Can Animals Really Help Students Read? The Science Behind The Movement

Dec 10, 2014

Tristan Silcox and mom, Mindy Silcox.
Credit LHatter / WFSU News

Dogs have long been considered man’s best friend. And over the years they’ve become companions for everything from law enforcement to therapy. Now, one program is using dogs to help kids read. But does it really work?

It’s recess at Wakulla County’s Shadeville Elementary School.  And while most of the students are outside, hanging on monkey bars and rolling down the slide, fifth grader Tristan Silcox is indoors,  reading a book.

Meet Gertie, the dog who works with Shadeville Elementary School in Wakulla County
Credit LHatter / WFSU News

He’s nestled in a corner near a bookshelf. but the most important feature of Tristan’s space,  is the small, white fluffy dog named Gertie who is being wrangled by her owner and teacher Lauralee Moore as Tristan tries to read.

Tristan’s been reading aloud to Gertie about once a week for the past year. And he says it’s made a difference in how he feels about reading.

“I was just reading small books, some of them I didn’t do so hot on. Now, I can read the biggest books I can because Gertie has encouraged me, and she comforts me.”  And Tristan’s mother, Mindy Silcox, says she’s noticed a difference as well.

“He likes to read. But I could tell after sessions with Gertie that he was reading more challenging books, and his fluency was better," she says.

Tristan and his mom, Mindy Silcox
Credit LHatter / WFSU News

Gertie, Tristan and his teacher LauraLee Moore, are part of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital’s Animal Therapy Program. They’re doing work under TMH’s Tallahassee Reads Initiative which pairs struggling student readers in grades 1-8, with animal handlers. There are 17 teams working at 14 schools in Leon and Wakulla County. The animals and their handlers go through extensive training and a national exam to become certified to participate. But while Tristan, his mom and teacher all endorse the program, does it really work?

“We can’t really say, ‘does it work’. The evidence that’s out there is really anecdotal," says Jessica Folsom, a researcher at the Florida State University Center for Reading Research.  She says there aren’t many scientific studies on how animal therapy affects reading, but there are a lot of theories on the practice.

“Some of the theories are that its giving a child practice, and the dog acts as a non-judging…with some students they get into a failure cycle—the student is more engaged, they like hanging around the dog, they don’t see the dog as judgmental…and the more practice a child gets, the better they will be.”

And  that’s the point. Tristan says, “the best part is that Gertie is a really cute puppy and she…well, she…is really comfortable sitting next to me when I read and it makes me feel like I can read whatever book in the world there is.” 

But whether it actually helps kids understand what they read, is where the science is pretty thin. And that’s an important caveat—because the state has new student learning standards and new state exams that focus largely on comprehension. And FSU’s Folsom says it’s now more important than ever that students get a strong reading foundation. There’s a big difference between learning to read, and reading to learn.

“What students are looking like when they come in at Kindergarten, will predict their success in high school" Folsom says.

Tristan, his mom and his teacher love the program. And with so much riding on whether students can read –and comprehend the words on the page—schools are doubling down more than ever on reading—and are willing to try anything to make sure students get it—even if it means letting reading go to the dogs.

*This story is part of a reporting partnership between WFSU and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Graduate Initiative.  

-

For more news updates, follow Lynn Hatter on twitter @HatterLynn