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How to effectively implement Reciprocal Teaching in a learning environment

By July 22, 2020 No Comments

Students all learn in different ways which is why there are several different teaching techniques that teachers can use to convey course work effectively. Reciprocal Teaching is one of the methods being used by teachers to create more engagement and a better understanding of what students are learning. This teaching method has proven to be extremely successful in improving comprehension skills, reading ability, as well as encouraging critical thinking and creativity. An adaption of this learning method can also be used in an online learning environment and to facilitate service-learning activities.  

What is Reciprocal Teaching?

Ann Brown and Annemarie Palincsar developed Reciprocal Teaching as a method of reading comprehension instruction. This teaching technique is often said to be a scaffolded or supported discussion technique where students are taught to use strategies, questioning, clarifying, summarizing, and predicting, in a collaborative text-based dialogue[1]. This principle of teaching revolves around four global comprehension strategies: predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing. In the classroom, the teacher explains these strategies to small groups using a shared text, first modeling their use, and then asking students to lead their groups[2].

The breakdown below provides insight into how to apply these four global comprehension strategies in the classroom[3]:

  • Break the classroom into mixed-ability small groups and designate one student as the leader or facilitator within each small group. This student will help keep their small group on task and ensure they move through each of the four steps as they read material that has already been divided into smaller “chunks” by you. Next, you will read the first chunk to all the small groups, modeling the following four steps of Reciprocal Teaching:

    1.  Prediction

    a.  Ask students to predict what they think the reading may be about. Get them to think about what is going to happen by asking questions as a detective might do.

    2.  Question as you go

    a.  Remind students to generate questions as they listen and read. Remind them of the three levels of questions:

  1.       Right-there questions (answer in the text)
  2.       Between-the-lines questions (inference needed)
  3.       Critical Thought questions (require their opinion)

    3.  Clarify

    a.  As students listen and read, they ask themselves what words and phrases are unclear to them. These clarifications may take the form of the following questions:

  1.       How do I pronounce that?
  2.       What does the word mean?
  3.       I think the author is saying…
  4.       I’m guessing ‘pie-in-the-sky’ means…

    4.  Summarize

    a.  Students summarize verbally, within pairs, and then share with their assigned small group or record their summary and read it aloud to their small group.   

    b.  Each small group could then create a semantic map with major points of significance shared by each group member.                                                                                                                       

  • After you have modeled the previous steps, students may continue working in their small groups by silently or orally reading the next sections of the reading while conducting the four-step process.


*Follow the link for useful Reciprocal Teaching templates and tools

This teaching method has been proven to be a successful comprehension strategy and can be implemented across several different teaching disciplines and grade-levels[4]. It also encourages students and teachers to actively get involved with what is being learnt and taught to create better understanding and a more collaborative learning environment.

reciprocal teaching

Can this teaching technique be used in an online learning environment and still be as effective?

There is no doubt that Reciprocal Teaching has been highly effective in physical classrooms, but with an increase in digital transformation and more online education options being available, can these techniques be used in an online environment? To answer simply, no. These techniques need to be adapted for online learning in the form of Online Reciprocal Teaching.

Online Reciprocal Teaching builds on the same principles as Reciprocal Teaching, as they both promote the gradual release of responsibility to students. Where Online Reciprocal Teaching differs is the use of three specific phases:

  • Phase 1: centers around computer basics, word processing skills, web searching, navigation basics, email and more. The length and breadth of this phase will vary by need, and the previous experience students have with computers[5].
  • Phase 2: is a collaborative phase during which both teachers and students conduct think-aloud demonstrations and mini-lessons. Teacher modeling in the beginning of the phase gives way to student modeling in the latter half. Students take responsibility for teaching/leading/facilitating their peers with a variety of online reading comprehension strategies. Instruction also begins to move from search skills to critical evaluation and synthesis skills[6].
  • Phase 3: students work, both individually and in small groups, at using strategies and skills from the previous phases to develop lines of inquiry around curricular topics. This type of project requires clear questions, multiple reliable sources, citations, and a final product that communicates that information to others[7].

This teaching method aims to build the online reading comprehension strategies of questioning, locating, evaluating, synthesizing and communicating[8]. Online Reciprocal Teaching also challenges students to think critically, communicate, and fosters creativity and collaboration.

How do these learning techniques tie into service-learning?

Both Reciprocal Teaching methods are focused on inquiry and problem-based tasks, which makes service-learning a perfect pedagogy for pairing with this technique. Through service-learning, students are challenged to investigate and research problems within their community and formulate an action plan for a solution in ways this could assist. Several service-learning projects can be implemented both inside the classroom and online, that fit into both the Reciprocal and Online Reciprocal Teaching techniques that will take students through the “5 C’s of Change”. These include[9]:

  1. Creativity: Students use divergent-thinking skills to generate their own questions and keywords for online searches. Their final projects require them to creatively express their own point of view.
  2. Communication: Students share what they learn as they work in small groups and with the whole class. They communicate this in the classroom or online with a broader audience by posting on a class blog.
  3. Collaboration: Students create collaborative knowledge through inquiry and social interactions. They comment and connect either in person or using technologies such as VoiceThread and support one another through instant messaging.
  4. Critical Thinking: Through these activities, students are challenged to think about different opinions, experiences and texts that they have read and then need to choose for themselves what to think. Through this, students learn to question perspective/s and biases.
  5. Comprehension: Students learn essential reading and comprehension skills,  by carefully reading; course work, research, articles, blog posts and editorials. They carefully read the texts they encounter to understand and evaluate different perspectives.


At the core of Reciprocal Teaching is a need to engage students and create interaction with their course work. These teaching techniques ultimately give students the responsibility for their learning while facilitating critical thinking. These teaching methods allow students to take control and take the lead while enhancing their learning experience through peer discussions, collaboration, and student-centered learning approaches. This aims to improve students’ understanding, application, and retention of what they are learning and promotes the development of communication skills, leadership and problem-solving capabilities.

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[1] Lubliner, S. 2001. Reciprocal Teaching: An Alternative to Gatekeeping Practices.Classroom Leadership. Volume 5. Number 3. Viewed on16 July 2020.

[2] J. G. McVerry, L, Zawilinski, W. I.O’Byrne. 2009. Navigating the Cs of Change.Teaching for the 21st Century. Educational Leadership. Viewed on 16 July 2020.

[3] Palincsar, A. S, Brown, A. (1984). Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Comprehension Monitoring Activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2), pp. 117-175.


[4] Reciprocal Teaching. Viewed on: 16 July 2020. Available at:

[5]  J. G. McVerry, L, Zawilinski, W. I.O’Byrne. 2009. Navigating the Cs of Change.Teaching for the 21st Century. Educational Leadership. Viewed on16 July 2020.

[6]  J. G. McVerry, L, Zawilinski, W. I.O’Byrne. 2009. Navigating the Cs of Change.Teaching for the 21st Century. Educational Leadership. Viewed on16 July 2020.

[7]  J. G. McVerry, L, Zawilinski, W. I.O’Byrne. 2009. Navigating the Cs of Change.Teaching for the 21st Century. Educational Leadership. Viewed on16 July 2020.

[8]J. G. McVerry, L, Zawilinski, W. I.O’Byrne. 2009. Navigating the Cs of Change.Teaching for the 21st Century. Educational Leadership. Viewed on16 July 2020.

[9] J. G. McVerry, L, Zawilinski, W. I.O’Byrne. 2009. Navigating the Cs of Change.Teaching for the 21st Century. Educational Leadership. Viewed on16 July 2020.

Tara Barton

Tara Barton

Tara brings passion and a deep understanding of service learning, rooted in years of experience, to her training. Her training builds bridges from theory to implementation while generously sharing her resources and knowledge to ensure our success. Tara works with the whole school (administration, teachers, students, and SL leaders) to build a sustainable program that is embedded in the curriculum and tied to the mission. She energized a faculty on a Friday afternoon, no easy feat, leaving them with a desire to learn more about SL and to become more involved. I cannot recommend Tara highly enough.

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