What the Research Says: How dogs could make children better readers

How dogs could make children better readers

Image 20170316 10918 ypnahl
Once upon a time…

Gill Johnson, University of Nottingham

Issues around children learning to read are rarely out of the news. Which is hardly surprising – becoming a successful reader is of paramount importance in improving a child’s life chances. Nor is it surprising that reading creates a virtuous circle: the more you read the better you become. But what may come as a surprise is that reading to dogs is gaining popularity as a way of addressing concerns about children’s reading. The Conversation

There is a lot of research evidence indicating that children who read extensively have greater academic success. The UK Department for Education’s Reading for Pleasure report, published in 2012, highlights this widely established link.

Keith Stanovich, an internationally eminent US literacy scholar (now based in Canada) wrote a widely-cited paper in 1986, describing this virtuous circle as the “Matthew effect” (a reference to the observations made by Jesus in the New Testament about the economic propensity for the rich to become richer and the poor, poorer). A downward spiral impacts upon reading ability and then, according to Stanovich, on cognitive capability.

Underachievement in groups of children in the UK is recognised in international studies – and successive governments have sought to address the issues in a range of ways. Reading to dogs, so far, has not been among them, but it’s time to look at the strategy more seriously.

Many children naturally enjoy reading and need little encouragement, but if they are struggling their confidence can quickly diminish – and with it their motivation. This sets in motion the destructive cycle whereby reading ability fails to improve.

So how can dogs help?

A therapeutic presence

Reading to dogs is just that – encouraging children to read alongside a dog. The practice originated in the US in 1999 with the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) scheme and initiatives of this type now extend to a number of countries. In the UK, for example, the Bark and Read scheme supported by the Kennel Club is meeting with considerable enthusiasm.

The ideal combination?

The presence of dogs has a calming effect on many people – hence their use in Pets as Therapy schemes (PAT). Many primary schools are becoming increasingly pressurised environments and children (like adults) generally do not respond well to such pressure. A dog creates an environment that immediately feels more relaxed and welcoming. Reading can be a solitary activity, but can also be a pleasurable, shared social event. Children who are struggling to read benefit from the simple pleasure of reading to a loyal, loving listener.

Children who are struggling to read, for whatever reason, need to build confidence and rediscover a motivation for reading. A dog is a reassuring, uncritical audience who will not mind if mistakes are made. Children can read to the dog, uninterrupted; comments will not be made. Errors can be addressed in other contexts at other times. For more experienced or capable readers, they can experiment with intonation and “voices”, knowing that the dog will respond positively – and building fluency further develops comprehension in readers.

For children who are struggling, reconnecting with the pleasure of reading is very important. As Marylyn Jager-Adams,a literacy scholar, noted in a seminal review of beginner reading in the US: “If we want children to learn to read well, we must find a way to induce them to read lots.”

Reading to a dog can create a helpful balance, supporting literacy activities which may seem less appealing to a child. Children with dyslexia, for example, need focused support to develop their understanding of the alphabetic code (how speech sounds correspond to spelling choices). But this needs to be balanced with activities which support independent reading and social enjoyment or the child can become demotivated.

Creating a virtuous circle

Breaking a negative cycle will inevitably lead to the creation of a virtuous circle – and sharing a good book with a dog enables children to apply their reading skills in a positive and enjoyable way.

Research evidence in this area is rather limited, despite the growing popularity of the scheme. A 2016 systematic review of 48 studies – Children Reading to Dogs: A Systematic Review of the Literature by Hall, Gee and Mills – demonstrated some evidence for improvement in reading, but the evidence was not strong. There clearly is more work to do, but interest in reading to dogs appears to have grown through the evidence of case studies.

The example, often cited in the media, is that of Tony Nevett and his greyhound Danny. Tony and Danny’s involvement in a number of schools has been transformative, not only in terms of reading but also in promoting general well-being and positive behaviour among children with a diverse range of needs.

So, reading to dogs could offer many benefits. As with any approach or intervention, it is not a panacea – but set within a language-rich literacy environment, there appears to be little to lose and much to gain.

Gill Johnson, Assistant Professor in Education, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Pamela Horton, Principal of Sunny Sands Elementary, Endorses How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed

I’m thrilled to share this video endorsement from one of the school principals who has participated in this program with her students over the past two years. This year, Sunny Sands Elementary School is participating in both the 1st and 2nd grade program in Palm Springs Unified School District with approximately 230 students. Here is what the principal, Pamela Horton, has to say about her experience with the program – and the awesome DIBELS reading scores her students are now achieving!

To learn more about how to get your school involved, please visit www.howdogshelpkids.com and contact Dr. Lori today!

Goal Setting and Comprehension Strategies when Reading with Pets!

IMG_2470The Importance of Goal Setting

In addition to teaching children fun and effective reading skills to help them become more confident, stronger readers, students who participate in How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed In the Classroom also learn important skills for success not only in learning, but in life. I (Dr. Lori) was trained by Jack Canfield, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and The Success Principles. As part of this life-changing, year-long training, I recognized the necessity of bringing these principles into children’s lives in an age-appropriate way, thereby giving young students the tools they need and a roadmap for success as early as possible. Reading Goal Staircase

Therefore, as part of this program, the children are asked to “think big” and to deeply consider what their reading goal is by the end of the program. Asking children to set a goal and then take one small step every single day towards reaching their goal helps students learn to break down a big dream into bite-sized pieces that can feel much more manageable. Just like looking up a large staircase and wondering how they are ever going to make it to the top, the children are reminded to record how many new words they have learned each week as a way of tracking their own progress on their way to reaching a much larger goal. They learn that each effort, each day, brings them one step closer to meeting their goal, no matter how big it may seem at the beginning!

Jack Canfield Endorsement

Reading Comprehension with Stuffed Animal Buddies and Pets of All Kinds!

If you have a dog or another pet at home, you can involve him or her in reading activities with your child in fun and creative ways to help improve your child’s comprehension, or understanding of what they are reading. One way you can do this is by teaching your child to do a “picture walk” with your pet. Begin by explaining to your child that reading is very, very difficult for animals. In contrast, children are so smart, and they are so good at this that sometimes they need to spend some extra time to help their pets to understand the story.

IMG_2485Before you begin reading with your child, place sticky notes every three pages or so in the book to serve as a “marker” to pause and do a picture walk with your child. As your child reads aloud to your dog or stuffed animal, each time you come to a sticky note say to your child, “Do you think you can re-tell or review for (your pet’s name) what has happened in the story so far, using your own words?” Positioning the book so the pet can “see” the pictures, speaking slowly and clearly, and being gentle and loving are all latent lessons you can teach to help build empathy and compassion in your child. What a fun way to help children to not only become stronger readers, but to learn the value and skill in being patient and kind teachers to others – the best way to learn!