When making the rounds as principal of Sandburg Elementary School in Springfield, Ill., Hazel Steskal is often pleasantly startled by the sentences that she hears coming out of the mouths of her 1st and 2nd graders. "I don't understand that,'' one will politely say to another. "Would you clarify that?''
The sophisticated language, unusual for children so young, is the legacy of an experiment in cognitive psychology conducted in the district more than six years ago. In that study, researchers identified strategies used by expert readers to monitor their own reading comprehension and then taught them to students.
The children learned to ask for clarification when they came upon words they did not understand. They took turns "being the teacher'' and asking their classmates questions about the texts that they were reading. And they practiced summarizing aloud the passages that they had read and predicting what would happen next.
The experiment was a resounding success. In one of the studies, students who had started out scoring only 40 percent on daily, standardized tests of reading comprehension raised their scores to 85 percent in 20 training sessions. Moreover, the gains reportedly held when researchers returned eight weeks and six months later to reassess the students.
The learning strategy, formally known as "reciprocal teaching,'' is now used in varying forms in dozens of schools across the nation. "In terms of real success,'' says John Bruer, who, as president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, has reviewed hundreds of studies and research proposals in the field of cognitive science, "reciprocal teaching has got to be the model.''
In Springfield, the strategy stayed in place long after the researchers collected their data and left. The district organized workshops for teachers on reciprocal teaching and has made mastery of a portion of the strategy a goal for all students.
"Certainly, I would not have believed that an at-risk 1st grader could come up with 'Could you clarify this?' or 'My prediction is this,' '' Steskal says. "Now, I've seen it, and I do believe it. It's just become part of the school.''
The four strategies that undergird the reciprocal-teaching method--summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting-- are the product of years of study on how expert readers read and comprehend material. The activities offer a dual function: They teach pupils to read and, at the same time, to monitor their understanding.
"These are also the kinds of active and aggressive interactions with texts that poor readers do not engage in readily,'' says Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar, an education professor at Michigan State University who did the original studies with Ann Brown, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
At Sandburg Elementary, the experiment took place in two classrooms. One 1st grade class belonged to Dorothy Mackey, a teacher for more than 30 years. Like many teachers who are unfamiliar with the method, Mackey says she was skeptical about "letting the kids take over.'' The approach encourages students to take turns acting as teachers. The designated "teachers'' call on their classmates to answer the questions that they have posed about the reading material.
"The interesting thing was that they could handle it,'' Mackey says. She has used the basic approach ever since.
Mackey's class shows a visitor how it works. The teacher gathers the students into a circle on a carpeted area of the classroom and designates one student to read aloud from Lenore Blegvad's Anna Banana and Me and a second to act as the teacher. In this section of the story, Anna Banana leads the narrator, a small boy, to a part of his apartment building he never visits.
The selected reader, a boy named Nick, begins reading:
Behind rows of doors are people I never see. "Whooo-wheee!'' calls Anna Banana into the shadows. "Whooo-wheee!'' her voice came back. Anna Banana laughs. "Hello, echo!'' said Anna Banana, laughing.
Ginny, the little girl chosen to be the teacher, turns to her classmates.
"What does Anna Banana say?''
Small hands shoot up in the air. She calls on a little girl sitting beside her.
"She says, 'Hello, echo'?''
"Good answer,'' Ginny says. "What does 'echo' mean?''
"It's when you say something, and it kind of comes back to you,'' a second child responds.
"Good answer,'' Ginny says again.
Mackey often begins a school year by modeling for her students the kinds of questions that they might ask or the predictions and summaries that they might make. She later calls on better students, such as Ginny, to continue the modeling process. By the end of the year, all the students are able to participate equally. This approach is what researchers call "scaffolding.''
"The child learns about the task at his own rate, in the presence of experts, participating only at the level he is capable of fulfilling--or a little beyond, thereby presenting a comfortable challenge,'' Palincsar wrote in a 1984 report on her research in the Springfield schools.
When Ginny finishes asking the class her questions, Mackey prods her for a summary and a prediction. "My summary is that Anna Banana says something down the hall, and the echo comes back,'' the little girl says. "I predict she is going to go back down the steps.''
Ginny chooses other classmates to read and teach, and the process continues, with students addressing even the wrong answers of their classmates with tact. "Well, that's half right,'' one boy says about an answer to a question.
"What's interesting about this approach,'' Mackey says, "is that even the students who are poor readers can participate because they can still listen to the story.'' In fact, studies of the method in which students of mixed abilities were tested found that the weakest readers experience the greatest gains in comprehension.
Like other teachers at Sandburg, Mackey has incorporated aspects of the theory throughout her teaching. During their free time, for example, teams of students in her class are encouraged to research a subject using information kits in the library. On Fridays, they form a panel to "teach'' what they have learned to the rest of the class.
Down the hall from Mackey, 3rd grade teacher Sandy Carlson uses the same method to help students learn science. She asks her students to read a chapter from the textbook and write down questions for their classmates on its contents. "What is a crater?'' one questioner asks. "Is the sun bigger or smaller than the moon? What is a sun flare?''
Notes Carlson, "Usually, their answers for their classmates are much more complete and correct than when I call on them.''
Some experts in the field of cognitive studies liken reciprocal teaching to traditional craft apprenticeships; students are coached and gradually take on the entire task themselves. But teachers at Sandburg Elementary say the main reason they are attracted to reciprocal teaching is that it just makes good sense. "So often we hurry and go through the thought processes ourselves and just expect students to understand,'' says Sue Derber, a teacher who took part in the original study. "This makes it all clearer for them.''
To the children, the merits of the approach are even more basic. "You get to tell questions and have other people answer them,'' 6-year-old Ashley Goodall says. "It's fun.''