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Keywords:

  • Early intervention;
  • oral language;
  • phonological awareness;
  • early literacy;
  • RCT

Background:  This study compares the efficacy of two school-based intervention programmes (Phonology with Reading (P + R) and Oral Language (OL)) for children with poor oral language at school entry.

Methods:  Following screening of 960 children, 152 children (mean age 4;09) were selected from 19 schools on the basis of poor vocabulary and verbal reasoning skills and randomly allocated to either the P + R programme or the OL programme. Both groups of children received 20 weeks of daily intervention alternating between small group and individual sessions, delivered by trained teaching assistants. Children in the P + R group received training in letter-sound knowledge, phonological awareness and book level reading skills. Children in the OL group received instruction in vocabulary, comprehension, inference generation and narrative skills. The children's progress was monitored at four time points: pre-, mid- and post-intervention, and after a 5-month delay, using measures of literacy, language and phonological awareness.

Results:  The data are clustered (children within schools) and robust confidence intervals are reported. At the end of the 20-week intervention programme, children in the P + R group showed an advantage over the OL group on literacy and phonological measures, while children in the OL group showed an advantage over the P + R group on measures of vocabulary and grammatical skills. These gains were maintained over a 5-month period.

Conclusions:  Intervention programmes designed to develop oral language skills can be delivered successfully by trained teaching assistants to children at school entry. Training using P + R fostered decoding ability whereas the OL programme improved vocabulary and grammatical skills that are foundations for reading comprehension. However, at the end of the intervention, more than 50% of at-risk children remain in need of literacy support.