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Prosody and Interpretation

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Prosody is a means for “reading with expression” and is one aspect of oral reading competence. This theoretical inquiry asserts that prosody is central to interpreting text, and draws distinctions between syntactic prosody (for phrasing) and emphatic prosody (for interpretation). While reading with expression appears as a criterion in major assessment instruments (National Center for Education Statistics, 1995), fluency research has focused primarily on syntactic prosody. This article presents lesser-known functions of emphatic (or expressive) prosody. Emphatic prosody in reading helps readers make their inferential thinking manifest. The intent of this article is to elucidate the differences between syntactic and emphatic prosody, and to discuss why this distinction is important for research and teaching. Prosody is appropriate when it guides listeners and readers to interpret using context. As readers become more competent at the imagined discourse demanded by print, specific questions can help readers connect prosody to meaning, and to refine interpretations. Some texts show demand for such questions. One implication of this inquiry is that we need text-based research to identify passages where emphatic prosody can help readers connect to possible interpretations. Other implications for future research include questions about the learning and development of emphatic prosody, and the nature of prosodic thinking during silent reading.

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