In this second blog post in my series on reading fluency, I am looking at prosody. Prosody is closely associated with skilled reading, being integral to fluency and a predictor of achievement in reading accuracy and comprehension (Veenendaal et al., 2016). Prosody is not taught, but it is a naturally occurring feature of competent reading. The words on the page may be arranged in horizontal lines, but a good reader transcends the visual appearance of the words, allowing them to take on a natural, flexible and speech-like quality.
Perhaps good readers could be compared to good tennis players in the sense that they can respond intuitively, flexibly and rapidly to the dynamic, fast-moving pace of change, whether on the court, or on the page. Imagine you are watching a tennis rally. Every time the players hit the tennis ball, it carves a unique trajectory through the air. Often, the players may return the strokes in the manner of reciprocation, but sometimes the trajectory may surprise or challenge a player, requiring them to respond with renewed agility if they are to regain their poise.
Poise is also required in reading and researchers have asked how good readers are able to rapidly integrate the elements of reading, given that the processing areas of the brain known to be involved in the decoding and understanding of printed language, are not local to one other (Rayner, Pollatsek, Ashby, & Clifton, 2012). It is possible that just as good tennis players are able to predict their opponent’s next stroke, good readers are able to predict the most likely contour in terms of sentence structure, and anticipate the most meaningful content in relation to contextual cues, thus integrating the various processes of reading.
The rhythmic elements of integrated processes are perhaps more apparent in a tennis match than in reading. The elasticity and subtle shifts in the rhythm of a tennis rally can electrify a crowd. Each stroke is not a mere repetition of the previous stroke – it is a renewal of the previous stroke and as such, is inherently rewarding to the player and the audience. Similarly, as a reader confirms the meaningful aspect of one sentence and projects the probable meaning(s) at the beginning of the next sentence, a natural cycle of projection and renewal of understanding develops.
Rayner, K., Pollatsek, A., Ashby, J., & Clifton, C. Jr., (2012). Psychology of reading (2nd ed.). New York: Psychology Press.
Veenendaal, N.J., Groen, M.A. and Verhoeven, L., 2016. Bidirectional relations between text reading prosody and reading comprehension in the upper primary school grades: a longitudinal perspective. Scientific Studies of Reading, 20(3), pp.189-202.
Last month’s post focussed on the expressive aspect of reading fluency, drawing a comparison between the varying trajectories of a ball in a tennis match with the varying contours of sentences in a passage of text. The analogy served (npi) to emphasise the high degree of flexibility and poise required for fluent reading. However, in this post I want to stress the importance of the link between reading fluency and reading comprehension: skilled readers who are able to read with fluency and understanding are swept up into a virtuous spiral, which contributes to a lifelong-love of reading and learning.
There is little point in being able to read quickly, accurately or fluently, if readers cannot process the meaning of a passage. Without the automatic integration of decoding and semantic processing that skilled readers enjoy, weaker readers cannot experience the intrinsically rewarding aspects of reading and benefit from the same virtuous spiral. A wide range of cultural factors such as maternal education, gender, SES and changes in digital technology may disadvantage some children, but it is important to maintain the high expectation that every child can become a skilled reader. Training weak readers to identify in a text the visual match to the key words in a comprehension question and then retrieve the whole sentence without necessarily understanding the text for example, can only serve to degrade their experience of reading and learning.
Readers with poor comprehension skills are limited by their recognition of printed words as ‘signs of language’ that convey sound (phonological processing). Skilled readers on the other hand, recognise words and phrases as ‘signs of real or imagined life’ that convey meaning (phonological and semantic processing, as well as detecting grammatical structure).
Interestingly, the integration of decoding with semantic processing occurs without deliberate effort on the part of skilled readers. Weak readers, however need help with integrating decoding, syntactic and semantic processing. This can be achieved by improving their sensitivity to rhythm in a matter of weeks. Rhythmic awareness is integral to the way we breath, eat, laugh, speak and move and can be extended to reading too. Read more here.