared text. The purpose of these discussions is to achieve joint understanding of the text through the flexible application of four comprehension strategies: prediction, clarification, summarization, and question generation" (p. 116). These strategies are modeled by the teacher in the context of instruction, and students practice the comprehension strategies in cooperative groups.

According to the developers, by using their prior knowledge and experiences in order to make predictions, the text becomes more meaningful and important to students (Englert & Palincsar, 1991; Lysynchuk, Pressley, & Vye, 1990; Palincsar & Brown, 1986). By seeking clarification, students identify information important to understanding the text and rely on other members of the group to help them understand the key points. They also learn to reread the text to find evidence for their understandings (Lysynchuk, Pressley, & Vye, 1990). By generating questions, students establish ownership in the reading process. As students summarize, inaccuracies that cause misunderstandings become apparent and students are given explicit instruction in developing critical thinking skills. Teachers monitor the discussion and provide cognitive scaffolding. Brown, Palincsar, and Purcell (1986) conclude that the strength of reciprocal teaching is that it focuses on reading to learn rather than learning to read.

Program Components

Primary Goals

Improving reading comprehension skills for students who have not benefited from traditional reading instructional methods is the primary goal of Reciprocal Teaching. This is achieved through establishing a collaborative discourse in order to help students acquire strategies useful to construct meaning from texts (Palincsar & Klenk, 1992).

Instructional Strategies and Materials

Content area texts have been found useful, especially at the middle school level (Palincsar & Klenk, 1991). Palincsar and Klenk (1992) explain that "shared texts contribute to the development of a learning community in which groups explore principles, ideas, themes, and concepts over time" (p. 214). They report improved results of RT when using texts related by themes and/or concepts, for example, "science concepts related to animal survival themes, such as adaptation, extinction, and the use of camouflage and mimicry" (p. 214). Palincsar and Klenk (1992) explain that "shared texts contribute to the development of a learning community in which groups explore principles, ideas, themes, and concepts over time" (p. 214).


According to Palincsar and Klenk (1992), reciprocal teaching is most compatiable with classrooms that are "social, interactive, and wholistic [sic] in nature" (p. 213). Because of the importance of helping students connect their personal background experiences with the texts, RT can be used in diverse classrooms and communities. In the RT research conducted by Palincsar and Klenk, small groups of six to eight students at the elementary level use the RT dialogue. At the middle school level, teachers have used RT dialogue with as many as 17 students (Palincsar & Klenk, 1991). Teachers have also trained students as tutors and have successfully monitored several groups led by the tutors.

Reciprocal teaching has been used with students ranging in age from seven to adulthood. Reading levels and grade levels of students have also varied (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994). Palincsar and Klenk (1992) report that since the beginning of the research program in RT in 1981, "nearly 300 middle school students and 400 first to third graders have participated" (p. 213). The early studies focused on students who were successful at decoding but scored poorly on tests of comprehension. The program was designed primarily for students considered at risk for academic failure. Many of the participating students in the RT research program had been identified as remedial or special education students (Palincsar & Klenk, 1992). Later studies tested the success of RT for students who were only learning to decode (Palincsar & Brown, 1986). Studies have also considered the success of RT in content areas such as social studies and science. Many research replications have been conducted at the high school and junior college level (Brown & Campione, 1992).

Program Success

Staff Development

Teachers begin RT by reflecting on their current instructional strategies and activities that teach students' reading comprehension. Next, theory supporting RT is introduced. Key theoretical elements include teachers modeling the strategies by thinking aloud and consciously striving to have students control the dialogue. All students are expected to participate and develop skill at using the strategies and critical thinking. Variation exists in the amount of scaffolding the teacher must provide. Next, teachers watch tapes, examine transcripts of RT dialogues, and role play. Teachers and researchers coteach a lesson. After the formal instruction, coaching is provided to teachers as they begin implementing RT (Palincsar & Klenk, 1991).

Student Achievement

Palincsar and Klenk (1992) report that the criterion for success was the attainment of an independent score of 75% to 85% correct on four out of five consecutively administered measures of comprehension, assessing recall of text, ability to draw inferences, ability to state the gist of material read, and application of knowledge acquired from the text to a novel situation. Using this criterion, approximately 80% of both the primary and middle school students using Reciprocal Teaching strategies were judged successful following 3 months of instruction. Furthermore, these gains were maintained for up to 6 months to a year following instruction (p. 214).

Palincsar and Brown (1986) report that "quantitative and qualitative analyses of transcripts showed substantial changes in the dialogue during the 20 instructional days" (p. 774). In addition, students improved criterion-referenced test scores over a five-day period of RT while control students made no gains. Students improved in the writing of summaries, generating text-related questions, and identifying discrepancies in texts (Palincsar & Brown, 1986). Students who had been at the 20th percentile or below in social studies and science increased their scores in these subject areas to or above the 50th percentile (Palincsar & Brown, 1986).

Program Attributes

Reciprocal Teaching is dependent on quality dialogue among participants (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994). The quality of the dialogue can be determined through observation and by assessing the students' questions and summaries during the discussion (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994). Students' reading comprehension is also measured by standardized tests or experimenter-made tests. Test questions on experimenter-made tests can be multiple choice, short-answer, or summarizing essays (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994).

Palincsar and Brown (1986) attribute the success of Reciprocal Teaching to "its interactive nature" (p. 773). Understanding the text and providing scaffolding (guided instruction) while the students acquire the skills are important to the success of RT. Palincsar, Ransom, and Derber (1989) cite the alignment of instructional strategies with assessment criteria as a major contributor to the success of RT.

Soto (1989) attributes the success of RT to the social construction of knowledge. Students collaborate to construct meaning of texts. This allows them to focus on information in texts that is meaningful to them and to use their diverse backgrounds and experiences to introduce multiple perspectives. In addition, through RT dialogues, teachers are better able to assess students' understandings of text and utilize students' cultural backgrounds and traditions to facilitate the group's understanding of texts. As nonmainstream students' perspectives are given merit in discussions, status differentiation based on ethnicity and home language is reduced (Soto, 1989).

Brown and Campione (1992) believe the most noteworthy result of reciprocal teaching has been "the extent which students improved in settings other than those we control" (1992, p. 52). They have found that students are able to transfer skills from reciprocal teaching in reading to content areas in the regular classroom setting. RT-trained students averaged a two-year gain on standardized test scores (Brown & Campione, 1992).

Program Replication

Research and publications on Reciprocal Teaching are listed below. Training is available; however, any teacher who believes in the theoretical underpinnings can implement the program. Transcriptions of actual dialogues have been published as well as articles connecting the dialogue to the theory (e.g., Brown & Campione, 1992; Brown, Palincsar, & Purcell, 1986; Palincsar & Brown, 1986; Palincsar & Klenk, 1992; Palincsar & Klenk, 1991).


Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. C. (1992). Students as researchers and teachers. In J. W. Keefe & H. J. Walberg (Eds.), Teaching for thinking (pp. 49-57). Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Brown, A. L., Palincsar, A. S., & Purcell, L. (1986). Poor readers: Teach, don't label. The school achievement of minority children: New perspectives (pp. 105-43). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Englert, C. S., & Palincsar, A. S. (1991). Reconsidering instructional research in literacy from a sociocultural perspective. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 6, 225-29.

Lysynchuk, L. M., Pressley, M., & Vye, N. J. (1990). Reciprocal teaching improves standardized reading-comprehension performance in poor comprehenders. The Elementary School Journal, 90(5), 469-84.

Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1986). Interactive teaching to promote independent learning from text. The Reading Teacher, 39(8), 771-77.

Palincsar, A. S., & Klenk, L. (1992). Fostering literacy learning in supportive contexts. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25(4), 211-25, 229.

Palincsar, A. S., & Klenk, L. (1991). Dialogues promoting reading comprehension. In B. Means, C. Chelemer, & M. S. Knapp (Eds.), Teaching advanced skills to at-risk students (pp. 112-40). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palincsar, A. S., Ransom, K., & Derber, S. (1989). Collaborative research and development of reciprocal teaching. Educational Leadership, 46(4), 37-40.

Rosenshine, B., & Meister, C. (1994). Reciprocal teaching: A review of the research. Review of Educational Research, 64(4), 479-530.

Soto, L. D. (1989). Enhancing the written medium for culturally diverse learners via reciprocal interaction. The Urban Review, 21(3), 145-49.