The Music of Reading Aloud
Reading expressively matters in the development of reading
Posted Jan 20, 2017
When good readers read aloud, it sounds like music. The music of reading aloud is called reading prosody, or, in everyday language, reading with expression. Researchers looking at reading prosody study the precise variations in pitch and volume readers place on some words in sentences, the elongation that they place on some syllables within words, and the rhythmic and pausing patterns that determine the general flow of the reading as people read aloud. Try reading this little passage we wrote aloud and listen to all the ways your voice changes while you are reading:
Every day Lucia and Alice rode their bikes through the neighborhood. As they got older, they found themselves riding further and further. Eventually, the increase in the distance that they wandered led them far away from their homes. In fact, one day they became quite lost. They eventually came upon two dirt roads right next to each other leading in opposite directions. Not knowing what to do, they looked at both. Lucia wondered, “Should we go down one of these roads?” Alice pointed to one. She answered decisively, ‘’Let’s try that one.’’ She then darted out ahead and was soon gone. Lucia got worried and yelled loudly, “Come back!” But Alice didn’t want to come back. So, Lucia pedaled as hard as she could to increase her speed to catch up.
While reading aloud, you most likely heard yourself pause briefly here and there, generally at the ends of sentences, and perhaps at some commas. You probably did not interject unnatural silences in the middle of a phrase by reading “two dirt _________ roads that began right next ____ to each other.” Most good readers do not. You probably marked the end of each sentence with a distinct change in pitch. That is, your voice tracked upwards for the yes-no question Should we go down one of these roads? but downwards for But Alice didn’t want to come back. That downward pitch clearly signaled that you had finished reading the sentence.
You might have read everything within quotes with a raised pitch compared to the rest of the passage, as most good readers do. Compare how you read the word one in these two sentences Alice pointed to one. She answered decisively, ‘’Let’s try that one.’’ The second instance of one might have been read with a bit of a raise in pitch because it occurred within a quote. You may have read the words come back in the sentence Lucia got worried and yelled loudly, “Come back!” with greater loudness and lengthening, and with a raised pitch compared to the same phrase in the sentence Alice didn’t want to come back. When the texts suggested that the characters were focusing on one particular item of two (as in …let’s try that one), you probably emphasized the word that. All good readers do this.
Finally, you probably read each word with an emphasis placed on the correct syllable within that word. For example, you most likely emphasized the first syllable of the noun increase (read as INcrease) that occurred early in the passage, while emphasizing the second syllable in the verb form that occurred later (as inCREASE). You probably emphasized content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) while de-emphasizing words such as to, the, a, who, would, might, etc.
If you listened carefully when you read that passage aloud, you can see that your reading had many of the same qualities that music does. There was a melody —that is, your pitch went up and down. There was musical phrasing and color—you put just the right amount of emphasis in the right places. There was a rhythmic timing—you could more-or-less clap your hands to the words as you read aloud. The similarities showed in your brain patterns, too, where the same sectors associated with music (the left primary auditory cortex and the right prefrontal cortex) most likely came alive while you read aloud (Patel, Peretez, Tramo, & Labreque, 1998).
Of course, there is nothing special about oral reading in all of this. Ordinary speech makes all these same prosodic distinctions that reading does and generally even more strongly. For most adults, oral reading is generally a bit flatter than their everyday speech. Indeed, a good bit of training is required for newscasters and actors to learn to read their lines in a way that sounds perfectly natural (Wennerstrom, 2001).
We probably both read and speak expressively to better communicate our message to others. All the pitch variations, emphases, and meaningful pauses help listeners receive and comprehend your message. They help the listener break up your message into useful chunks of information and focus on the key information. Prosody in speech is one way to increase the salience and importance of some ideas over others. Expressive reading does the same thing, giving priority to important words and ideas, and helping to segment the text acoustically into groupings that belong together—words in a phrase, words in a sentence, paragraph changes, etc. An expressionless or misprosodic oral reading is much harder to comprehend.
Your own prosody while reading may even help you with comprehension, too. It provides you with auditory feedback that helps to better specify the meaning of the message. For instance, you can use the auditory feedback from your own voice to catch the fact that you might have read (or said) the wrong word. Indeed, when you are having a hard time understanding something you are reading to yourself, reading the text aloud with good prosody can help.
Why does any of this matter? Paula has carried out research examining the development of oral reading prosody in children who are just learning to read (Benjamin et al., 2013; Schwanenflugel et al., 2016). When they first begin to read connected text, children usually read without good prosody. They show many long, erratically placed pauses and stutters. They barely mark the end of a sentence with the pitch change that tells you that they have completed it. They don’t show much emphasis on the right syllables within words nor do they emphasize important segments of text during their reading. They do not make noticeable pitch rises for questions.
As children develop better reading skills, they begin to sound more and more like an adult in their community who is reading the same passage. They start making the same variations in pitch, they pause in the same places, and they emphasize the same segments in text. Further, the timing and sequence of these changes is quite robust across region and dialect. Thus, while speakers of African-American dialect may have distinctive speech qualities related to prosody, developing this prosody during reading matters just as much for dialect speakers as it does for other children. Further, these changes in reading prosody are related to children’s ability to comprehend what they read, quite possibly for the reasons that we described earlier. That is, children who read aloud with good expression tend to comprehend what they are reading better.
What does this mean for parents and teachers and others who care about helping children learn to read well? We think that that adults can listen to children read aloud every day. Doing this will not only give them a pretty good sense of how children’s reading skills are developing in general, but can encourage children to develop good reading prosody—to better find the music, as well as the meaning, in their reading.
Benjamin, R.G., Schwanenflugel, P. J., Meisinger, E. B., Groff, C., Kuhn, M.R., & Steiner, L. (2013). A spectrographically grounded scale for evaluating reading expressiveness. Reading Research Quarterly. 48(2), 105–133.
Patel, A.D., Peretz, I., Tramo, M., & Labreque, R. (1998). Processing prosody and musical patterns: A neuropsychological investigation. Brain and Language, 61, 123-144.
Schwanenflugel, P. J., & Benjamin, R. G. (2016). The development of reading prosody and its assessment. In J. Thomson & Jarmulowicz, L. (Eds.), Linguistic Rhythm and Literacy (IASCL series 'Trends in Language Acquisition Research' (TiLAR) (pp. 187-213). Netherlands: John Benjamins.
Wennerstrom, A. (2001). The music of everyday speech: Prosody and discourse analysis. London: Oxford University Press.