MAT Blog

Problem-based learning is a strategic solution for all students.

Posted by Colleen Cadieux on Mar 15, 2012 5:45:00 AM

small butterflyMost teachers will agree that cooperative learning activities are highly beneficial for their students' learning. They know that students benefit from working together, discussing varying opinions, and learning alongside a peer. Yet teachers often realize that to truly make cooperative learning activities deep and meaningful learning experiences, it will take something more than simple group work.

This desire for in-depth learning is the exact reason Problem Based Learning (PBL) is regarded as one of the most beneficial cooperative learning activities available to the elementary classroom. 

PBL is defined as " instructional (and curricular) learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem," (Savery, 2006). Since the “problem” that students will be solving is generally interdisciplinary in nature, learners are challenged with integrating content and skills across a variety of curricular areas.  

PBL benefits all learners by providing a unique, differentiated, and challenging task. Teachers and students alike have found that the rewards of PBL are:

  • Authentic, real world tasks that pique student interest.
  • Opportunities for cooperative work require students to work together to solve problems.
  • Interdisciplinary study connects curricular content areas.
  • Challenging tasks motivate students.
  • Core problems require both  critical and creative thinking.

The only limitation on scenarios and topics to study for PBL is the teacher's imagination! The possibilities are endless for designing engaging problems, connecting curricular standards, and creating formats for gathering and sharing information. Teachers can introduce PBL in their classroom by first devising a problem that will engage students and integrate curriculum standards. Once these foundational pieces are established, the teacher can plan cooperative tasks and assign groups to find solutions for the problem.  Although this may seem like an overwhelming process, it doesn't have to be.  Here's an example of PBL in the elementary classroom, which we love for its simple, organic nature!

Attracting Butterflies to the School Garden: The Perfect PBL Lesson for Spring!

  • The core problem second grade students will be tasked with solving is how to attract butterflies to a new butterfly garden in the school courtyard.
  • Students will work on cooperative learning activities in small groups assigned by the teacher.  This is important to ensure that groups are balanced and that a positive cooperative learning environment is present.
  • The class will visit the school courtyard to observe its current state and take notes about what is planted in the garden.
  • The groups will then begin researching what attracts butterflies to a garden.  This will be done using a variety of materials including library books, gardening and butterfly manuals, and the Internet. 
  • Once the groups have determined what attracts butterflies to a garden, they will work together to design a blueprint for the new butterfly garden. They may choose to draw a schematic or create a model.
  • The groups will also be given time to complete a written explanation of their plan highlighting what they think the butterfly garden should contain and how this will attract butterflies.  
  • Finally, each group will present their ideas to the class and provide an oral explanation for their design of the butterfly garden.

    The tasks outlined in this sample PBL will be challenging to students and will require them to use a variety of skills to solve the assigned problem. Implementing PBL in an elementary classroom is highly beneficial to all students—not to mention lots of fun— and will challenge all learners to do their best to solve the problem.

    Try it and let us know how it went!

Savery, John R. (2006) "Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions," Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 3.
Photo courtesy of State Library and Archives of Florida.


Tags: curriculum, reciprocal teaching, instruction and assessment, teaching strategies

The QT on RT: How to Make Reciprocal Teaching Come Alive.

Posted by Colleen Cadieux on Mar 13, 2012 5:43:00 AM

Reciprocal teaching is about the interaction between teacher and student.I was introduced to Reciprocal Teaching (RT) several years ago while teaching Title One. Recently, I discovered the facelift that author and trainer Lori Oczkus gives it in her video, DVD and books. She provides multiple examples of the four comprehension strategies: Predicting, Questioning, Clarifying, and Summarizing, which are very helpful.  In the video, she models using each strategy at grade levels one through middle school and in several content areas, including science.

Lori’s focus is on interaction between the teacher and students. Students learn to use and internalize the four main strategies in order to comprehend whatever they are studying. “The Fab Four,” as Lori calls them, are presented in engaging formats through the use of props and voice inflections. For predicting, she and her students use a fortune teller scarf; for questioning they use a toy microphone and reporter voice; for clarifying, oversized glasses; and for summarizing, a lasso which can be shortened and lengthened to get just the right length!

For a hands-on aid, I have students make a paper plate model with each concept on a quadrant, and a dial to move to the concept being modeled.  As student understanding increases, they are told to “spin the dial in your head” and eventually just the words are clue enough. For this, I find it is important for students to create their own models with extra hints such as colors, pictures or word clues.

In some states, predicting and summarizing are taught as early as pre-Kindergarten through picture walks and the teacher question, “What did we learn from . . .?”  To encourage retention, I ask parents to try to ask students, daily, “What did you learn in reading [math, science] today?” This encourages summarizing skills, too.  

In RT, “question” means that students form questions about the reading or concepts being learned.  Many students enjoy this chance to take the questioning role their teachers have modeled for years. It also encourages teachers to model higher order questions!

“Clarify” means looking for words, sentences, or major ideas that are unknown or seem puzzling; then seeking to understand them.  Because some students are reluctant to share their unknowns, “clarify” can be introduced as “What is something in this passage that somebody in the class might not know?”  This relieves the stigma of needing something clarified. 

In her video, Lori models an important teaching method that provides sentence starters for student response. Examples of this approach might be, “Read page six and come up with a ‘who’ question.” Or “An idea the author could have stated more clearly is. . .” You could ask students to write a clear summary using 25 words or less, e.g., for science, you could write (on a transparency): “The word “atom” means…”

The four comprehension strategies can be done in any order, and all of them do not need to be included in every lesson.  As students’ comfort levels increase, they automatically move back and forth between the strategies that best help them to understand what they are reading. When given the opportunity, they quickly learn to reciprocate as they take responsibility for helping each other understand.

The complete RT strategy as outlined in the previous blogpost is just fine, but I have found that my students really love getting engaged with these activities—especially when we use props and the sentence starter prompts for the “Fab Four.” 

Has anyone else found Lori Oczkus’ book or video on RT helpful?

Lucia Schroeder is a 15-year elementary school teacher. She also taught pre-service and in-service teachers for nine years at the university level.  She is currently a substitute teacher for pre-K through eighth grade. This is her third year as Mentor for the Marygrove MAT program, and she especially enjoys including poetry reading and writing in the content areas.


Oczkus , L. D.  (2005) Reciprocal teaching strategies at work:  Improving reading comprehension, Grades 2-6, VHS or DVD.  Newark, DE: International Reading Association
Oczkus, L.D.  (2010) Reciprocal teaching at work:  Powerful strategies and lessons for improving reading comprehension (2nd ed).  Newark, DE:  International Reading Association


Tags: curriculum, reciprocal teaching, instruction and assessment, teaching strategies

Keeping the dialogue going; Reciprocal Teaching (RT) as a reading strategy makes good sense.

Posted by Colleen Cadieux on Mar 10, 2012 5:43:00 AM

Reciprocal Teaching is explored as a reading strategy for National Reading Month!Reciprocal Teaching (RT) is an instructional method pioneered by Annemarie Palinscar and Ann Brown (1984) which has proven useful as a highly effective reading strategy. They describe the method as "a dialogue between teachers and students for the purpose of jointly constructing the meaning of text." In other words, teachers, rap with your students about reading and you’ll get good results!

RT is designed to aid students' overall reading comprehension by focusing on four key strategies:

  • Summarizing for self review- Students are required to identify the most important information contained in the text.  Summaries can be based on selected passages, a group of sentences, across paragraphs, or over an entire reading.
  • Generating questions- Asking questions helps the reader reach a deeper level of comprehension because generating questions requires students to identify the most significant information in the text. This is closely related to summarizing, and supports comprehension by seeking answers. 
  • Clarifying confusing information- This strategy requires metacognition, or understanding, to evaluate when a text is confusing.  At times, students may continue reading without realizing that their lack of understanding is affecting their comprehension.  By stopping to recognize and clarify their confusion, comprehension is reinforced.  Since there are multiple reasons for confusion (e.g. lack of schema, or frame of reference for their understanding; difficult vocabulary; unfamiliar writing style or voice), dialogue with the teacher can help a student identify the cause of a misunderstanding.
  • Predicting upcoming events- Students use what has already been read along with background knowledge, to generate a hypothesis about what the author will discuss next. This provides a purpose for further reading, in order to confirm or disprove the hypothesis.  

The steps to reciprocal teaching below may seem simple, but using them with a piece of well structured text will provide deep understanding for students. A Houghton-Mifflin Intervention Program that used reciprocal teaching throughout included some of the following titles: Fourth Grade: "The Wonder of Wolves;" or "Martin Luther King, Jr.," by Wil Mara, Children's Press 2002. Fifth Grade: "How do Birds Find Their Way;" "Jackie Robinson," by Herb Dunn and Meryl Henderson, Simon & Schuster 1999; or "Whales." Teachers should gradually encourage independence by spending time modeling, explaining, and introducing the process of reciprocal teaching. This ensures that students completely understand the process before being responsible for their part of the reciprocal teaching session.

Facilitate an RT Reading Session in Six Steps!

  1. Choose a piece of informative non-fiction writing.  The piece should have strong organization and be engaging to students.  Each student will receive a copy of the entire piece.
  2. Revisit the four core strategies: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. Use the first paragraph of the text to model the comprehension strategies.
  3. Divide the class into small groups and within each group assign each student one of the remaining paragraphs.  
  4. Give students time to read and analyze their assigned paragraphs independently, taking notes as necessary.
  5. Monitor as students "teach" the rest of the small group the four reading strategies relating to their assigned paragraph.  
  6. Encourage discussion within the groups before, during, and after each student's presentation.  Students should see connections between each other's presentations that will support their overall comprehension.

The benefits of reciprocal teaching are numerous. The focus on comprehension strategies requires students to practice how to learn, not just the content being learned.  Also, since the comprehension practice occurs within an authentic task, and not in isolation, the strategies are deeply embedded within the reader. Because the practice occurs cooperatively with other students, the individual reader is supported by interactions with others in the group.

The biggest complaint from teachers about RT is keeping students talking about the matter at hand, and not drifting off into socializing. Do not be intimidated by this method, since it takes a couple of tries to really master it. Be patient, and keep it light—the rewards will begin to reveal themselves, even among the most challenged readers in your classroom.

For more proven ways to boost comprehension in your classroom, download our FREE K-6 Comprehension Best Practices Guide today!

Download our K-6 Reading Comprehension B

Palinscar, A. & Brown, A. (1984). "Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension monitoring activities." Cognition and Instruction, I (2), p. 117-175.


Tags: literacy instruction, K-12 reading, reading comprehension, reciprocal teaching, download, reading strategies, Literacy, RT

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