The Importance of Prosody and Its Role in Reading Fluency

Reading fluency is one of the pillars of Structured Literacy and the Science of Reading, and a critical component when it comes to teaching reading to struggling students. Along with phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension, fluency is one of the main components of reading, as established by the National Reading Panel in 2000. Fluency is one of the main goals when teaching reading, because it enables students to connect words and phrases accurately and effortlessly, without focusing too much on the mechanics of reading. 

However, achieving fluency can be challenging for students struggling with reading difficulties like dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, or autism. That’s why Structured Literacy takes a step-by-step, explicit and gradual approach to teaching reading, focusing on several main components, one of which is prosody. This is a crucial stepping stone on the journey towards reading fluency, and it’s something that all teachers should focus on and incorporate into their Structured Literacy curriculum. 

What is prosody?

In order to achieve reading fluency, a student has to learn to master the main components of reading, which include rate, accuracy, automaticity, and prosody or expression. Prosody is related to the rhythmic and melodic aspects of reading, and it basically means the ability to read with expression, intonation, and appropriate emphasis on certain words. 

Recent research has shown that prosody is significantly and increasingly connected to reading fluency and proficiency, because those who can read orally with proper expression, tone, pitch, and volume tend to also comprehend well while reading silently. Prosody also enables readers when it comes to word decoding, because it allows them to identify sound structures, boundaries, and get a better feel for the words and phrases they’re trying to decipher. 

Why is teaching prosody important? 

Reading with prosody and expression allows students to become fluent, expressive readers, and enables them to convey the message they’re reading with meaning and emotion. Teaching and practicing prosody also allows students to become more expressive in their speech, which in turn can make them better communicators and help them thrive both academically and personally. 

Prosody is essential when it comes to conveying emotion when reading, like anger, excitement, sadness, and it adds depth to the material, enhancing its meaning and impact on the listener. With just a small change in tone or a strategic pause, readers can change the meaning of the text, or enhance it. Prosody is also crucial in helping readers differentiate between questions and statements, as rising intonation at the end of a sentence indicates a question, while falling intonation indicates a statement. While most of these things seem natural to fluent readers, not everyone picks up on these nuances naturally, and that’s why prosody needs to be taught explicitly and clearly to struggling readers, especially at a young age. 

How do you assess prosody in a student?

The most practical and straightforward way for a teacher to assess prosody in a student is to listen to them read aloud. More often than not, a struggling student will read the text word by word, without pausing and without much fluctuation in tone, pitch, or volume. Basically, a student who has not yet developed prosodic reading will sound robotic, even mechanical, and flat, without expression or emotion. This is because they are too focused on decoding and processing letters and words, which means they still need to work on their phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension to become more fluent. A prosodic reader will be able to convey emotion and read the text effortlessly, focusing more on the storytelling aspect than the mechanical one. 

Other methods of assessing and practicing prosody in the classroom include modeling and guided practice, where teachers can provide examples of how to use prosodic features like phrasing, intonation, pitch, and volume; choral reading, where students read a text as a group, enabling them to observe and copy fluent readers and practice; and repeated readings, where students read the same text multiple times, each time focusing on a different prosodic feature and improving with every iteration. 

What is the difference between prosody and fluency?

Prosody relates to the melodic and rhythmic features of speech, focusing on things like pitch, intonation, tempo, rhythm, and stress. It’s a crucial component of reading, as it aids in conveying emotion, emphasizing information, making statements, and so on. Fluency, while a related aspect of spoken language, focuses on the coherence of speech, indicating how effortlessly someone can express themselves without pauses or disruptions. Both are crucial aspects of reading, but while prosody focuses on how the speech sounds, fluency focuses on the flow and overall ease of communication.

What is the difference between prosody and expression?

Prosody plays a crucial role in how the message of the written text is communicated, and it focuses primarily on features like pitch, tone, stress, phrasing, and tempo. Expression refers to a broader range of elements of communication, including prosody, gestures, body language, facial expressions, and more. Expression focuses on how emotions, ideas, and concepts in the text are conveyed, as a whole, while prosody focuses primarily on the vocal elements of speech. Prosody is one of the elements of expression when it comes to reading, but expression encompasses a lot more, including verbal and non-verbal cues. 

For more information or tips on how to integrate prosody exercises into your curriculum, feel free to reach out to Da Vinci Collaborative, and one of our experts will be in touch as soon as possible!

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