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Communities Of Learners

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More than a decade ago, Ann Brown and Annemarie Palincsar perfected a technique for improving children's reading comprehension. The approach, "Reciprocal Teaching,'' was simple: Teach children to use the same strategies that expert readers use to get a handle on difficult text. Students learn to ask for clarification when they come upon words they don't know, to periodically stop and summarize the passages they read, to ask questions about the text, and to predict what they will find in the reading ahead.

Reciprocal teaching was widely adopted--and sometimes misinterpreted--partly because it fit so well with the traditional reading groups that most teachers already used.

But Brown wanted to effect deeper and broader changes. "I realized that it would be better if students didn't read to prove that they could read,'' she said in 1994. "It is important for students to read in the service of learning.''

Thus, Brown and her husband, researcher Joseph Campione, set out to create a whole classroom environment in which students would "read to learn.'' The result was Fostering Communities of Learners. Through that technique, which incorporates Reciprocal Teaching techniques, students break into research groups. The groups can use classroom reference materials or roam the Internet for the information they need. They then "jigsaw,'' which means that each group sends a representative to another group. In their new groups, the representatives share what they learned in the previous group.

The technique is an example of what Brown calls "guided discovery.'' Students accept as much responsibility as they can for their own learning. Teachers guide that discovery process to help students avoid misconceptions.

Brown and Campione tested the method in inner-city schools in the San Francisco Bay area, primarily in Oakland. [See Teacher Magazine, October 1994.] They gave students short pre- and post-unit quizzes on the subjects they were studying--ecology and biology. On the pretest, the children got between 25 percent and 45 percent of the questions correct. On the post-test, those scores jumped to between 70 percent and 75 percent. Children in the control group--those receiving traditional instruction in these subject areas--did not show a significant improvement. Moreover, students in the community-of-learner classrooms could use their knowledge and skills to solve new problems and were better able to understand unrelated texts.

--Debra Viadero

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