The Connection Between Oral Skills & Reading Fluency
The orthography of literary systems is primarily one of phonetic representation; in other words, written words are representations of their spoken counterparts. This means that learning to read is a process of relating written symbols with their verbal counterparts; though at some point there may be some level of direct lexical access, fluent readers of all languages use phonology to access words while reading. Indeed, this is further demonstrated by the fact that one of the best measures of reading comprehension is oral-reading fluency (the ability to read, out loud, with fluidity and intonation). Studies suggest that oral-reading fluency is indistinct from decoding and comprehension capacities (that is, one can read fluidly, with proper intonation, if and only if one understands what one is reading).
While first language reading fluency is an indicator of second language reading potential, it’s important to recognize that reading fluency cannot be attained simply by acquisition of second-language vocabulary and grammar. No matter how refined one’s knowledge is in these literary basics, there are certain nuanced aspects to language structures that these elements cannot possibly capture. Knowing, for example, nothing beyond the basic English grammar and vocabulary in the following examples gives the second-language learner very little hint as to their actual meaning (and the vast differences thereof, despite their superficial similarities): “They made up;” vs. “They made it up;” vs. “They got made up.” It’s clear, then, that some cultural, syntactical, and contextual knowledge is needed to fill in the gaps left by grammar and vocabulary.
These different elements and influences include various surface structures, such as word order, and are particular to each individual language. (For example, it isn’t until readers begin being able to group words into meaningful phrases that comprehension begins to improve exponentially.) Different readers from different languages also make different inferences and assumptions as they read: this points to the further necessity of socio-cultural experience as a critical component in attaining reading fluency. Since this sort of syntactical knowledge is critical to comprehension, developing oral skills in the appropriate cultural context would appear to be indispensable to a language learner working toward fluency.
Far from suggesting that language competence can come about by simply the vocabulary and grammar of a language, all second-language research seems to point to the importance of developing oral language skills in the appropriate cultural context in order to build up: (a) a phonetically charged and culturally sensitive vocabulary (with which to recognize words and their connotations); (b) an understanding of syntactical and organizational structure (at both the sentence and discourse level, in order to understand how groups of words form meaning); and (c) an intuitive sense of the grammar of the language (an understanding of the “grammar” that lies beyond the actual grammar rules). It’s only on this foundation of fundamental oral skills, then, that readers can begin to truly read to build fluency.
Bernhardt, Elizabeth. Progress and Procrastination in Second-Language Reading Research.
Grabe, William. Current Developments in Second Language Reading Research. TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, Autumn 1991. p. 388; 377; and p. 381 “cultural knowledge has been shown to influence comprehension (Carrell, 1984b; Pritchard, 1990; Steffenson & Joag-Dev, 1984)”; p. 380. “…knowledge of structure has an important facilitative effect on reading (Carnham, 1985; Perfetti, 1989; Rayner, 1990; Tannenhaus, 1988). In second language contexts, the role of language structure in comprehension has also been supported (Barnett, 1986; Berman, 1984; Devine, 1988; Eskey, 1988; Swaffar, Arens, & Byrnes, 1991)” & p. 388. “Linguistic differences at syntactic and discourse levels are more likely to have an influence on reader comprehension.” Readers of different languages pay attention to different types of words—languages encode information differently both syntactically and organizationally…
Lynn, Jennifer. Need for Speed: The Relationship Between Oral Reading Fluency and the… Capella University, Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Proquest 2008. p. 49.