Over the past seven years or so, I’ve been honing my dog-sneaking skills. I have tried, somewhat successfully, to include my dog Finnigan in all aspects of my professional life. He sits at my feet while I work with my students. He comes to the schools I consult to whenever they’ll let him. He regularly attends my professional development workshops for teachers and parents.
This year, I’ve topped it all by managing to include two photographs of him on page 20 of my new book Reading for Life. His image will now occupy a small space on bookshelves all over the world.
I do this because I like him a lot and I like it when he’s around. He’s the sort of dog other people like too, in that he’s very serene and enjoys a good pat. He is also quite goofy and he smells terrific.
Other things I like working with and having around me are my fountain pen and the desk in my office. I’m really very lucky. But what if I told you that my students made progress because of my fountain pen? What if I said their sight word vocabulary increased as a direct result of my desk? You’d be perfectly justified in telling me to quit my delusions.
And yet, with tedious regularity, I see stories of miraculous ‘reading dogs’ helping children learn to read, trotted out in what can only be slow news weeks up and down the country.
Learning to read is a complex process that takes time, practice and effort. It is staggeringly easy for some, and frustratingly difficult for others. But no matter who is learning it, the acquisition of literacy follows much the same sequence. Some just do it at warp speed with very little instruction, some do it on a much slower timeline and require massive amounts of instruction and repetition. What it doesn’t require, is the presence of a fountain pen, a nice desk or a dog.
Positive reinforcement is not the same as instruction. If you have a budget for literacy floating around your school, perhaps teacher training, decodable reading material and valid assessment tools should be the first priority. Then when you’re successfully teaching 95% of your students to read and are making sure the 5% trailing behind are getting the best possible intervention, then perhaps you could think about spending the thousands it takes to have a ‘reading dog’ on site. Surely that’s fair?
So when you hear breathless accounts of how reluctant readers were drawn out of their catatonic states and blossomed into bookworms “because dogs”, do remember to ask how these children became reluctant readers in the first place. Reading failure is traumatic. Low quality instruction leads to reading failure.
I don’t mean to sound negative, but I’m the one who has to sit with the crying parents who are led to believe their child is beyond instruction. I’m the one who has to hear my students talk about how stupid they think they are. I’m the one who has to scribble over Individual Learning Plans and ask for strategies and goals that will actually lead to reading. Some of these students come from schools who have invested in ‘reading dogs’. Fancy that.
Much as my dog is pleasant to have around, my students’ progress has nothing to do with him. I have the luxury of being able to admit that. This is because I know what to do to help a child become a reader. Like any practitioner who understands and can apply the science of reading, so far I’ve had a 100% success rate. Until your school can say the same, cute, furry creatures are very nice, but ultimately are a waste of time, money and effort.