By Meredith Lachance
Of all the learning achieved at school, as early as in the primary grades, there is little that can compare with the importance of learning to read and the real challenge that this represents. Reading is a multidisciplinary skill that is required in nearly all other areas of learning, including problem-solving in mathematics, explanations of science experiments, and even learning about works of art. Learning to read in an efficient manner, that is, being able to fully comprehend a written text, requires sustained effort. While oral language is learned naturally, simply through contact with one’s environment, this is not the case for written language. From a purely biological standpoint, nothing predisposes humans to such learning (Dehaene, 2003).
Learning to read relies on the interdependence of a number of processes and skills that occur almost simultaneously. One of these skills, among others, is fluency in reading. Fluency and prosody (reading with expression) have long been considered to be synonymous. It is therefore important to make a proper distinction between them in order to recognize them and to teach them adequately.
Demystifying fluency and prosody
Reading fluency has traditionally been characterized by the following three components: accuracy, speed and expressiveness. These components rest on the two central pillars identified by Rasinski and his team (2009): automatic word recognition (or identification) of written words and prosody.
Fluency can be observed when oral reading approximates the characteristics of oral speech. However, when we observe a student’s accuracy level in reading and word decoding rate (that is, the number of words read correctly per minute, or WPM) we are only observing word recognition automaticity, not prosody. This aspect of fluency is quite often misunderstood or simply ignored because it is inherently an abstract concept, difficult to explain and assess. Nevertheless, it is a component of fluency that is just as essential as word recognition automaticity.
Prosody is characterized by the following: pace and flow (that we bring together here under the concept of speed), emphasis, volume, pauses, and intonation (Lafontaine & Dumais, 2014). These are elements that all bring a certain musicality to a text that is read. It would be wrong to think that prosody is applied only when reading a text aloud. In fact, by observing the eye gaze of expert readers, it was possible to note pauses that were made, even in situations where they were reading to themselves (Heggie & Wade-Woolley, 2018). This is known as suprasegmental phonology: the sounds produced through prosody overlap with the sounds produced by reading the letters. Quite often, there are no graphic symbols marking this phonology, which gives it a somewhat abstract character. The only cues on which students can rely are punctuation marks. And how are these taught? Punctuation marks are studied during the teaching of writing, but almost never during the teaching of reading. However, teaching punctuation can serve as a bridge between the development of students’ prosodic skills in reading and certain skills that children have already acquired.
It has been shown that the babbling of toddlers uses prosodic structures akin to their mother tongue before they ever even produce words (Alazard et al., 2009; Kuhn & Stahl, 2003). Furthermore, babies are able to respond to the prosody of their parents, including certain emotions conveyed through language. Prosody represents one of the first things that children learn, and its teaching at the primary level fits naturally and simply on a continuum with this development. Through the use of punctuation, certain characteristics of prosody can be taught in a practical way to students.
The Role of Punctuation
While the precise definition of punctuation has long been debated and there is no unanimous agreement on which signs it should include (Pétillon-Boucheron, 2002), everyone at last agrees in acknowledging that it is part of the graphic system (called ideography) and that it does not give rise to sounds in the way that the alphabetical system does. Punctuation is nevertheless crucially important for the structure of a text and thus for understanding it.
Take the following two sentences stripped of periods, commas and other punctuation marks:
|She is dancing
|Lea says Annie is my best friend
One might think that there is a single semantic interpretation for each of these statements, but this is completely false. In fact, several meanings can be produced simply by adding punctuation marks. “She is dancing” then becomes:
|She is dancing.
|She is dancing!
|She is dancing?
Three completely different semantic scopes can be discerned. The same holds true for the second sentence. If we compare the two statements created using various punctuation marks, we see that the scope of the message differs tremendously:
|Leah, said Annie, is my best friend.
|Leah said, “Annie is my best friend.”
Punctuation thus plays three possible roles: syntactic, semantic and prosodic. All are necessary for properly understanding a text. However, appropriating this knowledge and these subtleties of punctuation remains a highly complex undertaking. It must be understood that students do not become independent in this learning simply as a result of maturation. These punctuation marks need to be explicitly taught. Such a teaching approach has proven to be effective in reading, even more so for students experiencing difficulties (Bocquillon et al., 2020).
Teaching prosody in the classroom
It is important to keep in mind that when we are teaching, it is generally expected to focus on one teaching goal at a time. When our goal is to work on the prosodic skills of our students, it is recommended to choose texts with simple vocabulary. Nobody needs to rack their brain decoding hippocampus, maliciously or helicopter when we are simply trying to make a more prosodic text. It is also recommended to work using a text that is already known to the students, or even to read a text several times over, simply to release this part of cognitive attention that would otherwise be dedicated to word recognition. In this specific teaching, we are not interested in this part of fluency, but rather the counterbalancing component, which is prosody.
Keep in mind that students already use prosody in their everyday lives. This is therefore not a new skill that they need to acquire, but simply a skill that they can transfer to their reading.
Below are a few activities that you can do to support your students in this learning. Most of the activities proposed involve punctuation. Note that volume and emphasis are not supported by punctuation marks, with few exceptions, so these aspects will not be addressed.
Working on pauses
There are two forms of pauses in prosody: pauses related to syntactic groups (phrases) and those involving punctuation (commas, colons, periods, exclamation marks, question marks, ellipses, etc.). It is said that a proficient reader makes, on average, three pauses within one sentence for a single punctuation mark.
Pauses pertaining to syntactic groups are used to divide sentences into segments of several words that express a specific idea. They are generally governed by the grammatical structure of the sentence. They help to clarify the message conveyed, while at the same time supporting the listener’s understanding.
In order to work on pauses without necessarily going into a grammatical analysis of the sentences (which can be very complex, especially for youth or students who are struggling at school), you can propose short sentences to your students (or identify some in their readings) and ask them to highlight the places where they would pause. Next, read these sentences with them and see if the pauses were applied in a way that seems natural. You can also do this activity in a large group.
Note that it is quite possible that students will identify only one place where they would pause in these examples. The idea is just to help them become aware of the various possibilities, while at the same time noticing that there are naturally some places where you would stop and others where you would never stop, such as between a modifier and a noun, or between a noun and an adjective.
|Examples of sentences:
|The little orange cat is sleeping / and it is purring / very softly.
|I like to eat tasty fruits / like raspberries / or mangos.
|My friend went to get his books / and his pencil / in his locker.
|My mother dropped her glass of water / on the rug.
|I left very early / this morning / because there is a field trip / today / at school.
The second type of pause is directly related to punctuation marks. These pauses are easier to practise because they are represented by distinct graphic symbols that students can easily recognize. One way to do this is to make a connection between traffic lights and the pauses that they create. When the light is yellow, you have to slow down, but without yet coming to a full stop. This will come when the light turns red. Therefore, take a yellow and a pink highlighter (to represent the red light). Highlight the commas, colons, and even quotation marks in yellow. Then, highlight all the types of periods in pink, so as to visually mark the full stops. Here is an example of a text with such notations:
It was a beautiful day. The sun’s rays were shining, there was a gentle breeze, and the magnificent, tall, green trees offered a bit of shade. After several months of winter, spring was finally here. And so it was time to go out, to take a walk, to see the flowers bloom again and to eat ice cream.
This exercise can be done using any text. Just remember to choose simple texts that are not overly long (it can simply be a paragraph). The goal here is not to decode the words but to read prosodically.
Working on intonation
Intonation also encompasses two components: expressive intonation (connected to emotional states) and intonation of language (connected to statements) (Lafontaine & Soucy, 2022). Expressive intonation provides information about the emotional state, which includes a range of emotions, such as sadness, joy, anger, etc. The intonation of language provides information about the sentence mode: declarative, imperative, exclamatory, or interrogative.
To practise reading with expression, you can create small cards with simple emotions written on them (joy – anger – fear – sadness), and then you can invite a student to pick one emotion card at random. In reading a sentence that was presented previously, the student attempts to embody the emotion that they picked. The other students are then invited to guess the emotion. This activity can also be completed in small groups to reduce the stress of performing in front of the class. It is recommended to cover the child’s face during the reading of the sentence so that it does not reveal any visual cues. If the child picks “joy” and has a big smile, this could provide an element of response. The goal of this exercise is to express feelings solely through the voice.
You can also invite the students to switch emotions when they read a longer sentence. By separating the sentence into two parts, you could invite the students to mimic an initial emotion for the first part of the sentence, and then a second emotion for the rest of the sentence. For example:
|The story of Little Red Riding Hood is well known
|since it is a very popular tale for children.
Working on the intonation of language is not very different. Sentence modes vary in pitch to indicate whether the sentence is declarative, exclamatory, interrogative, or even imperative. Several variations can occur within the same statement, with the voice remaining stable, rising, or falling.
Here the exercise is simply to make the students aware of the idea of the voice rising and falling, a little like going for a hike in the mountains. To illustrate these changes, you can draw intonation arrows indicating these variations. Point out that the voice always rises in questions (sometimes at the beginning of the sentence, sometimes at the end of the sentence) and that it also does so in exclamatory sentences. The variations in intonation change slightly according to the person, but also according to the mother tongue, the region and the dialect spoken.
These oranges are too expensive.
Your hat is fabulous!
How are you today?
Is she going to the market?
To work on these elements, you can invite the students to write intonation arrows in their text or in a paragraph previously selected for this exercise. You can also create a collection of short sentences, cut them out and ask the students to pick one sentence at random and try to give it the appropriate intonation.
|Chris is going to a friend’s house.
|Give me back that book!
|The dog likes to play with the ball!
|Is Lauren sick?
|Has he left already?
|Maya eats an apple.
Working on pace and flow
Pace and flow are related concepts in prosody since they are very often interdependent. They come under the concept of “speed” within the definition of fluency. While no punctuation mark can indicate precisely which pace to adopt, the student nevertheless finds it when reading the text with ease and by following the pauses.
To make this concept more tangible, given that it can be abstract for students, we recommend that you make an analogy with water. Tell the students that there are three types of reading: 1) reading like water drops, 2) reading like a waterfall, and 3) reading like a river.
Reading like water drops is pictured by the image of water dripping from a tap, one drop at a time. It represents laborious reading where the words are too split up, that is, reading that has too many pauses.
Reading like a waterfall is too strong and fast. Like the flow of a waterfall, the reading done by the student is too fast and the words can no longer be distinguished. There are few or no pauses in this type of reading.
Finally, reading like a river represents reading that is more fluent and prosodic. Like a river, there are variations in the speed, the reading flows with ease, and it is pleasant to listen to.
In order to familiarize your students with these different concepts, you can cut out pictures (of water drops, a waterfall, and a river) and, like for the emotions practised when learning about intonation, have the students pick a pictograph at random, and invite the students to demonstrate this type of reading. Always use short paragraphs, and even isolated sentences, when you are working on these elements. The goal is not to decode the words. You can even practise decoding these sentences/paragraphs ahead of time to lighten the load on the students. Next, have fun adopting different paces. Identify the differences between each of them and see if it is easier to understand a text read like water drops, like a waterfall or like a river.
In conclusion, prosody is an essential element of reading. It is rarely taught explicitly to students despite its effect on fluency and, possibly, on reading comprehension. It is important to keep prosody in mind and to set aside short periods in your teaching by presenting to the students, first, how you achieve it (modelling), and then by inviting the students to try it with your support (guided practice), then finally to become independent in these practices (independent practice). Always rely on oral reading since this represents the gateway to this skill, and then highlight the elements that affect prosody, namely punctuation, to provide visual and concrete support for prosody when your students are reading. Always remember to have fun with your students and to take full advantage of these brief moments to help them develop the joy of reading.
Alazard, C., Astésano, C., Billières, M. & Espesser, R. (2009). Rôle de la prosodie dans la structuration du discours : Proposition d’une méthodologie d’enseignement de l’oral vers l’écrit en Français Langue Étrangère. Dans H.-Y. Yoo et E. Délais-Roussarie (dir.), Discourse & Prosody Interfaces Discours & Prosodie Actes/Proceedings, Paris, 9-11 septembre, 2009 (p. 49-61).
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Rasinski, T., Rikli, A. & Johnston, S. (2009). Reading fluency: More than automaticity? More than a concern for the primary grades? Literacy Research and Instruction, 48(4), 350-361. https://doi.org/10.1080/19388070802468715
Meredith Lachance is a Ph.D. student in Education at Université du Québec à Montréal. She also holds a Bachelor’s of Education in School and Social Adaptation, as well as a Master’s in Cognitive Didactics of Learning Difficulties in Reading and Writing, and a Master’s in Language Teaching. She has worked primarily as a learning resource teacher or remedial teacher in a private clinic as well as in primary schools of the school board. Through her Master’s research project, she was able to design a didactic sequence on prosody through the use of punctuation to help students improve their reading fluency. This project received the award for the best French-language thesis in Canada, given out by the Language and Literacy Researchers of Canada (LLRC). Meredith Lachance’s primary research interests encompass the learning mechanisms of reading, the prevention of reading difficulties, reading fluency, as well as reading strategies and skills of primary-level students.