Learn how to improve prosody without drastically cutting into class or prep time.
When I was preparing to work as a reading interventionist, I learned about the trifecta of intertwined elements that make up reading fluency: accuracy, rate, and prosody.
Accuracy and rate were fairly easy to pin down. Accuracy refers to how many words a person reads correctly, and rate refers to the speed at which they read.
Prosody is a little more nebulous, but can be thought of as what a reader does with their voice to convey meaning and emotion. For instance, a reader’s rhythm could speed up to indicate that a character in the text is scared or stressed, or their rhythm could slow down to show when a character is confused or tired.
Readers can emphasize certain words or syllables to demonstrate their importance, i.e. “What would YOU do?” versus “WHAT would you do?” Readers can also raise or lower their intonation to indicate meaning, as they might when raising the pitch of their voice at the end of a question.
Why Does Reading Fluency Matter?
Before we dive deeper into building better prosody, let’s talk about why fluency matters.
When children can read connected text fluently— that is, with accuracy, appropriate pacing, and expression—they are able to think and build knowledge from the content they are reading rather than putting all their effort toward decoding the words on the page.
Fluency is the bridge between decoding and comprehension. The earlier that students build reading fluency, the better their chances are for academic success across subjects, and the more likely they are to find enjoyment in learning through reading.
How Do Readers Become Fluent?
It’s often assumed that if students can decode, and therefore read with high accuracy, then they will become fluent. However, research demonstrates that this isn’t necessarily the case (Marrow, Kuhn, and Schwanenflugel, 2006).
Many students—particularly struggling readers—may not gain reading fluency incidentally or independently. For this reason, independent reading practice is simply not enough for many students to develop the fluency that is necessary to read for meaning.
Rather, these students need the specific practice that comes from repeated oral reading, and they need to hear fluent readers reading aloud to learn what accurate and properly paced reading sounds like. They need exposure to well-rendered prosody so they can experience the pleasure of expressive and entertaining stories—instead of disconnected words on a page.
Why Is Prosody an Important Part of Building Oral Reading Fluency?
Readers who are not fluent tend to read word by word—even if they are reading accurately and at an appropriate pace—resulting in a choppy cadence and stilted expression that does not connect meaning across phrases and sentences. In reading like this, comprehension is hard to come by.
However, when children are able to use appropriate pitch, emphasis, timing, and intonation—in short, proper prosody—they will build a more complete and accurate picture of what’s being conveyed on the page. Research backs this up, finding that there is a reciprocal relationship between prosody and reading comprehension. While the precise relationship between the two remains unclear, prosodic reading appears to facilitate students’ reading comprehension and thus support their overall literacy achievement in school.
So, when it comes to building fluency, it’s worth paying close attention to prosody. But many educators are curious about how to build it since it goes beyond accurate decoding and steady pacing. Here’s where assisted reading and repeated oral reading come in.
Assisted and Repeated Reads Lead to Better Fluency
Before we ask students to build fluency through repeated reads, we must expose them to models of fluent reading. Students need to hear text read aloud in order to understand how the way that we read—with accuracy, appropriate speed, and expression—helps us make sense of a text.
Assisted reading can take several forms, including having the teacher read aloud from a text that students are tracking with their eyes or fingers, having peers volunteer to read aloud from a shared text, or having students listen to an audiobook while following along on the page. In each method, students are given the opportunity to see the connected text on the page as they hear it read aloud.
Once these models of fluent reading have been established, students can move on to practice their own fluency through repeated oral reading. They say practice makes perfect, and while we're not looking for perfection, research has shown that repeated reading of texts is effective in building oral reading fluency, especially when there is a different focus (e.g., accuracy, prosody) each time the text is read.
Since reading a text multiple times can get a little boring, we can use strategies to make this practice more engaging and also help students monitor their own accuracy, rate, and prosody.
These strategies include:
Pair more fluent with less fluent readers and have them read a short text aloud to one another. Shift the focus for each repeated read based on their fluency needs (accuracy, pacing, or prosody).
Have students record themselves reading aloud and then listen to the recording together. Identify and discuss their strengths and challenges, discuss comprehension questions, and then set a new purpose for the next read based on their challenge area (accuracy, pacing, or prosody). Have students record themselves reading again, this time focusing on their new reading goal.
Have students work with a digital reading tool such as ClearFluencyTM, which allows them to not only record themselves but to hear passages read aloud before they read. ClearFluency also listens to students read and gives corrective feedback—in real-time—when students struggle with a word or phrase. Repeated reads with a tool like ClearFluency can build oral fluency quickly since students receive immediate feedback to guide their rereads and support their ability to monitor their progress toward accuracy, pacing, or prosody goals.
While some students may initially resist rereading the same passage, once they start to hear the improvement in their fluency, they’ll be more likely to get on board. And it’s worth pushing because research has found that rereading a familiar passage not only leads to improvement on that particular passage but also to fluency gains that transfer to reading other passages.
Learn More About Digital Tools That Build Oral Reading Fluency
While educators know that oral reading fluency is an important stepping stone on the path to reading comprehension, the truth is that teaching oral reading fluency is often a time-consuming and individual process, requiring teachers to assess each student, analyze their data, and respond to that data with targeted practice.
This is where digital reading tools can help.
If you’d like to learn more about how digital tools can help you build your students’ oral fluency and save prep, class, and grading time, we invite you to join our webinar, “Oral Reading Fluency for All: Using Digital Tools to Build Accuracy and Prosody” on May 15, 2023, from 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm ET.
Hope to see you there!
Megan Jensen is a former reading specialist with experience developing K-12 writing instruction and blended professional development for adults across the United States, as well as literacy and library programming abroad. Her work continues to uphold her belief that every student can learn and that there is transformative power in supporting students in reading and writing about their worlds. She holds a B.A. in English from UCLA and an M.A. in International and Comparative Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.Explore more related to this author
Fluency is the bridge between decoding and comprehension.
Megan Jensen, Director, Literacy Impact, Carnegie Learning