GOOD

To Foster a Love of Reading, Bring an Animal to the Classroom

Using a dog or rabbit to teach literacy can ripple out into the rest of a child’s learning process. #ProjectLiteracy

Norman West showcased the various therapy dogs children can read to at the library. Image via Flickr user Pioneer Library System.

Four years ago Craig Madison, a third grade teacher at El Verano Elementary School in Sonoma, California, was wrestling with a problem that’s become increasingly common. “We were trying to turn struggling readers, who had been discouraged by over-testing in school, back into readers who loved books and rediscovered reading for pleasure.” He and other teachers at the El Verano School started a Summer Reading Academy, which he says was a “resounding success” due to many factors, one of which was both crucial and unorthodox: “literacy dogs” and their human handlers from an organization called 4Paws.


4Paws runs a program called Readers of the Pack, which pairs trained dogs and their handlers with schools and libraries with the focus of improving kids’ literacy through the simple act of having children read to a calm, non-judgmental dog.

The idea is that many kids, especially those who are struggling with reading, might be more comfortable with dogs than with people. And the anecdotal evidence supporting these programs is overwhelming. Michelle Lua, who works with her retired racing greyhound, Whitney, for Readers of the Pack, tells a story of one first-grade student who had never spoken in the classroom. She would come to Lua and Whitney and have books read to her. “I finally asked her if she was ever going to read to us,” says Lua. In April, the girl “brought two books, sat down, and began reading the first one. The entire class became silent. They had never heard her speak.” The girl, says Lua, “finished the first book and opened the second one and began reading. She has not shut up since.”

Readers of the pack students thank the animals that helped them learn how to read. Image courtesy of Readers of the Pack.

“People really don’t understand how relaxed children become with a dog,” says Joanne Yates, the president of Readers of the Pack, noting that she has spent a lot of time with ESL students, whose experiences “are sometimes brutal. They are teased for an accent, don’t always understand the words, and so they withdraw. Eventually, they simply give up or read what they can to get by. But it affects the rest of the school career (not positively), and consequently, their success in finding jobs they are good at or enjoy.”

Like many people, dog handlers tend to like working in successful schools, says Yates, and don’t always appreciate the unique challenges faced by children who are still learning English. But “even by going once a week, we’ve seen some huge changes in students’ attitudes and abilities.”

Her observations aren’t just fluff. A study of third grade students who read to a trained dog for 10-15 minutes once a week found that their reading fluency increased by 12 percent. For homeschoolers in the study, the increase was 30 percent. And one comprehensive review paper found that using therapy dogs in reading programs increased reading skill by at least two grade levels.

The authors of that paper also noted a particular impact for children with disabilities, especially when it comes to inclusion. One study they looked at showed that a child without disabilities was “10 times more likely to interact with a peer who had disabilities” if the disabled child had a dog with them.

But these effects aren’t just about inclusion and, crucially, aren’t just about dogs.

Dr. Annie Petersen, the founder and president of the Association for Human-Animal Bond Studies, has made the use of animals, especially small animals, in the classroom her life’s work. Among many other programs, once a month she takes animals like rabbits, rats, and, recently, a snake to the Braille Institute. The children there, some of whom are completely blind, get to handle the animals and get acquainted with their habits and care. Many of the kids, she says, have never had an animal at home. “Most of them are terrified of animals because they’ve never been around any.”

Petersen estimates that 99 percent of the children she sees at the Braille Institute have other physical disabilities that will prevent them from taking care of animals for the rest of their lives, but in the classroom they can learn a great deal through touch, scent—she once brought in a skunk—and discussion. One child, who’s on the autism spectrum, calms down the moment an animal is placed in his hands.

The use of animals therapeutically or as learning partners seems to be particularly effective for children on the autism spectrum, according to an assessment of 49 studies reviewed in a paper on animal-human relations.

While dogs are often the most popular therapeutic or facility animal, Petersen says there are many reasons to use smaller animals instead, such as fear of canines, exposure to dog fighting, or cultural aversion. “In San Diego County we have a rather large Somali population, and I found that many of the parents would not allow their children to be involved in our programs because of the incorporation of dogs.” Petersen did some research and found that in many Somali families it is believed that dogs are dirty, spread disease, and are dangerous. “I would do a lesson on dog-safety, but would bring in a small animal so the children could have an animal interaction.” Her favorite animals to work with are rats because they’re intelligent and make great pets, but culturally rats can be a hard sell so she usually starts out with rabbits or guinea pigs.

Petersen recently won a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation and Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation to study the effect of small animals in the classroom on literacy. “My hypothesis,” she says, “is that we will see student improvement in literacy studies due to the presence of rabbits during group lessons.” Petersen will come to the classroom with her rabbits three days a week for 20 minutes, during which the children will be able to hold and read to the rabbits, depending on how the teacher structures the reading lesson. The physical interaction is important. “The difference between seeing an animal across the room versus feeling that warm, living body next to you, it’s really profound,” says Petersen. “And the animal doesn’t care if you’re not the best reader, if you don’t have a lollipop in your lunch box, if you’re nervous.”

Ultimately Petersen’s goal is to have these small animals in the classroom as a stress reducer, whether it’s from reading, test anxiety, or other reasons. This hope connects with her other initiatives, such as a program she’s working on with a center for children who are being transitioned from abusive homes or going into foster care. Her programs benefit the animals, too, who are all rescued animals, usually from the Humane Society.

Both Petersen and the Readers of the Pack team believe that using an animal to enable literacy will ripple out into the rest of children’s learning. A great deal of literacy success is dependent on confidence. Animals—whether they’re trained dogs, rescued rabbits, guinea pigs, or pet rats—can help children, especially struggling readers or those with learning or physical disabilities, relax into a safe, non-judgmental space to work on all aspects of their reading skills. Including, most importantly, learning to love it.

To show your support to Readers of the Pack, donate here.

Articles
NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

Wealth inequality has been a hot topic of discussion as of late, but it's something that's occurred all throughout history. Class structure is a complicated issue, especially when you consider that haves and have nots have been in existence for over 4,000 years.

A study published in Science took a look at over 100 late Neolithic and early Bronze Age skeletons found in a burial site in southern Germany. The study "shed light on the complexity of social status, inheritance rules, and mobility during the Bronze Age." Partly by looking at their teeth and the artifacts they were buried with, researchers were able to discover that wealth inequality existed almost 4,000 years ago. "Our results reveal that individual households lasting several generations consisted of a high-status core family and unrelated low-status individuals, a social organization accompanied by patrilocality and female exogamy, and the stability of this system over 700 years," the study said.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture

Climate change means our future is uncertain, but in the meantime, it's telling us a lot about our past. The Earth's glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, but as the ice dwindles, ancient artifacts are being uncovered. The Secrets of the Ice project has been surveying the glaciers on Norway's highest mountains in Oppland since 2011. They have found a slew of treasures, frozen in time and ice, making glacier archeologists, as Lars Pilø, co-director of Secrets of the Ice, put it when talking to CNN, the "unlikely beneficiaries of global warming."

Instead of digging, glacier archeologists survey the areas of melting ice, seeing which artifacts have been revealed by the thaw. "It's a very different world from regular archaeological sites," Pilø told National Geographic. "It's really rewarding work.

Keep Reading Show less

When former Pittsburgh Steelers' center Mike Webster committed suicide in 2002, his death began to raise awareness of the brain damage experienced by NFL football players. A 2017 study found that 99% of deceased NFL players had a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Only one out of 111 former football players had no sign of CTE. It turns out, some of the risks of traumatic brain injury experienced by heavily padded adults playing at a professional level also exist for kids with developing brains playing at a recreational level. The dangers might not be as intense as what the adults go through, but it can have some major life-long consequences.

A new PSA put out by the Concussion Legacy Foundation raises awareness of the dangers of tackle football on developing brains, comparing it to smoking. "Tackle football is like smoking. The younger I start, the longer I am exposed to danger. You wouldn't let me smoke. When should I start tackling?" a child's voice can be heard saying in the PSA as a mother lights up a cigarette for her young son.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

On Tuesday morning, President Trump tweeted about some favorable economic numbers, claiming that annual household income is up, unemployment is low, and housing prices are high.

Now, just imagine how much better those numbers would be if the country wasn't mired in an economy-killing trade war with China, bleeding out trillion-dollar-a-year debts, and didn't suffer from chaotic leadership in the Oval Office?

At the end of tweet, came an odd sentence, "Impeach the Pres."

Keep Reading Show less
Politics

October is domestic violence awareness month and when most people think of domestic violence, they imagine mostly female victims. However, abuse of men happens as well – in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. But some are taking it upon themselves to change all that.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture