Reading with Feeling: 4 Simple Strategies for Helping ELLs Develop Prosody
When it comes to reading comprehension, it’s not enough for your students to be able to decode and understand words correctly. To gain the full meaning that an author wants to convey, they must also know how to read with prosody.
As one of the three major components of fluency, prosody plays a key role in language and literacy development. But learning how to read with prosody can be quite a challenge, particularly for non-native English speakers.
So as a teacher, how can you get your English language learners (ELLs) to master this critical reading skill? Below, we’ve highlighted four effective strategies for helping ELLs develop prosody while they read. But before we get to that, let’s take a deeper look at what it means to be a prosodic reader.
What is the Definition of Prosody?
Reading with prosody simply means to read with expression. It involves using the appropriate rhythm, emphasis, pitch, tone, and timing to breathe life into the words you’re reading and convey meaning. In other words, it’s reading with feeling.
Without prosody, we’d sound like robots as we read—completely devoid of emotion. But, like the English learners (ELs) in your class, we all begin our literacy journey as robotic readers who decode words with no regard for our delivery. Prosodic reading doesn’t come any more naturally than decoding does, which is why teaching prosody in reading is so crucial.
Why is Teaching Prosody in Reading Important for ELLs?
Reading with expression is far more enjoyable and engaging than robot reading, but prosody actually benefits the reader more than their listeners.
Over the years, researchers have discovered a strong link between reading prosody and overall literacy achievement. In fact, students who exhibit good oral reading prosody typically have higher comprehension scores in silent reading.
For a student to read expressively with the appropriate intonation and timing, they have to understand what’s happening in the text. But on the flip side, reading with prosody helps the reader process information and better understand what the author wants to convey.
Teaching prosody in reading also helps students become better communicators by understanding how to convey meaning through written and spoken prosodic cues. This is especially significant for ELs who are trying to adapt to the new rhythms and expressive elements of the English language.
Additionally, failing to support your EL’s prosody development can result in serious setbacks. English learners who struggle with reading fluency and don’t receive adequate support are at higher risk of being mislabeled with a learning disability and wrongfully placed in special education services.
Therefore, it’s important to ensure that you’re explicitly teaching your English language learners how to read with prosody and providing ample opportunities for them to practice.
When and How to Teach Prosody in Reading to ELLs
Before they’re able to read with prosody, your ELs must be able to decode words with automaticity.
If a student isn’t able to decode effortlessly and accurately, then they likely won’t fully understand what’s going on in the text. And if they don’t comprehend what they’re reading, then they certainly won’t be able to read with proper expression.
Once decoding becomes automatic, ELs can focus their energy on understanding what they’re reading. Otherwise, their pace is slowed down by sounding out words, and they struggle to see the big picture. If your English learners can decode accurately with speed and ease, then you can move on to teaching prosody in reading.
Helping ELLs Develop Prosody
Wondering how to help your English learners become prosodic readers? Here are four steps that you should take.
1. Teaching Pronunciation Using the Prosody Pyramid
The prosody pyramid is a great tool to help English learners understand the melody of the English language. It’s split into four parts: thought groups, focus words, stress, and peak.
By teaching each level of the prosody pyramid in order, your ELs will learn how to use the appropriate intonation and rhythm as they read a sentence aloud. Now, let’s go over each level in more detail.
All sentences in the English language can be broken down into thought groups, which are small groups of words that are separated by a short pause for easier listening. A comma often signifies a separation between thought groups, but not always.
Thought groups have a unique rhythm. While reading a sentence aloud, you’ll typically drop your pitch at the end of one and draw out the last syllable before briefly pausing. For example, read the following sentence aloud.
“That shirt is mine, not yours.”
This sentence has two thought groups: That shirt is mine, not yours.
When you read that sentence, you should notice that the pitch falls slightly on the words mine and yours, and the comma causes you to pause momentarily between the thought groups. These characteristics contribute to the overall rhythm of the sentence.
By helping your students identify thought groups within a sentence, they’ll become much better at learning how to use proper pitch and timing as they read.
Every thought group has a focus word, or a word that’s emphasized most, because it conveys the most pertinent information. Typically, the focus word is the last important content word within a thought group.
“That shirt is mine, not yours.”
The focus word in the first thought group is the word mine because it’s emphasized the most. Once your ELs can recognize focus words in a sentence, they’ll have a better idea of how to adjust their intonation while they read aloud.
Now that your ELs have determined which word is emphasized most in the thought group, it’s time to determine which syllable is stressed most within that focus word.
This is easy when the focus word contains only one syllable, like in our example sentence above. But let’s take it a step further with the following example:
“The yellow one is yours.”
The focus word in this thought group is the word yellow, which has two syllables (yel · low). As is the case with most two-syllable words, the first syllable (yel) receives the stress, while the second syllable is de-emphasized.
The final level of the prosody pyramid is fittingly named the peak. The peak refers to the emphasized vowel within the stressed syllable. This vowel is significant because it influences pitch.
Let’s look again at our focus word yellow from the previous example. Because the stressed syllable is “yel,” the peak vowel is the e, which produces a short e sound (/ɛ/).
Because the e is stressed in the first syllable and the o is de-emphasized in the second, this causes a slight drop in pitch when read aloud.
When teaching pronunciation using the prosody pyramid, be sure to take it slow and give your ELs plenty of time to practice identifying each level. Using visual aids, such as a fill-in graphic organizer of the prosody pyramid, or interactive activities are great ways to help students practice. In time, they’ll understand how to pronounce focus words correctly and use the appropriate pitch, emphasis, and intonation as they read.
2. Demonstrating Reading with Prosody
The key to helping ELLs develop prosody while reading is to model good prosodic reading for them.
Start by reading a short excerpt from a text without prosody. Then, read it again with prosody. When you’re finished, ask your ELs which they preferred and why. Most will say the second one because it was more entertaining.
From there, explain to them that reading more expressively helps them comprehend better, too.
Go back to the excerpt and explain your prosodic choices for different parts so that your students understand why you read it that way. Discuss how changing your tone and timing can demonstrate how a character is feeling and add to the mood or atmosphere of a setting. Point out how punctuation can affect your volume and timing, and what meaning that conveys.
Be sure to show your ELs how you can change the tone of a sentence simply by stressing different words and phrases. For example:
“I didn’t steal your wallet.” — This implies that I stole someone else’s wallet.
“I didn’t steal your wallet.” — This implies that I stole something else of yours, but not your wallet.
“I didn’t steal your wallet.” — This implies that I didn’t steal your wallet, but I might know who did.
You can also show your students how punctuation can change meaning, such as in the case of “Let’s eat, grandma!” and “Let’s eat grandma!”
Again, take your time to demonstrate how to read with prosody before expecting them to do it. You can also use audiobooks to help with modeling good oral reading expression, just make sure that your students have the text on hand to read along silently.
3. Practicing Reading Aloud
Now that you’ve done a sufficient amount of modeling for your ELs, it’s time for them to practice prosodic reading! Here are five different strategies that you can use in your classroom for helping ELLs develop prosody.
1. Echo Reading
Echo reading is a strategy in which teachers read one thought group, sentence, or paragraph at a time and have their students imitate (echo) their intonation. This is a great first step for teaching ELs to read with expression, as mimicking helps children develop new speech habits.
Check out this video to see an example of echo reading in action.
2. Choral Reading
Choral reading is when an entire class reads aloud in unison. This strategy is especially ideal for ELs who are too shy or intimidated by reading aloud in public by themselves. When using the choral reading technique in your class, be sure to select short texts that are on your students’ reading level.
3. Reader’s Theater
Reader’s theater is a highly-effective strategy for teaching prosody in reading. It combines fluency practice with performing—giving students a purpose for reading aloud with expression.
There are no costumes or props in reader’s theater, so your students will have to entertain their “audience” and convey meaning solely by being a prosodic reader.
Short, simple scripts work best for this strategy. Also, when choosing your text, try to find one that features a lot of fun dialogue between multiple characters.
4. Partner Reading
Partner reading is when two students work together to read an assigned text, like a poem or short story. Students can take turns reading with feeling. While one student reads, the other can take note of what they did well and offer suggestions for improvement.
When using this strategy, consider pairing students who are struggling with stronger prosodic readers. Partner reading works best with ELs when they feel comfortable with their partner. If possible, try to pair students together who don’t have the same native language. It’s often easier to hear differences in pronunciation and emphasis from those with a different linguistic background.
5. Voice Recordings
You can even have your ELs record themselves as they practice reading with prosody. Then, they can listen to it to hear places in their reading that lack the appropriate timing and inflection.
Take time to discuss their findings with your students, and allow them to record themselves again and again. Over time, they will be able to hear their progress.
4. Assessing for Prosody
A key aspect of helping ELLs develop prosody is to assess their progress. As you’re teaching prosody in reading, take time to sit with each of your students and listen while they read aloud. That way, you can identify their strengths and struggles when it comes to expressive reading and adjust your instruction accordingly.
Use questioning to check that they understand prosodic cues. For example, ask, “Why did you emphasize this word?” or “Why did you get louder here?” Your students should be able to explain their reasons. Perhaps they wanted to convey a character’s emotions or create tension.
By checking in with your students along the way, you’ll help them become stronger prosodic readers, which in turn will improve their comprehension.
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