Cindy Jiban.

It’s back-to-school time, and Cindy Jiban is thinking about prosody. The term describes readers’ tone and rhythm, the expressiveness that students develop as reading becomes automatic.

“When you hear a student reading with good prosody, you can hear that they understand the text,” Jiban writes in a recent blogpost for NWEA, a Portland, Oregon-based provider of PreK-12 instruction tools and assessments. Based in St. Paul, Jiban serves as NWEA’s principal academic lead.

For Jiban, the concept goes even deeper and pulls together her life’s work. The former research associate at ICI's National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) earned a doctorate degree in special education at University of Minnesota and has been an English, math, and special education teacher. She joined NWEA in 2009.

Each of those career building blocks contributes to the aspirations she’s working on today: creating technology-based reading fluency tools that promote reading comprehension for all students. 

“The adherence to keeping grade-level content at the forefront in assessments was really hammered home at NCEO,” she said. Much of her work also is informed by two University of Minnesota professors, Jay Samuels and the late Stanley Deno. 

“Jay Samuels was interested in expressiveness, in prosody,” Jiban said. “Machines today are good at scoring how quickly and accurately you can pile up words, but smoothness and expressiveness are very important for fluency. So, we’re now pursuing getting prosody accounted for” in machine scoring for reading, she said.

NWEA continues to hear from teachers that automation has freed up additional instruction time for teachers, Jiban said.

“We developed the first product that automates oral reading assessment through speech scoring, and it has taken off so much that today we have competitors. Today I blog and talk about why it matters. We hear from teachers that it is giving back six weeks of instructional time.”  

Which brings us back to prosody. Moving forward, by developing tools to better assess a reader’s true grasp of material, Jiban hopes the field can focus on student knowledge and understanding as the ultimate goals, not just reading rate.

“Our kids deserve the superpower of broadening their worlds and deepening their understandings another way: through reading,” Jiban writes in the blog. “They deserve tools for reaching further and deeper, for getting into consequential ideas. Let’s keep our eyes on the target: What we want for our next generation is not faster and faster reading. What we want for them is a literacy of liberation, equity, and power.”