Reciprocal reading is a process-oriented classroom activity which divides & distributes critical reading responsibilities across four learners in an intensive critical reading group. It is particularly suitable for Trinity ISE & Cambridge B1 Preliminary, B2 First, & C1 Advanced reading instruction. It is also easily adaptable for online language learning courses, for example in discussion forums, where learners will have more time to consider & formulate their responses.
Why teach critical reading?
Contrary to popular assumptions in English language teaching, reading is a highly active & cognitively demanding process, not a passive ‘skill’. Critical reading is a systematic, meaning-focused, process-oriented reading competency that learners use to interpret & understand texts thoroughly & gain the maximum possible learning benefit from reading. This competency is the ability to coordinate a complex configuration of skills in order to successfully complete a critical reading task. However, challenging texts can easily overwhelm under-skilled critical readers.
Critical reading is a competency that is learned – We’re not born knowing how to read critically & many English language learners tend to be under-skilled critical readers. Ultimately, learning to read critically will enable learners to perform better in reading & listening exams & in real-world receptive tasks, e.g. for university study or at work.
What are the four critical reading skills?
- Predict: Retrieving & rehearsing relevant prior knowledge. This enables learners to think faster & make more probable inferences while reading the text. It’s necessary to understand the social & cultural context & situation presented in the text in order to make more probable inferences & predictions.
- Question: Interpreting what the text means, the relationships between the actors (people, objects, ideas) & their processes (actions, events). Learners think about what they understand from the text & why it’s interesting, surprising, controversial, true/false, etc..
- Summarise: Isolating the key/main claims or events. These are the things that learners should remember after reading the text.
- In expository, persuasive, & argumentative texts, these are the main topics of each paragraph & what claims are made about them. Examples & supporting evidence are not the key/main claims, they are secondary/additional.
- In narrative/recounting texts, these are the simplest possible representative version of the sequence of events. In fiction, this is known as the plot.
- Clarify: Identifying expressions in the text that may be ambiguous, confusing, contradictory, apparently irrelevant, or simply not understood & then attempting to make sense of them.
What is reciprocal reading?
Reciprocal reading divides & distributes the critical reading competency into its constituent skills. Learners practise the skills individually but within the given text’s socially & culturally meaningful context. Practising the skills individually reduces cognitive load thereby making the learning tasks more manageable or less overwhelming, which in turn makes them easier to develop & use later in more complex tasks.
In a group of four, each learner assumes one of four specific roles: Predictor, Questioner, Summariser, & Clarifier. In these roles, each learner practises one of the four constituent critical reading skills in turn. The reciprocal reading sequence is as follows:
- The group reads the title & topic sentence. The predictor infers & makes predictions: What is the topic & what are we going to learn/find out about it? What is the text going to say? (Optionally, these could be written as true/false statements & referred back to in the next step.)
- The group reads the first section/paragraph of text. Were the predictions more or less correct (true/false)?
- The questioner asks questions about it: How can we relate to the text? What are its implications? What, in the text, makes you curious? What is interesting about the text? (Learners discuss these questions, giving their personal perspectives & insights.)
- The summariser lists the main/takeaway points of the section/paragraph of text, i.e. What have we just read & understood? (Learners judge the quality of the summary & suggest amendments.)
- The clarifier looks for challenging, ambiguous, or unclear expressions/ideas in the text & attempts to clarify them. What do they mean? How do they contribute to the meaning of the text as a whole? Is there something that we’re missing/don’t understand about the text? (Learners discuss &/or research/look up their meanings in order to clarify them.)
- The predictor then reads the topic sentence in the next section/paragraph of text & makes further predictions.
- The sequence repeats through the questioner, summariser, & clarifier for each section/paragraph of the text.
Initially, learners will more than likely need demonstrations, modelling, worked examples, & formative feedback to some degree in order to learn the critical & reciprocal reading processes & what is expected of them. Once mastered, learners can practise coordinating the four skills all at once independently, thereby developing their critical reading competency.
Of course, it is essential to select texts according to learners’ prior subject matter knowledge & English language proficiency so that they can make the necessary inferences from the texts, e.g. European learners know little about American football, & so it would be difficult for them to infer what a ‘bootleg play’ is within a text that is saturated with similar subject matter specific references. Estimates from both L1 & L2 reading development research claim that >95% prior knowledge of vocabulary in a given text is necessary for reasonably reliable inferencing (Beck et al., 2013; Laufer, 1996). In this sense, reading competency is not only a configuration of skills but also highly dependent on specific subject matter knowledge.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press. https://www.guilford.com/books/Bringing-Words-to-Life/Beck-McKeown-Kucan/9781462508167
Laufer, B. (1996). The lexical plight in second language reading: Words you don’t know, words you think you know, and words you can’t guess. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition (1st ed., pp. 20–34). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139524643.004