Early identification of reading difficulties is paramount if teachers are to help change the current situation where 16% of children are falling into the category of 'disabled readers' in Australia. (Louden et al., 2000). In the United States, The National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP, 1998) identified 60% of students scoring below proficient in fourth grade. Early identification and the resulting remediation of reading difficulties have many advantages over leaving children to 'grow out' of their problems (Pressley, 2006; Torgesen, 1998). One such advantage is reducing the children's negative feelings associated with their constant failure in the classroom (Hay, 2000; Muter, 2003). Muter maintained that early identification also allowed for a 'purer' child profile to be established, because older children often acquired compensatory and avoidance behaviours that can mask their reading difficulties.
It has been demonstrated that there is a strong link between phonological awareness and early reading. Children's awareness of the phonological units of speech, particularly rhyme (Bradley & Bryant, 1983) and alliteration (Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1995) have been found to have significant effects for early reading. Knowledge of the alphabet is also one of the best predictors for a successful transition into early reading (Adams, 1990).
Whilst there has been a plethora of research on the benefits of phonological awareness intervention for struggling readers (see Lovett, Steinbach & Frijters (2000) for a summary), there has been significantly less on the effects of language intervention (Muter, Hulme, Snowling, & Stevenson, 2004). The NICHD (2005) suggests that there is a vital link between early oral language and decoding skills. While phonological awareness, the understanding of the sound structure of language, is necessary, it alone is not sufficient for the successful acquisition of reading (Byrne, Fielding-Barnsley & Ashley, 2000). Hay, Elias, Fielding-Barnsley, Homel, and Frieberg, (2007) demonstrated that the inclusion of a structured language programme along with a shorter phonological awareness programme produced significant gains in children's reading ability; particularly if those children came from low (socio-economic status) SES homes. Children who fail to respond to reading intervention are often those with weak oral language (Al Otaiba & Fuchs, 2006). Hart and Risley (1995) made the link between weak oral language and low SES in their seminal study where it was found that children from high socio-economic status (SES) families heard around 487 utterances per hour, compared to 178 utterances per hour for children from families on welfare. By the time they were aged 4 years, the high SES children had been exposed to around 44 million utterances, compared to 12 million utterances for the lower SES children.
In particular, the evidence suggests that many children with significant reading and learning difficulties/disabilities have deficits in both phonological awareness and language skills (Saada-Robert, 2004; Snowling, 2005). Whilst language delays are considered a cause of reading delays, the children's lack of reading skills also have an ongoing negative influence on the children's vocabulary and language development (Catts & Kamhi, 2005). This reciprocal relationship between language and reading has significant implications for the type and range of screening and interventions teachers provide to children in the beginning school years.
Several researchers have reported on the beneficial effects of language instruction on measures of comprehension (Oakhill, Cain, & Bryant, 2003; Muter et al., 2004) and more recently Bowyer-Crane et al. (2008) have reported differential effects between an oral language and phonology with reading based intervention. In the Boyer-Crane et al., study the Phonology+Reading group showed an advantage over the Oral Language group on measures of literacy and phonology and the Oral Language group showed an advantage on measures of vocabulary and grammatical skills. …