How expressive should young children’s reading be? We are told that oral reading fluency consists of accuracy, rate, and prosody, but our monitoring tests only consider accuracy and rate. Does prosody matter in first and second grade and if it does how do we measure it?
Experts have long accepted the idea that oral reading fluency (ORF) or, these days, “text reading fluency”, improves simultaneously with reading development. As readers progress, they can read more words accurately, they are able to do this with less conscious effort (automaticity), and their prosody gets better, too.
The funny thing is that no one questions whether those accuracy or automaticity gains are central to reading development. The benefits of teaching kids to recognize words proficiently seems obvious to everyone.
But the role of prosody is not as well accepted.
Some experts view prosody as no more than a positive side effect. These experts believe that when students can read with comprehension, they’ll automatically make the text sound meaningful. Their advice to teachers? Don’t sweat the prosody!
While other authorities believe prosody is just like accuracy and automaticity – if prosody doesn’t improve, then reading can’t get better either. According to this view, teachers should try to teach prosody.
My sense is that more and more, the evidence is coming down on the “prosody matters” side.
So, what is prosody?
The National Reading Panel described prosody rather straightforwardly as “proper expression.” I wrote that definition myself, but when I talk to teachers (and kids) I tend to offer an even more down to earth explanation … it just means “making the text sound like spoken language.” (Don’t take me too literally on that… when I read silently, I want the text in my head to sound like spoken language, too.)
For a more scholarly definition, I turn to Melanie Kuhn and her colleagues: Prosody is “appropriate expression or intonation coupled with phrasing that allows for maintenance of meaning” (Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, & Meisinger, 2010). This, they clarify, includes variations in frequency or pitch, duration of vowels, stress on syllables, and pausing. They believe that these prosodic features are used to break up or parse text into meaningful units, to manage the information included in the syntax of the sentences and the discourse properties of the text (Miller & Schwanenflugel, 2006, 2008).
Given that definition, then text reading fluency is about both decoding and comprehending. That’s why, in the Active Model of Reading (Duke & Cartwright, 2021), fluency is included in the “Bridging Variables” category — the place for variables that are both fish and fowl.
The earliest conjectures on the value of fluency instruction focused on decoding alone: fluency practice increases sight vocabulary (Rashotte & Torgesen, 1985), enhances the ability to apply phonics skills (Chomsky, 1978), and supports automaticity development (Samuels, 1979). Each of these claims, hypothesizes fluency to be about better decoding, which in turn might enable better comprehension. Fluency practice, then, was not expected to have any direct impact on understanding.
Accordingly, it shouldn’t be surprising that most studies of fluency teaching have focused either on beginning readers or struggling readers (National Reading Panel, 2000), those students most likely to need attention to their decoding skills.
But more recent research shows that text reading fluency is more closely related to reading comprehension than is word reading fluency (Kim, 2015; Wise, et al., 2010). You wouldn’t expect to see that kind of difference if text fluency was nothing more than decoding. If word reading fluency and text reading fluency were the same, they’d have a similar relationship with comprehension. But that’s not the case. Something else is evidently going on in text reading that doesn’t happen in word reading, and it appears that this difference is bound up in the prosody part of fluency.
Recent research shows there to be a significant, though moderate relationship between prosody and comprehension (Wolters, Kim, & Szura, 2022). I don’t think we should expect more than that from prosody since other factors that play a role in comprehension, too.
Complicating matters here is the fact that prosody is a complex variable with multiple parts, and — at this point — with unclear connections among those parts. Scientists are still trying to figure out the best way to measure each of those parts.
In any event, the durations and frequencies of pausing, intonation, expressiveness, smoothness, and pitch are complicated things to measure, especially in the varying contexts that different texts present.
The reading of more difficult text leads to less prosodic reading and no one knows what reader-text match is most appropriate for estimating prosody properly. Perhaps the best estimate would come not from the reading of a single text or even from an average of multiple readings of texts at a given level. Maybe it would entail multiple readings of different levels of text or some kind of improvement score based upon rereading.
An important finding that Wolters and company (2022) reported was that, at this point, the prosody rating scales do better than the more technical spectrogram assessments that more precisely measure sound waves to the milliseconds. That’s good to know. It suggests that teachers can monitor prosody sufficiently by listening to students’ oral reading and rating its quality.
My favorite among the rating schemes?
For classroom use, I prefer the simplest one. I think teachers would be most able and willing to use the National Assessment’s scale (Daane, Campbell, Grigg, Goodman, & Oranje, 2005). I’ve used it myself in many schools and have found it to be satisfactory.
The NAEP measure one is a 4-point-scale and it focuses mainly on pausing, a variable with a clear relationship to reading comprehension. Rather than trying to quantify expressiveness (since our goal isn’t to get kids to deliver lines like Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep), this approach emphasizes how the words are grouped by the students.
If a text is read choppily word by word, it is rated a 1.
If the pauses usually come every second or third word but without attention to the grammar or punctuation, that reading gets a 2.
Both of those scores show disfluency that would be expected to undermine or interfere with comprehension.
Threes and 4s reflect pauses between multiword segments, but most importantly, these pauses reflect the punctuation and grammar of the sentences. The text so read will sound meaningful.
If you listen to that kind of reading, you can grasp the meaning by ear without having the text before you. It’s hard to do that when the pausing merits lower ratings.
Obviously, there is more to prosody than pausing. But pausing seems to be a powerful proxy for the whole thing. Kids who aren’t pausing in appropriate places probably aren’t doing much else to make the text meaningful.
Here’s a sentence that I have taken from a fourth-grade reading textbook: Good business is not always about the bottom line.
Here are four ways this text may be read. The slashing lines show the pauses, and the numbers indicate their ratings.
- Good // business // is not // always // about the // bottom // line.
- Good // business is // not always // about the // bottom// line.
- Good business // is not // always about the // bottom line.
- Good business // is not always about // the bottom line.
The differences may not seem especially great when considering only one 9-word sentence, but now imagine that you are reading (or listening to) an entire passage presented in those ways — along with the word reading errors, repetitions, and intonation problems that are also likely to accompany these pausing patterns.
You ask how expressive your students should be?
My response is that their oral reading should suggest that they are understanding what they are reading. These renditions should be adequate to support a listener’s comprehension as well. If it doesn’t sound like the student understands the text, then it lacks sufficient prosody.
Teachers should listen for those kinds of weaknesses and should provide students with instruction aimed at helping them to do better.
One instructional approach found to improve the prosody of early readers is repeated reading (Logan, 1997; Stoddard, Valcante, Sindelar, O’Shea, & et al., 1993). Having students read texts aloud that they cannot already read well – and doing so two or three times to try to read it better can have positive effects on accuracy, automaticity, and prosody. One small study found that having the kids work on their expressiveness during repeated reading improved comprehension (Calet, Pérez-Morenilla, & De los Santos-Roig, 2019). Such rereading practice may include encouraging kids to make questions sound like questions or using their voice to allow a listener to distinguish narration from dialogue.
Another successful approach is to provide guidance in how to group words within sentences.
One of my favorite studies of all time administered standardized reading comprehension tests to students. The test passages were either parsed for the students — marking where the pauses should go — or they weren’t. The kids who had the parsed texts outscored the others by a full grade level (Stevens, 1981)! Knowing where the pauses went had a powerful impact on these students’ abilities to answer questions about the text.
Studies have shown — though usually with older students — that we can teach students to chunk sentences into their meaningful parts (O’Shea & Sindelar, 1983). Do guided practice with that, help students to figure out where to pause, and how to recognize prepositional phrases (and other kinds of phrases). As with other kinds of teaching, your lessen the guidance as students gain proficiency.
I would do such work with texts that the class would otherwise be working with — such as this week’s reading selection or the chapter in our social studies book.
I know there are materials aimed at giving kids practice reading phrases. I know of no research into the effectiveness of such practice, though as students gain reading proficiency, the amount of time between the words in high frequency phrases declines. In other words, those phrases stat to become identifiable as phrases – and this occurs as early as Grade 1. That could mean that such phrase reading practice deserves some attention.
Also, there has been a good deal of work into sentence comprehension, and I suspect that, too, would help with prosody development. Here is a link to a recent blog I wrote on that subject: What Teachers Need to Know about Sentence Comprehension.
Remember, the point of all of this is to make the reading sound meaningful. If students can convert the words on the page into sentences that sound meaningful, they will then be on their way to fuller comprehension and better reading.
Calet, N., Pérez-Morenilla, M. C., & De los Santos-Roig, M. (2019). Overcoming reading comprehension difficulties through a prosodic reading intervention: A single-case study. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 35(1), 75-88. doi.org/10.1177/0265659019826252
Chomsky, C. (1978). When you still can’t read in third grade: After decoding, what? In S. J. Samuels (Ed)., What research has to say about reading instruction (pp. 13-30). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Daane, M.C., Campbell, J.R., Grigg, W.S., Goodman, M.J., & Oranje, A. (2005). Fourth-grade students reading aloud: NAEP 2002 special study of oral reading (NCES 2006-469). U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1),
Kim, Y. G. (2015). Developmental, component?based model of reading fluency: An investigation of predictors of word?reading fluency, text?reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 50(4), 459-481. doi.org/10.1002/rrq.107
Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., & Meisinger, E. B. (2010). Aligning theory and assessment of reading fluency: Automaticity, prosody, and definitions of fluency. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(2), 230-251. doi:https://doi.org/10.1598/RRQ.45.2.4
Logan, G.D. (1997) Automaticity and Reading: Perspectives from the Instance Theory of Automatization. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 13, 123-147. doi.org/10.1080/1057356970130203
Miller, J., & Schwanenflugel, P. J. (2006). Prosody of syntactically complex sentences in the oral reading of young children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(4). doi:10.1037/0022-06126.96.36.1999
Miller, J., & Schwanenflugel, P.J. (2008). A longitudinal study of the development of reading prosody as a dimension of oral reading fluency in early elementary schoolchildren. Reading Research Quarterly, 43(4), 336–354. Doi: 10.1598/RRQ.43.4.2
National Reading Panel. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
O’Shea, L. J., & Sindelar, P. T. (1983). The effects of segmenting written discourse on the reading comprehension of low- and high-performance readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 18, 458–465.
Rashotte, C. A., & Torgesen, J. K. (1985). Repeated reading and reading fluency in learning disabled children.Reading Research Quarterly, 20(2), 180-188. doi.org/10.1598/RRQ.20.2.4
Samuels, S. J. (1979). The method of repeated reading. Reading Teacher, 32(4), 403-408.
Stevens, K. (1981). Chunking material as an aid to reading comprehension. Journal of Reading, 25, 126-129.
Stoddard, K., Valcante, G., Sindelar, P., O’Shea, L., & et al. (1993). Increasing reading rate and comprehension: The effects of repeated readings, sentence segmentation, and intonation training. Reading Research and Instruction, 32(4), 53-65. doi.org/10.1080/19388079309558133
Wise, J. C., Sevcik, R. A., Morris, R. D., Lovett, M. W., Wolf, M., Kuhn, M., … Schwanenflugel, P. (2010). The relationship between different measures of oral reading fluency and reading comprehension in second-grade students who evidence different oral reading fluency difficulties. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 41(3), 340-348. doi:https://doi.org/10.1044/0161-1461(2009/08-0093)
Wolters, A., Kim, Y.G., & Szura, J.W. (2022). Is reading prosody related to reading comprehension? A meta-analysis. Scientific Studies of Reading, 26(1), 1-20.