See Spot run! See Spot help children to read!

17th August 2012 at 01:00

Dogs are great listeners. For that reason, growing numbers of primary schools in Britain and the US have been arranging sessions where children read aloud to canines. The dogs do not interrupt or criticise errors in pronunciation. They just appear to listen, bolstering the confidence of pupils who struggle to read fluently.

The success of such projects puts the work of human volunteers in a different light. Whenever a major corporation boasts about how its employees do selfless volunteer work in inner-city schools, the mischievous side of me wants to reply: "Yes - and so do greyhounds."

The company's head of corporate social responsibility would no doubt point out that results have improved at primary school X since its employees began helping out. But the organisations that place dogs in the classroom can point to improvements in reading scores, too. The Reading Education Assistance Dogs programme, for instance, has amassed a pile of positive data reports (bit.lyNsRsxL).

So we should be careful about over-hyping volunteers' impact. A London newspaper has launched a laudable campaign to boost literacy by recruiting reading volunteers, and at least one participating school has seen its results soar. Yet to claim such improvements are entirely down to one-to- one visitor sessions would do teachers a disservice. And, importantly, it is something that none of the volunteers would suggest.

Plus, the assumption that one-to-one time with an unqualified adult is better than being taught in a class by a qualified teacher no longer seems to hold up. Just look at the research in recent years on the impact of teaching assistants.

Of course, this is an overly negative spin on volunteers. As today's article demonstrates, they can prove incredibly helpful to schools and bring fresh perspectives to the classroom. However, to make this happen, they cannot just be left to their own devices. Teachers need to work with the volunteers, help them plan what they will do and bring out their specialist areas of expertise.

If schools don't have time for that, well, they can always consider house- training a whippet.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro michael.shaw@tes.co.uk @mrmichaelshaw.

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