November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Fido Helps Kids Improve Reading Skills at Wisconsin Library

At Wisconsin’s Racine Public Library, the idea of going to the dogs is a good thing. Children have been flocking to its Ruff Readers program, where K-5th graders spend 15 minutes reading aloud to tail-wagging friends who are trained to listen and obey.

dogs.1(Original Import)To librarians Jill Lininger and Erin Kant, the program helps children—especially struggling readers—gain confidence because the dogs only offer a gentle, nonjudgmental ear. And that’s key for kids who may find reading stressful because they have a learning disability or may feel anxious reading in front of their friends.

“Many of the children who come to the program are nervous about reading aloud while some of them love it, but I think it’s a great opportunity for the kids to just socialize with an animal without feeling self-conscious,” says Lininger, the director of the Oak Creek Public Library, who helped launch the program six years ago when she was a children’s librarian at the Racine Public Library.

Since its launch in 2006, close to 1,800 children have read to dogs, says Erin Kant, Racine’s youth services librarian. While the number of participants is impressive, a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Davis confirms that young students who read aloud to dogs were not only more confident and enthusiastic about reading, their reading skills improved 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program. Those who didn’t read to dogs showed no improvement.

Another study by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University found that children who read to dogs for 30 minutes once a week increased their words per minute and showed improved engagement with reading. Kids in the same study who read to humans actually experienced a decrease in words per minute.

As most librarians know, the key to becoming a good reader is practice. That’s why Ruff Readers also can help combat the summer slide, a well documented problem that affects kids who don’t read during the summer—they end up losing an average of 2.6 months of the skills they learned during the previous school year.

Racine has had 426 dogs participate in Ruff Readers, including therapy dogs, those from the Racine shelter Hope Safehouse, and others from Therapy Dogs International, along with their handlers, who volunteer up to four times a week. Children can sign-up on the library’s website, and readers are always invited to return, which increases visitors by about 500 percent, Lininger says.

Read-aloud programs with dogs are thriving in public libraries from Oregon’s Multnomah County Library to Arizona’s Pima County Public Library, with participating volunteer animals certified as therapy dogs specifically trained for the program. The children, notes Lininger, also receive some training in how to treat animals and how to approach and greet a dog- rather than just walking up to one and start petting without permission.

Handlers, too, understand when they need to be involved, or “fade into the background,” says Lininger, so the children really connect to the dogs they’re reading to and feel comfortable with them.

Of course, kids do get attached to their furry friends, and sometimes requests are made to read to the same dog at each visits, notes Kant.

“Most times though the kids are just so happy to read to a dog, and all of our dogs are so loveable and fantastic, that it really doesn’t matter to them who they read to,” she adds

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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