Like many parents, educators and even students know, learning to read is not always easy. Then, layer in a learning disability, ADHD, anxiety and/any other medical, emotional or mental disorder, and suddenly the process of learning to read just got even harder. Needless to say, this, in turn, can make having your child read for enjoyment next to non-existent, and makes the task of having your child practice reading to improve, an exhausting, depressing and heart-breaking battle. One of the most successful ways I have found to help struggling readers practice, and maybe even enjoy, reading, is to have them read to animals.
Yes… real, live animals!
I was lucky enough to spend five years participating in a program at the elementary school where I taught that had registered and certified therapy dogs, and their owners, visit classrooms each week. Students were given the opportunity to sit and read to them. The first year I participated it was enlightening, to say the least, to see students’ eyes light up before, during, and even after, their time spent reading to these non-judgmental teams of humans and pets. In fact, the impact was so profound that I even watched a student grow from a 2nd grader with an extreme fear of dogs, to a 2nd grader who was begging for more opportunities to read to the dog! Not only did this little boy go from disliking reading and dogs, to a little boy who loved both, but he overcame his fear so much so, that over the summer his family finally fulfilled a dream…getting a dog of their own!
Now that I (hopefully) have you sold on the impact this can have, let me answer a few questions you likely have!
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How Does A “Reading To Animals Program” Work?
In our district, our guidance counselor worked with a local business that provided therapy dogs to a wide range of populations. (Elderly, to handicapped to students with disabilities). Each owner and dog underwent rigorous training, testing and eventually certification, to be sure both they and their dog were a match for classrooms. Each pair was carefully matched to a room that best fit the owners and dog’s personalities. Also, owners voluntarily participated in the background and safety checks set-forth by the district to ensure students’ safety. We had weekly visits in our classroom during which each student had their opportunity to sit and read a book. Initially, it was a teacher chosen book, but throughout the year, we worked to having students learn to choose a book to read. In our classroom, our owner and dog became such a part of our “family” that she even came in by herself to volunteer and help with various activities throughout the year.
Why Does Reading To Animals Work?
It works because reading to animals provides a safe, non-judgmental environment for students to read, to make mistakes, to learn and to grow. It offers a break from the pressure of feeling like you may disappoint your teacher or feeling embarrassed because your peers can read better than you. This safe opportunity, even if for only 10 minutes, can help build self-confidence, and, in turn, a renewed enjoyment of reading. And a few pats, rubs and kisses with the furry friend when you’re done helps even more!
How Do I Get Started?
If this sounds like it would benefit your child’s school, use the web and see if there are any programs like this in your area. Gather some information, talk to your school administration and see if this is something he/she would be open to. Also, you could look into the training and requirements to get your dog certified! If these options don’t work but your child loves dogs, simply have them read to your dog at home, or ask a neighbor down the street! I had students who loved it so much that they even enjoyed reading their stuffed animals or other pets each night and telling me who they read to the next morning!
Providing a safe, relaxed and fun atmosphere for students to read simply for the enjoyment of reading can not only increase their skills and confidence as a learner but maybe even promote a love of reading! And, as evident by the story of one of my 2nd graders, the impact of this simple idea is not only changing students as readers but can potentially change lives!
As a parent or educator, what reading strategies have you used? Please share in the comments below!