Reaching for new heights in literacy

7th October 2011 at 01:00
Reciprocal reading - a method that encourages high levels of interaction and whole-class discussion - is helping young pupils to attain a more sophisticated understanding of texts, finds Douglas Blane

Reading and writing remain the essential skills for successful learning, even in the internet age. But with cool videos and stunning sounds no more than a mouse-click away, it's hard to engage young learners with boring old text. Any method that does so - and with a whole class - has to be something special.

"It's like opening a box of treasure," says Helen McIlhatton, acting principal teacher at Leadhills Primary, South Lanarkshire. "Before we started reciprocal reading I had no idea what jewels were in there. Now the children can find things in any text - not just that they didn't realise were there, but sometimes that I didn't either."

Macbeth last year was a good example, she says. "We were looking at inference and one child said how evil Lady Macbeth was. Then Joe said: "But have you noticed as we're reading that they are starting to change roles?"

"I realised that was a jewel. So I stopped and followed up with the whole class. By using reciprocal reading to get right into the text, Joe had realised by himself that Macbeth was turning into a strong character and his wife was becoming a victim. At Primary 6 that is just astonishing. The children are capable of so much more than you imagine."

Asked what they like about reciprocal reading, the Leadhills pupils point to the fact that reading is no longer a hard task to tackle alone, but has become a social activity, with lots of discussion and sharing of ideas. They also like the "interesting reading" they now get in comparison to "working with a textbook or reading from the computer".

At first sight, reciprocal reading looks complex, especially in a composite class with three mixed-ability groups, each tackling a different text. It's a flexible approach, says Mrs McIlhatton. "I would probably do it differently with a P7 class, or if I was in an urban rather than a rural school.

"You differentiate. You adapt. You change and challenge. But you know you're doing the right thing when you see all the children engaged - and when the reading age of some improves by a whole year.

"It's not easy to get it up and running," she warns. "But when you do, it pays such dividends."

The secret to making reciprocal reading work, she explains, lies in patiently training the children in the new methods, taking just one step at a time: "It can't happen overnight. It needs time to develop."

Asked how long it took them to get the hang of it, her pupils respond with estimates from "a long time" to "a couple of weeks".

"No, it was longer than that," Mrs McIlhatton comments. "It took me a good few weeks myself. We were learning together.

"Mrs Jamieson, our acting head at the time, had introduced it at her previous school. So she and I began team-teaching the class, bouncing ideas off each other, working together to develop the methods."

Four activities, all done in small groups and designed to engage readers with a new text, form the core of reciprocal reading. They are predict, clarify, question and summarise. "At the start we introduced the children to just one at a time," says Mrs McIlhatton. "We predicted and predicted and predicted. Then we clarified and predicted and clarified and predicted some more. We built it up. We took our time."

The activities make differing demands on learners and when done in the same order each time - Mrs McIlhatton uses predict, clarify, question, summarise - each guides them to dig a little deeper into a text, and get beyond the words to the sometimes subtle ideas in the mind of the writer.


Some activities are easier than others. A show of hands in this class delivers the verdict that predicting is easiest. Clarifying gets most votes as hard, with every pupil in this class finding it a challenge to home in on the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases, using a dictionary only as a last resort.

The reason for this restraint is that a dictionary often gives "a definition that's not in the right context", David (P4) explains. Rebecca (P5) suggests an example: "Say you're reading about animals, you might look up `coat' and it would come up with `clothing that you wear'. But dogs don't wear clothes. So it has given you the wrong idea."

Rather than stretching an arm for the nearest dictionary, reciprocal readers stretch their brains, first using a variety of strategies. They re-read. They read on. They sound out parts of the word. They try another word in its place. They talk, discuss and share ideas in their groups. They usually get there in the end, says Mrs McIlhatton.

"It might be whole phrases. Last time we had `Sandman's glue'. We wouldn't find that in a dictionary. We had to look deeper into what the writer was trying to tell us. The children read the text again. They read on. They thought about what was happening in the story. Eventually they got it. "It's sleep in your eyes!" they told me.

The next activity in the satisfying series of discoveries sees children devising questions to put to their group. Some can be straightforward. Others ask for inferences from the text, forcing learners to dig deeper again.

While clarifying gets everyone's vote as difficult, over half the pupils in this class say summarising and questioning are also a challenge. "Summarising is hard because you have to remember what it's all about," says Beth (P4).

The class verdict on questioning is deceptive, says their teacher.

"Normally they formulate questions on a text easily. It's become harder recently, because we've been asking them to choose a level of thinking from Bloom's taxonomy for their questions - and to explain which one they're using."

All this reflection, discussion, structured thinking and active grappling with words, sentences and whole texts is invaluable in itself, says Mrs McIlhatton. It arms children with practical techniques for extracting meaning and deeper significance from any text, rather than passively skimming its surface. But it does more than that.

It is also a great build-up to better writing. "We spend a lot of time analysing, investigating and examining a text. That gives them all kinds of information, knowledge and understanding. So now we get them to use all that. I might ask them to do a fact-sheet aimed at adults or schoolchildren. I could get them to write a news story, make a poster, create an advert or devise a PowerPoint presentation.

"They might write an interview with one character from their text or a script for a conversation between two of them - which they can then act out."

One year on from introducing reciprocal reading, her whole class is performing at a higher level, says Mrs McIlhatton. But it is about more than attainment. "The children are all engaged with their learning and they are so confident now in talking about it.

"Last year, if I had asked them the meaning of something hard, most would have mumbled they didn't know. Now they come back with: `That sentence is all about this'; `Look how it's phrased, it could also mean that'; `I'm sure it means this - what do you think?'

"This is from Primary 4s to 7s. It's sophisticated stuff."

Deconstructing trifles

While it does take time to train a class in reciprocal reading, it's not too difficult, says Lynn Jamieson, who is currently introducing the methods for the third time - this time in Longcalderwood Primary, where she is now headteacher.

"The first thing we tell the children is that good readers use these strategies already. They do it naturally, without thinking. You know those chefs who deconstruct a trifle? Well it's like that. We are deconstructing good reading."

There are good resources on the web for anyone who wants to give it a try, she says. "That's how I got started. I heard about it from our psychologist, Jean Campbell. Then I read up on it. It made sense, so we tried it at New Lanark Primary, where I was acting head. Then I took the methods to Leadhills and worked with Helen on them."

Bloom's Taxonomy was added early, initially as a way of guiding teachers in devising the writing and creative activities to follow the deep reading of a text. Only later was it made explicit for the children.

"When they do reciprocal reading they know the text well, so they're better at the follow-up activities. We use Bloom's to get good ideas and deep thinking," she says.

"I remember one activity that we did when the inspectors were in, which was based on a chat-show with characters taken from Macbeth. That went really well."

Interest in the methods is building, she says. "There is nothing better than a bit of action research. We've had other schools coming in to observe, as well as parents. South Lanarkshire has been talking to us and has made a training video, which should be going up on Glow.

"You have to work at reciprocal reading and so do the children. Some of them find it hard to admit they don't know what something means. You have to break down a few barriers. But it is well worth it when you get there."


Reciprocal reading was developed in the 1980s by Ann Brown and Ann-Marie Palincsar. Also called reciprocal teaching, it is a set of four strategies carried out in pairs or small groups on a shared text. The following is the order in which these are tackled by Leadhills pupils, but other orders also work.


Groups discuss and decide what will happen next in a text. Can be done at the start with a new text or at the end, since texts studied are usually extracts.


Pupils devise and ask other group members questions on the text - ranging from factual to requiring inference.


Groups identify hard words and phrases and use a range of techniques to get at the meanings.


Groups summarise the content of their text in a single sentence.

Bloom's Taxonomy

This is a classification of learning objectives proposed in 1956 by a committee of educators chaired by Benjamin Bloom. It is a set of hierarchies, with later learning at the higher levels dependent on knowledge and skills already acquired at the lower levels.

More information and prompt cards used at Leadhills: www.odu.edueducroverbauBloomblooms_taxonomy.htm.


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