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

We've all felt lonely at some point in our lives. It's a human experience as universal as happiness, sadness or even hunger. But there's been a growing trend of studies and other evidence suggesting that Americans, and people in general, are feeling more lonely than ever.

It's easy to blame technology and the way our increasingly online lives have further isolated us from "real" human interactions. The Internet once held seemingly limitless promise for bringing us together but seems to be doing just the opposite.

Except that's apparently not true at all. A major study from Cigna on loneliness found that feelings of isolation and loneliness are on the rise amongst Americans but the numbers are nearly identical amongst those who use social media and those who don't. Perhaps more importantly, the study found five common traits amongst those who don't feel lonely.

Keep Reading Show less
Health

He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

He risked his life to leave a "historical record of our martyrdom."

via Yad Vashem and Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007

In September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. By April 1940, the gates closed on the Lodz Ghetto, the second largest in the country after Warsaw.

Throughout the war, over 210,000 people would be imprisoned in Lodz.

Among those held captive was Henryk Ross. He was a Jewish sports photographer before the Nazi invasion and worked for the the ghetto's Department of Statistics during the war. As part of his official job, he took identification photos of the prisoners and propaganda shots of Lodz' textile and leather factories.

Keep Reading Show less
Communities
WITI Milwaukee

Joey Grundl, a pizza delivery driver for a Domino's Pizza in Waldo, Wisconsin, is being hailed as a hero for noticing a kidnapped woman's subtle cry for help.

The delivery man was sent to a woman's house to deliver a pie when her ex-boyfriend, Dean Hoffman, opened the door. Grundl looked over his shoulder and saw a middle-aged woman with a black eye standing behind Hoffman. She appeared to be mouthing the words: "Call the police."

"I gave him his pizza and then I noticed behind him was his girlfriend," Grundl told WITI Milwaukee. "She pointed to a black eye that was quite visible. She mouthed the words, 'Call the police.'"

Keep Reading Show less
Good News


Rochester NY Airport Security passing insulting notes to travelers caught on tape www.youtube.com

Neil Strassner was just passing through airport security, something he does on a weekly basis as part of his job. That's when a contract airport security employee handed him a small piece of folded cardboard. Strassner, 40, took the paper and continued on his way. He only paused when he heard the security employee shouting back at him, "You going to open the note?"

When he unfolded the small piece of paper, Strassner was greeted with an unprompted insult. "You ugly!!!"

According to Strassner, and in newly released CCTV of the incident, the woman who handed him the note began laughing loudly.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

Facebook: kktv11news

A post on the Murdered by Words subreddit is going viral for the perfect way a poster shut down a knee-jerk "double-standard!" claim.

It began when a Redditor posted a 2015 Buzzfeed article story about a single dad who took cosmetology lessons to learn how to do his daughter's hair.

Most people would see the story as something positive. A dad goes out of his way to learn a skill that makes his daughter look fabulous.

Keep Reading Show less
Lifestyle