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In American English we have an expression: “A dog is a man's best friend.” A dog can also be a child’s best friend, especially if that child is having difficulty reading.
An organization called Reading Education Assistance Dogs, or R.E.A.D, has been using dogs to help children learn to read since 1999.
The idea is that sharing a book with a kind listener increases the confidence of the students. It can also increase their love of reading.
Listeners include Izzy. Izzy is a cute, scruffy therapy dog and a regular visitor to Public School 57 (P.S. 57) in East Harlem, New York.
Students meet him in the library, pick out a book and sit down on the carpet. Izzy snuggles up to them and gets ready to hear a story.
"I love reading to Izzy because he listens to me, and he doesn't make fun of me when I make a mistake."
Nine-year-old Aelane Vasquez is in the third grade. Her parents are from Mexico. She is among the 15 students of Latin American descent at the school who were selected for the program.
Bridget McElroy teaches English as a Second Language at P.S. 57. "All the students that we worked with in the R.E.A.D. program were behind reading levels at the beginning of the year. Most of them have caught up to where they should have entered, if not surpassed that."
That achievement is important. Reading at grade level when kids are young is linked to how well they will do in school later. Studies show that kids who can’t read as well as they should when they are nine years old are less likely to graduate high school by the time they are nineteen.
McElroy says she sees a great difference in Aelane and her classmates. The difference is not just in their reading levels. She also sees their increased love and excitement of reading. The teacher calls this phenomenal.
"Not only do the kids have time to practice reading, what we are really seeing is that they are excited to read, and they are motivated to practice even when Izzy is not here. And as a classroom teacher that's phenomenal because, you know, there is very little that I can do to convince a kid to go home and practice reading, where 20 minutes a week with Izzy is all that they need."
The R.E.A.D. teams from New York Therapy Animals work with 175 kids at P.S. 57 and nine other schools. The popular program plans to expand to even more schools in New York City next year.