Fluent readers read with prosody, but prosody is best used as a tool for assessment and not something that needs to be taught
The concept of prosody, or prosodic reading, is an important one because it has often been at the center of debates over how to teach reading. But what exactly does it mean?
Simply put, prosodic reading is reading with pitch, stress and tone that sounds natural.
If you teach a child to read using phonics, you will likely notice that early readers do not sound natural when reading a text for the first time. They are able to decode the words, but they sound choppy and stilted—that is, they do not ready with prosody.
When teachers first started using phonics in classrooms, some educators worried that this lack of prosodic reading meant that children were not learning to read well with phonics. As a result, they tried to teach prosodic reading directly, through methods like having children memorize and repeat entire sentences or passages.
Unfortunately, teaching students to memorize and recite sentences does not help them to sound out new, unfamiliar words. While these students sounded like they were reading more fluently, they were really only acting.
Should I try to improve my child’s prosody?
Prosody is important because a reader needs to understand how a sentence would be spoken in order to grasp its full meaning. Furthermore, the more fluent a reader is, the more prosodic their reading is.
This means that prosody can be a good tool to assess whether a passage is within your child’s reading level.
However, this does not necessarily mean that prosody should be taught. Some methods of teaching prosody, as mentioned above, are actually harmful because they detract from time spent learning to decode words. And the evidence regarding whether explicit prosody instruction can improve comprehension is still unclear.
On this blog, I have talked before about balancing explicit and implicit teaching strategies. I believe that for the majority of readers, prosody does not need to be explicitly taught. A better method is to ask learners to repeat a sentence again after they have decoded it the first time. This approach will help them gain greater automaticity with the words in the sentence, and their prosody will improve naturally.
Another way to encourage a child to naturally develop prosody is to ask them to demonstrate their ability to read something they are already familiar with to an adult who is not teaching them to read—a supportive auntie or uncle, perhaps. This exercise mimics a performance or public speaking, and when asked to do it, children tend to engage in prosodic reading automatically.
In general, prosody is associated with reading fluency. If your child can demonstrate prosodic reading on the second attempt after decoding a passage, that is a good indication that the passage is at the right reading level for your child.
But it is best not to force a child to read with prosody. Never expect early readers to demonstrate prosody on a first attempt, and allow them to develop prosody on their own. With some of the gentle encouragements listed above, most learners will naturally achieve prosodic reading.
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