Prosody in reading – How to teach it in primary
One component of reading fluency has been sadly overlooked in recent government guidance…
There are three components to reading fluency: accuracy, automaticity and prosody.
Accuracy provides the foundation – readers must be able to decode words on the page accurately to be in with a chance of understanding them.
Automaticity tells us that readers should be able to read words on the page at a pace which allows the brain to focus on understanding.
Mastering all three aspects of fluency – especially the lesser-mentioned prosody – allows us to support comprehension to flourish.
The recent update to the DfE’s Reading Framework, re-published in July 2023, contains a welcome section on developing reading fluency. It highlights its importance in allowing reading to develop at a whole text level.
The document rightly makes multiple references to accuracy as well as automaticity. It states that these are key to enabling children to read and understand texts.
So far, so good. Yet, buried within the 171-page document, prosody is only briefly mentioned twice, with little exploration of its meaning or significance.
Prosody is obvious by its absence in many conversations about reading fluency. If we miss this vital component, we run the risk of developing expert decoders, rather than expert readers. Decoding is of course necessary, but understanding texts is where the joy and reward lies in reading long-term.
What is prosody in reading?
What is prosody? Schwanenflagel and Flanagan Knapp refer to it as ‘the music of reading aloud’, highlighting the many parallels which can be drawn between prosodic reading and music. It is the rhythm we bring to words through phrasing chunks of meaning within sentences; the variation in tone, pitch, volume and speed.
As experienced readers, we use prosody as a strategy for understanding what we read. Think of a time when you have read a challenging text – perhaps academic research, a medical letter or something legal. It is likely you found yourself applying prosody, emphasising key words and amping up your phrasing, to help you to unpick its meaning. The techniques we deploy as expert readers are the same strategies we want our struggling pupils to have at their fingertips. Therefore, as teachers, we must be equipped to support our readers with applying prosody at the point of reading.
It’s likely you can think of a number of pupils who, when reading a text that is challenging for them, announce each word in isolation, as if they were reading a shopping list. They trundle through words without awareness of how they should be grouped together into phrases of meaning.
These pupils may also ignore the phrase boundaries marked on the page with punctuation, and read through them without a second thought. Their reading has become an act of decoding, so making meaning from the text is not their goal.
Take a look at this extract from Jackie Morris’ Ice Bear, with punctuation removed. It is transcribed from a pupil who joined the HFL Reading Fluency project, and who was struggling to apply prosody at the point of reading. Read it aloud, pausing where each slash is. What do you notice?
Words/ held/ a magic a word/ spoken in chance/ a wish/ or/ a whisper/ would hold a magic/ that would shape the world/ into this world they/ were born in/ the dark months/ when the cold/ and the wind/ turned water/ to stone/
Did you notice how difficult it was to make meaning? Did you spot that the phrasing became less accurate as stamina waned? Words were read in isolation and the meaning and beauty of the passage was lost. When asked questions about the text, the child struggled – as they had focused solely on lifting the words from the page. They, and many like them, needed strategies to support with building their prosody.
What can we do to address this? An expert model is a good place to begin: someone reading the text aloud in a way which clearly demonstrates pausing at phrase boundaries and emphasising certain words. Echo reading can be a great tool to support those who need help with prosody. Alongside that, text marking helps to make phrase boundaries visible. Ask the children to make a simple mark on the page to show where the phrase boundaries will be, and use these as a reminder to take micro-pauses in those places as they read the text aloud.
Ask them to underline words that will need emphasis, whether it’s a louder or softer voice, or a quicker or slower read. You’ll need to scaffold this at first, helping them to find where to put the pauses, but over time they will be able to use this strategy independently to break down those unwieldy longer sentences into chunks of meaning.
Finally, encouraging plenty of re-reading will allow children to develop greater confidence and prosody as they take more meaning from the text each time they read. It’s great for the accuracy and automaticity too.
After we’d covered the strategies above with them, the struggling pupil read the text again. What do you notice this time?
Words held a magic/ a word spoken in chance/ a wish or a whisper/ would hold a magic that would shape the world/ into this world/ they were born/ in the dark months/ when the cold and the wind/ turned water to stone/
Phrased reading helps the meaning to leap from the page. Add to that emphasis on specific words, and use of tone and volume, and we begin to reveal the beauty of the text. After reading the text like this multiple times, the child was far more confident in discussing the content of the extract and ultimately comprehending it.
For children to choose to read, there needs to be something in it for them. Uncovering the meaning of quality texts through applying prosody helps readers to uncover the humour, the intrigue, or whatever provokes a reaction – which makes reading a worthwhile pursuit. Prosody can be the key that unlocks that door for pupils. Let’s not forget it!
For more advice on how to support fluency in the classroom, take a look at the popular resource which HFL Education created in collaboration with the EEF, What might fluency practice look like in the classroom?
Playing with prosody
Match My Time
As the expert reader, time yourself reading an extract with great prosody, reading at a suitable pace (not too quickly). Don’t reveal the time it takes you to read the passage. Ask the children to time themselves reading the passage in exactly the same way you did. Gather children’s timings and see who has the closest match to your time. They are the winner!
Fill in the Gaps
Record a video of yourself reading an extract with expert prosody. Ask the children to read along with you, then mute the video and allow the children to continue reading with their best prosody. Challenge the children to be in the same place as you are when you unmute the video again.
Juliet McCullion is a former primary school teacher. She is now an enthusiastic primary English teaching and learning adviser for HFL Education. You can find her online at the following places: @JulietTeaching @HertsEnglish facebook.com/HfLPrimaryEnglish hfleducation.org/reading-fluency