Palincsar and Brown’s (1984) reciprocal teaching of reading exemplifies many of the features of cognitive apprenticeship. It has proved remarkably effective in raising students’ scores on reading comprehension tests, especially those of poor readers. The basic method centers on modeling and coaching students in four strategic skills: formulating questions based on the text, summarizing the text, making predictions about what will come next, and clarifying difficulties with the text. Reciprocal teaching was originally designed for students who could decode adequately but had serious comprehension problems; it can be adapted to any age group. The method has been used with groups of two to seven students, as well as individual students. It is called reciprocal teaching, because the teacher and students take turns playing the role of teacher.

The procedure is as follows: Both the teacher and students read a paragraph silently. Whoever is playing the role of teacher formulates a question based on the paragraph, constructs a summary, and makes a prediction or clarification, if any come to mind. Initially, the teacher models this process and then turns the role of teacher over to the students. When students first undertake the process, the teacher coaches them extensively on how to construct good questions and summaries, offering prompts and critiquing their efforts. In this way, the teacher provides scaffolding for the students, enabling them to take on whatever portion of the task they are able to. As the students become more proficient, the teacher fades, assuming the role of monitor and providing occasional hints or feedback. The transcript below shows the kind of scaffolding and group interaction that occurs with children during reciprocal teaching.

Reciprocal teaching Is extremely effective. In a pilot study with individual students who were poor readers, the method raised their reading comprehension test scores from 15 percent to 85 percent accuracy after about twenty training sessions. Six months later the students were still at 60 percent accuracy, recovering to 85 percent after only one session. In a subsequent study with groups of two students, the scores increased from about 30 percent to 80 percent accuracy, with very little change eight weeks later. These are very dramatic effects for any instructional intervention.

Why is reciprocal teaching so effective? In our analysis, which reflects in part the view of Palincsar and Brown, its effectiveness depends upon the co-occurence of a number of factors.

First, the method engages students in a set of activities that help them form a new conceptual model of the task of reading. In traditional schooling, students learn to identify reading with the subskills of recognizing and pronouncing words and with the activities of scanning text and saying it aloud. Under the new conception, students recognize that reading requires constructive activities, such as formulating questions and making summaries and predictions, as well as evaluative ones, such as analyzing and clarifying points of difficulty. As Palincsar points out (1987), working with a text in a discussion format is not the same as teaching isolated comprehension skills–like how to identify the main idea. With reciprocal teaching, the strategies students learn are in the service of a larger purpose: to understand what they are reading and to develop the critical ability to read and learn.

The second factor that we think is critical for the success of reciprocal teaching is that the teacher models expert strategies in a shared problem context. What is crucial here is that students listen in the context of knowing that they will soon undertake the same task. After they have tried to do it themselves, and perhaps had difficulties, they listen with new knowledge about the task. That is, they can compare their own questions or summaries with the questions and summaries generated by the group. They can then reflect on any differences, trying to understand what led to those differences. We have argued elsewhere that this kind of reflection is critical to learning (Collins and Brown, 1988).

Third, the technique of providing scaffolding is crucial in the success of reciprocal teaching for several reasons. Most importantly, it decomposes the task as necessary for the students to carry it out, thereby helping them to see how, in detail, to go about it. For example, in formulating new questions, the teacher might want to see if the student can generate a question on his or her own; if not, she might suggest starting with a “Why”question about the agent in the story. If that fails, she might generate one herself and ask the student to reformulate it in his or her own words. In this way, it gets students started in the new skills, giving them a “feel” for the skills and helping them develop confidence that they can do them. With successful scaffolding techniques, students get as much support as they need to carry out the task, but no more. Hints and modeling are then gradually faded out, with the students taking on more and more of the task as they become more skillful. These techniques of scaffolding and fading slowly build students’ confidence that they can master the skills required.

The final aspect of reciprocal teaching that we think is critical is having students assume the dual roles of producer and critic. They not only must produce good questions and summaries, but they also learn to evaluate the summaries or questions of others. By becoming critics as well as producers, students are forced to articulate their knowledge about what makes a good question, predictions, or summary. This knowledge then becomes more readily available for application to their own summaries and questions, thus improving a crucial aspect of their metacognitive skills. Moreover, once articulated, this knowledge can no longer simply reside in tacit form. It becomes more available for performing a variety of tasks; that is, it is freed from its contextual binding and can be used in many different contexts.