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Reciprocal Teaching: Seeing is Believing

By Joan Baker, M.Ed., and Lisa M. Emerson, M.Ed., M.Sc.

May/June 2014

There is a general agreement that the goal of reading is to be able to understand printed text. Reading comprehension instruction is beneficial for all students, especially those with learning disabilities. Although assessment of reading comprehension is common within literacy classes through high school, unfortunately teaching reading comprehension is not. Surprisingly, several studies have documented that reading comprehension strategy instruction accounts for only 16% of the literacy curriculum in grades K-3 (Pilonieta & Medina, 2009).  Similarly, in special education settings, explicit instruction in reading comprehension skills is rare, and the questions that teachers ask are mostly factual (Klingner, Urbach, Golos, Brownell, & Menon, 2010).

The interventions with the highest effect size for reading comprehension among students with learning disabilities encourage students to monitor their understanding before, during, and after reading. Such strategies include making predictions, clarifying words/concepts, summarizing, and questioning (Klingner et al., 2010).  According to Hattie (2009), reciprocal teaching is among the most powerful instructional practices in terms of achievement outcomes for students with disabilities due to its combination of strategy and direct instruction methods.

Reciprocal teaching is a multicomponent approach that combines four strategies into one cohesive structure of increasing comprehension of text: predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing (Takala, 2006). This approach helps teachers to explicitly scaffold learning to help students become more metacognitive about their reading and learning. Further, it helps students become more active, reflective, and strategic readers. Reciprocal teaching can be successfully implemented within both general education and special education classrooms. Direct instruction procedures and reciprocal teaching formats are effective within inclusion settings for all learners (Gajria, Jitendra, Sood, & Sacks, 2007).

Direct instruction of reciprocal teaching includes teacher modeling of each component, guided practice, and formative feedback to students. Teachers have also incorporated a picture walk and visualization (see Table 1) to make the learning sequence mirror how effective readers approach reading for comprehension. Once this sequence has been established, the teacher gradually releases the responsibility for predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing to the group or groups of students. Peer support and structured student dialogue have also been shown to be effective scaffolds for students with learning disabilities.

Direct, explicit, and systematic instruction supports the learning of complex material for students with disabilities (see Table 1). Teachers’ strategic use of task analysis and scaffolding with students has been found to be more effective than traditional methods (Gajria et al., 2007).

Table 1
Explicit and Systematic Instructional Sequence for Reciprocal Teaching

Strategy What Why How
Picture Walk Look at the title, pictures, headings, and graphs in the text. We do this before we read because it helps us make connections and predictions. Turn the pages. Look at the pictures, headings, and graphs. Think about what the text might be about.
Prediction Make your best guess about what the text is about. We do this before reading to get ready to read. It helps us activate our prior knowledge. Think about the pictures, headings, and graphs. What did you notice? Make a guess.
Clarify Look for words that are hard to pronounce or that we don’t know the meaning. We do this before and during reading, so that the next time we see this word, we will be able to read and comprehend it. Skim the text before reading. Identify any words you are unsure of how to pronounce or the meaning. During reading, what words were difficult to read or understand the meaning? Use various strategies to decode or unlock meaning.
Ask Questions Ask questions about things that happened in the text or that you find interesting. We do this after reading a portion of the text because it helps us better understand what we read. Ask questions using the words what, when, where, why, and how.
Visualize Draw a picture or describe the picture that you see in your mind. Make a movie in your head. We do this after reading to better remember and understand the text. Think of the most important parts of the text. Draw a picture or discuss with a partner.
Summarize Tell what the text is about in a shorter way. Only include important details that support the main idea. We do this after reading, because it helps us better remember and understand the text. If the text is fiction, tell the sequence of events. If it’s nonfiction, tell the topic of the text and the supporting details.

   Adapted from Pilonieta and Medina (2009).

Critical Components of Reciprocal Teaching

As noted previously, reciprocal teaching engages students in reading and has been shown to increase comprehension through four basic components: predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing.  Predicting sets the purpose for reading (Stricklin, 2011).  Before reading, predicting allows students to make an assumption about the text based on the cover, title, illustrations, and their prior knowledge.  During reading, students anticipate what will come next by using text structure, content, illustrations, and prior knowledge.  Clarifying helps students connect to the text as they search a passage for unfamiliar vocabulary words, concepts, or text structures. Within the reciprocal teaching process, students are taught a variety of reading strategies for clarification such as rereading, using decoding skills, and looking within the sentence to extract meaning.  Students are also encouraged to use dictionaries and other reference resources to illuminate unknowns within a text.  Questioning promotes interaction, as students pose questions about the text they are reading to their peers.  Engagement in questioning with peers can better equip students to arrive at possible solutions to questions, find relevant information, work cooperatively in groups, and monitor their own comprehension.  Students become much more involved in the text and reading when they are posing and answering questions themselves, rather than answering the teacher’s questions.  Finally, summarizing allows readers to recall important details within a text by synthesizing thoughts orally and/or in written form.  Recalling important information and concepts within a text can increase metacognition (Stricklin, 2011).

Assessment of Reciprocal Teaching

The impact of reciprocal teaching strategies on student comprehension may be measured in several ways.  For example, teachers can utilize a reciprocal teaching checklist that outlines skills within each of the components of predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing to be observed in order to determine whether a student demonstrates novice, basic, proficient, or exemplary performance of each skill.  A four-door chart is another tool that can serve as a formative assessment of student understanding of the reciprocal teaching components. The chart has four doors labeled with each of the reciprocal teaching strategies. Students can open these doors and write brief responses behind each one (Oczkus, 2005). Furthermore, diagnostic assessments help determine whether a student has internalized the strategies for comprehending a variety of text structures and can isolate types of comprehension skills with which a student may struggle.  Finally, performance-based assessments utilize a rubric to determine the extent of the student’s ability to use the component strategies of predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing.   Rubrics allow students to set goals for increasing their proficiency as well as monitor their progress in the reciprocal reading process.

Reciprocal Teaching Manipulatives and Supports

Visual, verbal, and hands-on tools may be utilized while engaging in each of the components of reciprocal reading.  Advanced organizers such as charts, graphic organizers, thinking maps, and bookmarks with reminders of the four components are all examples of visual tools (detailed information provided below).  Sentence starters assist students new to the reciprocal teaching process by encouraging them to verbalize or write down their thinking.  Partner sharing, line-up summaries, and response cards are all examples of verbal discussion strategies that get students talking about their thinking (Stricklin, 2011). Finally, props such as puppets, costumes, or objects are considered hands-on motivating tools for use throughout the reciprocal teaching process, especially in the younger grades.  Hands-on tools can assist students in connecting to each part of the process.  For example, a crystal ball or snow globe can represent predicting much like a fortune-teller might do.  A magnifying glass could stand for investigating unfamiliar words and concepts in the clarifying process.  Use of a toy microphone suggests verbalizing questions about the text, and use of a belt or large rubber band as a visual tool indicates summarizing of information, or holding important information together, and can be motivating to students.  

The reciprocal teaching manipulatives and supports listed below are examples of teaching and learning tools that will assist students in more independently applying its components. The supports address various learning styles.

  • Reciprocal Teaching Pyramid
    The reciprocal teaching pyramid is a visual reminder of the roles and responsibilities of each member of the group. It also includes sentence stems to support students’ dialogue about the text.
  • Reciprocal Teaching Cue Cards
    The cue cards can be used as you teach each role to the students. After the teacher has modeled the expectations for a specific role, the students will have an opportunity for guided practice with the corresponding cue card. The teacher gradually adds more roles and fades support until groups become more independent.
  • Reciprocal Teaching Graphic Organizer
    The graphic organizer provides a structure for students to record their learning and gives the teacher an opportunity to collect and analyze the group’s responses as well as give feedback to individual students.
  • Reciprocal Cube
    The reciprocal cube is a game format that helps students practice the skills that are required for independent application of reciprocal teaching. The students work in small groups, taking turns rolling the cube and demonstrating the skills represented on it.
  • Reciprocal Teaching Checklist
    The reciprocal teaching checklist is designed to assist with formative assessment. Thus, teachers can use the checklist to guide their instructional practices and communicate to students about their progress towards comprehension goals.

In conclusion, reciprocal teaching helps to reduce the cognitive load on students with disabilities by explicitly teaching the critical aspects of comprehending text. Further, use of reciprocal teaching requires the gradual release of responsibility to the students and scaffolding of supports (Hattie, 2009). As a result of this approach, teachers will eventually see their students as independent and reflective readers having attained higher-level comprehension skills.

Resources: Cooperative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms

  • For more information about active engagement and reciprocal teaching, order the following T/TAC W&M Considerations Packets by visiting
    • Explicit Instruction for Implicit Meaning: Strategies for Teaching Inferential Reading Comprehension
    • Techniques for Active Learning
  • Read:  “Cooperative Learning: Students Who Work Together, Learn Together” in the May/June 2013 issue of Link Lines to meet the various learning needs of students in inclusive classes using reciprocal teaching as a cooperative learning strategy.
  • For additional resources on reciprocal teaching, visit
  •  Check out the following reciprocal teaching activities and lesson plans at the T/TAC Library:
    • Kagan, S. Cooperative Learning. Call number CL14
    • Stone, J. Cooperative Learning: Reading Activities. Call number CL16.b

Gajria, M., Jitendra, A. K., Sood, S., & Sacks, G. (2007). Improving comprehension of expository text in students with LD: A research synthesis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(3), 210-225.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Klingner, J. K., Urbach, J., Golos, D., Brownell, M., & Menon, S. (2010). Teaching reading in the 21st century: A glimpse at how special education teachers promote reading comprehension. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(2), 59-74.

Oczkus, L. D. (2005). Reciprocal teaching at work: Powerful strategies and lessons for improving reading comprehension, grades 2-6 [DVD]. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Pilonieta, P., & Medina, A. L. (2009). Reciprocal teaching for the primary grades: “We can do it, too!” The Reading Teacher, 63(2), 120-129.

Stricklin, K. (2011). Hands-on reciprocal teaching: A comprehension technique. The Reading Teacher, 64(8), 620-625.

Takala, M. (2006). The effects of reciprocal teaching on reading comprehension in mainstream and special education. The Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 50(5), 559-576.