One of the many joys that come with being able to read well is the ability to read with Expression. I remember listening to my mom read to me as a kid making her voice change between the characters speaking and the narrator telling the story. She was always so animated and convincing.
And then there were countless teachers who read to my classmates and I with so much feeling; we actually believed we were a part of the stories we were listening to. I have to credit these teachers for fostering my love for reading while they modeled the very things they wanted my classmates and I to adopt as developing readers.
When it comes to listening to my students read, my skilled readers read with Expression, but many students don't have any Expression at all. Instead, they read in monotones sounding "bored", "robotic", and clearly disconnected from the words on the page in front of them. Listening to them read aloud can be painful for their classmates and I, which causes much concern. I'm not sure when (or if) my students ever believed reading was fun, but it's time I teach them how to make it more enjoyable for all of us.
Read With Feeling!
Once we've established our criteria for monitoring our Speed, Accuracy, and Phrasing, it's time to move into Reading with Expression. I start this lesson by playing a couple audio clips of former students reading. One student reads "robotically" and another reads with some Expression, but this student still struggles a bit.
This is the perfect time to have a discussion about what these two students are not doing well. I ask my students to identify what these two readers are doing wrong. I list their ideas on the board and add in the ones they miss.
Problems with Expression
- No expression; reading is monotone.
- Reading too fast to express feeling.
- Ignoring punctuation.
- No change in pitch around sentence boundaries.
- Not distinguishing character from narrator, or multiple speakers from each other, in dialog.
Once we have these problems identified, I play two more audio clips of what Expressive Reading should "sound" like. One is from a former student and for the other clip; I like to use an author (or an actor/actress) reading from a piece of literature (think Christopher Walken reciting Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven").
I then ask my students what these readers are doing well, and I list their ideas. Again, I add in the criteria they miss.
- Change my volume, rhythm, pitch, and timbre in ways that make sense.
- Follow the punctuation.
- Emphasize important moments.
- Make it sound like someone is reading to me.
- Reading with feeling; make my voice match the meaning.
This assessment criteria often requires further discussion about a few of the "sound" terms. To clarify, my students and I create these working definitions for them as they apply to reading:
Volume = how loud or soft we read
Pitch = how deep or high our voice is
Rhythm = how fast or slow our voice moves
Timbre (tone) = the feeling/emotion in our voice
We then talk about how we need to change our voices in ways that make sense. Ways that help us make sense of what we're reading.
There are certain ways we should "sound" as we reach end-mark ("outside") punctuation (periods, question marks, and exclamation marks). For a period, our Pitch starts out steady and then drops off as we reach the period at the end of the sentence. We also talk about making a BIG stop when we reach a period.
For a question mark, our Pitch starts up, drops some, and goes way up as we reach the question mark at the end. We want our voice to really "sound" curious like we were asking a question in conversation.
For an exclamation mark, our Pitch starts up, drops quickly, and shoots up quickly at the end. In the picture, you can see an example of a former student's notes with the drawings I use to help students "see" what happens to our pitch as we follow the punctuation.
"Inside" punctuation like commas, semi-colons, colons, ellipses, dashes, hyphens, long dashes, and parentheses help us with our Rhythm. These punctuation marks show us when we should speed up and slow down. However, initially, I only teach my students about how to use commas to speed up and slow down. We'll cover other "inside" punctuation as students find them in their reading and ask about them. I like to address their questions and concerns in the "context" of what we're doing.
Prior to teaching my students about Following the Punctuation, I've used post-it notes to mark places in my current book that have the sentences, questions, and exclamatory statements that I'll use in my lesson. As I model what my voice should "sound" like for each punctuation mark, I write each of these sentences on the board for my students to see. Having examples helps them "see" what I want them to look for in their own books. It also helps them assess whether or not I'm following our criteria for Expression.
Once I've covered what to do in Following the Punctuation, I give my students time to practice. I have small post-it notes in each of their groups and ask them to look for a sentence that ends with a period, a question, and an exclamation mark to practice with. Then, I have them mark these in their books. Along with our criteria, I ask that they write each one down along with the page number. Then, as we've done with our lessons in Speed, Accuracy, and Phrasing, I have them practice in their groups. For students who finish early, I ask them to find another sentence, question, and/or exclamation to practice with. After we've practiced, I ask for a few volunteers to share with the class and we give them feedback and a grade using our criteria for Following the Punctuation and move on.
Distinguishing Between Characters and the Narrator
In addition to teaching students about how to change their Pitch to match the punctuation in the sentence, I also have to point out that our Pitch must also change between different characters in the story and the narrator. We review who these people are and what their roles are. Then, we talk about following this rule:
Pitch UP for "character", down for narrator.
Notice that I've placed "character" in quotation marks here. I use quotation marks to help show students to look for them as they often indicate when characters are speaking. Then, I model how this "sounds" by displaying a passage from my current book that includes narration and characters speaking and reading it aloud. After I've finished, I give my students time to find parts from their books to practice with in their groups and ask them to follow the rule I've just modeled for them.
Emphasizing Important Moments
For Emphasizing Important Moments, I ask students to begin looking for words that "look" different. Perhaps the author has placed these in italics, bold, "quotation marks", or there is just something important happening in the story. Often, authors leave readers clues that help readers identify when something important is taking place. Sometimes this leads us into mini-lessons on suspense, elements of plot, and other literary terms authors use to point out important moments in their stories. As I've done with our other criteria, I find a passage in my current book to model what an important moment should "sound" like and give students time to practice as well.
Make it Sound Like Someone is Reading to Me
This is what makes listening to someone who reads well worth it! Kids never seem to tire of me reading to them, but I don't want to always be the one who is the only good reader in class. After we've covered all of our other criteria for Expressive Reading, we practice with this one. Our discussion here centers around how our Timbre (Tone) and Volume must change to match word meanings. This is the ideal time to begin showing students how to identify words that authors use to show feeling and how these words are our clues for how we put emotion into our reading.
To model this, I will find a passage from my book that shows a particular feeling like happiness, but I will read the passage in an angry tone like I'm punishing someone. Having this passage displayed for my students allows them to see where I've gone wrong. We'll spend some time talking about, which words help show the feelings the author is trying to convey to his/her readers. Once we have these "showing" words identified and their meaning clarified, I'll re-read the passage as it's intended to be read.
I save this piece of evaluation criteria for last because it sums up the rest of the work we've done nicely, and it's the most FUN! To throw some competition into the mix, I have students practice with a different passage in their groups. While they're practicing, I have them listen for who is the Best Expressive Reader in their group. Once each group has determined who this is, I have each of these students read aloud to the entire class. These readers get really into it and the rest of the class cheers them on. They are often dynamic sounding like actors or actresses. Once each person has read, we vote for our Top 3 Expressive Readers. Sometimes we keep our competition going for a few weeks and vote for our top 3 each week. It's remarkable how a little gamesmanship lures students in!
Listening to students read with no Expression is a clear indication that students do not comprehend well, if at all. And yet, many of them read like this thinking that by pronouncing the words correctly, they're actually reading. But there's so much more to reading than decoding.
By showing my students how good readers are able to read Expressively, giving them criteria to monitor their own Expression, and allowing class time to practice, I'm able to help them develop this extremely important skill. Sure, it takes time, a lot of review, reinforcement, and practice.
Since I've implemented this into my reading instruction, each year I have a small group of students who come to class and tell me they've been practicing at home with their younger siblings or cousins, which shows me they value what I've taught them or they finally see reading as "fun". If I only reach this small group of kids each year for the rest of my teaching career, I'm okay with that because I've shown them the joys of reading my mom and my teachers shared with me so long ago.
For more on Expressive Reading, see READING ALLOWED: Making Sure the First “R” Comes First.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org.