Literacy Learning Goes to the Dogs

December 7, 2010
Lori Friesen

Animal-assisted literacy proves positive

The inspiration for research in animal-assisted literacy originated with my students. As an elementary teacher for eight years, I continually searched for meaningful ways to engage and support my students in literacy.

Through daily interactions with my students, I discovered that we shared a love for animals, which was demonstrated by my students’ enthusiastic responses when I brought my female dog, Tango, to our classroom. Much to my surprise, when Tango was present during supervised one-on-one time with a student, I observed that some students began to bring their favourite books to show her. Was this a random occurrence or do children commonly enjoy reading to dogs, and if so, why?

My initial Internet searches found that animal-assisted literacy learning programs, which involve a child reading aloud to an animal (usually a dog) and an adult in a school or library, have been established worldwide. In addition to 43 states in the United States, animal-assisted literacy programs are currently running in four Canadian provinces, as well as in Australia, China, India, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. Yet despite the program’s popularity, little research has examined how children experience animal-assisted literacy learning or what the significance of these experiences may be for young children in the classroom.

To fill this gap in the research, I designed a case study involving a Grade 2 class in northern Alberta over a 10-week period (October–December 2009). Each week, I visited the classroom on Tuesday and Thursday mornings with my two seven-year-old Maltese poodles: Tango (a white female) and Sparky (a grey male). Both dogs are trained therapy dogs with the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta and both had supervised experience with children in the classroom prior to the study.

Students volunteered to read or write with me and the dog of their choice. Each 20-minute session took place in a semiprivate part of the classroom, sectioned off with a folding screen. Pairs of students and I sat on a blanket with cushions, with the dog usually in the centre of the group in his or her own bed. I recorded (audio and video) each session, collected literacy artefacts (with permission from each student author), interviewed children in the class and their classroom teacher three times during the study, and, toward the end of the study, interviewed 12 of the students’ parents. Analysis of research data revealed the following four major themes.

1. An anticipated break from typical school life

Similar to educational school fieldtrips, students really looked forward to the literacy sessions. Surprisingly, all 18 students in the class signed up to participate, regardless of their ability or interest in reading and writing. The parents of some students spoke of their children’s increased motivation to go to school when they knew that Tango and Sparky would be there. The teacher emphasized that the students’ enthusiasm for literacy seemed connected to their belief that they were reading and writing for a meaningful audience. One child wrote to Tango: “I am jumping for joy because I am so excited about reading with you!”

2. A playful, imaginative space for learning

A semiprivate space in a busy classroom, a supportive and caring adult and the unconditional attention of the audience (a dog), invited possibilities for light-hearted and playful learning.  Literacy learning with a dog captured students’ imaginations as they read and re-read aloud child-authored texts to the dog, or made text-to-world connections when reading picture books. For example, when reading Walter the Farting Dog, Daniel noticed that the main character, Walter, was floating from having too much gas, he told a story about his own dog and then asked Sparky: “Can you fly like that?” The numerous playful and light-hearted ways the students engaged with text during animal-assisted literacy sessions contributed to their enthusiastic and ongoing participation.

3. Close physical contact: Like a family

Beyond being fun, the sessions offered children a unique and familial form of social, emotional and academic support in the classroom. Students sat close to each other and together would pet and touch the dog. The dog acted as a soft social bridge between students and focused their attention on the task at hand. Ashley observed: “It feels like we’re a family.” In the case of boys, in particular, the dogs’ presence instilled peace and calm, as illustrated by Nathan’s comment: “I feel very calmed down [when I’m with the dogs] and feel like I want to write.” Daniel said, “I feel like I’m not lonely” during literacy sessions, unlike other times when he read and wrote at school.

4. Ripples in students’ Broader school and at-home literacy lives

Interviews with the classroom teacher and students’ parents revealed that animal-assisted literacy sessions might have contributed to students’ increased enthusiasm for and confidence in reading and writing in the classroom, and inspired at-home conversations about literacy. As the classroom teacher described it, “When I tell [the students] that they’ll be reading something to Tango and Sparky, it makes it more meaningful for them, and I think the level of reading and writing has probably increased, because ... they just take it more seriously.” Parents said that the first thing they heard from their children when they came home from school was about their reading and writing with Tango and Sparky, which led to further conversations about books. One parent said she wouldn’t normally hear about it if her child was “simply silent reading” at school, but her daughter commonly told her about the books she read to Tango.

Conclusion

Research indicates that animal-assisted literacy learning offers children a unique form of social, emotional and academic support that warrants further examination. Beyond the dogs serving as a nonjudgmental audience for children’s literacy efforts, involvement in this program seemed to be a highly anticipated literacy event in the children’s school week, invited novel opportunities to engage children’s imaginations with text, provided children with a familial form of support in the classroom and positively contributed to children’s broader home and school literacy lives. Who knew that literacy learning going to the dogs could be such a positive experience?

Acknowledgements

This work is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Killam Trust.

Lori Friesen is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Education, University of Alberta.