Reciprocal teaching: what is it, and what are its benefits?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 15 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Teachers may employ many strategies and approaches to help students better engage with the learning process. One such strategy is the reciprocal approach, designed to help improve a student's reading comprehension. If you're considering a career in teaching, it can be valuable to learn about these different teaching methods. In this article, we describe reciprocal teaching, what it achieves, its components, how teachers may use it for subjects other than reading comprehension and its main benefits.

What is reciprocal teaching?

Reciprocal teaching is an education approach that improves children's engagement with lessons, personalises the learning experience and improves their reading comprehension and general literacy. The process actively engages children in reading lessons, improving their excitement for classes and making it more likely they understand the texts they read. The strategy follows a basic three-part formula.

Firstly, teachers demonstrate comprehension strategies to the class. Students then work on the strategies in small groups to better understand the processes. Once they've had time to get comfortable with them, students can apply these strategies individually. By exploring comprehension strategies through dialogue with teachers and their peers, students can better absorb and understand these strategies, ultimately improving their ability to understand a text.

Related: 15 best teaching strategies to support student learning

What do these teaching strategies achieve?

These teaching strategies improve a student's engagement with learning and build their overall comprehension skills. There are key components to improving reading comprehension that teachers build reciprocal strategies around. These strategies play a key role in helping students with the following:

  • Improving literacy: Reciprocal strategies encourage students to identify the meaning of words they don't understand, possibly deriving it from contextual cues, rather than skipping these words. This improves their literacy, helping them with not only the text they're reading at the time but also future reading.

  • Maintaining engagement: The strategies have students actively look for ideas and contextual information in texts to improve their understanding. This active process helps them maintain interest and engagement with the text.

  • Boosting comprehension: The components of reciprocal strategies provide students with the tools to break down a text and understand the ideas and information it presents. This ability allows students to improve their reading comprehension abilities.

  • Encouraging individual and group learning: Part of the reciprocal approach is to not simply have teachers explain strategies but have students work on them in groups to improve their comprehension. This improves understanding and prepares students to use the strategies effectively in future projects.

Related: How to become a teacher without a degree

The components of reciprocal teaching

Reciprocal strategies focus on how people go about learning when reading a text. Four components actively support reading comprehension. Teachers overseeing these sessions with four components in mind:

1. Predicting

Comprehension involves readers predicting a text. This consists of predicting what may happen in the overall reading and then the more immediate events of the next section or chapter. The first predictions may come from the text's title, cover imagery or the blurb, for example. The second prediction comes from readers skimming ahead in the text, forming an overview of what's coming from any images, prominent sentences or keywords they notice.

When overseeing reciprocal sessions, teachers may wish to encourage students to avoid broad statements and make more specific predictions about what they believe the author's intentions are and why. This evidence-based prediction support is crucial for encouraging students' predictions. Teachers may wish to encourage students to make any statements about their predictions and understanding of a text with a supporting piece of evidence. This helps them connect more with the text, use their prior knowledge and get more involved in the reading process, improving their understanding.

2. Questioning

Recognising what you don't understand can be an important component of learning. By asking questions, discussing them and ultimately coming to an answer, students generally get more involved in their reading. It helps also ensure that they're noticing and paying attention to important details and using their cognition to make sense of what they're reading.

When engaging in reciprocal methods, it's important to encourage students to ask questions. Possibly even encourage students to take the time to pause in their reading and write down any things they don't understand as they read a passage of text. It's also good to encourage students to ask why certain text elements are significant. Asking questions in this way can be challenging for students. It's good for them to begin by asking questions relating to the who, what, when, where, why and how components of the reading.

3. Clarifying

Clarifying what they're reading can help ensure students have a continual understanding of the text throughout the process. The things students may require clarification on can vary and may include simple issues, such as encountering a word they haven't seen before, or more complex challenges in understanding the fundamental concepts or themes of a passage. Whatever the issue, clarification involves identifying the confusing part of the text and taking steps to resolve this, ultimately improving understanding of the text.

An essential part of reciprocal strategies is demonstrating to the students the tools they can use to resolve any clarity issues. Strategies for decoding a text can include things like re-reading a passage. Readers may become distracted without realising and therefore not understand what they just read. Simply re-reading can be a good way to get important information. Sometimes complex sentences may confuse readers. Encouraging students to read such passages slowly, breaking them into smaller parts they can understand individually and looking up definitions of unfamiliar words can help improve comprehension.

4. Summarising

The ability to summarise a text is an important indicator of comprehension, demonstrating an understanding of what students have read. It can be a complex task, but by learning to summarise a text, students can significantly improve their capacity to understand what they read. Summarising involves students condensing what they've read and understood down to its most essential points. This summary can be either written or verbal.

Teachers overseeing reciprocal sessions may wish to encourage students to take breaks when reading to write reading summary notes. Writing these summaries can help students identify what parts of the text they understand as they read. They may also encourage students to summarise the text verbally during group work. After completing the reading, it may be beneficial to have students combine their smaller summaries into a complete overview to assess their understanding of the material. Asking students critical thinking questions that require them to identify and summarise key components from passages can also be valuable.

Related: How to think critically and improve problem-solving skills

Reciprocal approaches with other subjects

Reciprocal strategies are valuable for improving reading comprehension and literacy. The methodology is not exclusive to this teaching, though. Teachers can adapt the principles of the reciprocal approach to help with learning and understanding across a wide variety of other subjects. Using the reciprocal approach to help students thoroughly understand the reading material can be effective when teaching subjects like history, science or even mathematics.

For example, mathematical literacy is a student's capacity to understand, analyse and solve problems using mathematical concepts and formulas. It can involve understanding mathematical terms and deciphering what a problem asks the student to do. Reciprocal strategies can help improve a student's ability to understand and solve maths problems, particularly word-based problems, using the same approaches as reading comprehension. The basic reciprocal components are the same, with some slight differences. For instance, predicting, in this case, involves thinking about what mathematical approaches to use and making rough predictions about what the final answer may be.

Related: Teaching skills: definition and examples

Benefits of this method

Reciprocal approaches encourage students to assess the presented material critically. Importantly, this can include encouraging them to identify what they don't understand and try and appreciate why they may not understand it. Properly incorporating reciprocal strategies can give students valuable skills to assist them with the overall learning process. This aspect of self-assessment and a toolkit designed to help students find the meaning in what they read can help with lifelong self-motivated learning, knowledge acquisition and critical thinking.

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