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West Jordan Journal

Dog provides a bone for reluctant readers at West Jordan Middle

Nov 05, 2019 04:31PM ● By Jet Burnham

Struggling students find it calming to read to a dog. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Beatrice is a reading tutor, a dog, and the secret to success for reading improvement at West Jordan Middle School. Beatrice, or Bea, belongs to language arts teacher Tara Pearce, who believes reading aloud is an effective strategy to help low-performing readers improve their skills. But it is hard to get ninth graders to do it.

“Students hate reading out loud,” Pearce said. “They don't like reading out loud to me, they don't like reading out loud to peers.”

To ensure her ninth graders are prepared for high school, especially those students with special education needs, Pearce constantly researches new strategies to boost their reading skills. She has seen a lot of research about reading out loud to therapy dogs, so she started bringing Bea into class two days a week to read with some of her reluctant readers.

“When they read to a dog, the dog’s not going to stop them,” Pearce said. “If they mess up on a word, it's not a big deal. They don't feel embarrassed.”

Sydnee Oakeson, a reluctant reader, now begs to read to the 1-year-old mini goldendoodle puppy.

“People stop you and ask you questions,” she said. “Reading to the dog is just reading and petting.”

Angel Gomez said he can focus better when he is reading to Bea.

“Reading to a teacher will kind of get me nervous,” he said.

Principal Dixie Garrison was thrilled when Pearce suggested the idea.

“If a kid is a struggling reader, and they have a teacher sitting there evaluating them and correcting them as they try to read aloud, there's nothing they would dread more than having their reading time with an adult,” Garrison said. “For the kids who are reluctant to read, they're able to sit with Beatrice in a private break-out room and read aloud to the dog without judgment, without correction, without any kind of pressure.”

Pearce expects to see a measurable academic gain for her students from this experiment. She is still collecting data, but in the semester that Bea has been in the classroom, she has noticed other unexpected benefits.

“I have already seen attitudes change toward reading for some of my lowest readers, and that's always a win,” she said. “At the beginning of the year, we had to try to help them find a book and they wouldn't necessarily stick with any book. But consistently, since I've been bringing Bea in, they've been prepared for reading time—and almost looking forward to it.”

Time with Bea is offered as incentive to students who struggle academically, behaviorally or emotionally.

“They'll sit with her, they'll pet her, and you can see their mood change,” Pearce said. “It makes it so much easier to talk to them.” She has had some of her best conversations with one of her most challenging students when Bea was present.

“He'll be thinking about the dog and playing with the dog, and then he's more open to talking with me, so it's a way of building that relationship,” she said. “I just feel like she helps a lot of students feel better.”

Pearce said she couldn’t have tried this unconventional strategy without support from Garrison, who has always supported teachers to implement unique ideas that will benefit students.

“My philosophy is to foster innovation, not stifle it,” Garrison said. “So, where some school principals might not even consider a therapy dog in their school, I welcomed it. I encouraged it, and I think it needs to happen more.”