Reciprocal Teaching: Helping Students Understand What They Read

Many Essential school secondary teachers have found help for struggling readers in the activity called “reciprocal teaching.” Aimed specifically at improving comprehension in the subject areas, this strategy has teachers and students enter into a dialogue in which they summarize, generate questions, clarify, and predict various things about a segment of text. Teacher and students take turns leading the dialogue, in a group effort to bring meaning to the text.

Summarizing asks the group to identify and integrate the most important information in the text–across sentences, across paragraphs, or across the passage as a whole.

Question generating carries the learner one more step along. Students first identify what information might prompt a question, then pose this information in question form and make sure they can answer it. Questions can arise at many levels: students might ask questions about supporting details, for instance, or they might practice inferring or applying new information from a text.

Examples of question generating:

I wonder why . . . ?
Does this mean . . . ?
What about . . . ?


Clarifying is particularly important for students who typically have difficulty with comprehension. These students may believe that the purpose of reading is saying the words correctly; they may not be particularly uncomfortable that the words, and in fact the passage, do not make sense to them Asking them to clarify helps them notice that text is difficult to understand for many reasons–new vocabulary, unclear reference words, unfamiliar and perhaps difficult concepts. Then they can re-read, ask for help, or take other measures to restore meaning.

Examples of clarifying:

Maybe it’s trying to say that . . .
The author is trying to make us see that . . .

Predicting occurs when students hypothesize what the author will discuss next in the text, calling on the background knowledge they already possess about the topic. This gives them a purpose for reading–to confirm or disprove their hypotheses–and they can also connect new knowledge from the text with what they already know. The predicting strategy also helps students learn that headings, subheadings, and questions in the text are useful means of anticipating what might occur next.

Examples of predicting:

This might be about . . .
I think that what will happen is . . .
Examples of connecting:
This reminds me of . . .
I can relate to this because . . .

For more, see A.S. Palincsar’s section on reciprocal teaching in Teaching Reading as Thinking (Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1986), or on the NCREL site at