No More Robot Reading: How to Help Kids Read with Expression

by Melissa Taylor

Photo credit: Ian Nolan, Cultura/Getty Images

Ever hear a child read like a robot? Not because they’re trying to, but because they’re struggling to read with inflection. No pauses for punctuation. Monotone voice. One long run-on sentence.

Try the following strategies to improve your child’s oral reading expression.

I know, this is obvious, and you’re already doing it but keep doing it. Reading out loud to your child helps them hear your oral expression and pacing.

As you read, point out punctuation marks. Show your child how readers pause for punctuation.

Get creative with reading aloud. Try different voices. Read with a different accent, change your volume, or project a particular emotion in your voice such as:

  • sad person
  • fast / slow talker
  • whisperer
  • cowboy
  • princess
  • monster
  • robot

Ask your child to read in a silly voice too.

Chorus Read
Read together, out loud, at the same time just like a choir sings together. This helps your child mimic your natural cadence. Now you’re not just modeling; your child is actually doing it with you.

If you don’t have time to read together, take Tabitha Philen’s suggestion and have your child read out loud with an audiobook. Philen recalls that her daughter dramatically improved her reading aloud skills by doing this.

Echo Read
You read a sentence or two out loud while your child listens. Then, your child copies exactly what you read, matching your modulations. This can be so supportive for children who struggle with reading with expression. Parent, Erin Bylund, uses Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie books with her son. She and her child work on the same book until she sees improvement. She suggests using short books or short poems.

Read and Record
Let your child record themself reading out loud using GarageBandQuickVoice Recorder, or Voice Recorder. Then, have them listen to the recording. See if they can assess where they did a great job and where they could improve.

Whisper Phones
I love whisper phones for kids who need to practice reading, especially oral reading expression. Children whisper-read into a PVC pipe-like “phone”, which amplifies their voice so they can hear themselves clearly. You’ll see these in early elementary classrooms as well as speech therapist offices.

Reading a script, especially one with emotion notes, helps the reader consider tone of voice as well as decibel.

Or how about memorizing lines from your favorite play or movie? I recommend “The Princess Bride”!

Adjust for Auditory Issues
My daughter’s sensory processing issues interfere with her ability to read with inflection. Even a child’s allergies can interfere depending on if their ear canals are clogged. If your child is experiencing auditory overload, Jacquie Fisher suggests giving cotton balls or earplugs to them so their voice doesn’t seem so loud. This helped Fisher’s daughter’s perception of her “head” voice and improved her singing inflection in singing class.

Practice makes better. Especially meaningful, intentional practice with the activities I’ve mentioned. Keep patiently working with your child and you will see improvement.