A search of the professional literature to determine the effectiveness of reciprocal teaching yielded approximately 30 studies that explicitly used the words reciprocal teaching in the title and referred to the four reading comprehension strategies introduced by Palincsar and Brown some 18 years ago. Most of the studies included (1) description of the strategy, (2) rationale for its use, (3) what students learn from each of the four strategies within reciprocal teaching, and (4) an assessment of academic achievement.
Reciprocal teaching is described in the professional literature, as an instructional strategy designed to improve reading comprehension in students who have difficulty understanding what they read. The focus is upon four concrete strategies: questioning, summarizing, clarifying and predicting. The students learn and practice each of these strategies which they subsequently apply to the reading of new text.
During the early phases of reciprocal teaching, the teacher assumes the major responsibility of the text being read, by explicitly modeling the four learning strategies. Then, paragraph by paragraph, students practice the strategies, with the teacher providing feedback to the students and continuing to model and explain the strategies. At a point when the teacher believes that the students need less coaching, students practice the process in small heterogeneous groups.
One student asks questions, another answers and a third comments on the answer; one student summarizes and another comments on or helps to improve the summary; one student identifies a difficult word and the other students help to infer the meaning and give reasons for the inferences they made.
(Rosenshine and Meister, 1994)
The concept of students providing support for one another, the additional conceptof expert support as students begin a task, and the gradual fading of the teacher's support
are the foundation for reciprocal teaching. Embodied in these concepts is what is referred to as expert scaffolding. In expert scaffolding the expert/teacher provides support for the new learning but as the students' competence increases, the teacher's support diminishes (i.e., just as a scaffold-an adjustable and temporary support- is gradually removed from a building when it is able to support its own weight).
THE VALUE OF THE FOUR STRATEGIES
When students make predictions, they are calling up their prior knowledge, which then extends understandings of what they are reading; the unknown is understood by what is known. For example, the word "competition," usually known by students in the context of winning some sort of game, can serve to help them understand a new concept, such as the "survival of the fittest." Thus, prior knowledge is invaluable in that it provides an interpretive base for understanding the new material. Seeking clarifications helps students to monitor their comprehension difficulties and to search out the content that is the most relevant and should be reread.
The strategy of asking questions clearly helps student to clarify what they are reading. In the early phases of reciprocal teaching students' questions are most often verbatim phrases from the text, but with practice, they are more likely to be paraphrases of the main points of the text. Thus students' generation of questions serves to promote an integration of the information in the text to perform deeper processing of what they read, and to be aware of when they do not understand the material.
Summarizing, obviously, is a clear indication of whether the material has been understood. If students are unable to summarize, it is a strong cue to the teacher to reprocess. Findings from the research suggest that the ability to summarize is a measure of implementation and, also, a legitimate measure of comprehension. As with questioning, research has indicated that, after students have practiced the strategy of summarizing, their summaries focus on the main ideas rather than the details in the text.
The findings from a series of studies, across a range of elementary, middle and high school levels, have confirmed the positive effects of reciprocal teaching on reading comprehension. Palincsar experimented with reciprocal teaching in several ways: (1) whole-group instruction, (2) small-group instruction, (3) one-to-one tutorials, (4) small group sessions lead by peers. In each situation, reading comprehension improved.
Rosenshine and Meister (Winter 1994), reviewed 16 studies on reciprocal teaching and additional related studies, and found that on teacher-made tests, students who had been engaged in reciprocal teaching made significantly higher scores than students who had not, with a median effect size of .88. When standardized tests were used, the median effect size was .32 favoring reciprocal teaching. Based on mounds of encouraging findings, it can be stated that reciprocal teaching does indeed increase students' ability to comprehend what they read.
It is hard to realize that until the late 1970's and early 1980's, students seldom were taught specific reading strategies. In 1979, a classic observational study of reading compilation indicated that of the 4,469 minutes of grade 4 reading instruction, only 20 minutes were given to instruction in comprehension. Teachers monitored the reading and directed recitation sessions but they spent little time teaching comprehension strategies to their students. Thus, it was not until about 18 years ago that students were taught specific comprehension strategies, such as summarization and question generation. Reciprocal teaching is in this tradition of these first reading comprehension strategies and, further, is a major instructional strategy that helps readers interact personally with the text and construct meaning as they increase in their ability to ask questions, clarify hard parts, make predictions, and summarize what they are reading.