Do You Hear What I Hear?
Why the Music of Reading Aloud Matters for Kids

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: PeopleImages, DigitalVision / Getty Images

I love listening to my husband read to my son. He puts the emPHASis on the wrong sylLABle, just to make him laugh. He does all the voices. He pitches his voice sky high and down low. Rhyming words are exaggerated, to make a point. It’s not always melodic, per se, but it is musical, rhythmic — and I wondered if and how this makes a difference for budding readers.

To get to the bottom of it, I reached out to Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., of the University of Georgia’s Department of Educational Psychology. In her Psychology Today article, “The Music of Reading Aloud,” she dissects reading prosody — a.k.a. the art of reading with inflection and emphasis — as well as its relationship to reading fluency and understanding.

Can you teach reading prosody directly?

Teachers generally don’t teach prosody. The teachers who do teach it might say, ‘Oh, you raise your voice at the end if there’s a question mark,’ or ‘If there’s an exclamation point, make your voice sound excited.’ But you don’t raise your voice at every question. Think about certain yes/no questions — I mean questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” These are the only kinds where people systematically raise their voice at the end. And good readers don’t pause at every comma.

You have to be a linguist to know how to teach reading prosody correctly and I don’t think most teachers are trained that way.

What about learning “on the lap” with a parent?

Kids learn how to read with prosody because they talk with prosody. Yes, they learn that from their caretakers.

As they read with greater fluency, there’s more room to imbue meaning through prosody. There’s more room in their head, more cognitive space.

What’s the most effective way to get kids to read more musically?

Other than exhorting kids to be expressive when they read, I don’t see a whole lot of sense in going line-by-line teaching it.

People are surprised by this. I’ve been doing this work for more than 15 years, so they’re surprised I’ve dedicated so much time and then suggest that teachers don’t try to teach it. They can ask children to read more expressively, show them what that sounds like, but that’s about all that makes sense to me.

It’s more a mark of whether the child is fluent, whether they understand what they are reading.

So prosody does matter.

The role of prosody in, psycholinguistics speak, is to break up ideas for the listener and for the comprehender. Because sentences are long and there are lots of ideas floating around in there, you need to break it up so the reader and listener can understand and put it together.

A lot of reading is very auditory. If you think of it, there’s a little voice in your head when you read. Linguistically, we need some way to help us store this information in working memory. Working memory is auditory focused. To a great extent, language and things around language have an auditory base.

My husband is a really expressive reader, while I’m a more subtle reader, when reading aloud. Is one better than the other? Or, like most things, is having a wide variety the point?

We did a study on this exact point. We provided an extreme example — a very nice, highly expressive reading and a more monotone reading. Preschool children understood the expressive reading better. It was a substantial effect. We could determine that it made a difference.

I was surprised that the expressive reading made such a difference. The person who did both readings for us was a linguist, she knew what she was doing around prosody, so the monotone reading wasn’t awful. It was read correctly and with pauses in the right places. Kids needed good reading prosody to understand what was being read to them, even when the book was right in front of them. It suggests that prosody does matter to them.

We’ve also observed some preschool teachers, how expressively they read. Those teachers knock it out of the park. They are crazy prosodic. I think your husband is right. The kids need that expressive reading when their parents are reading to them, even before they can read themselves.