When some people hear the word “prosody,” they might think it sounds like the name of an Internet startup or a new medication. As many reading teachers know, prosody the pitch, tone, volume and rhythm in oral reading—is an important component of fluency. The National Reading Panel describes prosody as “proper expression,” and when you’re explaining it to your students, you might say, “Try to read like you talk.” Readers who use correct prosody group words into phrases rather than reading word-by-word. This expressive style of reading shows that readers understand what they’re reading, and it helps listeners understand better as well. When we listen to an expressive reader, we’re able to create meaning as they read, just like we create meaning for ourselves as we read silently.

Is it possible to teach prosody, or do students simply learn it naturally? Tim Shanahan, a leader of the National Reading Panel and former first grade teacher, believes that evidence supports direct teaching of prosody. In a recent blog post, he cites research by Wolters, Kim, & Szura (2022) that found that prosody plays a part in not just fluency but also reading comprehension, because it allows readers to create and maintain meaning in what they read.

The teachers who originally developed Read Naturally programs 30 years ago agree with Shanahan: Prosody matters and should be taught. You can tell that we care about prosody when you listen to the audio recordings of the stories in the Read Along step of our programs. The narrators in our audio recordings are real people (not robots!) who emphasize important words while they’re reading, make exclamations sound exciting and questions sound uncertain, and so on. When students read along with these recordings, imitating expression and phrasing, students’ prosody and comprehension both improve. Good reading comprehension is dependent on more than reading individual words correctly. In order to make meaning out of text, readers need to develop the ability to “chunk” words into phrases. Students who work in Read Naturally programs are taught this skill through teacher modeling.

In his blog post, Shanahan also mentions that repeated reading, another strategy incorporated into Read Naturally programs, has been found to improve the prosody of early readers (Logan, 1997; Stoddard, Valcante, Sindelar, O'Shea, & et al., 1993). When students practice reading the same passage over and over, as is required in the Practice step of Read Naturally programs, they are improving their accuracy, their automaticity, and their prosody. Combining the audio-supported Read Along step with the Practice step in Read Naturally programs gives students important tools to read more expressively and fluently.

Read Naturally’s focus on prosody continues in the final, Pass step of Read Naturally programs. After teachers listen to students read a passage during this step, they must rate the students' expression on a scale of 1-4, with 1 being “reads haltingly, seldom uses phrasing, and reads without expression” and 4 being “reads conversationally, consistently uses correct phrasing, and inflection, and attends to all punctuation.” This piece of the final evaluation process is important, and we encourage teachers to discuss this rating with students, especially those who struggle to read with expression. Point out students’ improvement on the expression scale and remind them to notice how the narrator’s voice changes the next time they listen to a story.

Prosody is emphasized throughout the process as students work through the steps of Read Naturally programs. This focus on prosody not only allows students to sound like better readers, but it helps them to actually be better readersreaders who are fluent and who comprehend the material.

Check out our programs to learn more about how teacher modeling and repeated reading work together to develop students' literacy. And be sure to read Shanahan's informative article on the importance of prosody.