Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Brief Review of the Literature Pertaining to Teaching and Assessing Prosody

The following is derived from a "critical literature review" that I recently wrote for one of my classes in the George Mason University FAST TRAIN program.

Section I: Introduction

In a literature reflection preceding this one, I focused on a review of articles describing repeated reading and assisted repeated reading interventions that bear some resemblance to the methods that I have developed and have utilized in my work focused on development of fluency and expressiveness in the oral reading of grade 4 and grade 5 students. The documented repeated reading methods differ decidedly from mine in that they focus heavily on development of speed and accuracy while largely ignoring issues of expressiveness. Due to this discrepancy, I thought it worthwhile to do a new and separate search to find what the available literature has to say in general terms about the teaching and assessment of expressiveness in oral reading.

Section II: Definitions

In my previous literature review, I discussed competing definitions of fluency and expressiveness, noting that some authorities include expressiveness as a component of fluency (e.g., Kuhn & Stahl, 2003; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000), while others, in agreement with my preference, hold that expressiveness is distinct and separate from fluency (e.g., Fountas & Pinnell, 2001). In this review, I would like to take the opportunity to dig deeper into definitions of expressiveness, in the hope that fully defining expressiveness will aid my attempts to both teach and assess this oral reading skill.

One important synonym for expressiveness in oral reading is the term “prosody”. In fact, in searching the literature for relevant materials, I found it much more useful to use “prosody” as a single keyword as opposed to any other combination of words or terms. One of the sources that I found, an article by Miller and Schwanenflugel, straightforwardly defines prosody as consisting of the appropriate use ofphrasing, pause structures, stress, and rise and fall patterns” (2006). I appreciate the clarity of this definition, which stands in contrast to a number of other, less helpful (almost tautological) definitions that I encountered, such as one which abstrusely equates prosody with “appropriate expression or intonation coupled with phrasing that allows for the maintenance of meaning” (Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, & Meisinger, 2010).

Section III: The Role of Prosody in Development of Comprehension

My ongoing commitment to improve the prosody of students is based upon my presumption that improvement in prosody will in turn lead to the ultimate goal of improved reading comprehension. However, I must admit that my survey of the literature does not provide unqualified support for this belief. Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, and Meisinger point out that current research leaves it unclear as to whether good prosody leads to good comprehension or that instead the opposite is true: that good comprehension is a precursor of good prosody (2010). If the latter is true, then some of the assisted repeating reading exercises that I engage in with students might, at worst, end up being exercises in mindless parroting on the part of those students who have not yet developed the comprehension skills to make the exercises worthwhile.

While it seems to remain unresolved which develops first, prosody or comprehension (or whether they might develop in tandem), some of the research I reviewed does show a clear correlation between certain aspects of prosody and good reading comprehension (Miller & Schwanenflugel, 2006). But perhaps the biggest indication that my work is on the right track comes from a seminal work among all those that I reviewed, an article by Kuhn and Stahl that I judge to be authoritative given the number of times it was cited in other works. Kuhn and Stahl review a healthy number of previous studies to logically construct a fairly convincing argument that “prosody is ... necessary to developing an understanding of written text” (2003, p. 18), i.e., that prosody leads to comprehension.

Section IV: How to Teach and Assess Prosody

In searching for suggestions on how to teach prosody, the first authority I went to was the one that I always go to for in depth coverage of reading and writing pedagogy: the work of Fountas and Pinnell. However, I was surprised at their almost complete lack of explicit instruction on the topic of prosody. In reviewing two of their books (1996; 2001), all I found was one sentence of explicit advice regarding the teaching of prosody: “Illustrate how to use phrasing and how to notice and use punctuations” (2001, p. 354).

Fortunately I did find one authority with a comprehensive, yet clear and concise plan for teaching expressive reading: Steve Peha, the man behind the website “Teaching That Makes Sense” (, and a regular contributor to the Education section of the National Journal. One major piece of his advice that resonates with me is “Go Slow”. He explicitly advises that readers must slow down their speed in order to be more fully expressive (Peha, 2003a). Support for his position comes from Kuhn, Schwanenflugel & Meisinger, who state that “children will not be able to read both very quickly and with proper prosody, so directing them to read passages quickly and accurately will have the perverse effect of having them read less expressively” (2010, p. 234).

Another piece of advice that Peha gives, which has already been utilized by me in my work with upper elementary students, is “emphasize the important word” (Peha, 2003a). In one expressive reading lesson the I did with some grade 4 students (actually predating my discovery of Peha’s website), I advised them to seek out one (or sometimes more than one) important word in a sentence to accentuate by either saying it louder, raising the pitch, or stretching out the length of the word(s).

Besides offering advice on teaching the basics of expressive reading, Peha also provides some very useful advice on teaching more advanced aspects of expressive reading. He gives an example of a long and complex sentence, containing various clauses set apart by commas, and gives advice on how to instruct students to analyze the sentence and then alter the reading aloud of different parts of it in order to make it comprehensible to the listener (Pena, 2003b).

With respect to assessment of prosody, I was fortunate to find another good web-based resource, this one by Timothy Rasinski, made available on the website of the Hawaii-based foundation, Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. Of the two rubrics Dr. Rasinski presents, I find his second, the “Multidimensional Fluency Scale” (of which he is a co-author), to be the most useful for my purposes. It breaks the assessment of an oral reader’s prosody into four separate dimensions, (1) expression & volume, (2) phrasing, (3) smoothness, and (4) pace, and provides explicit instruction for ranking each of these dimensions on a scale of one to four (Rasinski, 2004). I will very likely take this rubric as a starting point and adapt it as needed for my own purposes in my various future attempts to teach prosody to elementary and secondary students.


Ashby, J. (2006). Prosody in Skilled Silent Reading: Evidence from Eye Movements. Journal of Research in Reading, 29(3), 318-333. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Baker, R. E., & Bradlow, A. R. (2009). Variability in Word Duration as a Function of Probability, Speech Style, and Prosody. Language & Speech, 52(4), 391-413. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Benjamin, R., & Schwanenflugel, P. J. (2010). Text Complexity and Oral Reading Prosody in Young Readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(4), 388-404. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Erekson, J. A. (2010). Prosody and Interpretation. Reading Horizons, 50(2), 80-98. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Fountas, I. and Pinnell G. (1996). Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.

Fountas, I. and Pinnell G. (2001). Guiding Readers and Writers. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., & Meisinger, E. B. (2010). Aligning Theory and Assessment of Reading Fluency: Automaticity, Prosody, and Definitions of Fluency. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(2), 230-251. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Kuhn, M. R., Stahl, S. A., & Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, A. I. (2000). Fluency: A Review of Developmental and Remedial Practices. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Kuhn, M. R., & Stahl, S. A. (2003). Fluency: A Review of Developmental and Remedial Practices. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1), 3-21. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

McCafferty, S. G. (2006). Gesture and the Materialization of Second Language Prosody. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching (IRAL), 44(2), 197-209. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Miller, J., & Schwanenflugel, P. J. (2006). Prosody of Syntactically Complex Sentences in the Oral Reading of Young Children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(4), 839-843. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved on April 25, 2011 from

Nygaard, L. C., & Queen, J. S. (2008). Communicating Emotion: Linking Affective Prosody and Word Meaning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 34(4), 1017-1030. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Peha, Steve. (2003a). Expression Equals Comprehension. Retrieved on April 29, 2011 from:

Peha, Steve. (2003b). How Do Expressive Readers Read? Retrieved on April 29, 2011 from:

Rasinski, Timothy. (2004). Assessing Reading Fluency. Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. Retrieved on April 30, 2011 from:

Schrauben, J. E. (2010). Prosody's Contribution to Fluency: An Examination of the Theory of Automatic Information Processing. Reading Psychology, 31(1), 82-92. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Trofimovich, P., & Baker, W. (2007). Learning prosody and fluency characteristics of second language speech: The effect of experience on child learners' acquisition of five suprasegmentals. Applied Psycholinguistics, 28(2), 251. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from Humanities Module. (Document ID: 1228548921).

Weber, R. (2006). Function Words in the Prosody of Fluent Reading. Journal of Research in Reading, 29(3), 258-269. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

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