Why is Reciprocal Teaching a High-Impact Method of Instruction?

This post is part one of two on reciprocal teaching. Click here to see Part II.

Studying. Retention. Homework. Not only do teachers and students have a vested interest in these topics, but parents also desire information on how they can become actively involved in helping their children become successful in school. By using a technique called Reciprocal Teaching, students can easily improve their retention rates.

Best Practice Research

High-impact teachers turn to data-driven research when analyzing the most effective teaching strategies. In John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning, A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement, he synthesizes over 800 meta-analyses. Hattie ranked the indicators and found that anything with a score above 0.40 had a direct correlation to student achievement. “An effect size of d = 1.0 indicates an increase of one standard deviation on student achievement. A one standard deviation increase is typically associated with advancing a student’s achievement by 2 to 3 years or improving the rate of learning by 50%. … Research shows that these can be expected to have an average effect size of 0.4 (the ‘hinge point’) or higher” (Miller, 2010. p.1.).

Reciprocal teaching ranked d = 0.74 which indicates that this teaching method is extremely effective in improving student achievement (Hattie, 2009, pg. 203). This simple practice is used throughout successful classrooms everywhere, thus improving the cognitive abilities for thousands of students from preschoolers to the adult learner.

What is reciprocal teaching?

The word reciprocal in this case, is an adjective, stemming from the Latin word reciprocus, meaning “returning the same way, alternating” (Reciproal, n.d.). When a student listens to the teacher explain a concept or idea in a lesson, such as the parts of a plant, the student pays special attention to the various names, learns how each part is related to the whole and studies the purpose or function of each part. The teacher then puts the students into pairs and asks one student to “teach” the other student what they just learned. The first student repeats what the teacher taught in the lesson, naming each part, explains the part’s relationship to the whole, and so forth.

After a few minutes, the other child has a chance to reciprocate the action by putting into their own words what they have just learned. Just this simple act of teaching one another helps students retain more making it easier to remember and recall the information when test time comes around.

Neurological Research

As technology improved, we are now able to look inside to see what is actually going on in the brain as we learn. The Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization dedicated to brain research, published a set of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans showing the various regions of the brain and how they are activated when an individual is listening, seeing, speaking and/or generating words. “A PET scan uses radiation to create 3-dimensional, color images of the functional process in the human body.” (JFK Medical Center, 2017)

When viewing the PET scans from the Dana Foundation, one can see that the temporal lobe, the region of the brain dedicated to hearing, is activated when a person is listening to music for example. The occipital lobe, the region that processes visual stimulation, is activated when a person is looking at something, like a child looking at a picture book. When a person is speaking, the parietal lobe of the brain is stimulated which is the region of the brain dedicated to language, such as reading aloud in class. And when the person has to stop, think, and generate their thoughts, the frontal lobe comes into play. This region is concerned with higher order thinking such as judgment, creativity, planning, etc. This is the area activated when one is asked to answer a question in class (Carter, 1998).

As a student sits in a lecture hall, he is listening to the instructor and looking at the white board as the teacher posts the class notes. In this example, the temporal lobes (listening) and occipital lobes (vision) are highly stimulated. Only two of the four lobes are actively engaged.

The lecture form of instruction has one of the lowest retention rates because not all regions of the brain are actively engaged. Doesn’t it make sense that the more areas of the brain that are stimulated, the better chance the student has in remembering the lesson?

How do we activate more areas of the brain?

When an instructor is standing up in front of the class teaching a lesson, he is looking at the class as well as writing notes on the board (occipital lobes). He is also listening to the students as they answer his questions, and notes any students whispering or not paying attention, etc. (temporal lobes). Because he must talk as he explains the lesson, the neurons in the parietal lobes are constantly firing getting the words out of his mouth. And when he has to stop and generate a question off the top of his head, has to create a diagram that visually explains a concept, or simply just construct a new thought he wishes to express, his frontal lobes are called into play. When he teaches a lesson, all regions of the brain become activated. So, if you really want to learn something, you have to teach it!

In my next blog, Why is Reciprocal Teaching a High Impact Method of Instruction? Part II, I’ll explain how teachers can incorporate this method into the classroom as well as give examples of how students can use this technique when studying with their parents or when they’re at home by themselves. Until then remember, “If you really want to learn something, you have to teach it!”

For comments and/or questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at

Lou Whitaker, Ed. D.
Brain Junkie

About the Author:
Dr. Lou E. Whitaker has a Bachelor of Science in Education from Northern Illinois University, a Masters in Administration from National-Louis University and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. Having over 35 years of experience in education, she has been a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal, and served as the Associate Superintendent for Schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. She is currently an Educational Consultant for Open Minds Enterprises, EdCenter, Global Center for College & Career Readiness, as well as a consultant for MeTEOR Education.

Chosen as one of Dr. Pat Wolfe’s Brainy Bunch Members, she has been involved with Dr. Wolfe’s continuous study of the human brain. The Brainy Bunch is a group of educators and health professionals who are passionate about brain development and its impact on learning. On a yearly basis, the group invites two outstanding neuroscientists to meet with them and discuss their latest research developments. Then this renowned group of educators, led by Dr. Wolfe, translate neurological research into classroom practice. Dr. Whitaker understands the importance of keeping abreast of what is going on in neuroscience as well as understanding the importance of data-driven best practice research. These are essential for making a positive impact on our students’ lives.

Carter, R. (1998). Mapping the mind. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Dana Foundation. (2017, September 5). (Dana Foundation) Retrieved from Dana Foundation: www.dana.org
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, New York, USA: Routledge.
JFK Medical Center. (2017, September 15). (J. M. Center, Producer, & JFK Medical Center) Retrieved from PET Scan: https://www.jfkmc.org/clinical-services/weight-loss-surgery/20-services/diagnostic-imaging/208-pet-scan
Miller, G. (2010). Visible learning by John Hattie (2009), Summary by Gerry Miller. North Tyneside EZA Consultant. Gerry Miller.
Reciproal. (n.d.). Retrieved September 12, 2017, from Merriam-Webster: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reciprocal