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Pilot Finds Puppy Power May Boost Young Readers' Literacy

Here's a study guaranteed to make your Monday morning a little cheerier: A pilot project sponsored by Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University found 2nd graders who read aloud to a dog slightly increased both their reading ability and enjoyment of reading, compared to students who read with adults or peers.

Working under the premise that struggling readers often take a hit to their self-esteem and withdraw from group reading activities, a team of researchers led by Cummings veterinary student Dawn Lenihan studied the Reading Education Assistance Dogs, or READ program, which has children read aloud to therapy animals.

Researchers randomly assigned 18 children to participate in five 30-minute weekly summer read-aloud sessions at the Grafton, Mass. public library, either with a dog or with a human volunteer. They found children reading with the dogs were more likely to complete the program. By the end of the five-week study period, the children reading with dogs recognized slightly more words per minute than those who read with adults, based on the Curriculum Based Measurement for reading, and also had slight improvements in their enjoyment of reading based on the Elementary Reading Attitude Survey. By contrast, the children reading aloud with adults showed a decline of interest in reading over the same time.

The Associated Press published a more in-depth look at the program, including the apparent enthusiasm of its four-legged research assistants:

"When we come in as a group and the dogs are there waiting with their handlers, dogs' ears are up and forward, dogs' tails are wagging. Dogs are smiling," [Grafton's Children and Youth Services Librarian Amanda] Diurba said. "When it's over, the children leave. Ears are back. Tails are down. Nobody's smiling. The dogs love it as much as kids do. You can see the difference."

Considering the tiny sample size, it's impossible to draw any significance from the findings, but they do make sense in the broader base of research on using service animals to reduce stress. Study co-author Lisa M. Freeman, Cummings clinical sciences professor, told the AP that children seemed to be more relaxed and self-confident reading aloud to dogs than to adults or peers. Maybe the dogs aren't so quick to bark out corrections?

The pilot was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, and I'd be interested to see whether a scaled-up (furred up?) version of this study can produce more significant reading improvements. That would be enough to give the most curmudgeonly reading researcher the warm fuzzies.

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