Prevention Corner: Age Old Problems

Elaine Clanton Harpine, PhD

Elaine Clanton Harpine, Ph.D.

With the end of the school year, age old problems and questions re-arise, particularly the question: Why are so many children failing in reading? We have discussed reading prevention programs before, but a question comes to our attention that brings reading failure to the forefront of prevention programming once again. Prevention efforts in reading are relevant to our group prevention focus because the majority of childrens’ prevention programs take place at school. Also, the National Reading Panel (2000) stated that groups are one of the most effective ways to teach reading. Therefore, let’s take another look.


Dear Prevention Corner:

I am a school psychologist, and I attended your 2nd Annual School-Based Mental Health Group Interventions Conference where both you and Dr. Keith Herman stated that “children can definitely be taught to read.” We just finished reviewing this year’s scores where 60% of our students are failing in reading. These are students below the fourth-grade level. What can we do? I returned from your conference with exciting ideas, but my school only allows teachers to use the curriculum and methods that they endorse. Obviously, school methods are not working. How do you make the school change?


Desperate for Help


Dear Desperate for Help:

It is wonderful to hear from you again, and I’m glad that you remembered my invitation to keep in touch.

I am sorry to hear that you are still having trouble. It is neither helpful nor comforting to say that you are not alone. According to the Nation’s Report Card (2013), only about 40% of 4th graders are able to read at grade level. Such reading scores are dismal and have not significantly improved over the past 14 years. Reading failure is a nationwide problem that has not been corrected, nor is it showing any signs of significant progress.

I do still stand by my statement that “children can definitely be taught to read.” My work is mostly in community-based settings, and that may be an option that you may want to consider. I just tested a 2nd grade student this year from our after-school Reading Orienteering Club (Clanton Harpine, 2013b) program who started the year in September reading at the pre-primer level (below kindergarten). The student ended the year in May reading at the 4th grade reading level. No, not every student makes that much progress in one year’s time. Each child has distinct needs and learns in a different way. Yet, for the past six years in our after-school program, we have been taking students who are failing in school, teaching them to read, and sending them back to the classroom to be successful. How? Phonemic awareness and phonological decoding are essential if you want children to learn to read (Fleming et al. 2004; Foorman & Torgesen, 2001; Hoeft et al., 2007; Lyon, 1998; Rayner et al., 2001; Shaywitz, 2003).

So, to answer your first question, yes, we know how to teach children to read. Unfortunately, so far as a society, we refuse to accept the research findings and change the way we teach children to read. I have included an extensive list of references so that you may read the research.

To answer your second question on how to make the schools change, I am sorry but I do not have an answer for you. I do plan to pass your letter on to others who work more directly with the schools to see if they can offer suggestions.

The reason that I suggested a community-based organization or setting is that you often have more flexibility in community-based organizations than you do in a public school. The teaching method being used in most public schools is being cited as one of the primary reasons for reading failure (Chessman et al., 2009; Foorman et al., 2003; Keller & Just, 2009; Lyon, 2002; Meyler et al., 2008; Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2007Torgesen et al., 2001).

Many schools offer an after-school program for at-risk readers, but these use the same teaching strategies under which the child failed to learn to read in the classroom. Some after-school programs are successful. Many programs are not. Children who struggle in school need programs that emphasize step-by-step instructions, intrinsic motivation (no reward or incentive programs), active hands-on learning, structured skill-building, social skills, and group process with emphasis on interaction and cohesion.

So, try something new. Do not simply repeat methods and curriculum that has failed in the classroom. What is needed is an after-school prevention program that uses a totally different approach to learning.

If you decide that you would like to develop a community-based program, help is available. Robert Conyne (2010) offers a detailed account for developing psychoeducational prevention programs. If you want specific help on developing an after-school program, my After-School Prevention Programs for At-Risk Students: Promoting Engagement and Academic Success (Clanton Harpine, 2013a) gives a step-by-step plan for developing a successful after-school program using a group-centered approach.

In the June 2015 Monitor on Psychology, in an article entitled: Grabbing Students– Researchers have identified easy ways to boost student success by increasing their engagement and learning, several ideas are specified for making school programs more successful. The researchers highlighted in the article state that education in the classroom should include: (1) engagement that includes application, importance, and enjoyment (with the students being actively involved—not just sitting and listening to a teacher talk), (2) being intrinsically motivated (being interested and seeing the value or relevance in what is being taught—not working for rewards or prizes), (3) rebuilding self-efficacy (helping the student believe that they can succeed—based on skills learned), (4) art enrichment hands-on activities related to the subject or topic being taught, (5) relationship building activities, (6) reducing the emphasis on testing and striving for mastering a learning task rather than striving for a grade, (7) measuring growth on an individual level rather than comparing to other students, and (8) finding ways to personalize learning– possibly even using forms of technology. The article ends by explaining that researchers and educators must work together, but the article does not give any advice on how to make this happen. Again, they do not offer suggestions for how to change the schools.

Keller and Just (2009) showed conclusively through their neuroimaging studies with at-risk readers that phonological decoding skills and enhanced phonemic awareness can teach a student how to read. Regrettably, these are not the methods being used in most public schools.

Let me know if I can be of further assistance, and watch for our next column when we will turn to some educational policy experts to see if they can offer some suggestions for how to change the schools.

If you would like to join this discussion, 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


Chessman, E. A., McGuire, J. M., Shankweiler, D., & Coyne, M. (2009). First-year teacher knowledge of phonemic awareness and its instruction. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 32, 270-289. doi: 10.1177/0888406409339685

Clanton Harpine, E. (2013a). After-school prevention programs for at-risk students: Promoting engagement and academic success. New York: Springer.

Clanton Harpine, E. (2013b). Erasing failure in the classroom, vol. 3: The Reading Orienteering Club, using vowel clustering in an after-school program. North Augusta, SC: Group-Centered Learning.

Collier, Lorna, (2015, June). Grabbing students: Researchers have identified easy ways to boost student success by increasing their engagement and learning. Monitor on psychology, 46(6), 58-63.

Conyne, R. K. (2010). Prevention program development and evaluation: An incident reduction, culturally relevant approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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.

Foorman, B. R., & Torgesen, J. K. (2001). Critical elements of classroom and small-group instruction promote reading success in all children. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 16, 202-211.

Hoeft, F., Ueno, T., Reiss, A. L., Meyler, A., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., Glover, G. H., Keller, T. A., Kobayashi, N., Mazaika, P., Jo, B., Just, M. A., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2007). Prediction of children’s reading skills using behavioral, functional, and structural neuroimaging measures. Behavioral Neuroscience, 121, 602-613.  doi: 10.1037/0735-7044.121.3.602

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

Lyon, G. R. (April 28, 1998). Overview of reading and literacy initiatives. Testimony before the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Senate Dirkson Building. Retrieved November 27, 2006, from

Lyon, G. R. (2002). Reading development, reading difficulties, and reading instruction educational and public health issues. Journal of School Psychology, 40, 3-6.

Meyler, A., Keller, T. A., Cherkassky, V. L., Gabrieli, J. D., & Just, M. A. (2008). Modifying the brain activation of poor readers during sentence comprehension with extended remedial instruction: A longitudinal study of neuroplasticity. Neuropsychologia, 46, 2580-2592.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2013). Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2013. Retrieved from report card/pdf/main2013/2010458.pdf

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.

Rayner, K., Foorman, B. R., Perfetti, C. A., Pesetsky, D., & Seidenberg, M. S. (2001). How should reading be taught? Scientific American, 286, 84-91.

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.

Torgesen, J. K., Alexander, A. W., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C. A., Voeller, K. S., & Conway, T. (2001). Intensive remedial instruction for children with severe reading disabilities: Immediate and long-term outcomes from two instructional approaches. Journal of Learning disabilities, 34, 133-158. doi: 10.1177/002221940103400104

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