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Cognitive Skills Trainiing: Often a Better Strategy Than Tutoring

By Wendy Burt-Thomas
When a child fails to succeed in school, it's easy to place blame. Many parents believe it's either the teacher's fault for not properly instructing, or the child's fault for not paying attention.

These usually incorrect conclusions often lead parents to enroll their child in a tutoring program. "The problem is that the majority of programs, such as reading tutoring, focus on the same content that the student would receive in school," explains Tanya Mitchell, Director of Training for LearningRx, a national franchise that specializes in cognitive skills training. "The theory being that the teacher wasn't presenting the information properly, or the student must not have heard the teacher the first time. The truth is that it's not the knowledge of reading, but underlying deficient skills that causes reading problems."

And the survey says…
In a recent study of SES Tutoring Programs in several Chicago public schools, 61,466 students were enrolled in tutoring provided by a wide variety of for-profit and not-for-profit groups. Most students received between 40 and 80 hours of tutoring. Gain scores were calculated by taking the difference in scores on the standardized test (ITBS) in 2004 and 2005 and dividing it by the expected gain. A gain of 1.0 equaled one year's growth in achievement. If a student gain was more than 1.0, the student learned more than the average student; and likewise, if the student gain was less than 1.0, the student gain was less than the average student.

The results were incredibly disappointing: In reading, students with tutoring had an average gain of 1.09 compared to a gain of 1.03 for students who were eligible for tutoring but did not enroll and 1.06 average gain for all students citywide. In math, the gain for all groups was even lower than in reading. (The math gain for all tutored students was .94 compared to an average gain of .92 for non-tutored students and a citywide gain of 1.01.) Overall, with 40 to 80 hours of tutoring, the tutored students earned an average of less than 10 days of improvement compared to students who did not participate.

Why tutoring fails
"This study doesn't surprise me," says Mitchell. "Before kids can be tutored on a particular subject, they need to have good cognitive skills – things like auditory and visual processing, memory, processing speed, comprehension, short- and long-term memory, logic and reasoning, and attention. Cognitive skills are the underlying tools that enable kids to successfully focus, think, prioritize, plan, understand, visualize, remember and create useful associations, and solve problems."

According to Dr. G. Reid Lyon, Chief of National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Child Development and Behavior Branch, NICHD-funded research has shown that such services should have a firm foundation in phonological awareness. Before most poor readers can learn to read successfully they need to learn that spoken words can be broken apart into smaller segments called phonemes. Next, they usually require training in phonics -"mapping" phonemes to the printed words on a page. Once children have mastered these steps, they can then receive training to help them read fluently, and to comprehend what they read.

For example, if a problem reader first goes through specialized cognitive training for auditory processing, more specifically phonemic awareness, and then a good "sound-to-code" reading program, there can be dramatic success. "With good cognitive skills therapy, a problem reader in our reading program can see a 3.55-year gain in word attack skills in about 72 hours of training over a 6-month period," explains Mitchell. "I strongly encourage parents to ask what type of results a reading program averages before spending their time and money."

Preventing reading disabilities
Obviously, preventing learning disabilities BEFORE they develop is best for kids, and there are things that parents can do at home to help even the youngest children.

"There are very promising studies that show a 90 percent decrease in reading problems if children are first introduced to sound analysis activities," says Mitchell. "This might include things like rhyming or playing sound games when children learn how to add or omit sounds in a syllable. Plus, these activities don't cost anything and can even be done in the car."

Identifying reading disabilities
While a trained cognitive specialist can help diagnose the specifics of learning and reading disabilities, parents and teachers may be the first to identify struggles. Parents may be able to determine early learning problems, such as with auditory processing, at home, or by asking their child's teacher the following questions:

  1. Does my child appear to guess at words?
  2. Does he/she ever add or omit sounds in words?
  3. Does he/she have difficulty spelling new words, or spelling when writing?

"If a teacher confirms any of these suspicions, the parent may want to have their child tested for auditory processing – specifically for blending and analysis skills," says Mitchell. "If a deficiency is found, it's vital that the underlying skill sets are improved before the child is placed in a reading tutoring program."

  • While experts agree that tutoring does have its place – such as when a child falls behind in a particular subject due to an extended absence – for most children that struggle in school, cognitive skills therapy seems to be a better choice.
  • Wendy Burt-Thomas is a full-time freelance writer with more than 1,000 published pieces. Her third book, "The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters" (landing articles, agents and book deals) and often writes for LearningRx, the brain-training company, with learning centers all over the United States.
    You can find out more about Ms. Burt Thomas at her web site: or by contacting her at:

    Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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