Molly Lyne, a Year 1 teacher at Mount Pellon Junior and Infant School, had seen research from the US and Kent showing that reading to an animal was less stressful for children than reading to an adult. She wanted to see the impact of this on children with English as an additional language (EAL), so she persuaded Mount Pellon's head, Keith Ford, to undertake a pilot programme. Eighty-five per cent of children at the primary are EAL, and the majority are of Pakistani origin.
The pupils were introduced to George, an 18-month-old golden retriever. Unlike the dogs used in the US, George had no special training.
George and his owner came into the class once a week for six weeks. Initially the children could read any book appropriate to their reading level with the dog. Later, five children from differentiated literacy groups - who spoke Czech or Punjabi at home - were chosen to read to him once a week for 20 minutes.
In a designated room George sat and "listened" as the children read him a story, monitored by a teaching assistant who intervened only when pupils were obviously struggling. Using a prompt sheet, she asked questions such as "Can you tell George who is the most important character?" and "Can you show George a full stop?" Initially, the children turned to the teaching assistant for guidance but increasingly they developed their own strategies and began to self-correct.
From recordings of the lessons, there was clear evidence of growing reading competence, improvement in phonological awareness, fluency, expression and self-correction.
After each child read to George, they talked to the class about their book. This led to stimulating speaking and listening sessions. The children were encouraged to use appropriate question words and to think about the different elements of the books they had read.
Tips from the scheme
Leave time to hug or stroke the dog at the end of the story, as a reward for the dog as well as the child.
Make sure the dog is comfortable with the environment and that its temperament is suited to children.
Encourage the children to practise reading at home.
Try reading in pairs to encourage the children to read out loud.
Make sure there are no disruptions - especially as the sessions are recorded. A polite "do not disturb" notice is advisable.
Use the dog as a stimulus for learning and ensuring that reading expectations are high.
Keep detailed notes on each session.
Evidence that it works?
Children were highly enthusiastic. Their fluency, accuracy, use of phonic knowledge to decode unknown words and general confidence in reading improved after only a few sessions, as did their confidence in answering questions in class.
The bond established between the pupils and the dog was incredible - the children began writing letters and drawing pictures for George and even sending him Christmas cards. In return, he "wrote" back to them, and sent them a 2013 calendar of him reading a different book for each month. The project has become a major part of the school week for the class.
Significantly, four of the children in the study made at least one sub-level of progress in the six-week period. The fifth child was at the equivalent of Foundation Stage Profile point 3 at the beginning and ended at point 8. There are now plans to extend the scheme further.
Approach: Asking EAL children to read to a dog to improve reading levels and confidence
Started: September 2012
Leader: Molly Lyne, Year 1 teacher
Name: Mount Pellon Junior and Infant School
Age range: 3-11
Intake: Eighty-five per cent of the children are EAL.