Prosody imparts predictive structure similar to mature perception during child-directed
reading
Ahren B. Fitzroy1,2 & Mara Breen1
1Department of Psychology and Education, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA; 2Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA

Poster presented at Experimental and Theoretical Advances in Prosody 4: Sociolectal and dialectal variability in prosody, Amherst, MA (2018)
(for reprint, contact ahren.fitzroy@gmail.com)

Abstract:
Two common, cross-culturally observed features of early children’s literature are the presence
of strong metric structure, and the use of rhyme. The temporal and phonological predictability
provided by these features may support the putative benefits to literacy acquisition of such
works; because early children’s literature is usually heard before it is read, predictive cues
realized in the auditory stream could allow preparatory cognitive activity to facilitate processing
of the predicted information. Such facilitated processing could improve the development of
reading subskills that rely on auditory processing, such as phonological awareness and
phoneme-to-grapheme matching. However, it is currently unclear whether predictive structure is
realized in read-aloud productions of early children’s literature. It is also unclear whether any
such realized predictive structure matches the predictive perceptual expectations employed by
mature listeners. To explore these issues, we report here two experiments examining explicit
and implicit prosodic realizations of predictive structure in Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat (1957).

In Experiment 1, we analyzed the explicit prosodic realization of predictive temporal and
phonological structure in a corpus of 17 child-directed productions of The Cat in the Hat. Using
linear mixed-effects regression, we predicted word duration and word intensity as functions of
metric strength, rhyme predictability, and a control set of intrinsic and contextual word
characteristics. Produced word duration and word intensity both increased with a) more
phonemes, b) lower frequency, c) closed-class word status, d) capitalized font, e) first mention,
and f) alignment with a syntactic boundary. Metric strength hierarchically modulated both word
duration and word intensity, with strong beats consistently more prominent than weak beats,
though the two measures showed different profiles across levels of strong beats. Word duration
results aligned with a model of poetic meter (Fabb & Halle, 2008), with phrase-final strong beats
assigned greater prominence than phrase-initial. Word intensity results aligned with a model of
musical meter production (Drake & Palmer, 1993), with phrase-initial strong beats assigned
greater prominence than phrase-final. Predictable rhyme targets were produced with reduced
word intensity, and with shorter word duration than would be predicted by inter-word durations.

In Experiment 2, we employed event-related potentials (ERPs) to assess the implicit prosodic
realization of predictive temporal structure during perception of aprosodic synthesized
productions of The Cat in the Hat. The synthesized productions were isochronous, with flat F0,
and no intensity variation between words. The productions were presented in canonical and
pseudorandom order to 13 young adults, and ERPs to word onsets were generated separately
for each beat in a 6/8 metric structure. Preliminary analyses suggest a late negativity (300-500
ms) in response to the metrically strongest first beat of the measure, similar to previous
investigations of metric attending in non-linguistic contexts (Fitzroy & Sanders, 2015).This effect
was present only for the canonical word order, suggesting the parsing of implicit poetic meter.
Together, these results demonstrate that predictive structure in early children’s literature is
realized in read-aloud productions of such texts, and that the specific temporal structure
imparted during production aligns with the implicit prosodic structure generated by mature
perceptual systems during perception of aprosodic renditions of the text. We speculate that
prosodic realization of predictability during child-directed reading serves to guide developing
perceptual systems on how to allocate attentional resources across time, helping to develop
phonological processing skills and in turn literacy skills.

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