Prevention Corner: Everyone Learns Differently

Elaine Clanton Harpine, Ph.D.

Elaine Clanton Harpine, Ph.D.

With the onset of a new school year, many parents are worried about their children’s progress in school.  The problem of reading failure is of particular concern.  Research has shown that prevention groups can be very effective in helping children overcome reading problems (Berking et al., 2008).  What kind of help can we as group psychologist offer to parents and teachers?


Dear Prevention Corner:  I saw the article in the newspaper this week that talked about your reading program. You did not talk about dyslexia. The school says that my son has dyslexia.  They sent me to a private tutor.  Which is better– group or tutor?  The tutor says that I am wrong because I have not told my son that he has dyslexia.  Should I tell him? 



 Dear Confused:

There are many different philosophies on whether a child should be told or not told that they have a learning disability.  There have been instances where children were diagnosed with dyslexia and have used such a diagnosis as an excuse for not being able to read.  As one student said to me one day: “You know I can’t read; I’m dyslexic.”  On the other hand, another student said, “Wow, that’s how I feel.  Now that I know that we’re all having the same problem, I’m going to learn to read.”  In my group-centered prevention program, I neither identify or label children. I believe that labels stigmatize.  Instead of saying the child has a learning disability, I say that everyone learns differently; therefore, we have learning differences.  In my opinion, whether you tell or do not tell your child is up to you.

As to your second question, which is better:  group or tutor.  I believe that prevention groups offer a major advantage over tutoring and research supports this opinion.  In my own research, children who participated in my group-centered prevention program outscored children who received one-on-one tutoring (Clanton Harpine & Reid, 2009).  Prevention groups offer many benefits that cannot be obtained through one-on-one tutoring.  Groups create a healing atmosphere, allow children to interact and work with others, and make it easier for the child to transfer what they learned back to the classroom.  In my group-centered program, Camp Sharigan, that was described in the newspaper article that you mentioned, I use six different methods for teaching reading and incorporate 11 different therapeutic factors into the group.  By combining learning and counseling together, I am able to provide a much stronger program.  Other researchers have also found this to be true (Baskin et al. 2010; Jones et al. 2015).

In my after-school Reading Orienteering Club, I use the same learning and counseling group concept.  Every child starts by learning the lower case alphabet and then begins to expand their phonemic awareness through vowel clustering.  Neuroimaging studies of the brain have shown that dyslexia results from differences in how the brain functions, particularly the posterior left hemisphere.  This is not a deformity or structural problem.  It simply means that through functional brain imaging (fMRI), researchers have been able to detect that children diagnosed with dyslexia use a different part of the brain.  This in no way means that children diagnosed with dyslexia are less intelligent.  One particular student that I worked with was extremely intelligent in science, history, and math.  Yet, the student could not read at the beginning (pre-primer) kindergarten level.  The student was in third grade, and I’m grateful to say that when he left my program at the end of the year, the student was reading beginning chapter books.

If your child has dyslexia, you want to find a program that will help your child visually identify letter shapes– the lines and curves of both capitals and lowercase letters.  We read primarily with a lowercase alphabet.  Yet, when we teach the alphabet in school, we teach capitals and lower case letters side-by-side.  One of the first big problems that I find with children who come into my program is that they may know their capitals but they do not know their lower case alphabet letters.

The second thing that a child who has been diagnosed with dyslexia needs is phonemic awareness– being able to translate letter symbols into phonemes or sounds.  This is a major step for all children.  There are many children who are labeled as being dyslexic, but in actuality, their problem is that they have never been taught phonemes or letter sounds.  Children must be able to translate written letters into sounds before they can learn to read.  Simply memorizing a word list does not teach phonemes or letter sounds.  Not all children learn the same way which is why I use six different teaching methods in my group program, but each teaching method that I use starts with phonemic awareness—translating letter symbols into sounds.

The third critical aspect in the program for a student diagnosed with dyslexia is that the student must understand the meaning of words.  Without understanding the meaning of words, there cannot be comprehension.

Reading fluency is also another major concern of children who have been diagnosed with dyslexia.  I use puppet plays and reading for a puppet to help children improve their fluency.  Reading out loud is the most effective way to help children improve reading fluency; stop watches and timing students while they read is harmful, especially for dyslexic readers.

Finally, to return to your question:  Which is better—group or tutor?  A prevention group can offer your child advantages and motivation that a one-on-one tutoring situation cannot provide.  It is the combination of being an accepted member of the group and working with others in a positive, supportive environment.  I believe that groups achieve their most success when they combine learning and counseling together in one single program.  I also believe that hands-on programs offer lots of opportunities for all students but especially students diagnosed with dyslexia.

Good luck to you and your child, and I hope that I’ve answered your questions.

For others who might wish to join this discussion, please send your comments and group prevention concerns to Elaine Clanton Harpine at


baskin, t. w., Slaten, C. D., Sorenson, C., Glover-Russell, J., & Merson, D. N.  (2010).  Does youth psychotherapy improve academically related outcomes?:  A meta-analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 57, 290-296.  doi:  10.1037/a0019652

Berking, M., Orth, U., Wupperman, P., Meier, L. L., & Caspar, F.  (2008).  Prospective effects of emotion-regulation skills on emotional adjustment.  Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55, 485-494.  doi:  10.1037/a0013589

Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M.  (2015).  Early social-emotional functioning and public health:  The relationship between kindergarten social competence in future wellness.  American Journal of Public Health,105, 2283-2290.  doi:  10.2105/AJPH.2015.302630

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