Remember the first time you were asked to read aloud in a classroom or at an event? Perhaps your throat became incredibly dry. Your heart pounded, and your palms became moist with the sweat of anxiety. During Read Across America Day, March 2, and World Read Aloud Day, March 9, many people will talk about the joys of reading aloud and the poetry of the cat in the striped hat. But this year try something different in your classroom — let your students read aloud to a dog. Experts say animals, especially dogs, have a calming, healing effect on humans. Read on to see how you can use the power of pet therapy to help any child become a joyful, confident reader.
Educators repeatedly ask children to commit an act — reading a text aloud — that many adults would do almost anything to avoid. To illustrate that point, I gave some of my adult students (teachers-in-training) a short, familiar reading passage and a running record form. I then asked them to assess their classmates' reading fluency, accuracy, and comprehension. Students retorted, "Professor . . . are you serious? We have to do this . . . now?" With great incredulity some asked, "Kids read like this all the time . . . next to a person with a pen and a stopwatch in their hands?"
"Yes," I answered. "Some 1st graders are so familiar with the process that they can explain the marking conventions of running records." Following our reading exercise, participants were anxious to discuss how they felt about reading under public scrutiny in the college classroom and how they could make readers more comfortable.
Large, Furry Animals in the Classroom?
I've taught 2nd and 3rd grade for several years. I've also taken a multitude of graduate reading courses with renowned literacy and dyslexia experts. No program, strategy, or tip made my readers excited and eager to conquer their literacy hurdles like the dogs from The Good Dog Foundation.
Trained pet-therapy dogs will not defecate, drool, urinate, or bark loudly in your classroom. They are as focused and well-behaved as any goody-two-shoes student. The pets will make readers laugh, project, and happily practice reading the same text until it is mastered.
Pet therapy dogs . . .
* are great listeners; they do not interrupt;
* don't laugh or tease students who are reading books below grade level;
* don't get impatient with readers who miss a word or need extended time for decoding;
* are unbelievably thrilled to hear students of all skill-levels read;
* lower the heart rates of anxious readers and help you raise the reading level of your students;
* don't exhibit any negative body language if students stutter or stumble on words.
Young Alan Rabinowitz, now a world-famous zoologist and jaguar scholar, regularly talked to a caged jaguar at the Bronx Zoo to beat his severe stutter. Take a look at the 60 Minutes excerpt below to learn how Tiger Woods conquered his stutter.
I've had as many as five dogs in the classroom at once, but with a little planning each session ran smoothly! Years ago my reading club consisted of eight to 12 children. Club members read with me first. We reviewed strategies and goals for decoding, fluency, and comprehension, and then the reader was asked to sit hip to hip with the handler for five to seven minutes. Even timid readers were not frightened away by the dog's handler or owner. The owner gently guided readers who needed assistance. Check out a short article about our reading club that originally appeared in the New York Daily News.
At the end of each session we gathered for circle time on the rug to discuss our reading successes and ways to conquer current setbacks, and to converse about the latest exploits of our dogs and their handlers. By the end of circle time each child had hugged their canine reading partner at least once!
Tips for Success
1. Students will have lots of questions about the four-legged reading wonders coming to your room. Create a KWL chart. Harness that excitement by allowing students to partake in lots of nonfiction reading and research about animal therapy or animals in general.
2. Provide clear ground rules: e.g., do not attempt to pet or distract the dog while another reader is working with the dog; do not attempt to give the dog snacks without the owner's permission.
3. Who reads first? Who goes next? Prevent tears and maximize your precious pooch time by creating doggie reading appointments for your readers and sticking to them (e.g., 2:20 p.m., Wanda reads to Clifford; 2:30 p.m., Justin reads to Bodhi).
4. To prevent distractions, make sure each child has several appropriate books or readers theater scripts at their desk. Circulate around the room to instruct, encourage, and listen to your readers just as you would during any other reading time.
5. Have children escort the owner and her dog to and from the classroom. How else would you treat a budding school celebrity? Without escorts, your pet therapy team will have a difficult time entering and exiting the building quickly. Give the dog's handler a cubby to store a blanket or a bowl for water. (The kind soul transported her dog to your school and took time off from work just for your readers.)
6. Discuss and model simple reading strategies for your handler. Have a reading strategy sheet available for your dog's owner. Check out Danielle Mahoney's fabulous post on fluency and download her bookmark so that your handler and young readers will have lots of gentle reminders at their fingertips.
7. Check out these links for FREE readers theater doggie favorites like Dav Pilkey's Hallo-weiner or Dog Breath: The Horrible Trouble with Hally Tosis. Check out FREE eBooks online in a myriad of languages to keep your kids reading aloud. Make sure to bookmark Storyline online on your elementary school computers. Our reading club goes crazy for Harry the Dirty Dog read by Storyline's Betty White or Romeow & Drooliet read by Haylie Duff!
This year, my reading club has grown to accommodate 30 students. Some students read and create fractured fairy tales on our SMART Table. (Download Scholastic's Story Stage application to create your own version of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears.") Some students read digital books or play Clifford literacy games on laptops. Some record readers theater sketches on Flip video cameras or laptops and a few lucky students get to work individually with Diane (pictured above) and her dog Beau. Call your local pet therapy organization to get your students reading aloud!