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Express yourself! Prosodic reading and why it is so important.

For reading to be fluent it must be accurate, at a reasonable rate and prosodic (Kuhn and Stahl, 2003). Accuracy and speed pertain to decoding automaticity and the word superiority effect (Reicher, 1969 – more here) but prosody (the ability to make oral reading sound like authentic oral speech (Rasinski et al., 2011)) is more nuanced and demanding to identify.

Prosody focuses on the features of speech that are layered upon individual phonological segments and include stress, pitch and duration (Schreiber, 1991). Stress involves the prominence placed on syllables within words, pitch relates to the intonation experienced in oral speech and duration alludes to the time employed pronouncing a word. The ability to make oral reading sound like authentic speech is crucial to extracting meaning from text as much of the meaning of a sentence is in the sound not the words (Martin, 1966).

Prosodic reading has been identified as an essential component of reading (Rasinski and Hoffman, 2003) as it assists the reader in segmenting text into syntactically appropriate phrasal groupings of words (Dowhower, 1991) and thus is essential for comprehension and meaning extraction. Although in much text, phrasal boundaries are marked by punctuation, when no marks are evident a reader must resort to their prosodic sensitivity to parse text into apposite phrases. Younger, less able readers are less able to utilise prosodic elements when phrasing (Schreiber,1991).

Although prosodic reading and its implications for text chunking dovetail well into the concept of fluency there is limited research into its empirical place in reading and despite being an identified concept, two major questions arise as to its relevance in reading instruction. Firstly, does prosodic reading and its link to reading fluency have any implication for reading achievement and secondly, if it does, can it be taught?

There is growing evidence that a significant relationship between prosodic reading and reading achievement exists, along with strong correlations with prosody and comprehension development (Rasinski, 1985). This is further affirmed by significant positive correlations between prosody and silent reading comprehension in studies of third, fourth and fifth grade pupils (Pinnell et al. 1995; Rasinski et al., 2009). Stage Model theory (Gunning, 2010) would suggest that prosody emerges once accurate and automatic text reading is achieved and that prosody contributes to comprehension beyond the benefits of accurate and automatic word recognition (Miller and Schwanenflugel, 2006). Miller and Schwanenflugel (2008) also found that developing more mature pitch and intonation in early elementary school readers was associated with faster developing comprehension achievement. Perhaps more significantly for primary schools, significant correlations were found between prosody and performance in standardised silent reading comprehension tests (Rasinski, Rikli and Johnston, 2009).

The assessment of prosody has remained an issue for researchers as there is an inevitable interpretivist subjectivity to any measurement and a number of tests include reading rate thus conflating prosody with reading automaticity. Most discrete tests measure prosody through an interpretivist rubric that produces a quantitative score (an example here), are simple, quick to administer and valid (Miller and Schwanenflugel, 2006). Whalley and Hansen (2006) took the research one stage further, researching the relationship between fourth grade pupils’ prosodic sensitivity and reading ability by the use of an ingenious objective prosody assessment that had students match spoken phrases to phrases with substituted pseudo words but which retained the prosodic features. The study concluded that prosodic skills played a crucial role in reading development with phrase level prosodic sensitivity able to predict unique variations in reading comprehension.

So, if prosodic reading is a crucial part of the reading fluency cocktail can it be taught?

Perhaps we should begin with whether any fluency instruction exists in schools. Gamse et al. (2008) found that specific fluency instruction accounted for less than five minutes per day of teaching in primary grades and that of all the major components of reading, fluency teaching was given the least amount of time.

Nonetheless, fluency can be taught. There is substantial evidence that repeated reading of a text with an exemplification of fluency and regular verbal feedback and scaffolding from a teacher leads to gains in reading rate, accuracy and prosody in passages not previously read (Kuhn and Stahl, 2004). Assisted reading, whereby the instructed reader reads slightly behind the fluent reader has also indicated strong improvements in fluency as does any assisted practice which includes strong elements of scaffolding and feedback from a stronger reader; this includes technology assisted reading, peer and parental tutoring (Rasinski et al. 2011). The selection of text is vital with its level complexity requiring a correlation with the expertise of the instructor (Kuhn and Stahl, 2004). It should be noted that this is not just ‘listening to readers’ but includes feedback and exemplification; it is also important to note that this relates specifically to fluency instruction and not to phonics instruction which can be undermined by non-expert tutoring.

However, these strategies relate to reading fluency instruction as a whole and not to the instruction of prosody as a discrete fluency variable. Reading instruction has traditionally focused on decoding skills with text phrasing rarely, if ever, being taught (Schreiber, 1991) with improvements in prosody embedding as a result of repeated and assisted reading techniques. The difficulty with examining a prosodic approach to fluency is that the same methods for improving prosody also improve automaticity. Nevertheless, given the growing evidence of the role of prosody in reading achievement can it, and should it, be taught discretely?

Dowhower (1987) and Herman (1985) found that where repeated reading instruction focused feedback on phrasing sensitivity for prosody, fluency improved. Dowhower (1991) also found that text segmenting, the marking of phrase boundaries on the text, assisted readers in applying prosody during oral reading. A significant amount of research indicates that text segmenting and a focus on phrasing delivers positive outcomes for fluency and comprehension (Rasinski, 1994).

Perhaps the most obvious, and least researched, approach to developing prosody is the concept of reading as performance where scripted texts are prepared for later performance to peer groups and other audiences. A number of small-scale studies where a theatrical presentation with a focus on prosody and expressive delivery of reading was the culmination of practice have found substantial gains in reading speed, grade levels and reading expressiveness in grade two children (Martinez, Roser and Strecker, 1999). A three-year study indicated that fourth grade children made two years progress in a year with increases in fluency rising and a 60 wpm increase in reading rate – double the expected increase (Griffith and Rasinski, 2004).

What now seems clear is that oral reading practice is preferable to silent reading practice as a means for developing early fluency (Rasinski and Hoffman, 2003).

Assessing reading fluency is a contentious area of research with many taking the view that formal assessments of fluency narrow teaching to accuracy and speed thereby neglecting comprehension. Nonetheless, robust fluency tests exist, and it would seem fallacious for primary/elementary schools to rely on reading comprehension assessments to evaluate reading for children who are struggling with fluency. It would also seem misleading to ‘teach’ comprehension to children who are not fluent in their reading.

The following assessments have robust research to support their accuracy:

  • For reading automaticity: The ASUWRI evaluation – Appalachian State University Word Recognition Inventory – age related and available free online. Takes about one minute per pupil.

  • For wpm and accuracy: the DIBELS fluency test. Free and available

online. One minute per pupil.

  • For prosody: the previously mentioned rubric (Zutell and Rasinski, 1991) is useful and can be done with the DIBELS assessment. It has high levels of reliability.

So, reading fluency (including prosodic reading) can be assessed and taught. Bearing in mind the strong correlation between reading fluency and reading comprehension it is surprising that this forensic assessment and discrete instruction is not apparent in many schools and does not form part of any inspection framework in the same way that phonics screening and instruction does.

Furthermore, although reading fluency and reading comprehension have a very strong correlation, there is a current debate as to whether there is a causal link. Reading fluency is clearly vital for reading comprehension but that does not make comprehension the next logical stage in a reading paradigm. If, as many suggest, comprehension is a factor of knowledge and not reading fluency (Pearson, 2006), it begs the question as to why we assess our children’s reading by using a comprehension test – perhaps we are merely testing their knowledge. A reading fluency test would give a far more accurate assessment of their ability to read.

The next post will try to shed some light on the very thorny subject and contradictory research into reading comprehension.

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