What are the units of meaning in a text, the “chunks of information” you encounter that are understandable to some degree all by themselves? From largest to smallest, here are some of the possibilities: a book, a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, a phrase or clause, a word, a syllable, a phoneme, or a single letter.
Now, think about how you build comprehension as you read. What chunks are useful? Whole novels and whole chapters seem far too long. You have to identify significantly smaller chunks of text because your brain’s capacity to retain language in short term memory is so limited, even most paragraphs are too long. Obviously, there’s little meaning one can get from a single letter or phoneme; these are far too small.
Certainly, we can gain meaning from a sentence, but some are long or logically complex. Therefore, readers must do most of their processing at the phrase and clause level. And this is the key to using expressive reading to help you understand more of what you read.
Real time comprehension, the kind most readers rely on for most of their reading, is accomplished by figuring out phrase- and clause-size chunks. Without fast and accurate reading of phrases and clauses, you miss the meanings of the sentences that contain them and you begin to lose the thread of your understanding.
On a literal level, the act of reading is a process of “decoding and recoding.” First, individual words are decoded and then, just a few milliseconds later, the brain “recodes” this data into a larger chunk of information that is more meaningful.
Readers have to constantly split text into chunks that are optimized for immediate understanding. By learning how to read expressively in a way that improves your ability to quickly and accurately identify these chunks, you can dramatically affect your comprehension, improve your fluency, and increase your reading rate as well.
Phrase Breaking: The Ultimate Comprehension Tool
I have found that the single most effective strategy for improving comprehension is something I call “phrase breaking.” Take a look at this short passage:
The bus lurched along the switch-backed mountain road, throwing Keith against the window at every turn. They had left the village at 5:30 that morning after standing in the dark predawn chill for an hour and he was thoroughly exhausted. It was now midmorning, and the African sun was getting hot. Keith was already drenched in sweat, tormented by the fact that he couldn't get any fresh air. Several times he tried opening the window next to his seat a few inches, only to draw protests from his fellow passengers.
—from “A Roadside Understanding” by Ben Hippen
Now, imagine that it was being read like this:
When you break the text into small, meaningful chunks, your comprehension, fluency, and reading rate all improve. The key here is to read the writing the way it was written. Writers fuss over their sentences, phrase by phrase, until everything is just perfect, One aspect of this perfection is that every sentence should be easy to read and understand regardless of how complex it is.
Secrets of Phrase Breaking Revealed
Breaking phrases like this may seem foreign to most readers, but actually it's a normal thing we do all the time — just not always when we read from a book. Take a look at this well-known text:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands...
But we don't read it that way, we read it like this:
I pledge allegiance
Notice that when we read "The Pledge of Allegiance" in the normal way, we naturally do the phrase breaking. In fact, not doing the phrase breaking doesn't sound right at all. So how do we do it?
Tuck the little words into the bigger ones. Notice that each phrase starts with a "little" word ("I", "to", "of", "and", "for"). These kinds of words often signal the beginnings of phrases. Larger words often come at the end ("allegiance", "flag", "America", "republic", "stands").
Break phrases into groups of three to six words. Occasionally, you'll break for a one- or two-word phrase, and once in a while you have to go to seven or even eight. But even these longer phrases can be broken down into shorter ones. In general, a "phrase" as I'm using the term here is a very short group of words.
Pause slightly between phrases regardless of other punctuation. Everybody knows to pause when we see punctuation, but most people don't know that they should also pause just slightly when come to the end of a phrase. After all, putting a slight break between phrases is the whole idea.
Why is Phrase Breaking so Important?
Phrase breaking seems a little tedious especially when you're just starting. Why is it worth the trouble?
It matches the way the English language works. The grammar of English — the rules by which sensible sentences are constructed — is called a "phrase structure" grammar. This means that sentences are made out of groups of words and not just single words. As I said at the beginning of this article, phrases are the smallest, most meaningful units in a text.
It matches the way our eyes scan text. In a normal size book with normal size print, our eyes don't read one word at a time. But they don't read a line at a time or a sentence at a time either. Most readers scan a line of text in three to four "chunks" depending on the line length. Because most books are typeset with 10-15 words per line, this means that our eyes see three to five words each time they move along a line from left to right. Not coincidentally, this is the size of the average phrase.
It matches the way we speak and listen. Listen to a great speech and you'll hear some great phrase breaking. Why do speakers take such great pains to break their phrases so perfectly? Because they want to be absolutely sure their listeners understand every word.
Even though it may not seem normal at first, rest assured that phrase breaking is the natural way to read. It's natural to your eyes, your ears, and your brain. And this is what makes it the natural choice for readers who want to improve their understanding of what they read.
When Should You Use Phrase Breaking?
If you read well, or if a text is very easy for you, you probably phrase break without even knowing it. It is, after all, the normal, natural way to read. But there may be occasions when you want to "switch it on" and be more conscious about it:
When you're having trouble decoding words. Stumbling over a word will hinder your fluency by interrupting the normal rhythm and flow of your reading. What you end up with are "false phrase breaks" right before big words. As I noted from "The Pledge of Allegiance" example, this is the opposite of what you want.
When you're having trouble with new vocabulary. I'm not talking here about having troubles decoding new words, I'm talking about not knowing what they mean. Many readers skip over unknown words. Not only does this rob them of the chance to figure out what they mean, it messes up their phrase breaking causing their comprehension to break down even more.
When you need very detailed comprehension. If you're reading something complicated and you need to be 100% certain about what it means, careful phrase breaking is the most effective way to reach your goal.
When you're reading above your reading level. Want to read a book that you know is too hard for you? No problem. Just make sure you do your phrase breaking. In fact, conscious phrase breaking in a text that is just above your independent level is probably the fastest way to become a better reader.
Is it a Phrase or a Clause?
While there is a difference between a phrase and a clause (a clause includes a verb, a phrase doesn’t), this distinction is generally not meaningful to most readers and not very useful in teaching reading. For the purpose of comprehension instruction, I call every meaningful group of words a “phrase.” It just makes the teaching and learning easier for everyone to deal with.
I like to practice phrase breaking chorally by taking a short passage, putting it on an overhead, and marking in the phrase boundaries with a colored pen. I try to show kids different ways to phrase the same sentences so they know there are many different choices. In general, the more difficult the text, the shorter your phrases should be.