Prosody: How to help children read with fluency and expression

Reading aloud with fluency and expression, or prosody, is not a new concept in Primary education. But a closer examination of the reasons why we teach it, its features and relationship to other reading skills is needed to make sure we’re teaching prosody effectively.

Fluency, prosody and comprehension

Fluent and expressive reading (prosody!) is inextricably linked to comprehension. Why? Because prosody helps children build a more complete and accurate picture of what’s being conveyed on the page.

How we adapt the pace, emphasis, phrasing and intonation of our reading helps communicate the broader and deeper meaning of what we read. Recent research backs this up, finding that prosodic reading improves a child’s comprehension and overall literacy achievement in school.

Having said that, before we can expect children to read with genuine prosody, it’s vitally important that they are first able to accurately decode words with automaticity — spending as little mental effort on these skills as possible — as we now know that inefficient decoding is a primary barrier to good prosody in most young readers.

When decoding is effortless, children can put all their energy and focus into understanding what they’re reading. But without automatic decoding, reading pace slows and children struggle to hold on to the bigger picture of the text. In short, you can’t have fluency without automaticity. In Timothy Rasinsky’s, ‘The Fluent Reader,’ the author states that fluency is a critical and sometimes ignored link between basic reading and strong comprehension.

Prosody needs to be taught

It’s a common misconception that fast reading skills automatically lead to prosodic reading. This is rarely the case. Prosody needs to be taught; and it has to be taught at the right time. Speedy reading comes first, then we can teach children to read with expression.

We’ve all heard a child read in that monotoned, robotic voice we ourselves used when just starting out. But notice, even though they can read every word almost effortlessly, they are ignoring punctuation cues. Their voices aren’t reacting to characters or plot points or setting. When children use that monotoned voice to read aloud, it’s unlikely they’re comprehending what they’re reading, regardless of quickness.

That’s where prosody bridges the gap. It gives the beginner reader insight into what reading for meaning should sound like. More importantly, it shows children how books can speak through readers, and how words on the page can come to life.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Once children master fluent decoding, you can begin to introduce prosody. The following sequence is an effective way to do it:

1. Prepare to read

Plan to teach prosody through a variety of texts, not just stories but also poetry, monologues, dialogues, speeches and other performance texts.

Read a chosen piece together with the children and discuss what’s happening on the page. Make sure they understand the meaning of every word and how any illustrations relate to the story being told.

Explain your prosodic choices for different parts of the text so that children can begin to form an understanding of intonation and inflection — what makes you say it this way and not that way. This demonstrates how understanding a characters’ feelings, the atmosphere of a setting, word choices and punctuation can all affect the tone, volume and pace of your voice. Finally, show children how you can change the tone of a sentence simply by stressing different words and phrases (e.g. I knew it was you. I knew it was you.).

2. Demonstrate reading with prosody

As teachers, we have to be the model for good prosodic reading. Read the text aloud showing how each written cue affects prosody. Encourage children to draw explicit links between the way you read and how it aids comprehension. As an example: ‘How does my voice help us understand more about what I’m reading? Am I using my voice to properly communicate how this character feels?’

3. Practice reading aloud

Once children have listened to the teacher’s example, they can practise reading aloud to one another, responding to the modelled cues and to their own analysis of the text. They can practise this as many times as necessary with the teacher listening and coaching them where needed until they’re confidently reading.

4. Check for comprehension

By listening to children read, a teacher can identify links between how they read and how much of it they’re comprehending.

Use appropriate questioning to check that children aren’t just mimicking as they read. For example, you might ask, “Why did you emphasise this word?” Children should be able to clearly explain their reasons: maybe they wanted to highlight a character’s emotions, create tension, or even just make the audience laugh.

Teaching with prosody should not replace story time

The benefits of taking a little time every day to read aloud to children are well documented. But remember that teaching prosody is only part of a complete literacy education. It should not replace story time.

Teaching prosody helps solidify reading comprehension. Story time, on the other hand, is all about modelling the enjoyment and importance of sharing books. In that sense, perhaps we should be asking for book time – not just stories. Don’t forget that sharing non fiction is enjoyable and valuable too. But that’s for another blog.