Prosody:  That Other Component of Reading Fluency

Prosody:  That Other Component of Reading Fluency

Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D.
2024 | 5 minutes

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”
― Maya Angelou

What comes to mind when you hear the term “reading fluency”? For many educators, one of the first connections is to automatic word recognition and reading speed. Automaticity in word recognition is indeed one component of fluency. It is the ability to recognize words in print so effortlessly or automatically that the readers can devote their attention to the making of meaning, or comprehension. Reading speed (words read correctly per minute) is the most common measure of automaticity; unfortunately, working on improving reading speed is often used as the instructional method for improving automaticity.

There is another essential component to reading fluency, however, that is often overlooked: prosody.

The Power of Prosody

Prosody refers to the melodic or expressive aspect of reading orally (and silently). Fluent prosodic readers can:

  • Use their voice to reflect and embellish the meaning of the text read
  • Read with expression
  • Alter the tempo, rhythm, pitch, and volume of their voice when reading orally
  • Read in phrasal units (not word by word)
  • Emphasize certain words
  • Use dramatic pauses
  • Change their voice when reading the parts of different characters

In other words, prosody refers to the expressive nature of reading. If we think about someone who is a fluent reader or speaker, it is not someone who reads or speaks fast but a person who uses their voice to communicate meaning to themselves or to an audience.

Scientific research has shown that prosodic reading is associated with proficient reading. Readers who read with expression are more likely to comprehend text than readers who are less expressive in their reading (White et al., 2021).

Prosodic reading is associated with proficient reading.

Problems with Prosody

Unfortunately, prosody is often less emphasized in fluency instruction than instruction aimed at improving automaticity. One reason is that we often associate prosody with oral reading and speech. While prosody manifests itself in oral speech and oral reading, prosody is also apparent in silent reading. Do you hear an “inner voice” when reading silently? That is prosody in action.

The other problem with prosody is that instruction aimed at improving reading speed (automaticity) is the antithesis of instruction aimed at improving prosody. How can a reader use their voice to reflect the meaning of the text while at the same time trying to read fast?

One last problem is measurement. As mentioned earlier, the automaticity component of fluency is easily measured by simply counting the number of words read correctly in 60 seconds of reading. Measuring prosody is not so cut and dried. Assessing prosody requires a trained ear to listen for a reader's use of those prosodic components mentioned earlier.

Prosody Checklist

When reading aloud does my student… Yes Somewhat No
Read in phrases?      
Raise and lower their voices?      
Alter their reading speed to reflect the meaning of the text?      
Read smoothly with few stops and starts?      
Read with confidence?      
Use appropriate volume?      

The result of all these problems with prosody is that it is often neglected when it comes to fluency instruction. And as a result, fluency and comprehension suffer.

Teaching Prosody Artfully and Scientifically

So, is it possible to teach automaticity and prosody together? The answer is YES! We just need to think about fluency artfully as well as scientifically. Automaticity is developed through a form of intentional practice called repeated reading. A reader will read a text multiple times until it can be read fluently. Research has shown that when this happens, not only do readers improve on the text they practiced, but that improvement is also generalized to new texts that haven't been read before (Rasinski, Reutzel, Chard & Linan-Thompson, 2011). That is real learning taking place.

Too often, repeated reading is used to improve reading speed—practice a text repeatedly until it can be read at a predetermined reading rate. However, another word for repeated reading is rehearsal. When poets, singers, actors, and orators rehearse a poem, song, script, or speech, they rehearse or read their text repeatedly. Their aim is not to read fast but to read with such expression that meaning is conveyed to a listening audience. In other words, repeated reading is aimed at developing a prosodic rendering of the text.

A secondary effect of this authentic and artful version of repeated reading or rehearsal is that automaticity in word recognition is also developed. I have heard that many actors on Broadway and in Hollywood had been struggling readers. However, when they joined the drama club in high school, they had to engage in authentic repeated reading and, as a result, they overcame many of their reading difficulties and developed a confidence in themselves as readers and performers that led to success in their acting careers.

Getting Started in Two Simple Steps

So, is it possible to work on prosody (and automaticity) in this artful manner in the classroom and in individual or small-group contexts? The answer of course is yes. The first thing teachers need to do is find texts that are meant to be read with expression. Certainly, stories and segments of stories fit this bill. But I also think that poetry, song lyrics, and reader's theater scripts are perfect texts for developing fluency. These texts are meant to be read aloud with expression.

Once such texts are found, simply develop a weekly or multi-day routine in which students rehearse their assigned poem, song, or script over several days with the aim of performing it for an audience once the text is mastered. Think of a weekly poetry slam, songfest, or reader's theater festival. The audience can be classmates, parents, or the school principal, or it could be just the teacher who heaps praise on the performers for their good work.

A word of caution: It can be too easy to think of such a routine as “fluff and fun” that is done when the real work of school is complete. But I want to tell you that this is, or could be, the instructional work for full fluency. Research has shown time and time again that when students engage in this approach to fluency instruction, not only do they improve in fluency, but they also improve their reading comprehension and overall enjoyment for reading (Paige, et al., 2021).

Supportive of this approach to fluency is The Fluency Development Lesson, which I developed years ago with colleagues such as Lynne Kulich and David Harrison. If done on a regular basis, it could be the most important 20-30 minutes of your students’ school day.

Simply Put, It Works!

Paige, D.D., Young, C., Rasinski, T.V., Rupley, W.H., Nichols, W.D. & Valerio, M. (2021). Teaching Reading Is More Than a Science: It’s Also an Art. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S339– S350. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.388

Rasinski, T. V., Reutzel, C. R., Chard, D. & Linan-Thompson, S. (2011). Reading Fluency. In M. L. Kamil, P. D. Pearson, B. Moje & P. Afflerbach (Eds), Handbook of Reading Research, Volume IV (pp. 286-319). New York, NY: Routledge.

White, J., Sabatini, J., Park, B., Chen, J., Bernstein, J. & Li, M. (2021). The 2018 NAEP Oral Fluency Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.