Prevention Corner

Elaine Harpine, Ph.D.

Elaine Harpine, Ph.D.

This is our second column on our series on developing training programs in group prevention. In our last column, two experts in the field of group prevention, Robert K. Conyne, Ph.D. and Arthur M. Horne, Ph. D., presented two perspectives on training prevention groups: (1) the American Psychological Association Guidelines for Prevention in Psychology (APA, 2013) and (2) training with an awareness toward social justice. We received a response to that column and continue the discussion.


Dear Prevention Corner:

I read the column each time, and I know that you are talking about training programs at the college level—course work training. My question though is: what is the best way to train workers for a community or school program? I attended your APA convention workshop a couple of years ago on developing and designing group prevention programs. I came home excited and overflowing with ideas. I followed the workbook that you gave us, set up my program, held a training session, but then I ran into a brick wall. I work in a school where half of our students drop out before graduation because they cannot read. I want to keep students in school by helping them learn to read. The other teachers who volunteered to work in the program wouldn’t listen; they went back to teaching reading using the same way they have for years. My program failed. How can I train people to use these new prevention ideas?


In Need of Help.


Dear In Need of Help:

I want to thank you for bringing to the discussion a very important point that we have failed thus far to emphasize: training in group prevention must include (1) training at the university level for professionals planning to specialize and work with prevention groups and (2) training in the community or at the prevention group level with volunteers, health practitioners, teachers, or others who may be leading or working with prevention groups. While it is essential that we increase course work and training at the university level, it is just as essential that we provide effective training programs for volunteers or others who use the group prevention format.

Universities do not always see the necessity for adding new courses in group prevention, and community and school prevention groups do not always see the need for extensive training in prevention techniques and interventions. Change is often hard to accept.

Introducing a change or new group prevention approach for solving an old established long-standing problem is even more difficult. I truly understand your frustration, and trust me, you are not alone. I just spoke this past week with a nurse working with obesity prevention groups. She was also complaining that her prevention group leaders would not change and try new prevention techniques. Her nursing staff was accustomed to lecturing to obesity patients and therefore saw no need to change to a more interactive format.

In reading, change is twice as hard. You are not only trying to train workers to use new group prevention techniques (such as cohesion and interaction); you are also trying to train workers to use a totally new and different approach to teaching reading.

According to the Nation’s Report Card, approximately 40% of students across the nation are unable to read at grade level (Nation’s Report Card, 2013). This is not a new statistic, and the problem did not occur yesterday. The problem has been compounding without any sign of significant improvement for the past 12 years. With such a staggering history of failure, you would think that we would be eager to engage in a new approach. Such is not the case. Even after Congress commissioned the National Reading Panel (2000) to ascertain the most successful method for teaching reading and the panel stated that phonemic awareness (the teaching of sounds and decoding of sounds) was the best method for teaching students to read, the whole- language fight goes on.

The National Reading Panel (2000) stated emphatically that phonemic awareness worked better than “old style” phonics and better than whole-language—even blended methods. Yet, the majority of schools across the nation today still handout sight word strips for students to memorize each week (whole-language); even though, such methods have been proven ineffective (Blaunstein & Lyon, 2006; Fleming et al., 2004; Foorman et al., 2003; Keller & Just, 2009; McGuinness, 1997; National Reading Panel, 2000; Pullen Paige & Lane, 2014; Vaughn, Denton, & Fletcher, 2010). Phonemic awareness is not the same as old-style phonics or the new blended method. Shaywitz and Shaywitz (2007), Co-directors for the Yale Center for the Study of Learning, state it best: In order for a child to learn to read, the child must learn that (1) each and every word is composed of individual sounds (phonemes), (2) these sounds are represented by alphabetic letters, (3) some letters represent several sounds, and that (4) children or any struggling reader (Shaywitz, 2003) must learn how to pull words apart into their elemental phonemes and then put the letter sounds back together into words that have meaning.

Research has solidly proven that phonemic awareness (sounds) and the phonological understanding of those sounds and how they work together to form a word is by far the best way to teach children to read. Yet, there are still universities teaching new prospective teachers the whole-language method for teaching reading. Just this past week, a parent complained that her Kindergartener was failing because she could not memorize her sight word list each week (a whole-language technique). A college professor spoke to me recently and explained that all children need is more exposure to books. “If someone would just read to them, then the children could learn how to read.” Reading is a skill that must be taught; you cannot simply learn how to read by listening to someone else. Community groups are organizing to purchase and distribute new books in order to teach children to read, but simply handing a child a book, even a new book, will not teach the child how to read.

The newest trend is excitement. Pep rallies, costume characters, book collection drives, and free gifts are the latest fad in teaching children how to read. No, excitement is not the answer. Such an approach would be like giving someone a book in French. If they had not learned French, the book would be worthless because someone not schooled in reading French would not be able to read the book. Don’t get me wrong. I think that giving a child or teenager a book (new or used) is the best gift that you can ever give, but simply handing a child a book will not teach a child to read (even if the book is distributed through a very exciting program by a costumed character). You must teach the child to read first, and then give the child a book.

If you want to develop a group prevention program to teach children and teens to read, you must first combat this age old unwillingness to change from whole-language teaching techniques to phonemic awareness and phonological teaching techniques. Therefore, in your group prevention training program, you are not only teaching that prevention groups must be interactive (Conyne & Clanton Harpine, 2010); you must also prove that there is a need for a change and that prevention groups will offer the best means of change for your students. No, this will not be easy because you are combating years and years of denial. The challenge will be to change the ideology of your group leaders in respect to reading. You may not be able to accomplish this within the schools. If you encounter too much resistance to change, you might try establishing an after-school program through a community organization. After-school community-based programs can offer you more freedom and the opportunity to try new prevention ideas.

You may also find that you want to set up skill-building training sessions for your workers or volunteers so that they can learn how to work in a group setting. A prevention group is more than just a discussion, and it is certainly not the time for a lecture. Your training sessions may need to incorporate interaction and cohesion so that your workers can see how to use interaction and how to help group members build a cohesive group atmosphere. I find the best way to do this is by using group prevention techniques and interventions in my training sessions. Instead of the age old tradition of standing in front of your workers and explaining to them what you want them to do or lecturing to them about how the program will be conducted, set up training sessions that use a group prevention format. For example, I use group-centered prevention workstations for my program and my training sessions. In this way, workers and volunteers get to experience prevention techniques during the training program instead of just listening to me talk about interaction, cohesion, and working together as a group.

My answer to your question, how can you best teach people to use new prevention techniques, is to show your workers and volunteers how group prevention works during your training program. Let them experience group prevention in action.

We would like to continue this discussion and invite your comments and responses. Our next column will be devoted to the responses that we receive. Let us hear from you. We welcome your participation. We invite psychologists, counselors, prevention programmers, graduate students, teachers, administrators, and other mental health practitioners working with groups to network together, share ideas, problems, and become more involved. Please send comments, questions, and group prevention concerns to Elaine Clanton Harpine at


Blaunstein, P., & Lyon, R. (2006). Why kids can’t read: Challenging the status quo in education. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Education.

Conyne, R. K., & Clanton Harpine, E. (2010). Prevention groups: The shape of things to come. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 14, 193-198. doi:10.1037/a0020446

Fleming, C. B., Harachi, T. W., Cortes, R. C., Abbott, R. D., & Catalano, R. F. (2004). Level and change in reading scores and attention problems during elementary school as predictors of problem behavior in middle school. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 12, 130-144.

Foorman, B. R., Breier, J. I., & Fletcher, J. M. (2003). Interventions aimed at improving reading success: An evidence-based approach. Developmental Neuropsychology, 24, 613-639.

Keller, T., A., & Just, M. A. (2009). Altering cortical connectivity: Remediation-induced changes in the white matter of poor readers. Neuron, 64, 624-631. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2009.10.018

McGuinness, D. (1997). Why our children can’t read and what we can do about it: A scientific revolution in reading. New York: The Free Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). The nation’s report card: Reading 2013 (NCES 2012-457). National Center for educational statistics, Institute of education sciences, US Department of Education, Washington DC.

National Reading Panel, (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Pullen Paige, C., & Lane, H. B. (2014). Teacher-directed decoding practice with manipulative letters and word reading skill development of struggling first grade students. Exceptionality, 22, 1.

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Knopf.

Shaywitz, S. , & Shaywitz, B. (2007). Special topic: What neuroscience really tells us about reading instruction: A response to Judy Willis. Educational Leadership: Improving instruction for students with learning needs, 64(5), 74-76.

Vaughn, S., Denton, C. A., & Fletcher, J. M. (2010). Why intensive interactions are necessary for students with severe reading difficulties, Psychology in the Schools, 47, 432-444.

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