Thursday, December 28, 2006

Children Reading Aloud To Dogs?

I am sorry but I just don’t understand this concept of having young children read aloud to dogs as part of helping them learn to read.

Dogs can’t help a child by correcting any errors they may make, can they?

What benefit can this actually have?

(I refer to a program called R.E.A.D.—Reading Education Assistance Dogs)

I have been having some conversations with parents of children who learn to read in public and private schools (not homeschoolers). There seems to be a wide variance of what is recommended by the schools for the parents to do. Some friends tell me their children's teachers have never told them anything to do at home to help their children learn to read (these parents really like and want the teacher to tell them what to do). Another example is that some schools send the child home with a book and tell the child it is their homework to read that book, that night. The parents tell me that they are never told that they are to listen to the book being read. Some parents tell me they have the child read the book by themselves.

One parent was discussing her fifth grader’s reading problems with me. She was asking my advice. In trying to clarify the situation it came out that the girl does not read aloud like a person would speak. She does not use the proper tone as if speaking, she reads aloud in a monotone, robotic way. Additionally, she does not pause at commas or use the ending punctuation—meaning, a question sound for a question marked sentence or an exclamation mark sound or just pausing normally when a period is encountered. The mother said that the teachers have told her for years that it is not important to do those things and that the parent should NOT help the child learn to read in that way or to focus on those issues. The mother said that the school was harping on the child about her low reading comprehension quiz scores, which are done as prep work for standardized testing (no doubt as part of the No Child Left Behind Act compliance).

I have been asking parents how children learn to read in school. Three parents from two different towns have told me that the only time the actual TEACHER hears the child read is during an ‘assessment’ to chart their progress; in other words the actual real teacher of the class never helps the children with their reading. They say that parent volunteers come in to sit with small groups of children as the children take turns reading. Therefore the overall amount of minutes that a child in school reads aloud with an adult listening and monitoring and helping is very little, definitely under 15 minutes (in the classroom). To boot two parents told me in order to get quiet time sometimes they sit in the hall. Two other parents said it can be quite noisy in the classroom, with the most noisy of all being the adult teacher’s aid that is assigned to individual special needs children (who are doing entirely different work). Two other mothers said that additional classroom noise and distraction is caused by the school’s reading specialists that come inside the classroom to give help. They said that the children are no longer pulled OUT of the class for that special help as the parents complained it was a stigma to the children who were struggling. One parent asked if the child who is struggling is hindered by fear and shame of reading poorly in front of their peers on the small groups. Two parents answered that during their volunteer time they never saw a student make fun of a struggling learner. Lastly one parent whose child went to an expensive private school said that the teacher's aid told her the children never read aloud in class (in first grade) but they only did worksheets from the "Explode the Code" series.

My friend who is a reading specialist (in the state of NY) said that children should be practicing reading at home 20 minutes per day, 7 days a week, year round. She says this is not happening in most homes during the school year and most families don't do any reading over the vacation weeks or summer break.

Back to the dogs.
More and more in public libraries in my area are advertising special appointments for children to read to these 'speically trained' dogs. I was told by one library staffer that the dogs are specially trained to sit nicely and listen to books being read aloud. The librarian stated that children are less hindered to read aloud to dogs then to other humans, and that it helps the child by boosting their self-esteem about their ability to read.

I don’t know but it seems to me that reading to one’s own parent with the parent helping the child learn is what should be done, not using dogs, for the simple reason that the adult can read the book and can see if an error is made so they can (gently, hopefully) correct the child and also to give verbal praise. In this process good family bonding time would occur (at least it does with me and my own children).

If a family uses these appointments with the dogs, it is yet one more appointment in after-school time that the child would need to schedule and get to (another contributor to over-scheduling). Then again I guess if the parent is unwilling to do it then a dog is better than not reading for practice at all.

Am I the only one that thinks having a child read aloud to a dog is weird or inferior?

And do parents not feel insulted that a dog is a better after-school teacher of reading for their children than they themselves are?

(By the way I am not speaking about low income areas or places where parents are unable to read. I am speaking of wealthy towns with a median income of over $100K and where the US Census data says most parents are college educated and some with Master's Degrees or higher degrees!)

A certain friend of mine (and my husband) would tell me to follow the money to figure this out. I have not done this yet.

Update 12/24/08: I have seen more and more of these programs being offered in public libraries in my area. One librarian told me that children are not comfortable reading aloud to their parents so reading aloud to a dog is better than not practicing reading or not reading aloud at all. If kids are so disconnected from their parents that they don't feel comfortable reading aloud to them at home then that is a symptom of a larger societal problem if you ask me. If you are interested in that topic I refer you to "Ships Without a Shore" an excellent book by Anne Pierce PhD (read my book review here).

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10 comments:

Mother Crone's Homeschool said...

LIke any program, what works for some will not work for others. For my dyslexic daughter, reading aloud was a pain worse than having a tooth drilled. However, it was a skill she needed. I would have her read aloud to the dogs or her guinea pig, who did not judge when she stumbled or had letter reversals. This exercise helped her build confidence and fluency, without pressure.

This also worked, because I read aloud to them daily as part of our afternoon lessons. I think a child that reads without intonation and stopping has more than likely not had a great deal of time being read to, for even as toddlers, mine pretended to read with intonation!

dreah said...

So they are saying to these kids... I don't have time for you... here. Read to these dogs?

Margaret said...

I'm not sure about this, but I think my boy - who has struggled with reading - might be more relaxed and thus do better reading to a dog than to a person. He is becoming a fine silent reader (as evidenced by me asking him questions about his reading) but is a poor "out loud" reader. He just stumbles a lot and also has a hard time with intonation and expression - though he has heard plenty of expressive reading aloud from me. So I don't know, it may actually be beneficial for some kids. It does sound very goofy, though.

christinemm said...

I learned from the book "Teach a Child to Read With Children's Books" by Thogmartin, the author's recommendation for how to teach a child to read. I have mixed feelings about that book and that method, but that is another long story. I just wanted to share one thing that book taught me which is applicable to the topic of intonation, pausing while reading, etc. I did do this with both of my children and it worked for them.

I don't know if other parents who teach their children to read do this, or what is done in the schools do.

First you start with a book the child can master easily. I can't remember if the child is to read it first or the adult, out loud. But anyway the part I remember is that the child is to read it a second and a third time in a row each time giving a bit more effort to reading it correctly not just for the word pronounciation and decoding but for the intonation and the pausing, the stopping at the end of the sentence, etc. Somewhere in there I think the parent was to read it so the child could hear it read "properly" with intonation, etc. The child is to try not to read like a monotone robot, etc. As the child re-reads the already-conquered decoded words it becomes easier. Then at the end of that day's lesson a new, harder book is pulled out to read for practice once through (a picture type book or an easy reader).

The next day again the old easy book is read yet again, once or twice. The author said that it would be mastered or at least better on that second day. The gist is that the child WILL master that one simple picture book with the right pausing, intonation, etc.

Another point I learned from that book is that not every single part of a reading lessson should be difficult. They need practice with easily mastered stuff to build fluency and then a bit of a challenge to move them up to longer text and higher vocabulary.

I have gently told or asked my children to re-read a certain sentence to make it sound like the question (since that was a question-sentence). At no time in that kind of lessons were my children's feeling hurt or did they suffer in any way (from me raising expectations).

I think all kids would like to read well and would like to read aloud and not sound like robots. I think it is good to help them along with that intonation part of learning to read, in a gentle manner.

The other type of issue that one of my sons has is he liked to rush through a reading and make it sound like a long run-on sentence. That is another bad habit that I nipped in the bud. I basically told him to knock it off, to slow down and read it normally, LOL.

Lucky for me my sensitive son is a mroe natural reader so I don't have the issue with having to work with him on challenging issues that might harm his self-esteem. Phew.

I still don't understand how a child can feel so scared about reading aloud to their PARENT unless the parent and child have a horrible relationship or the parent is very critical or if the parent doesn't care enough to spend those few minutes per day alone with the child to listen to them read aloud. I am sorry but I still don't get the reading aloud to dogs idea. Sorry. Read to a parent who can see how the child is doing and gently correct them so they are aware they made a mistake. Then give verbal praise, and some affection, even!

I have been thinking about this again and wonder if some study was done about this that had a positive result then someone wrote grants and got government money to pay for this and that is why this reading to dogs program is being toured around here, even in the wealthy towns where one would think that the parents would be willing to participate with their children in that way at home, after school.

A separate issue is if the child is a poor reader and does need remedial help but the dog hears them, and doesn't help them, but the child's self-esteem is boosted then is that a false propping up of self-esteem? Hmmm. Reminds me of the 20/20 "Stupid in America" show where the survey showed the students rated themselves so smart and having done so well on a test they took but they really failed big time. It was made clear their self-evaluation and self-esteem was high but their actual academic abilities were lower and the two things were not in alignment. Someone once said American public schooled students have the higest self-esteem of any students in the world but their scores and reality of intelligence/learning as measured by testing compared to other countries was plummeting and "undeserved".

I don't know....

Mother Crone's Homeschool said...

I wanted to post again, because I asked my daughter about this on our walk today. She said that she never felt pressure from me about reading aloud, but she was so anxious because it was so hard to do the first few times through, and the presence of the pets helped calm her. She tends to be a real perfectionist in general, never wanting to show a picture that isn't perfect, or a rough draft. She would often come to me to read it after she had practiced it enough to feel good about it.

However, I find the way this program is designed in this program just reeks of yet another way to sub-contract parenting for these public school folks.

christinemm said...

Mother Crone, I am glad you asked your daughter then shared her response with us. That is the same quality/issue I was speaking of with my younger son. My younger son is precocious in some areas but he is such a perfectionist (all self imposed) and he is very, very hard on himself if he is not achieving a ridiculous level of achievement to master an academic topic (or anything, ranging from tying his shoes to reaching the sink without a stool, to whittling with a jackknife). I can just imagine that if reading was not easy for him that he'd feel some negative emotions to read to me and have me pointing out his errors.

I don't think ALL kids are perfectionists or have that issue. So many kids are not shy about reading aloud but they are terrible readers, they either don't know or don't care. I wonder sometimes if the parent or teacher never helped them along. I speak of schooled kids who I hear reading aloud in places such as at Cub Scout events, some friends of my children, etc.

I know some parents who are all praise, praise, praise even when it is undeserved! I believe more in being kind and respectful but not falsely propping up one's self-esteem for qualities the child does not even possess! But I digress.

I was also saddened to hear the woes of that mom of a 5th grader who was being targeted and ridden hardly by her teacher for bad reading skills (hurry up and fix it before the standardized test is given!) when all of the former teachers didn't even tell the parent there was an issue (nor did the child know they were less than perfect). How did that slip by all those years?

Anyway I still think that bad readers need human contact and targeted, specific comments and gentle guidance to learn specific things or get over specific hurdles like, "we need to work on making the pause after you see a comma". And a dog can't do that.

christinemm said...

On the last paragraph perhaps I should have said "beginning readers" or "challenged readers" not "bad readers". Sorry if that sounded insulting, I meant kids who are learning and/or having trouble mastering a concept.

Margaret said...

I agree that struggling readers need humans to hear them read and to correct their errors, help them with intonation, etc. Very important part of learning to read. But when children read silently they are not being corrected. As part of his learning to read, my son would read something and then narrate back to me (or answer "comprehension questions") so I'd know how he was doing when reading to himself. (Of course reading aloud and reading silently are not quite the same skill.) For a long time my boy struggled when he read to me but if I gave him something to read on his own, it was obvious that he understood what he was reading. (In other words, he'd get the questions right.) So I don't think every minute of a child's reading practice has to be done with someone listening and correcting. I remember as a child having to read aloud and being very nervous about it, yet I was a great reader from an early age. Something about "performing" just doesn't work for some people.

Anyway, sounds like I'm arguing for this program, which I'm not. My kids don't read to dogs at the library. They do sometimes read to toddlers though, who also don't correct them. (Please don't consider that I am comparing toddlers to animals.)

Dana said...

I agree to a point. Our reading dogs come into our library during the summer months, though, so I think it helps some families make that commitment to regular summer reading for those interested.

It seems weird, and that the parent should be a superior reading partner (and obviously, I don't know what other issues may or may not have been going on), but the children I have seen this really work for have been special needs children and those who were reading far below grade level and were embarrassed by the books they were supposed to be reading.

Often, these children have an incredibly low frustration threshold and the slightest thought of a correction sends them into a fit. Personally, I think this has as much to do with the pressure the schools put on learning to read starting in Kindergarten as it has to do with parenting

When I taught, I used to assign my slower readers a book to practice and they got to read it aloud at the end of the week to the Pre-K kids. That helped them get over the fact that they weren't reading the same books as some of the other children...it was for the little ones, after all. And they took the practice very seriously.

ROXIE said...

Give this concept another chance.

Studies at John Hopkins University and the University of Maryland show when children (whose blood pressure were monitored)were alone in a quiet room to read their blood pressure would instantly go up; when a dog was put in to wander around the room, their blood pressure quickly lowered. When your blood pressure normalizes, your anxiety levels are reduced and you perform better.


The R.E.A.D Program Frequently Asked Questions explains the program in detail:

In the school setting, teachers or reading specialists are asked to select those children who would most benefit from the program, and a particular team reads with the same child each week, so that a more trusted and secure relationship evolves. This is AAT, or animal-assisted therapy, because specific goals are set for each child, documentation is kept, and progress is recorded. Sometimes this is done right after school; sometimes during the school day, but it involves privacy or semi-privacy so that the child can blossom without the criticism of his/her peers.


Often the handler will use projection, communicating through and for the animal, to teach concepts and to help overcome obstacles. This approach is more appealing to the child and more effective because s/he doesn't feel targeted or pressured. For example, if a child reads a word but doesn't know what it means, the handler might say, "Gee, I don't think Rover has ever heard the word 'interactive' before-can you tell him what it means?" If he knows, great; if he doesn't, they can get a dictionary together and learn the new word and explain it to the dog. This is less direct and intimidating than, "Do you know what that word means?" a direct question which a child may shrink from.


A lot of the magic in this program revolves around letting the child focus on the dog. When s/he thinks s/he's helping the dog understand the words and the story, the child gets the empowering feeling of being the helper and teacher-rather than having the whole experience focus on the child's lack of skill. This critical shift in focus makes an incredible difference in the flow of the child's learning processes. It's much more fun to read with a friend who listens attentively, and who does not judge, than to read for your teacher, in front of your peers.

There are several videos demonstrating this program on My Name Is Roxie's Family and Dog Issues: CHILDREN READING TO DOGS = R.E.A.D.(Reading Education Assistance Dogs)(Videos and Links) http://mynameisroxie.com/roxies-family-and-dog-issues/reading-assistant-therapy-dogs/

My Name Is Roxie
http://mynameisroxie.com/

My Name Is Roxie Family and Dog Issues
http://mynameisroxie.com/roxies-family-and-dog-issues/

My Name Is Roxie Children Reading To Dogs=R.E.A.D.(Reading Education Assistance Dogs)
http://mynameisroxie.com/roxies-family-and-dog-issues/reading-assistant-therapy-dogs/