School Turning To Canine Assistance To Help Students Read - News, Weather & Sports

School Turning To Canine Assistance To Help Students Read

(NEW CASTLE, Ky.) -- Joey Chisolm doesn't mind if his reading buddy falls asleep during a story. In fact, it's a good sign to the second-grader.

The reading buddy is Zoom, a 5-year-old Cardigan Welsh corgi, who works with students at New Castle Elementary School in Henry County as part of a reading program. Zoom attends classes once a week, listening to students like Chisolm read stories and getting attention from the students.

"When we stop, he just wakes up a little bit. Then if we start petting him, and reading, he falls asleep," Chisolm said.

The unorthodox method is getting results, school officials said, as evidenced by rising test scores, improving classroom work and growing confidence among the students.

While no studies prove that programs like the one being used by New Castle Elementary work, numerous reports -- including research done at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Cambridge University -- have shown that dogs and pets can reduce anxiety. And less anxiety promotes better learning, educators say.

"No one does anything if they're anxious. That's true in reading, in math and in life," said Mary Roberts, the school's Title I reading teacher.

Zoom's owner, Deb Richeson, said the dog relieves anxiety among the students, allowing them to learn and feel more confident about their abilities.

"The dog does provide that warm, furry comfort," said Richeson, who's grandson attends the school. "He loves them just the way they are."

Schools and libraries around the country are turning to dogs more often to help boost literacy. Therapy Dogs International Inc., the national organization based in New Jersey through which Zoom became a certified therapy dog, has a Children Reading to Dogs program.

And Intermountain Therapy Animals in Utah has more than 750 dog-owner teams in 45 states that take part in its Reading Education Assistance Dogs program. Their success comes as public schools face increasing pressure to meet reading and math standards demanded by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Schools that fail face sanctions that can include student transfers, tutoring and school reorganization.

New Castle Elementary Principal Barbara James said the program has helped at a school where almost a quarter of the students scored below grade level in reading because many come from homes where reading material isn't available.

The school, about 40 miles northeast of Louisville, began using Zoom and the Tell-A-Tail Reading Buddies last year, after Richeson -- a former Parent-Teacher Organization president -- approached James about the idea. Richeson breeds and shows dogs and recently had Zoom certified as a therapy dog. She had heard of dogs being used to help readers from a friend in Maryland whose dog was involved in a similar program.

The students receive new stories each Monday from Roberts, who helps them develop reading strategies that focus on pronunciation and comprehension. The students practice on their own the rest of the week, and then each gets 15 minutes to sit with Zoom and read to him.

Richeson, who receives no pay, sits next to Zoom and guides each student through the story, offering tips if they stumble on a word or asking questions about what they have just read.

Fourth-grader Julio Rodriguez said he has "fun reading to Zoom," who laid his head on the 10-year-old's lap during a recent session.

"I don't have anyone else to read to," he said. "And I think it makes him happy."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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