A dog, it is said, is a man’s best friend. Put a dog and a kid and book together, and you have a struggling reader's best friend.
The therapy dogs of R.E.A.D. – Reading Education Assistance Dogs – have been helping children improve their literacy skills since 1999, when Intermountain Therapy Animals began the program in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Today, tens of thousands of R.E.A.D. teams – dogs and their owners – volunteer to spend time with youngsters in schools and libraries across the United States and around the world.
The idea is that sharing a book with a nonjudgmental companion boosts students' confidence and helps instill a love of reading.
Izzy, a Havanese therapy dog, is a regular visitor to Public School 57 in East Harlem, New York. Students meet him in the library, pick out a book and flop down on the carpet. Izzy snuggles up to them and gets ready to hear a story.
"I love reading to Izzy because he listens to me, and he doesn't make fun of me when I make a mistake," says third-grader Aelane Vasquez. The 9-year-old, whose parents are from Mexico, is one of 15 students of Latin-American descent at the school who were selected for the program.
Behind in reading levels
"All the students that we work with in the R.E.A.D. program were behind reading levels at the beginning of the year," Bridget McElroy, who teaches English as a Second Language, explained. "Most of them have caught up to where they should have entered, if not surpassed that."
That's important, because achieving proficiency in reading is critical for kids to succeed. Studies have shown that students who can't read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school by the age of 19.
McElroy said she sees a marked difference in Aelane and her classmates, and not just academically.
"Not only do the kids have time to practice reading, what we are really seeing is that they are excited to read, and they are motivated to practice even when Izzy is not here," she said.
"And as a classroom teacher that is phenomenal because there is very little that I can do to convince a kid to go home and practice reading, where 20 minutes a week with Izzy is all that they need," McElroy added.
The R.E.A.D. teams from New York Therapy Animals work with 175 kids at PS57 and nine other schools, and the popular program plans to expand to even more schools in the city next year.