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The ABCs of DOGs: children learning to read with dogs

by Akash Nikolas || 21 February 2018

Is there anything dogs can’t do? We can scratch “help children to read” off the list of answers to that rhetorical question now that libraries in Colorado have instituted an adorable program where children read aloud to dogs (cats can read for themselves, thank you). According to The Denver Post, the Dog Ears program “makes reading fun” and “the dogs are non judgmental listeners who can lend hesitant readers a little self confidence.” It’s a clever approach to reading since children enjoy playing with cute animals, and making learning fun is a good way to teach children anything. In a way, the program is a continuation of a growing trend of animals being utilized for emotional and therapeutic support.

Even if you do not live in Colorado and do not have access to this program, it may be useful for your child to include their own pets as part of their reading routine if it alleviates anxiety and heightens happiness. Indeed having a child read to a pet can be a good strategy since it is presumably less stressful than reading to an adult, and it gives the child a reason to read aloud, which means the parent can ensure he/she is decoding instead of guessing words.

Just as the Dog Ears program promotes the intimacy of pet-and-child reading time, so too Easyread encourages parent-and-child to view reading time as a bonding experience. We insist that an adult (usually a parent) must be present for every lesson with the child, and we recommend doing the lessons at a quiet time separate from the bustle of the rest of the household. If for example the lessons are done early in the morning before other siblings are awake, the child can view the activity as “alone time with mom or dad.” 

Another key takeaway from the Dog Ears program is its reliance on “fun” and “confidence” as the vectors to help children to read. We also believe in this at Easyread and our system is designed to promote these qualities. In terms of fun, our system teaches the child to decode words using our trainertext method which involves memorable cartoon characters; the system is entirely computerized which children prefer to traditional teaching methods; and the lessons are replete with a variety of games. In terms of confidence, our lessons are intentionally short and easy; we offer encouragement within the lessons and through messages, prizes and certificates; and one of our golden rules is that parents constantly provide affirmations to the child during the lessons. [Link to golden rule?]

Lack of confidence is a major impediment to a child learning to read and a common worry we hear from parents. When children get bad reading assessments from educators and see other children reading well, they can withdraw from the written word entirely and view the experience of reading in a negative way. This of course can become a vicious cycle as the lack of confidence discourages the child from reading which in turn leads to even less confidence. It is easy to see how reading to a dog can break that cycle by imbuing a child with more confidence but we firmly believe parents can help break this cycle as well.

For example, the reason we insist that parents affirm throughout the lessons is because if a child only hears the parent’s voice when they intervene to help, then the child can interpret that moment as a stress trigger (“I’m hearing mom’s voice all of a sudden so I must be doing something wrong!”). Conversely if the child hears a steady background rhythm of the parent’s voice affirming throughout the lessons, the child will perceive their interventions to help as part of that steady background rhythm.

Indeed it is important to remember the things that parents can do that pets cannot. After all, a pet cannot correct a child’s mistake while reading or encourage him to decode instead of guess. Dog may be man’s best friend, but while they are learning to read, your child’s best friend is still you.