How to make the most of reciprocal reading

Over the decades, many schools have lost track of the original principles of reciprocal reading, says Megan Dixon. To make the most of this practice – training pupils to use ways of thinking to make sense of a text – we need to go back to basics
13th March 2020, 12:05am
Understanding The Process Of Understanding

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How to make the most of reciprocal reading

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/how-make-most-reciprocal-reading

In 1982, a Phd student called Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar from Illinois, US, did an amazing thing. She published a paper outlining an approach to teaching comprehension that she had been working on. Although that in itself was nothing remarkable, the impact of the teaching strategy she used was.

The original idea - training students to use a series of “strategic processes” or ways of thinking to help them make sense of text when reading - was tested in small study by Palincsar and her colleague, Ann Brown.

The study was not necessarily designed to develop a practical teaching approach for use in classrooms across the world, but as an intervention training study to test a theoretical framework about the thinking and learning that leads to comprehension. The approach - reciprocal teaching - consisted of a set of three related instructional principles:

  • Teaching comprehension-fostering reading strategies.
  • Expert modelling, scaffolding and “fading” (reducing instruction) from the teacher.
  • Students practising and discussing reading strategies with other students, guided and coached by the teacher.

The success of the approach spawned further trials and then followed myriad different interpretations of how to teach the strategies taught in the original paper (which can be simplified as prediction, clarification, questioning and summarisation). The name has even changed over time from the original “reciprocal teaching” (designed to refer to the strategic thinking processes that the pedagogy was aimed to develop) to “reciprocal reading’ - a way of teaching reading comprehension.

As a primary teacher, you’ll almost certainly be doing a version of this in your classroom. But is it the right version? With each reinterpretation has come a different set of protocols and forms. And in some cases, the original small-group, dialogic conversation between an adult and children has morphed into whole-class, teacher-led didactic lessons where students are marched through the steps of a process.

Why has this happened? A study by Okkinga (2016) and colleagues recognised that it is hard for an adult to learn to use reciprocal teaching. It takes a deep and nuanced understanding of theory, sophisticated classroom management and the ability to notice and scaffold thinking that builds understanding around a text. Without this investment in time and learning, the pedagogy may fail. Time, of course, is in very short supply in schools.

For those of us who want to develop this approach in our classrooms - and large-scale studies by the Education Endowment Foundation (2019) suggests we should - it is important to go back to the original idea of the three related instructional principles. And we must remember that the aim is to help pupils to do two things:

  1. Notice they don’t understand something.
  2. Have a range of strategies they can use when they realise they don’t understand.

If we understand the theory, the central essential ingredients of the approach and why it works, we can translate this across many different contexts, texts and situations.

So let’s go back to basics (you can start by reading an overview of reciprocal teaching at bit.ly/ReciprocalTeach).

Megan Dixon is a senior associate at the Education Endowment Foundation and director of English/co-director of the Aspirer Research School

Find full references for this article at tes.com

This article originally appeared in the 13 March 2020 issue under the headline “Understanding the process of understanding”

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