Literacy program brings service animals to reading groups

According to the American Library Association, there are 27 million functionally illiterate people in the U.S. As if that figure wasn't discouraging enough, the U.S. Department of Education reports that 40 percent of fourth graders in the U.S. read below their grade level. Put yourself in the shoes of a 10-year-old kid struggling to keep up with the rest of his class, and you might understand the frustration and hopelessness that can come with falling behind.


Fortunately, there are programs parents can use to help their children. Intermountain Therapy Animals offers a unique solution to the problem of falling literacy rates: bring trained animals--mostly dogs, though an African Grey parrot has recently joined the group--to the children and encourage them to read aloud to the animals. This unique application for service animals has taken off across the country, with programs in 49 states.

When service animals become the tutors

The Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program is all about taking the human-animal bond to the reading room. Children who might be shy reading to an adult often relax around the well-trained therapy animals. They have more patience with themselves as they sound out difficult words, and more motivation to share the story with the animal. The R.E.A.D. program's goal is to give kids the foundation they need for a lifetime of learning.

Former ICU nurse hatches unique reading tutor plan

The R.E.A.D. program was started by Sandi Martin, a nurse and former ICU manager who watched her patients improve after interacting with therapy animals. Once she came up for the idea for the tutoring concept, she put it into practice at Intermountain Therapy Animals, bringing the program to schools and libraries.

Kathy Klotz, Executive Director of Intermountain Therapy Animals and the R.E.A.D. program, says that the program goes beyond schools and libraries. "We have also taken R.E.A.D. to after-school programs for 'latch-key' kids, Boys & Girls Clubs, bookstore reading events, hospital tutoring, and youth facilities for residential treatment or detention," she notes. "It can go anywhere there are young children who need to learn reading and how exciting it can be."

R.E.A.D. finds growing success and loyal student readers

A school district in Rio Rancho, New Mexico is evidence of the R.E.A.D. program in action. Among the 84 students who participated in the 2010-11 school year, teachers saw improvement in their DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) and NWEA MAP (Measure Academic Progress) test scores. Students who spoke Spanish or Navajo as their first language could practice English in a non-judgmental environment.

Children with autism and severe disabilities seemed more comfortable around the animals. One autism specialist teacher observed "greater relaxation" among her students and noticed one student begin to independently pursue reading and books.

At a school district in Porterville, California in 2009, all of the students in the R.E.A.D. program improved their test scores. The glowing praise from teachers--"Remarkable growth," "Great growth and great attitude," "Working above his ability level"--speaks to the success of the initiative.

Students and parents respond to the R.E.A.D. program

The first-hand accounts from young readers only support the glowing reviews of the R.E.A.D. program. One student of the New Mexico reading program said, "[The service animal] comforts me when I read her a story. TALES of JOY [R.E.A.D. program] helps me a lot. If a hard word comes to me I sound it out. I love reading with [the service animal] and her amazing owner."

Parent Stacia Gentry is grateful for the change the program has made in her son Walt, who continued his reading practice through baseball season. "It's great that he would willingly and happily go into the library and try to read," Stacia says.

How to get involved in your area

The network of volunteers is always looking for new groups, and a committed group of parents and librarians can team up to make a difference in their neighborhood. Klotz tells the story of a librarian in Minnesota who took the initiative to bring animal and library groups together in 10 locations in her sparsely populated area. "It was amazing and inspiring," Klotz says, remembering the woman's drive to build a local organization from the ground up. The R.E.A.D. program has the tools and training materials to help local groups every step of the way.

"We used to wonder whether R.E.A.D. would be merely a flash in the pan, a fun and fashionable gimmick, Klotz notes, "but time has disabused us of that fear." Kathy encourages any interested parents, teachers and librarians to contact the R.E.A.D. office directly for information about local programs. With groups across the country, it's possible there's a therapy animal team near you.

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