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Boosting children's reading skills with canine companionship

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Can reading to a dog raise children's reading levels? According to studies on the subject a young student's reading scores can advance significantly - two to four grade levels - by reading to a dog for just 20 minutes a week throughout the school year (40 weeks).

The American Library Association estimates that there are 27 million functionally illiterate adults in the United States. The national "America Reads'' program notes that 40 percent of fourth graders read below their grade level, and that children who don't master reading by the third grade risk falling further behind.

Children who read to dogs have less absenteeism, visit the library more often, and improve their grades on report cards. Also, children with low self-esteem are often more willing to interact with an animal than with another person.  Pets can also teach children empathy and compassion.  

Getting kids excited about reading

"We didn't invent the concept of a child reading to a pet, but we were the first to use the structure," said Kathy Klotz, executive director of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program (R.E.A.D.). She refers to depictions of people reading to dogs in Victorian times, and she has heard several adults admit that they used to read to their dog in the closet as a child. "There is no question that children are terribly eager to read to a dog."

Parents don't necessarily have to wait until a program like R.E.A.D. comes to their child's school. They can try this at home with their children, Klotz said, as long as the dog or cat is trained and able to stay calm for at least 20 minutes while the child reads to it.

Dog days of school

Several schools have implemented visitation programs that bring trained therapy dogs as a way to encourage children's reading, but it is still a rare practice. At the last count less than 3,000 children have participated in the R.E.A.D program since its inception in 1999.

Mary Renck Jalongo studied this practice and wrote about it in a recent issue of the journal "Childhood Education."

"When children were asked to read aloud under three conditions (to a peer, to an adult, and to a therapy dog), the presence of a therapy dog reduced children's blood pressure and heart rate to normal levels and diminished other observable signs of anxiety," Renck Jalongo said. "Working with animals is remarkably effective with students who have attentional difficulties, disruptive behaviors or a general lack of interest in reading."

A special connection

The special connection between troubled children and animals was not lost on Samuel B. Ross, Jr., founder of Green Chimneys in Brewster, N.Y., a residential treatment program for children with emotional, behavioral and learning challenges. The 75-acre farm has a menagerie of 300 animals for 192 children, ages 6 to 18, to interact with. These are all children who have not been accepted back to a public school.

"The children heal the animals, and the animals heal the children," Ross said. "They learn they're capable of doing something productive, having been told they're a failure earlier. Here, they find out this is not entirely true."

Game plan

R.E.A.D recommends that 20 minutes be set aside each week for struggling readers to practice reading aloud to a dog. Using the standard 180 school days, or about 40 weeks, this adds approximately 14 hours of supervised practice in reading aloud. Enjoyment is essential because low-ability readers learn words incidentally when they are reading for fun.

Success in attitude and academics among reluctant readers can be found by reading to those who offer unconditional respect and attention. Typically, they have four legs.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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