Jessica Tess is the Assessment and Student Work Coordinator at Riveting Results. Prior to joining Riveting Results, she was a teacher and teacher-leader for 10 years in the Milwaukee area.
In her role at Riveting Results, she directs a team of former teachers who score Fluency recordings in which high school students read complex text aloud. Within 24 hours, Jessica and her team of scorers return quantitative and qualitative feedback to students.
In this post, Jessica discusses what happens to a student’s understanding of a text when they practice emphasizing certain words as they read aloud.
At Riveting Results, we score each recording based on just one feature of reading fluency. One of these features is the ability to emphasize certain words. We have found that students need to be able to show emphasis in order to ultimately read complex text with prosody, or expression.
When teachers first utilize the Riveting Results Fluency Tool with their students, they are often confused by a positive score on an emphasis recording: “This doesn’t sound fluent to me—she overemphasizes the words—she sounds unnatural.”
That’s a totally fair comment. Teachers are used to looking for mastery—and, its opposite, any sign of a mistake.
Yet at Riveting Results we have found that practicing emphasizing words—even to the extent of overemphasizing them— helps high school students recognize how to change and manipulate their voices in a way that allows for more nuanced expression later on.
Take, for instance, what we hear in Nicole’s First Recording, when she reads from page 304 of Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea. In it, you can hear her emphasize three words: “book,” “dormitory,” and “characters.” She emphasizes these words in a way that her teacher initially saw as signs of disfluency.
But, if we aren’t so worried about Nicole’s mistakes, we can hear her start to show signs of expressive reading. Hear how she adds a syllable to “book” by rippling her voice. Hear her volume surge when she encounters “dormitory.” Finally, notice that her pitch heightens when she gets to “characters.”
Nicole’s experimentation and practice, like jotting on scratch paper in math class, isn’t pretty yet, but it enables her to understand the impact of modulating her pitch, pacing, and volume. Over a couple of weeks of practice, she gains more and more control over her breathing and more ease in her expressive choices.
Listen to this later recording in which Nicole emphasizes the words “ill,” “hated,” and “stomach.” Her confidence draws you in. She almost sounds sick herself when she emphasizes the word “ill.” Nicole’s bitter tone shows that she understands how much Langston Hughes hated his father.
Practicing emphasis has enabled Nicole to build a bridge between reading the sounds of words on a page and the feelings that these words and phrases evoke in her.
So let’s revisit that question: “What if the emphasis doesn’t sound natural?” My answer is: Practicing emphasis is part of a longer process of experimenting with reading aloud. Making these sometimes awkward recordings help students connect the sounds of the words to their meaning, and ultimately to their impact. Students who keep practicing reading with emphasis soon become better able to read fluently in a way that reveals the meaning and power of the text.