By the fifth grade, after having left primary school, children in Germany are expected to have mastered basic skills in reading, which most pupils actually do manage. Generally, they are able to decode written text and read fluently. However, many teachers complain about their students not being able to understand what they are supposed to read, though. This problem does not only occur at the beginning of secondary school, but runs through pupils’ entire school career. Reading comprehension enhances as pupils move up, but so do the level of complexity and difficulty of the texts they are supposed to understand. Therefore, we have to hand them tools to gradually improve their reading comprehension on their own.
Duke and Pearson (2002) have shown what good readers do to understand what they are reading: They use a set of reading strategies, set clear goals and monitor their reading process. They do this automatically and on a partially subconscious level.
Research has shown that poor readers can be trained to consciously use reading strategies to enhance their reading comprehension. This training has to be balanced, which means that we have to give them direct, explicit instruction on a limited set of strategies plus enough time to practise and use those strategies. Later they should be able to use the strategies completely on their own to derive meaning from any given text. This is precisely the aim of our project.
We use a method called “Reciprocal Teaching” (RT), originally developed by Palincsar and Brown (1984) to support the development process described above. Since its appearance teachers around the globe have used RT countless times and there is a broad base of research, confirming its effectiveness (see Rosenshine & Meister 1994 for a metaanalysis).
Using this method, the pupils are taught four relatively simple readings strategies: predicting, questioning, clarifying and summarizing which are applied to different texts (we mainly use expository texts in our project). This leads to intensive analysis and deeper understanding of text meaning.
In addition to the four strategies, there are three basic principles that should be applied when employing RT: Scaffolding – at the beginning the pupils need strong support from their teachers to apply the strategies correctly. Later on, the support is gradually decreased until the pupils can apply the strategies on their own; Modeling – the teachers have to model the correct use of the strategies repeatedly again by using a technique called Thinking Aloud, where they verbalize their own thought process; Metacognition – the pupils have to become aware of what the strategies are good for and when to apply which strategy to achieve the set reading goals.
During the period over which our project is carried out, one of our staff members works twice a week over the course of twelve weeks with the teacher in class. The goal is not only to teach the pupils, but to train the teachers, so they will subsequently be able to use the RT on their own in other classes.
We have adapted the RT method to be able to use it with complete classes: First, we teach each independent strategy to the whole class. In the second stage, we apply all four strategies to different texts in whole class sessions. Here, we mix phases where the pupils work on their own or in pairs with phases where we all work together. In the third stage, the pupils have to sit together in small groups to apply the strategies collaboratively on (mainly) texts they select for themselves. On reaching this stage, the teachers are mainly left as consultants and the pupils have learned to use the strategies to derive meaning from texts together with their classmates.
Duke, N./Pearson, D. (2002): Effektive Practices for Developing Reading Comprehension. In: Fastrup, A., et al. (eds.): What Research has to Say about Reading Instruction. Newark: IRA, S. 205 – 242
Palincsar, A.S./Brown, A.L. (1984): Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. In: Cognition and Instruction 1, S. 117-175.
Rosenshine, B./Meister, C.: Reciprocal teaching: A review of research. In: Review of Educational Research 64, 1994, 479-530