Want Kids to Embrace Books? Tell Them to Read to a Dog

Instead of criticizing struggling readers, canines simply listen.

A boy reads to a service dog at Bonner Springs City Library in Bonner Springs, Kan. (Photo: Bonner Springs/Flickr)

Apr 8, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Thanks to budget cuts, schools libraries are being shuttered, so finding the cash to let kids read to dogs might seem like a long shot. However, when you compare our literacy rates and the results reading-to-dogs programs get, putting Fido in the classroom starts to look like an investment-worthy option. That’s why the U.K.-based Bark and Read Foundation takes dogs to hundreds of schools across England.

Why do we need to let kids read to dogs? Literacy experts know that feeling criticized and judged while you’re reading can backfire big time. Think back to your elementary school days, when one of your teachers would call on you and ask you to read a textbook paragraph out loud. If reading was a breeze for you, you were eager to do so. If you were a struggling reader, there was probably nothing you dreaded more. Other students would hear you pause when you got to the word you didn’t know—and then they’d start hissing it at you. After a few more awkward seconds, the teacher would make you sound it out in front of everybody. It’s the stuff of classroom nightmares.

Stick that struggling reader next to a canine companion, however, and all the anxiety about reading disappears.

Bark and Read founder Tony Nevett told BBC.com that letting kids read to dogs works because “the dog doesn't judge or criticize.” After all, the dog has no idea how a word is supposed to be pronounced. It's just happy to listen, wag its tail, and get its ears scratched. The physical contact with the dog helps the kids relax too—their blood pressure comes down, said Nevett. Reading to dogs works particularly well with special needs students. “They can sit there and spell out the words with them, and the child knows the dog can't spell!” he said.

Although programs that allow kids to read to dogs are still a novelty, a groundbreaking 2010 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine found that kids who read to dogs for 15 to 20 minutes every day for 10 weeks boosted their reading proficiency by 12 percent in one study and by 30 percent in another. In comparison, kids who didn’t read to dogs didn’t show any progress.

The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that only 35 percent of fourth graders score proficient or advanced in reading. And according to the most recent report from the World Literacy Foundation, 85 percent of juvenile offenders facing trial are functional illiterates.

Meanwhile, back in the U.K., Lynda Morgan, an administrator of a school for emotionally and behaviorally challenged kids, told BBC.com that 70 percent of her students are struggling readers. However, having Nevett’s greyhound, Danny, in the library has boosted both the pupils' reading ability and their self-esteem. “There is a therapeutic effect too, which helps children get over any emotional trouble if something has gone wrong during the school day," Morgan said.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.