Prosody is simply a fancy word for expressiveness in speech. It includes elements such as intonation, stress, tone, and rhythm. When we talk about language development, vocabulary and grammar tend to take center stage, but those elements of speech only tell half the story. Prosody provides context and gives meaning to words, and keeps listeners engaged. Understanding prosody may seem too big a task for little ones, but it’s actually central to their language and social development!
One of the easiest ways to begin instilling an understanding of prosody is to pay special attention to it when reading to your child.
What is Prosody?
Before we explain the benefits of good prosody when reading to young children (even infants!), it’s important to understand what it is. There’s a long list of elements that contribute to prosody, but we’ll stick to the essentials:
- Emphasis on the right word or syllable: Emphasizing the right word or sound in a story helps draw attention to its importance. For example, “When she opened the window, she saw a rainbow!” (Emphasis on ‘a rainbow.’)
- Voice pitch or modulation: The rise and fall of a reader’s voice can add meaning to a sentence, object, or character. For instance, a stern, loud pitch might be added to a tough character, or a soft, delicate pitch might be used when describing a magical forest.
- Appropriate pauses: Knowing when to pause, and how long, is vital when reading a story out loud. Pauses can add anticipation, allow a crucial detail to sink in, or support the direction of a storyline.
- Voice timbre: Quite simply, vocal timbre is the quality or dynamic tone of your voice while describing specific details. We use our vocal timbre to deliver different emotions in the content like sadness, happiness, anger, or excitement.
If you’d like an example of a speaker with excellent prosody, listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. Linguists from all over the world point to this epic recording as an example of perfect prosody. Using more prosody during reading time doesn’t only help a child’s literary development, it also helps us become better at using prosody to communicate!
Why is Reading with Prosody Important?
Reading with prosody is a fundamental part of language learning. Even though your child can’t read yet, by using good prosody during storytime, you’re providing an introduction to reading accuracy and reading comprehension. Using proper prosody when reading to your toddler can provide a lot of underlying benefits to their development, such as:
- Learning new words
- Understanding the melody of sentence structures
- Providing a foundation for understanding punctuation (commas, periods, exclamation points, etc.)
- Becoming more engaged
- Exercising active listening skills
- Enhancing imagination and creativity
Now, when your toddler begs you to read their favorite book for the millionth time, is it easy to jump back in with perfect prosody? Not so much! Don’t be too concerned if you’re not delivering emphasis, pitch, and your best vocal timbre throughout every book. Just being aware of prosody and emphasizing it from time to time benefits your little one. And it doesn’t always have to be during storytime! You can also practice prosody with your little one by playing games, like the Playing with Tone activity in our BabySparks program.