Under Discussion: Reciprocal Teaching

Here’s a problem that teachers have to deal with all too often: Kids come to class not having read the assigned text, or chapter, or article.  What to do to move forward?

The solution for some has been to do an end run around such assignments by having the students read the piece in class instead. That takes a lot of instructional time and leads to strategies like Round Robin Reading (RRR) and its cousins, Popcorn Reading and Combat Reading.

RRR is not a comprehension strategy; it’s a management tool.  Kids keep quiet and listen because they might be called on next.  Worrying that they might get called on next means they’re not paying attention to what is currently being read. If the teacher is obvious about who’ll read next, the students know when their turns are coming and are rehearsing while someone else is laboring away at her chunk of the text.

RRR is not a valid fluency strategy, either: With no chance to rehearse what they’re reading, poor oral readers won’t do well—and on top of that, they’re modeling poor reading for others.  And, there’s the embarrassment factor. I can remember from my own schools days that some kids hated reading aloud because they anticipated stumbling, and the good readers hated it when the poor ones read for just that reason.

But after all these years, teachers still use RRR.  It’s primarily a management strategy.  Kids are quiet, occupied, and the assignment gets read.

So okay.  You still have to lick the didn’t-read-the-assignment-before-class problem.  What could you do instead?

How about trying this strategy: Reciprocal Teaching.

Like literature circles, Reciprocal Teaching (RT) depends on students assuming specific roles: Summarizer, Clarifier, Questioner, and Predictor. In their groups of four, students read the text—or chunk of text—in class and then discuss what they’ve read with each other.  Each student has a reading purpose. The Summarizer knows he’ll have to recap what happened in the story or outline the main points if the piece is non-fiction.  The Clarifier will keep an eye out for words or phrases that might be confusing. The Questioner asks like a teacher, probing the text not just with recall questions (especially if the students are secondary level) but with “What ifs?” and “I wonders…” and other idea extenders.  The Predictors make an educated guess about what comes next—they’re like “the weatherman” one student told me.

Naturally, the teacher needs to be sure the students understand the demands of the four roles.  With older students, that may only require a simple explanation.  At any age, it may require modeling or even a dry run or two.  As with any new skill, the students have to be trained or their conversations won’t be productive.

Reciprocal Teaching can be used with fiction, but it was originally designed for use with non-fiction: a chapter in a textbook, a newspaper article, an argumentative essay, a short informative piece. As they take turns leading the discussion, students practice summary skills, learn to think beyond the text, help each other discern meaning from context, and importantly, grapple with text structure.  This last is a significant challenge. Kids know the story arc well by the time they reach middle school.  Being the weatherman for a fictional piece isn’t hard because middle school students know how foreshadowing works, and they’ve had enough experience with stories to imagine plot turns and story endings that aren’t pat.  But they’ve had less experience with the structures of non-fiction.  Reciprocal Teaching gives them practice at discerning how a non-fiction piece is laid out—to learn about order of importance, problem/solution, cause/effect, comparison/contrast, chronological order, and other methods of organization–to predict what comes next in an informative or argumentative piece.

Website sources such as those listed at the end of this article spell out the details of structuring a Reciprocal Teaching lesson.  Bookmarks with question stems and note-taking sheets are provided on many websites.

Recently I’ve seen Reciprocal Teaching in action.  In fact, I modeled the strategy in a 6th grade classroom, which is where the “weatherman” quip originated.  The students were quick to catch on and excited to implement the strategy.  All the groups were reading the same book: Julie of the Wolves. The students loved talking through that day’s chapter with each other. Days later, after several rounds using the Reciprocal Teaching process as it has traditionally been practiced, the 6th graders suggested a new spin. Let the summarizers all talk together and choose the best summary, the clarifiers work through a variety of confusions to share with the class, the questioners ask questions of each other and then pose the best to the class, and the predictors to consider a variety of options and present their consensus to the class.  Another variation you might try is having each group of four make up a quiz over the assigned section and exchange quizzes with another group. You, the teacher, are the final judge of the quality of the questions: Students get all the points you’ll assign if their questions are thoughtful and carefully written.

Reciprocal Teaching 1Or, each group can read a different piece.  I also recently presented Reciprocal Teaching as a comprehension strategy and an alternative to RRR to a group of high school teachers.  After the workshop, one 10th grade teacher selected articles from internet and newspaper sources that all related to the concept of ambition. Each piece explored the topic from a different perspective. His students read the articles in small groups and then reported the gist of each to the rest of the class. All this was in preparation for a unit on ambition with Macbeth as the anchor text. His students staked out corners in the classroom, spots in the hallway, and tables in the cafeteria to hold their discussions.  I listened in and was reminded not of wooden Q-A sessions where the teacher decides what ideas to privilege and what details are important, but of adult book club conversations.

Another colleague, a high school health teacher, had been using RRR for years.  Once he learned about the advantages of Reciprocal Teaching, he deliberately reorganized his classroom, moving the desks from conventional rows into clusters of fours. His students—who definitely hadn’t been reading their assignments—had taken to the strategy immediately.  They’d developed independence as readers rather quickly.  The teacher found that he was able to circulate among the clusters and keep an ear on their discussions—a much better management strategy, he found, than casting an eye on the students from the front.

One of my colleagues, a high school music teacher and band director, used Reciprocal Teaching as a strategy for students to review for the final exam.  The students enjoyed the process and the conversations about the musical language he wanted them to understand and use on the final went beyond simply recalling definitions.  Watch this video to see what Dan Peo did.  Be warned: the process was noisy.  https://drive.google.com/a/tsc.k12.in.us/file/d/0B1xPdu7aOTwqVlFHWmo1bHcyZTA/view?usp=sharing

Reciprocal Teaching is, at its heart, far more than a strategy to manage the classroom, but if that’s the starting place, that’s okay.  Once teachers see how well Reciprocal Teaching works and how much students like the process of learning from each other, they choose RT.  It’s an effective way to build comprehension skills and teach text structures.  Instructional time is put to good use—and the assignments all get read.



This is the original research reported by Annemarie Palinscar and Ann L. Brown (1984) in Cognition and Instruction. The authors developed the strategy, Reciprocal Teaching, and in this paper describe its effectiveness in improving comprehension skills among seventh graders.


This explanation for elementary school teachers has clear directions and a video of a teacher modeling the process for a group of students. Downloadable bookmarks and a worksheet are provided.


Another clear set of directions from a web site for social studies teachers. This site explains that the order in which the group members “present” is not fixed.  The teacher should prescribe the order that makes sense.

Under Discussion: Literature Circles

P1010150Literature Circles are old hat now. English teachers everywhere–from the elementary grades through high school—use this strategy to group students by interest or by reading level. Harvey Daniels, who popularized the concept and brilliantly refined it, has published at least five books on the topic. How-to websites abound, and Pinterest is a rich resource for the props that go with establishing literature circles: the “role sheets,” question cards, sentence starters, anchor charts, choice boards, discussion guides, and rubrics.

I came to literature circles quite by accident sometime in the early 90s—before Harvey Daniels and before roles for participants in the circle had been devised. I am sure I was not alone in figuring out for myself what to do when faced with a wildly disparate group of students. All these years later, I’m still a believer in literature circles—and I encourage the use of Harvey Daniels’ role sheets (plus some of my own devising) although I’ve learned that some educators think the role sheets are limiting.

But that year, whichever year it was, I was still fairly new to teaching high school English. The course, called “Trails West,” featured books about the American West.  My class was hugely mixed in readiness and in student interests.  A few students, whom I’d had in Honors 9 English, consumed books like cookies and cake; others read poorly, infrequently, and under protest. The course was nine weeks long and the curriculum specified that the students would read three books within that time frame.

Essentially, I decided to teach thematically and, for the first unit, selected three books on aP1010623 single topic: The Western Hero (aka, the Epic Hero). The books I chose (from what was available in the bookroom) were The Virginian, the classic by Owen Wister that established the cowboy as an epic hero; True Grit, in which a young girl sets out with a grizzled old lawman to avenge her father’s murder; and Shane, a book about as close to the epic pattern as anyone could imagine. The second “unit” was about the pioneer experience; the third, the Native American experience.

Every three weeks, students chose the book they wanted to read (Miraculously, I thought, no one tried to “read down” and a few challenged themselves to “read up”). Initially, they met in groups of four or five to lay out a plan for the number of pages they’d read before the three meetings I had pre-established for them to convene and discuss the book. I supplied the questions for these meetings—the same ones for each group since the themes were the same—and in between meetings, the students read, kept a list of self-selected vocabulary words, did a mini-research project, and took direct instruction from me on topics related to the book or on other relevant English class topics.

I made bookmarks for everyone, with spaces for page numbers, so they could establish daily reading goals. They divided the number of pages in their book by the number of days to completion. Some kids didn’t need that—they could hardly put down a book they liked—but the reluctant readers enjoyed checking off the little boxes on their bookmarks that indicated they’d accomplished their 10 or 15 pages for the day. They might stop mid-chapter rather than read one more page, a mind-set I admit drove me crazy, but the bookmark served as a kind of time clock for them. When they’d completed their number of pages, they could congratulate themselves, check off a day on their bookmark, and close the book. The strategy worked. One boy, a junior, told me at the end of the year that Shane was the first book he’d read cover to cover in his entire schooling experience.

I’ve seen literature circles work when all the students are reading the same book and in Lucy, Henry, Taylorsituations like mine where students chose a text, based on their interests or their reading levels. I’ve seen literature circles work in subjects other than English and with articles rather than whole books. The online Encyclopedia Britannica presents leveled versions of its topics, and NEWSELA, a free online leveled reading site, (www.newsela.com) sends daily articles relevant to science, sports, history, the arts, current events—all kinds of subject areas—each article written at as many as four to five grade levels. The site also offers complete text sets on topics of interest to teachers of every discipline.

However you choose to implement literature circles, at the heart of the strategy is the discussion: Kids talk about what they have read. The questions the students ask and answer  go way beyond study guides and recall and comprehension recitation. Nowadays, I’d have them take turns making up their own questions, trading around the responsibility for being the discussion leader. Another person’s role is usually to summarize the pages under consideration so that everyone in the group has the facts right, but eventually, questions about the author’s purpose, concerns  about the motivation and credibility of characters, and conversations about style emerge.

Lit circles are more like adult book club conversations than teacher-directed Q and A. They’re effective at drawing students in because the conversations are genuine and everyone gets a chance to say what they think. They work as a vehicle, too, for developing fluency in academic conversation and for inculcating the manners that are necessary for civil discourse (Hence, the sentence starters and conversation rules you see on Pinterest).

I had good luck with lit circles with Honors students and struggling readers alike. In fact, my favorite memory from those Trails West days is of Pencilhead (see my blog post:       https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/pencilhead/), at that  time a reluctant reader and would-be class comedian, pulling his chair up to another group deep into discussion of the same book his group had already discussed: He wanted to hear more.

Literature Circles get kids to read more. Literature circles get them to talking more. What could be better?


This post presumes you know all about Literature Circles. Perhaps you are just getting started or even still thinking about the idea. If so, here are some starter websites:

http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr259.shtml A straightforward explanation of Literature Circles—what they are, how they work, why they work.

http://www.lauracandler.com/strategies/litcirclemodels.php Teaching suggestions including variations on the basic model of roles, role sheets, information on working with multi-leveled books.

http://www.litcircles.org/Overview/overview.html This site provides an overview of Literature Circles—structure, benefits, outcomes over time—in chart form.

Under Discussion: Fishbowl

Keelsing 1In my last post, I wrote about getting the students to contribute to teacher-led discussions. But sometimes, the best way to get them talking is to structure the conversation. A structured conversation, in fact, can engage students in a lesson in ways that a teacher-led discussion cannot.

The other day, I watched a master 7th grade science teacher, Miss Kimberly Keesling, lead her class through a Fishbowl debate. Her objective was a universal lesson in critical thinking: Beware of loaded words and emotional responses. Ask questions. Do your own thinking.

She drew upon a well-known hoax from the 1990s in which scientific “evidence” was deliberately used to mislead the public.

Miss Keesling distributed facts sheets to the students—papers she’d prepared listing the pros and cons of banning a mysterious substance, dihydrogen monoxide—DMHO for short. The strikes against DMHO in the realm of health alone are pretty severe. It’s

  • Colorless, odorless, tasteless
  • Accidental inhalation can be deadly
  • May cause severe burns
  • Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage
  • For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death
  • Has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients, but is not believed to be carcinogenic

Environmental issues are also serious:

  • Is also known as hydroxic acid, and is the major component of acid rain
  • Contributes to the “greenhouse effect”
  • Is found in almost every stream, lake, and reservoir in America
  • Has caused millions of dollars of property damage in the Midwest recently
  • Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape
  • Accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals
  • May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes

On the other hand, DMHO is used

  • As an industrial solvent and coolant
  • To generate power
  • In the production of Styrofoam
  • As a fire retardant
  • In the distribution of pesticides
  • As an additive in certain “junk-foods” and other food products

Miss Keesling gave the students five minutes to ask questions, study the fact sheets, and write out talking points on one side or the other. Then she took the pulse of the class. Those in favor of banning DMHO went to one side of the room; those against banning it, to the other. The Undecideds sat in the middle. She explained to the students that they were going to have a debate about DMHO, so they had to use facts.Keesling 2

It took only a few minutes then to explain the rules of Fishbowl:

  1. Three people—volunteers, one from each group—would be at the front of the room, seated on a comfortable couch. (Usually, Fishbowl is done with two concentric circles—an inner circle and an outer circle—but the rules are malleable.) Using their notes and the fact sheets, the students would take turns presenting their point of view about DMHO.
  2. When a speaker finished, if another student wanted to support that point of view, he’d tap the speaker on the shoulder and the first speaker would sit down. In that way, only three people at a time were seated on the couch.
  3. The speakers stood up to present their arguments.

Middle schoolers love to talk, love to debate, and these students did so brilliantly. Their arguments for and against banning the mysterious substance were cogent and fact-filled. Some students were direct and succinct; others became quite animated. Within 15 minutes, just about everyone in the room had spoken. I heard impassioned and powerful statements and effective transitions such as these:

  • Although it is used to generate power…
  • It’s a risk: But life is about risk.
  • Bottom line: It kills people.

Sophisticated stuff for 7th graders. At the end, my colleague asked how many of the students had switched sides because of the arguments they heard. Some had.

Then she made the Big Reveal: DHMO is water. She broke the scientific words down into their roots and prefixes: di (2); hydrogen; mono (1); oxide. A few students caught on, clapped their hands to their foreheads: H20.

Why, she asked the students, had they come down on the side they had? All the claims and counterclaims are true—but they had been duped. Who had even asked what DMHO was before they began?  No one. What had swayed them? They had heard the facts, stacked on one side or the other as they were—all of them true, all of them convincing—and formed an opinion, often a very strong one. Why?

What followed were insightful responses that boiled down to this: The use of strong, emotional words such as kill, severe tissue damage, withdrawal, “greenhouse effect,” found in tumors… It was easy to be led to a conclusion.

And that was her point. Scientists have to investigate dispassionately. Scientists have to examine the facts. Scientists have to ask questions. They can’t be swayed by emotional language.

And it’s not just scientists. These students were quick to point out that television, politicians, advertising—they’re all guilty of using emotional language to influence their audiences. Everyone needs to be vigilant. Everyone needs to think before they jump to a conclusion about something they know nothing about.

The Fishbowl strategy proved to be superior to recitation and far better than teacher questioning for a lesson like this. Because it was experiential, because kids were out of their seats moving and talking, because they took ownership of the lesson, they were engaged in the activity and Miss Keesling was able to make her point.

Granted, this particular lesson was a set-up. But the kids were good-natured about it. They understood the message and understood the value of it being learned in this way. In fact, the lesson will stick far longer than a paragraph in a textbook or a lecture by the teacher. But the method—a Fishbowl debate—was the perfect vehicle in a powerful lesson orchestrated by this experienced science teacher. Point made.

Fishbowl works for straightforward discussions about all kinds of topics. It’s especially useful if students are invested in a topic and eager to contribute, but even shy students will express their opinion when they can choose when to tap someone on the shoulder, decide for themselves when to take an inner circle seat.

Want to know more? Here are three websites explaining Fishbowl, offering other ways of structuring a Fishbowl conversation.

https://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources/teaching-strategy/fishbowl  (Facing History and Ourselves) A straightforward explanation of how to set up a fishbowl discussion.

http://www.learner.org/workshops/tml/workshop3/teaching2.html (Annenberg Learner) A lengthier description with alternative ways of structuring the discussion.

http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/activities/fishbowl.html (Multicultural Pavilion) Another good explanation of the set-up for Fishbowl.

Under Discussion: Getting Them to Talk

FullSizeRender (1)A teacher asked me the other day, “How do you get them to talk?”

I had just seen the same kids who wouldn’t raise their hands and answer her questions about the bell work they had just completed come into the room talking like crazy at the start of the hour. I’d seen them turn in their seats and continue to talk to each other—until class started. They did have voices.

But of course, the questions about the bell work were posed by the teacher, the topic was academic, and too much was riding on raising their hands.

  • Some didn’t know the answer and didn’t want to look “dumb.”
  • Some had the answer but didn’t want to be branded as “smart.”
  • Some had an idea—but didn’t want to risk being wrong.
  • Some knew the answer but just weren’t saying. Lots of reasons why.
  • Some were shy and not yet comfortable in the class. It is still the start of the year.

I remember learning to break icy silences like this, so here is what I told the teacher. It’s what I learned over the years about getting the kids to talk.

To start with, some conditions promote participation and, eventually, real discussion, better than others.

The seating arrangements: When desks are in rows, the student answering the question speaks to one person only—the teacher.  If recitation—simple Q and A—is what you expect, rows are okay; but if the goal is dialogue among the students, sitting in rows discourages that.

Even setting up the room so that two banks of desks face each other or are at least on a diagonal—a herringbone design—can help. Now they’re not talking to the backs of heads.

Circles, of course, are wonderful, but a circle is difficult if there are many students, big desks, and a small room.  Plus, there’s all that space gone to waste in the middle.

For years, I arranged my room in a U—two of them, to be precise. One had 19 chairs and inside that U was another, with 11 chairs. (I taught the students how to quickly rearrange the desks in rows for tests. For that matter, I taught them, too, how to rearrange the desks into pods for group work.) The U shape allowed the students to see the faces of a good many of their peers, so when we moved beyond recitation to real discussion, they were more likely to address each other, not me. Which is what I wanted.

My dream-come-true happened in my last years in the classroom when my room had 6 tables that broke apart into single desks. The students had swivel chairs. (Yes, I had to stop a few “spinners” from distracting others—and making me dizzy just watching them!—but that was quickly and easily halted.) The tables were perfect for group work and because they broke apart, the students could easily set them up for tests—and put them back again when a test was over.

The teacher’s position: Sometimes you want to be the “sage on the stage,” standing above the students and posing questions to a seated audience. In that case, rows are traditional and can work. But for discussion, a subtle change in your position makes a big change in audience response. Try sitting among the students in an empty student desk. Or, if the conversation you are looking for is to be strictly among the kids, sit off to the side. If you sit down—not at your desk, but in a student desk—you’ve changed the climate dramatically.

When my desks were in that U-shaped configuration, I sat in a student desk at the top of the U—in the gap between the two ends.  I could see everyone, direct traffic, keep track of who was participating and who wasn’t, and even write things down (which is much harder to do when you’re standing).

Wait time: This is an old piece of advice, but still so important. You have to give the students a few seconds to think before they speak. Not only will they provide better answers—more reflective, more detailed—but you’ve signaled that you value reflection first and open mouth second. Every prospective teacher learns about “wait time” in preparation for teaching, but that wait time is easier said than done. As a culture, we are uncomfortable with pauses, distressed by silence. That partly explains the vocalized pauses teachers of speech and debate struggle to eliminate—those ums and ahs that unconsciously creep into our speech.

In his book, Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov suggests what he calls “Narrated Wait Time.” That is, when the room is silent and you are waiting for an answer, throw out a comment that will help the students monitor the time (“I’m waiting for 10 more seconds before I call on someone”) or even guide them down the right path (“Think of a character in another book we’ve read who has had this same kind of problem”). Then wait a few more seconds.

Related to this is another strategy: Let them take a minute to write down an answer so they feel prepared. Sometimes when students don’t respond it’s because they’re tongue-tied. Having a prepared response builds confidence.

Your questions:

Avoid yes/no questions. What else is left to say after the answer is given?

Be explicit about what you are looking for.

Explain the similarities between these two characters. (If you just say “How are these two characters alike?” the answers will be short. Requiring students to explain provokes a more detailed response.)

Why do Russians think Stalingrad, not D-Day, was the turning point in WWII? Explain their point of view. (This is a complex question. It requires students not only to know what happened at Stalingrad as well as on D-Day, but to compare and contrast the two events and step outside the comfort zone of the conventional American point of view.)

What evidence do we have that climate change is happening? (Notice that asking for evidence avoids nebulous and unsupported answers that begin with “I feel that…” or “I think that…”, demanding, instead, that students present pertinent facts, not unsubstantiated opinions.

Here’s a source for great questions: www.edutopia.org/blog/rethinking-whole-class-discussion-todd-finley

Your responses:

Just as you will expect the students to be courteous to each other, you need to be careful about your responses to them. “Can you tell me a little more about that” sounds better than “Is that all?”  “You’re on the right track. Can anyone else add to that?” is nicer, too.  You don’t want to accept wrong answers, but you have to be supportive of attempts—otherwise, students will shut down. Whoever volunteers to be humiliated?

Teach them how to respond: Consider posting sentence stems as reminders when you’re first getting started.

  • I agree with James, but I want to add this…
  • I don’t agree, James, because…
  • That’s an interesting (unusual/thoughtful/surprising/etc.) way to look at the situation, but here’s my take:
  • I’d like to add to what Sally said.
  • I didn’t understand it that way. What I got out of it was…

An excellent list of sentence stems—that teachers can use as well as students—appears on Te@chThought: http://www.teachthought.com/learning/sentence-stems-higher-level-conversation-classroom/

Collaboration helps:

Think/Pair/Share is another confidence-building strategy for discussion. You may have used this for reinforcing concepts, but it can also be used for developing ideas. Two people seated next to each other turn in their seats and for a brief amount of time, discuss the question and come up with an answer. Keep the time short—very short—or the talk will deteriorate into social conversation. And, be explicit about how they share—especially important if the students have never done this before. Model the exchange of ideas for them so they have the language of collaboration.

Group Share is essentially the same thing, but three or four people work together to come up with an answer. Usually the question is more complex, the time allotted is longer, and the discussion afterward is extended. Again, keep to a strict time limit, model the process, and instruct the students to choose a spokesperson who will deliver the consensus response. After each group has reported out, a fuller discussion starts spontaneously because the groups don’t always agree.

If all else fails, try this:

I’m by and large not a believer in extra credit, but many teachers, for good reasons, are. Many people award participation points—or expect students to earn them. Also for good reasons.

One year I came up with this strategy for a class who wouldn’t talk. We were reading Field of Dreams (This was before it became a movie). I took a great big sheet of white construction paper, used a water glass as a template, and drew around the glass to make circles on the paper. Using my amazing artistic skills, I turned each circle into a baseball, wrote the students’ names on the baseballs, and laminated the sheets.

When they entered the room, I’d hand them their baseballs. (The leftover baseballs told me who was absent: Presto! Attendance taken!) Then, as I explained on the first day, my expectation was that everyone would speak at least once a period. They had to raise their hands, I called on them, and as they spoke, I collected their cards.

This strategy really worked for me. I did get them talking because that extra point (In the beginning, I did count their contributions as extra credit) was a huge motivator. After a while, I dropped the extra credit, moved to participation points, and eventually got rid of all points—but by then we were done with the book, too. But, the students had opened up. The ice was broken and they were no longer so hesitant to speak.

This strategy is similar to the one elementary teachers frequently use: calling on a student whose name is on a Popsicle stick or drawing a name from a fishbowl. The difference is, with the baseball, the student has the choice of when to speak—a powerful bit of control for someone in high school.

Of course it wasn’t a perfect strategy. A student could use his card right away and then sit back and relax. A student who wanted to contribute more than once still could, but only when the others had all had a chance. But the baseball card strategy wasn’t a permanent solution anyway. It was a device to, so to speak, get the ball rolling.

How to get them to talk: The question is under discussion, and I’d be interested to know how you do it.