Expressive reading plays role in fluency and comprehension

iStock_000008233708XSmallReading fluency is usually measured by how fast and accurately a student reads. But, in a recent study on the link between fluency and reading comprehension for students in grades 3, 5 and 7, researchers used expressive reading or prosody to measure fluency, saying that it is a neglected aspect of building fluency.

The researchers found that even in grades 5 and 7, fluency was significantly associated with silent reading comprehension, although there was a somewhat smaller, but still robust correlation at grade 7.

“Reading fluency has a second component that is often overlooked in studies on fluency and reading fluency instruction–prosody,” the researchers write in Literacy Research and Instruction. “Prosody refers to reading with expression; it is sometimes referred to as the melodic element in reading. Fluent reading (and speech is usually characterized by readers (and speakers) who read at an appropriate rate, but who also convey meaning through their voices–pitch, stress and appropriate phrasing.”

Prosody or expressive reading is also likely to have an impact on readers’ engagement and motivation to read, they add.

The study was conducted at the Westside Community Schools, a small urban school district in Omaha Nebraska, and involved rating electronic recordings of 1204 students in the 3 grades reading 200-word passages. Students were rated with an instrument to assess prosody and fluency used by the Educational Service Unit #3, an education agency in Omaha serving 18 school districts with a total student population of 61,000 students and 5,000 teachers.

Prosody and comprehension

Practicing reading specialists and teachers from Westside schools were trained to listen to electronic recordings of students’ oral reading and assign students scores on expression, smoothness and pace using the Multi-Dimensional Fluency Scoring Guide (MFSG). The guide is based on a fluency rubric used in National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) studies of oral reading that reported significant correlations between oral reading prosody and 4th-grade students’ silent reading comprehension, the authors write. Several studies have validated use of earlier versions of the rubric, which has the following 3 dimensions:

Phrasing and Expression

  • Listen for conversational tone in reading
  • Listen for interpretation of words that communicate meaning
  • Pay close attention to phrasing
  • Keep expression score separate from pace

Smoothness and Accuracy

  • Listen for correct pronunciation of words and smooth delivery of phrases
  • Distinguish between difficulties with certain words and overall difficulties in smoothness.
  • Determine whether problems in smooth ness and accuracy are resolved


  • Remember that pace is more than words per minute
  • Determine whether the pace helps to communicate meaning
  • Listen for the reader speeding up to convey excitement, or slowing down to communicate suspense or sadness

For the study in Literacy Research and Instruction, 2 raters independently scored each reading sample. When the 1st and 2nd raters disagreed by more than one point on the scoring rubric for any of the 3 dimensions, the recorded sample was sent to a third rater. In 4 previous years of using this protocol for over 12,000 reading samples, fewer than 10% of the students’ readings required a third rating, the authors write.

Aggregate fluency scores were correlated with the comprehension subtest scores from the district’s administration of the SAT9. The study found that a significant part of the variance in silent reading comprehension could be attributed to variance in fluency, between 30-40% in all 3 grade levels.

“Students who read with greater prosody in oral reading tended to have higher levels of comprehension when reading silently,” the authors write.

“Recent studies have made a case for a causal relationship between prosody and reading comprehension among 3rd- and 4th-graders. Moreover, a growing body of studies suggest that instruction aimed at improving prosody and automatic reading fluency leads to improved comprehension.”

“Reading Fluency: More Than Automaticity? More than a Concern for the Primary Grades?” by Timothy Rasinski et al., Literacy Research and Instruction, Volume 48, 2009, pps. 350-361.

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