A recent study determined that second-grade students who read out loud to therapy dogs showed a marked improvement in their attitudes about reading.
The study, conducted at the Tufts University’s Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, appears in the Early Childhood Education Journal online, in advance of print.
In children, there is often a direct correlation between reading skills and positive attitudes about school and good academic performance.
Researchers conducting this study sought to find out whether animal-assisted intervention could contribute to further improving literacy skills and attitudes. So, they developed an after school program in which children read aloud to dogs.
The study’s corresponding author was Deborah Linder, D.V.M., associate director of Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction and research assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
According to Linder, previous studies have evaluated the effect of therapy dogs on children’s literacy, but only outside of the academic setting.
This study sought to study the phenomenon inside an academic setting, where the stressors usually present at school would present. Stressors generally include things like fear of negative feedback and difficult social situations.
Assessing Performance and Perspectives
In this pilot study, students were divided into two groups: one who would read to a therapy dog for 30 minutes once a week, and a control group who just followed standard classroom procedure and curriculum. The study took place over six weeks.
The students’ reading skills were assessed every two weeks, and their attitudes about reading were assessed at the start and at the end of the program.
Their reading comprehension skills were measured according to the guidelines dictated by the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). Keeping in line with the DIBELS assessment, children read passages out loud for one minute and their teachers assessed their skills and comprehension while they read.
Reading attitudes were assessed using the Elementary Reading Attitude Survey (ERAS). This survey asked 10 questions about academic reading and 10 questions about recreational reading. Students selected pictographic responses of expressions ranging from “very upset” to “very happy.”
Results of the Study
While reading skill scores and attitudes about recreational (outside of school) reading did not alter significantly in either group, the group of children who read aloud to dogs did show a significant improvement in their attitudes toward academic reading.
Researchers believe that while these average-level students did not show improvement in their reading skills, the results may differ if this same program is attempted with below-average reading level students.
In future studies, researchers may also alter other factors like the frequency of the reading to dogs, and the duration of the programs.
Lisa Freeman, D.V.M, Ph.D. is the director of Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction and professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. According to Freeman, one of the most important aspects of trying to improve reading skills in children is getting them motivated to engage in reading in the first place.
The results of this study indicate that the dogs being present in the academic setting likely provided more motivation to children to practice and perform well in their literacy exercises. This should help inform future conducting similar studies and programs in animal-assisted intervention.
Linder has received a grand from Tufts University to study whether reading to dogs can improve reading skills and lower anxiety in children aged 7 to 11 who struggle with reading. That study’s objective is to evaluate anxiety before and after the program, and to measure reading skills and engagement of struggling readers who read out loud to peers vs. those who read out loud to therapy dogs.
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- Deborah E. Linder, Megan K. Mueller, Debra M. Gibbs, Jean A. Alper, Lisa M. Freeman. Effects of an Animal-Assisted Intervention on Reading Skills and Attitudes in Second Grade Students. Early Childhood Education Journal, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10643-017-0862-x