Sunday, November 15, 2015

Emphatic prosody: Oral reading rides again! (in language teaching)

Two friends have related to me how they conclude interviews. One (a) asks applicants "Napoleon's final question" (that he would supposedly pose to potential officers for his army): "Are you lucky?" and (b) has them do a brief, but challenging oral reading. 'A' provides most of what the first needs to know about their character. 'B', the other says, is the best indicator of their potential as a radio broadcaster--or as language teacher. I occasionally use both, especially in considering candidates for (haptic) pronunciation teaching.

One of the "standard" practices of the radio broadcasters (and, of course, actors) on their way to expertise (which some claim takes around 10,000 hours), I'm told, is to consistently practice what is to be read on air or performed, out loud. Have done a number of posts over the years on "read aloud" techniques in general reading instruction with children and language teaching, including the Lectio Divina tradition. Research continues to affirm the importance of oral work in developing both reading fluency and comprehension.

Recently "discovered" a very helpful paper 2010 paper by Erekson, coming out of research in reading, entitled, Prosody and Interpretation, where he examines the distinction between syntactic (functioning at the phrasal level) prosody and emphatic prosody used for interpretation (at the discourse level.) One of the interesting connections that Erekson examines is that between standard indices of reading fluency and expressiveness, specifically control of emphatic prosody. In other words, getting students to read expressively has myriad benefits. Research from a number of perspectives supports that general position on the use of "expressive oral reading" (Patel and McNab, 2011); "reading aloud with kids"  (De Lay, 2012); "automated assessment of fluency" (Mostow and Duong, 2009); "fluency and subvocalization" (Ferguson, Nielson and Anderson, 2014).

The key distinction here is expressiveness at the structural as opposed to discourse level.  It is one thing to get learners to imitate prosody from an annotated script (like we do in haptic work--see below) and quite another to get them to mirror expressiveness in a drama, whether reading from a script without structural cues, as in Reader's Theatre, or impromptu.

Oral reading figures (or figured) prominently in many teaching methods.  The EHIEP (Essential Haptic-integrated English Pronunciation) system, provides contextualized practice in the form of short dialogues where learners use pedagogical movement patterns (PMPs), gestural patterns to accompany each phrase which culminate with hands touching on designated stressed syllables. That is the most important feature of assigned pronunciation homework. Although that is, of course, primarily structural prosody  (in the Lectio Divina tradition) we see consistent evidence that oral performance leads to enhanced interpretative expressiveness.

I suspect that we are going to see a strong return to systematic oral reading in language teaching as interest in pragmatic and discourse competence increases. So, if expressiveness is such an important key to not only fluency but interpretation in general, then how can you do a better job of fostering that in students?


Read out loud, expressively: "Read out loud expressively and extensively!" 


  1. Bill, great post. I shared it with my wife, who is an elementary school reading teacher. She says she faces lots of challenges getting her ELLs to read expressively. How could your techniques be imported into elementary school reading?

  2. One of the reasons that I am as enthusiastic about expressive oral reading as I am is that for a couple decades I observed my wife, who is, herself, a very expressive reader, teaching first grade, often with more than half her students being nonnative speakers. She used oral reading extensively, including "Readers' Theater".She did a good deal of expressive "reading together" in preparation for the final "performance" in the process. I recall very vividly seeing the scripts in hands of the students moving along with the rhythm of the text. (My wife moves a great deal when she reads, too, so I'm sure the students were also seeing a very expressive visual model. I'd think in principle that adaptations of three or four of the haptic pedagogical movement patterns could be used quite effectively with beginning readers, just as TPR-S (storytelling) uses largely iconic gesture on key words for emphasis. I'll have to check with my resident "authority" on the specifics of how that might work and get back to you. Basically, just choreographing a text with PMPs enhances expressiveness.Emphasis and added energy is easy. What will take some thought is how to embody more flowing and colored meanings such as sadness, etc. Sounds like a great new workshop topic. I'll pass this on to a couple of my current grad students who are teaching elementary ESL and get their "read" on it, too!

  3. This is an interesting post. I've often heard that reading aloud benefits overall language ability and helps learners remember the content more than silent reading. In almost every reading class, I have asked my university students to practice reading out loud, either alone, or in pairs (alternating every other line -- works well for the weakest students). My students do this task; however, I can see their faces -- they don't seem to understand WHY they should do it. In Japanese society, talking aloud to oneself (well, in most cultures I think!) is a sign of someone's need for a mental checkup. What can I say to my students that will convince them reading aloud is important? Also, would you recommend teachers model reading aloud first? A final question: Do you recommend students first read aloud slowly and carefully, and then in the second pass, read more quickly, with more expression? Or should students read aloud the same passage many times for practice? I'm wondering which is the best approach.. Thanks!

  4. My current research focuses on your first question. The best empirical studies as to the benefits of oral reading have been carried out with children learning their first language. There, the case is persuasive. With adults, there is all sorts of anecdotal evidence and well-developed methodologies for using expressive oral reading with adults. The key there is "expressive," not just oral reading. In my next comment on this post, I'll assemble the case as best I can for shooting for buy in by your Japanese students. (Having spent more than a decade there, myself, I know the something of the obstacles you are alluding to. (I am going to follow up also on your observation as to the social/cultural consequences of "talking to yourself" in public!