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Kids Who Read Out Loud to a Dog See Improved Literacy

Reading to a dog leads to more improvement than reading to a person.

Key points

  • More than one out of five students in primary school is reading below their expected grade level.
  • Research has shown that reading out loud to another person can improve overall reading performance for poor readers.
  • Reading out loud to a dog improves reading comprehension even more than reading to an adult.
Southworth Library/Flickr
Source: Southworth Library/Flickr

Is your child having problems learning to read? Are you looking for help to improve progress in learning literacy skills? According to a Canadian team of researchers headed by Corinne Syrnyk of the psychology department at St. Mary's University in Calgary, if you own a relatively calm family dog, you may have all the help you need.

Limited Reading Ability Is Widespread

Reading is a vital skill. Virtually no matter which of the many available methods is used to teach them, most children do learn to read. However, unless they receive some supportive help, the data suggest that more than one out of every five kids won't be able to properly master this important task. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32 percent of fourth-graders and 24 percent of eighth-graders aren't reading at a basic level.

There is an optimal window of time to teach reading skills. According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, if a child is a poor reader at the end of first grade, there is a 90 percent likelihood that, without some sort of additional help, they will remain a poor reader when they reach the end of their fourth grade. Children who aren't reading at grade level at this time are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Reading Out Loud

In a typical primary school classroom, one literacy exercise involves having children read aloud. Poor readers become painfully obvious at this time. Children with reading difficulties stop and start frequently, mispronouncing some words, skipping others entirely, and sometimes simply stalling when they can't sound out a word.

With other children and people around watching and judging them, poor readers feel ashamed because they are struggling with a skill that their classmates seem to master easily. The first casualty is self-esteem, and the second, and perhaps more important, is their motivation to read. It has been well established that improving motivation for reading positively impacts children's reading performance and literacy overall. This is where the dogs become useful adjuncts to teaching reading.

Canine Reading Assistants

The origins of canine-assisted literacy interventions are often attributed to the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program that was initiated in 1999 by Intermountain Therapy Animals, although there had been a number of earlier studies that had demonstrated the usefulness of dogs to assist primary school-level readers.

The learning process is really simple. The child gets to choose a book at their current level of competency and sits and reads to the dog out loud. The dog provides a nonjudgmental and socially supportive presence, and by staying near and paying attention to the child the dog provides positive reinforcement that improves both self-esteem and motivation in the child.

Testing the Effect of Reading to a Dog

This recent study attempted to compare the progress the children made in oral reading and reading comprehension under two conditions, namely with the child reading to an adult versus the child reading to a dog. The children were 7 to 8 years old, and each received both types of intervention, adult versus dog, in random order. The supportive program did not involve a huge amount of time, with sessions of around 15 minutes, once a week, over an eight-week period.

The adult intervention was led by a school volunteer who had training in literacy support. The dog intervention involved an unpaid volunteer from a non-profit group that provides therapy dogs. The job of these therapy dogs is usually to interact with various kinds of people in a variety of different locations, such as schools and hospitals. In general, such therapy dogs are chosen for their calm and friendly personality.

The procedure was straightforward. When reading to the adult, the child sat beside them and if they needed prompting or support during the session, the adult responded by coaching them to use a particular strategy, assisting with unfamiliar words, or offering encouragement to continue. The dog condition used the same procedure with one difference, the child read to a dog, not to an adult. The dog's handler was also present and provided assistance to the student in the same way as when the child was reading only to an adult.

A number of measures were taken to assess the progress of the children and their reactions to this additional supportive training. At the end of each session, the children were asked about how they felt, and it became clear that they were reacting positively to both conditions, although they seemed to be more enthusiastic and more motivated when reading to the dogs. For example, one child commented, "I like reading to dogs because they are great listeners." At the social and motivational level, reports based on teacher and parent observations indicated that there was no loss of self-esteem, no embarrassment about reading aloud, and no reduction of motivation to read.

Do Dogs Really Help Children Learn to Read?

Because of the many different measures used in this study, and the fact that all students involved experienced both types of intervention, a large number of statistical analyses were required to tease out the details of what was happening. However, the research team was able to provide a succinct summary of their main findings.

"We found that while reading improved in both conditions, the canine-assisted reading support contributed to greater gains in both oral reading and reading comprehension scores than did the adult-assisted intervention."

The results of this study seem to suggest that if your child is having trouble reading, one way in which you, as a parent, might help the situation is to first have your kid grab his or her favorite book. Next, suggest to them that the family dog might enjoy hearing it as well. Then have the child read it out loud to the dog in short sessions, while you sit nearby providing nonjudgmental support (just like your dog).

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Syrnyk, C., McArthur, A., Zwack, A., Handelsman, A. (2022). Supporting Young Readers: A Mixed-Methods Study of Their Literacy, Behaviour, and Perceptions When Reading Aloud to Dogs or Adults. Early Childhood Education Journal..

Friesen, L., & Delisle, E. (2012). Animal-assisted literacy: A supportive environment for constrained and unconstrained learning. Childhood Education, 88(2), 102–107.

Wigfield, A., Gladstone, J., & Turci, L. (2016). Beyond cognition: Reading motivation and reading comprehension. Child Development Perspectives, 10(3), 190–195.

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