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Classroom Leadership

November 2001 | Volume 5 | Number 3
Understanding Learning Differences

Reciprocal Teaching

An Alternative to Gatekeeping Practices

Shira Lubliner

Tony was a bright, inquisitive 5-year-old, with strong verbal skills. His kindergarten teacher thought he might be gifted. His 1st grade teacher, however, was concerned because Tony didn't learn to read like most of the other children. Tony struggled with reading, and the next few years for him were filled with increasing signs of school failure. Tony was finally diagnosed with a reading disability. By the time he reached 5th grade, his standardized test scores had dropped to the lowest 20th percentile—and no one considered Tony a bright, inquisitive child anymore.

Most teachers agree that it's important to provide extra help to struggling readers like Tony, but little consensus exists as to how to do so. Some educators believe students must learn discrete skills in a designated order. These educators, therefore, usually prefer to retain struggling students in remedial classes until these students have learned the basics.

Shutting the Gates

These well-meaning policies, intended to ensure that all children acquire necessary skills, often become gatekeeping devices. Gate keeping limits a child's access to higher-level instruction until foundational literacy skills are acquired—that is, until a child can read with fluency and accuracy.

It's certainly true that reading is important to children's academic success. Still, the unfortunate result of gatekeeping practices is an educational dead end for struggling readers. Instruction for reading-disabled students is often limited to worksheets and drills. Yet, a curriculum limited to drills is like a diet limited to one food group: It's good for you as part of a balanced diet, but it damages your health if one type of food is all you eat. The remedial instruction provided to reading-disabled children often results in "cognitive impoverishment" because these students are simply not exposed to higher-level content and ideas.

Every day from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, Tony goes to the resource room, one of a group of students with a variety of special needs. The children receive a reading lesson from the resource specialist and then work individually on phonics worksheets or basic writing exercises. As Tony completes worksheets, his peers in the classroom read books and participate in literature circles and writer's workshops. Tony misses all of the language arts instruction provided in the general 5th grade classroom.
Time for social studies. Tony, who has returned to class, groans as the children take out their textbooks. After presenting a brief introduction of the chapter to the class, the teacher asks the students to read the book silently, answer the questions at the end of the chapter, and write a brief summary of what they have read. Because Tony's reading skills are several years below grade level, he cannot read the textbook. He is unable to answer the questions at the end of the chapter, and he cannot summarize the text. Lacking access to the content of the lesson, Tony fools around and distracts other students. The teacher becomes increasingly annoyed by his disruptive behavior.
Later, Tony's parents, classroom teacher, reading specialist, and special education teacher gather for the annual individualized education plan (IEP) meeting. Tony's reading shows no improvement; his standardized test scores have fallen to the bottom 20th percentile. His teachers note that he has become a discipline problem, and his classroom teacher requests that Tony spend additional time in the resource room because he distracts other students and doesn't seem to profit from her instruction. The adults agree and increase Tony's isolation from the general classroom. Tony's inability to read and his school's gatekeeping practices lock him out of all meaningful exposure to learning.

A Different Scenario

If we reconstruct Tony's case study, we can arrive at a more positive outcome. The teacher's first step is to look carefully at Tony's strengths. Her second step is to adjust her instruction to help Tony tap into those strengths.

The teacher reviews Tony's previous report cards and IEP forms. All of Tony's previous teachers have noted his strong verbal skills and meaningful contributions to class discussions. His listening comprehension skills are excellent, as the teacher discovers during a read-aloud discussion. The teacher then realizes that using direct instruction and individual seatwork gave Tony few opportunities to share his ideas. Focusing on Tony's strengths, the teacher develops a plan to help him succeed in her classroom.

Tony is bright and capable of higher-level thinking; he simply lacks access to texts. To compensate for this, the teacher has all texts read aloud to Tony and other struggling readers in her class. She also incorporates reciprocal teaching into the classroom routine, finding that it provides support and access to content-area knowledge for all of her students.

Emphasizing Meaningful Dialogue

Reciprocal Teaching is a method of reading comprehension instruction developed by the late Ann Brown (University of Illinois) and Annemarie Palincsar (University of Michigan). Children are taught to use strategies, questioning, clarifying, summarizing and predicting, in a collaborative text-based dialogue. An extensive research base confirms the effectiveness of reciprocal teaching in improving the reading comprehension of children with a wide range of learning needs (Brown 1985; Brown and Palinscar 1985, 1986; Palinscar 1984, 1985, 1986; Palinscar and Brown 1983, 1984; Palincsar, Brown, and Campione, 1989; Palincsar, Brown, & Martin, 1987; Palinscar and Klenk 1991,1992).

In a classroom using the RT approach, a student working in a small group reads aloud a brief passage of text and immediately generates a question, such as, Why did the main character do what he did? To form the question, the student must make sense of the text and process information automatically. After other members of the group have answered several questions, the student tries to clarify any difficult words or phrases. Clarifying helps a child develop the ability to self-monitor, an essential component of independent reading. The student then generates a summary that identifies and describes the main ideas of the text. Finally, the student predicts what is likely to occur next and provides evidence from the text to support the prediction. The role of group leader then rotates to the next student, and the process continues until the students have read and discussed all of the assigned text.

Because each student leader reads part of the text aloud, struggling readers like Tony have access to the text. When a child with reading disabilities takes his turn as the leader, he may select a "pinch hitter" for oral reading. And, even if he isn't actually reading aloud, the child takes full responsibility for conducting the dialogue, implementing the strategies, and helping to construct meaning from the text. The child with reading disabilities participates fully in the reciprocal teaching dialogue by using strategies in a listening comprehension context.

Reciprocal teaching gives children with reading disabilities access to the world of knowledge contained in books. These children cultivate higher-order thinking skills and interact intellectually with their peers, despite deficits in reading mechanics.

Opening the Gates

I was Tony's 5th grade teacher. The changes that I made in my instruction were not easy and didn't always have an immediate positive effect. Tony was a severely impaired reader, and many years of information deprivation had caused a great deal of damage. He lacked important background knowledge on a wide variety of topics—and, even more problematic, years of academic failure had convinced Tony that he was stupid. The RT approach proved to be Tony's turning point.

Tony continues to receive daily reading instruction in the resource room, but most of his day is spent working productively in the classroom. Small-group RT instruction has allowed Tony to develop expert strategic listening skills. When the class participates in reciprocal teaching groups, Tony is the star. A teacher's aide or a student volunteer reads aloud to Tony the texts used in class. Now that he has access to the content of the lesson, Tony participates enthusiastically in class discussions and is far less disruptive. Although he is still struggling with reading-related academic deficits, he will begin to close the gap this year.

Breaking Down the Gates

Shira Lubliner suggests that teachers can provide more inclusive literacy instruction by

  • Examining the strengths of struggling readers and providing instruction that targets their learning strengths.
  • Minimizing the isolation of children with disabilities.
  • Immersing struggling readers in authentic reading activities and minimizing drills.
  • Ensuring that children with reading disabilities participate in subject-area instruction in the general classroom.
  • Arranging for all texts to be read aloud to struggling readers.
  • Preteaching key vocabulary and concepts prior to reading activities.
  • Implementing a reciprocal teaching program across the curriculum, empowering students to learn from one another.
  • Acting as advocates for reading-disabled children, helping to do away with harmful gatekeeping practices.


Brown, A. (1985). Teaching students to think as they read: Implications for curriculum reform. Reading education report No. 58. Washington D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

Brown, A. & Palincsar, A. (1985). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension strategies: A natural history of one program for enhancing learning. Urbana: University of Illinois Center for the Study of Reading. Technical Report No. 334.

Brown, A. & Palincsar, A. (1986). Guided cooperative learning and individual knowledge acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Department of Education Technical report No. 372.

Palincsar, A. (1984). Reciprocal teaching: Working within the zone of proximal development. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans, LA.

Palinscar, A. (1985). The unpacking of a multi-component, metacognitive training package. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Chicago, Il.

Palinscar, A. (1986) The role of dialogue in providing scaffolded instruction. Educational Psychologist, 21 (1 &2) p. 73-98.

Palincsar, A. & Brown, A. (1983). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-monitoring activities. National Institute of Health and Human Development: Bethesda, MD.

Palinscar, A. & Brown, A. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, I (2), p. 117-175.

Palincsar, A., Brown, A., & Campione, J. (1989). Structured dialogues among communities of first grade learners. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association: San Francisco, CA.

Palincsar, A. Brown, A. & Martin, S. (1987). Peer insteraction in reading comprehension instruction. Educational Psychologist, 22 (3 & 4), p. 231-253.

Palincsar, A. & Klenk, L. (1991). Learning dialogues to promote text comprehension. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: PHS Grant 059.

Palincsar, A. & Klenk, L. (1992). Fostering literacy learning in supportive contexts. Journal of learning disabilities, No. 4, pp. 211-225.

Note: A shorter version of this article appears in the Print Issue section.

Shira Lubliner has been an educator for more than 25 years and has taught a variety of grade levels, including 5th grade at Ayers Elementary in the Mount Diablo (Calif.) Unified School District. Lubliner is currently an assistant professor of teacher education at California State University, Hayward. She can be reached via e-mail at


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