How Dogs Help Motivate Struggling Readers

How Dogs Help Motivate Struggling Readers

For elementary school teachers, developing students’ literacy is a primary goal. It is also no easy task. Studies have shown that helping struggling students become fluent readers becomes increasingly harder as students progress through the primary grades, and “children who do not learn to read effectively in primary grades are less likely to achieve full literacy” (Linder et al. 323). Moreover, in their paper, “Effects of an Animal-Assisted Intervention on Reading Skills and Attitudes in Second Grade Students,” authors Deborah Linder et al. explain that children who struggle with reading “often demonstrate negative feelings about reading at school,” exhibit less motivation to read, have low self-esteem, and often resist participating in classroom reading activities (323-324). In contrast, students with higher reading abilities have higher levels of academic success and more favorable attitudes about school (323).

For their study, Linder et al. investigated how partnering therapy dogs with second grade students affected those students’ literacy levels and attitudes about reading at school. They note that animal-assisted interventions have already been linked to numerous benefits for children, including “reducing anxiety, facilitating coping, and reducing discomfort in stressful situations” (324).

“The proposed mechanism behind this benefit is that dogs, due to their highly social, yet non-judgmental nature, can inspire confidence and provide a unique form of support for children learning to read” (324).

Twenty-eight second grade, public school students—all designated as average readers—participated in this 6-week long study. 14 students were assigned to the animal-assisted intervention group, and 14 students constituted the control group. Participants in the intervention group came to weekly 1-hour sessions directly after school, where they learned about their assigned therapy dog for 30 minutes and read aloud to that dog and the dog-handler team for 30 minutes (325). The control group completed only the standard classroom curriculum. All the participants (in both groups) completed literacy assessments at week 0, 2, 4, and 6. The students also answered questions about their attitudes towards reading at the beginning and the end of the study (325).

The Findings:

  • All students in the intervention group reported that they enjoyed participating in the program with the therapy dogs (326).
  • There were no statistically significant changes in reading abilities for students in either group (control or intervention) over the 6 week period  (326).
  • Students in the control group had no changes in attitudes toward reading (326).
  • Students in the intervention group had significantly improved attitudes about academic reading at school (327).

Therapy dogs were associated with “positive views about reading in school and improved attitudes about academic reading” (327).

  • There were no changes in students’ attitudes about recreational reading outside of school for students in the intervention group (327).

Linder et al. remark that in order to help struggling readers, who often see reading as anxiety-ridden, low-stress environments are key. Therapy dogs are able to create such low-stress environments for students, as they provide “unconditional acceptance”—social support without judgement.

Paper Title:  Effects of an Animal-Assisted Intervention on Reading Skills and Attitudes in Second Grade Students

Authors: Deborah E. Linder, Megan K. Mueller, Debra M. Gibbs, Jean A. Alper, and Lisa M. Freeman (Tufts University)

Full Paper:

Published: Early Childhood Education Journal, Volume 46, Issue 3, 2018, Pages 323-329

Photograph: Thanks to Caleb Fisher on Unsplash