Reading is a fundamental part of our education. It has been the central element to all learning programmes which have been developed across the ages.
Whilst affordable access to communication technology today could challenge this presupposition, I argue that there is nothing more liberating than being able to access any form of information through print. Reading, I believe, is the ultimate tool which can liberate individuals from the shackles of tyranny. In this case, by shackles I refer to “ignorance”, whilst by tyranny I refer to “poverty”.
Notwithstanding such platitudes, I fear that reading is not as valued as it should be in Malta. I am not even sure it is valued as it should be around the world. In 2012, Malta budgeted around 468 million Euro for education. That is 6.8% of GDP at the time, and 15.7% of total public expenditure for that year. In my opinion, that is a pretty hefty sum.
My concern here is not that not enough money is being allocated to one of the most important pillars of our society (i.e. education). Rather, I cannot understand (or rather, cannot believe) how illiteracy is something which still persists in our society. One can put forward several explanations for this phenomenon, such as: reading is not being given much importance by our society; we are teaching literacy skills the wrong way; we are not practicing enough; there is a high prevalence of specific learning disorder; we are getting lazy with our reading practice. These all could be good explanations. However, like for all the important questions in life, this too has more than one explanation.
As a professional, I have come across a variety of students who all have their reasons for not reading. Some find it boring. Others prefer more engaging and stimulating video-games. Others feel that they are not good at reading, so they avoid it. What concerns me is that through my career I have come across too many students leaving primary school without attaining a standard for reading which could enable them to be efficient learners during secondary school. I wish I was in possession of statistics on literacy achievement levels at the end of Primary in Maltese schools. This would confirm or challenge my previous assumption. I also wish I had a list of literacy interventions being implemented in schools, as well as their effectiveness, or otherwise. This could provide further insight on student reading success, and possible explanations for their successes or failures. This would also make an interesting research study.
The emotional aspects of Reading
The strategies used to teach literacy, specifically reading, are various. Teachers’ effort is commendable and unquestionable. Yet, whatever strategies are put in place, I suspect that our educational culture tends to place teaching phonemic decoding skills and visual/memory approaches at the centre of “learning how to read”. This is in fact the basis of many reading programmes and interventions that are available on the market today. It is evidence based (i.e. well research in terms of implantation and outcomes), and has proven to be relatively successful.
What is given very little consideration in reading intervention, particularly in primary, is the emotional aspect of reading. Also, as a result of the academic focus that is being placed on “learning to read”, and as a direct consequence of the various pressures teachers and parents have to teach their children to read, the reading experience tends to become very stressful and burdening for many students.
This hypothesis, that the emotional burden on students could impinge on their achievement levels, begets the question: what can we do about this?
I am going to go out on a limb here and assume that, particularly in their primary years, children are more engaged in their learning if they are actually enjoying themselves. This statement is a sarcastic comment. Off course children learn best when learning is fun! But what does this have to do with reading?
Dr. Hazel Davison (2015), an Educational Psychologist who I have had the privilege to meet, put forward an interesting hypothesis. She states:
“In Early Years settings such as Nursery, children are encouraged to learn to read through play and other activities emphasising fun and enjoyment. Adults reading stories aloud to children is a key aspect of early reading experiences in these settings, however once children arrive at school they are required to demonstrate their reading skills by reading aloud to adults. The shift from children being read books by adults, to children reading books to adults, can be challenging for some children. Children’s experience of reading is no longer focussed on fun instead involving time and effort, which impacts on their enjoyment” Davidson (2015, p.106).
“Reading to dogs recaptures the ‘playfulness’ in learning to read, helping children to reframe reading as a fun and enjoyable activity (2015, p. 107).
Yes! You read that correctly! READING TO DOGS!
This was part of her Doctoral Thesis which focused on exploring primary pupil’s experiences of reading to dogs. I remember her trying to explain the theory behind this intervention during one of our many lectures at the University of East London, Doctorate in Educational & Child Psychology. I must admit that at the time I could not really grasp the thinking behind her theory. However, I can today appreciate and understand further how, and why, this intervention could work.
So how does this work?
- Agree with the child on a time slot. Keep your word.
- Explain to the child the objective of the task: to read a story to the dog.
- Pick a place that is semi-private, so the child doesn’t feel as if he/she is being watched by others. This will help both the dog and child from being distracted by others. It would be useful to pick the place together with the child.
- Always pick a regular spot, and define the area with a special blanket or rug.
- The teacher/parent chooses and provides appropriate books for the child to choose from.
- Whilst the teacher chooses appropriate books, it is the child who must choose the book he/she actually wants to read.
- Each individual session should be no longer than 15 – 20 minutes.
- Sit comfortably with the dog.
- Start reading to the dog.
- Children can pat the dog whilst reading.
- If your dog falls asleep, tell the child that the dog is just closing his eyes so he can concentrate on the story.
- If your dog becomes active, tell the child “Look, Fido is really enjoying you reading to him”.
- At the end of the session they should have the opportunity to play with the dog.
Let me elaborate further:
“Reading to dogs” could be considered as being a strategy which could move us outside of our comfort zone. It is common knowledge that the Maltese are very reluctant to challenge status quo. However, as studies report, children tend to enjoy this reading experience greatly. They also clearly identify the dog as their reading audience and thus focus their attention on their audience (i.e. dog) rather than the supervisor (obviously, there still needs to be an adult that supervises the dog and the child!!!!!).
Davison (2015) argues that reading to dogs could be successful as the experience enhances the children’s enjoyment whilst reading. Furthermore, a close emotional bond is usually developed with the dog they read to. This, as well as the child’s perception of their relationship with dogs as being non hierarchical and non-threatening, could lead to a generally more fulfilling, calmer, non-judgmental, and playful reading experience.
Reading to dogs is not a “new-age” intervention put forward by a bohemian subculture. Rather, as early as 1983 a study conducted by Friedmann et al., (1983) indicated how a dog’s presence effected positively a child’s blood pressure and heart rate during a stressful situation which involved reading. The Reading to Dogs intervention is one of the many Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI). AAI deliberately involves the use of animals in a number of activities for a range of recreational, therapeutic and assistive purposes (Davison, 2015. p. 7). These interventions are formal, and goal-directed educational interventions, which are designed to promote improvement in physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functioning of the person involved.
An example of such intervention is provided by Therapy Dogs International (http://www.tdi-dog.org/OurPrograms.aspx?Page=Children+Reading+to+Dogs). This is the mission statement of this programme:
“The main objective of this program is to provide a relaxed and “dog-friendly” atmosphere, which allows students to practice the skill of reading. Many of the children chosen for this program have difficulties reading and as a result have developed self-esteem issues. They are often self-conscious when reading aloud in front of other classmates. By sitting down next to a dog and reading to the dog, all threats of being judged are put aside. The child relaxes, pats the attentive dog, and focuses on the reading. Reading improves because the child is practicing the skill of reading, building self-esteem, and associating reading with something pleasant.”
What can we make of this?
Reading to dogs and other AAIs can still be considered as “emerging interventions” in terms of research. However, they have been around for quite some time now. The positive therapeutic effects of being and working with animals and pets has been quantified and researched. However, the underpinning “aetiology” of the “reading to dogs” programme is still surfacing. Yet, the research is very promising.
Quite interestingly, what is evident from the research on literacy interventions is their focus on the mechanics and “techniques” of reading. Such strategies are being used to teach reading to our students by major educational institutions. This is evidently an important aspect of any instructional programme that aims to teach children how to read. However, let us not forget what makes children engage purposefully and meaningfully in any endeavour they choose to pursue: it has to be fun!!!
Before adults become single-minded entrepreneurs that are engrossed in their pursuit of success and money, they are first young explorers of the ebb and flow of the world. If this inevitable exploration is fun, interesting, and engaging, outcomes of that exploration can be even more successful. Dogs can provide humans with a fun, engaging, and (most importantly) safe space to practice and develop their reading skills. Furthermore, they also provide any child and adult with positive therapeutic effects, which can help us get over our day-to-day’s trials and tribulations. I am sure that any dog owner worth his salt can vouch for that!
Davison, Hazel (2015) An Exploratory Study of Primary Pupils’ Experiences of Reading to Dogs. Professional doctorate thesis, University of East London. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/10552/4296 (Accessed on 30 June 2017).
Friedmann, E., Katcher, A., Thomas, S., Lynch, J., & Messent, P. (1983). Social interaction and blood pressure: Influence of animal companions. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 171(8), 461-465.