Perhaps you have a child taking music lessons. Or maybe you remember those lessons from your own childhood. If so, you are familiar with the challenge of learning to read music. Bass and treble clef, lines, and spaces, and all the notations that help guide the musician in the way the music is to be performed (key signatures, allegro, crescendo, forte, etc.).
But we know that the notations on paper are not the music. They are just marks on the page. It takes someone to play those notations to actually produce the music.
Reading text on a page is very much like reading notes on a musical score.
The pen and ink part is simply an aid to the actual performance. Understanding these similarities will help us to appreciate reading fluency in a new and vital way.
Since the ability to record is a very recent addition to the human experience, music was passed along through history by creating a way to write it down. Reading is very similar to music in that respect.
Whereas we have an oral tradition in both music and text (story), writing it down has become the preferred method of preserving music/literature for generations to come. When it came to bringing those two types of written manuscripts to life, the method of performance took a somewhat different path.
We’re used to thinking of music as a performing art, whether it is a concert hall or alone in the attic. The music is transferred from the silent page to an auditory experience. But reading is often a silent experience, performed inside our heads. In fact, reading out loud is done only on special occasions.
And yet it would be well to remember that the written word is audible speech written down. Just as music has its notation system indicating how the music is to be played, punctuation serves the same purpose in the written word.
The question mark doesn’t simply inform us that the sentence is a question. When we ask a question, our voice rises and falls in a particular way. When we encounter a period, our voice pauses. For a comma, that pause is more brief than a period. Exclamation marks and semi-colons and hyphens inform us of more than grammatical conventions: they also tell us how it should sound if read correctly.
We teach our young readers to pay attention to punctuation, the notations that help us perform the speech sounds appropriately. But text performance is not limited to the guidance of punctuation. There is the actual story that is being told that suggests a myriad of emotions. Anger, fear, tenderness, boldness, timidity, and defiance are a small sample of qualities that can be conveyed by the volume, intonation, and inflection of a person’s voice.
When we watch a movie, we see how a story is told with the added benefit of sight, music, and other auditory embellishments. Reading performance can be thought of as an a capella version (without accompaniment).
Which brings us, finally, to that 9-year-old trying to learn to read.
Learning to decode words is a monumental task for a learning reader. It doesn’t sound much different from that same child practicing the piano or violin. Screech and plunk and try it again. Much time and effort is spent working on the mechanics, the technical aspects of getting the right sounds out of the instrument.
Eventually you begin to hear something that sounds like music, like reading. At that point, the focus of your attention turns to the finer points of performance. Children are asked to read a story with “feeling,” which loosely means paying attention to the story’s punctuation and dynamics, and using your voice to convey that drama. Reading experts call this “fluency.”
It is useful to think of reading aloud as a performing art. Becoming skilled with your audible reading voice will enhance that silent voice in your head and enrich, for life, your reading experiences. The National Reading Panel, in its report to Congress, identified this ability as one of the five most critical areas of an accomplished reader. There are many ways to develop this skill in young readers, but that is a topic for another time.