What Can You Say
About a Book?

Ideas and Inspiration for Improving Book Talk
and Book Reviews

by Steve Peha

How Do Expressive Readers Read?

When I was in school, most of us read like little robots, droning on one word after another. I don’t know which was worse: reading out loud myself or having to listen to everyone else. I knew that expressive reading was what my teachers did when they read to us. But I didn’t know how to do it myself because I didn’t know the four things good readers do to express a text:

(1) They change pitch. Expressive readers make their voices go up and down. They go up at the beginning of a sentence and down at the end (up slightly if it ends with a question mark). They also go up and down to differentiate the words of a speaker (often high in pitch) from those of the narrator (usually lower). Changes in pitch often help readers understand where different ideas begin and end.

(2) They change rhythm. Expressive readers speed up and slow down when they read. They also take appropriate pauses—big ones at the end of a sentence, smaller ones in between, after commas, and also at logical points like phrase and clause boundaries. Changes in rhythm often help readers understand how small parts of sentences combine to create a complete thought.

(3) They change volume. Expressive readers say some words louder than others. In general, little words are said softer than more important words. Changes in volume are often used to create emphasis.

(4) They change tone. Sometimes readers use a soft, warm voice; sometimes their voice is cold and hard. They do this to communicate different feelings—soft and warm usually means nice, calm, or even sad; hard and cold can mean scary, angry, or excited.

Of course, some of the most interesting things happen when reader’s break these rules in ways that add meaning to the text. By doing something different than what others may expect, in the context of doing other things more conventionally, a reader can give unusual emphasis to important parts when reading aloud.

A Little Grammar Goes a Long Way

Telling you about the four elements of expressive reading will help build your analytical skills and helps you assess your efforts as an expressive reader, but in order to be most effective, you need to understand the crucial connection between expression, meaning, and sentence structure. And this requires a slightly more technical approach that brings in a little grammar.

Take a look at this sentence:

    On a bright summer morning, Jeremy Goodfellow, a young man of simple means and honest intentions, left the quiet country town in which he’d been raised, and set off on the bold errand he’d been preparing for all his life.

You can see that it is made up of several parts. There are four kinds of sentence parts to watch for:

(1) Main Parts. These parts usually contain the main action of the sentence: “Jeremy Goodfellow… left the quiet country town in which he’d been raised….”

(2) Lead-In Parts. These parts often introduce a main part: “On a bright summer morning…”

(3) In-Between Parts. As the name implies, these parts go in between other parts. They feel like a slight interruption: “…a young man of simple means and honest intentions…”

(4) Add-On Parts. These are extra parts that convey additional information about any of the other parts: “…and set off on the bold errand he’d been preparing for all his life.”

Experienced expressive readers change pitch when they change part. Main Parts should be spoken at a middle pitch level. Intro Parts are often read at a higher pitch level. In-between Parts are usually read at a level lower than the parts they are in between. And Add-On Parts should be spoken at a slightly lower level than the part they follow.

If this doesn’t sound like the kind of grammar study you’re used to, it’s because I’m intentionally avoiding the terminology of traditional Latin grammar, the kind we study in school, because it is often meaningless to kids (at least it was to me) and because it is often applied incorrectly to English (Latin grammar works well for Latin but not so well for us). Over the years, I’ve had much better results using descriptive terms like “in-between parts” and “add-on parts” than I have using terms like “non-restrictive clause” and “summative modifier”. Regardless of the terminology involved, you’re still learning about the relationship between expression, meaning, and sentence structure, and that’s what improves your reading.

Getting Started

Using the “sentence part” terminology introduced here, “diagram” a few sentences in a book you are reading. This isn’t traditional sentence diagramming, of course, but it is useful in ways that traditional diagramming is not. For one thing, it’s much easier to apply to original writing. With a little practice, you can easily to “lift” the patterns you find and insert your own ideas. This can have a dramatic effect on your sentence fluency when you write.