students collaboratingI am often asked by teachers about the best method of improving student comprehension skills. As I examined the research on this topic, I was surprised to learn that many studies (e.g., Durkin,1979 ; Taylor et al., 2002) have found that between 1% and 9% of classroom reading instruction is dedicated to comprehension instruction; the focus is on asking students questions about the text rather than teaching strategies for interpreting text. One exception to this is reciprocal teaching, an approach that provides direct instruction in comprehension strategies.

Reciprocal teaching is an instructional process that involves a dialogue between teacher and students regarding a shared text. According to the developers of the process, Annemarie Palincsar and Laura Klenk at the University of Michigan and Ann Brown at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the purpose of the dialogue “is to achieve joint understanding of the text through the flexible application of four comprehension strategies: prediction, clarification, summarization and question generation” (Palincsar & Klenk, 1991, p.116). The teacher first directly teaches these strategies through modeling and think-alouds, and then engages students in practicing the skills in cooperative learning groups. During the group practice, the teacher provides a high level of scaffolding through ensuring continuous feedback to students on their use of the strategies. The teacher does this through both direct feedback and prompting students to give each other feedback; the latter also facilitates development of student meta-cognition about the strategies.

The goal is ownership of the strategies by the student.  As students become proficient with the strategies they take turns leading the dialogue with little teacher intervention. While this initially requires a great deal of direct instruction by the teacher with on-going feedback and monitoring, the result is students who regulate and manage their own reading comprehension. For students who struggle with comprehension, learning to independently initiate and implement these strategies at appropriate times is critical.

There is a solid research base for reciprocal teaching. After completing a comprehensive meta-analysis of studies on reading interventions, the National Reading Panel (2000) recommended it as a reading practice that improves reading comprehension. In one study, Palinscar and Brown (1984) found that students’ reading scores on a standardized assessment of reading comprehension increased from 30 percent to 80 percent when reciprocal teaching was used for 15 to 20 days. For anyone wishing to learn more about this approach, the books and articles listed below are a great place to start. In particular, the Reading Rockets webpage on reciprocal teaching gives a step-by-step description of the process with a video demonstration.


Durkin, D. (1979). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 14, 581–544.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of Reciprocal teaching of the National Reading Panel.  Teach children to read:  An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NHI Publication No. 00-4769).  Washington DC:  US Government Printing Office.

Palincsar, A. S. & Brown, A.L. (1984).  Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Comprehension and Instruction, 1 (2), pp. 117-175.

Palincsar, A. S., & Klenk, L. (1991). Dialogues promoting reading comprehension. In B. Means, C. Chelemer, & M. S. Knapp (Eds.), Teaching advanced skills to at-risk students (pp. 112-40). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Taylor, B.M., Pearson, P.D., Peterson, D., and Rodriguez, M.C. (2002). Looking inside classrooms: Reflecting on the “how” as well as the “what” in effective reading instruction. The Reading Teacher. 56 (3), 270-279.  In P. Shannon and J. Edmondson (Eds.), Reading Education Policy: A Collection of Articles from the International Reading Association.