(AVONDALE) -- There isn't much cajoling that needs to be done for
6-year old Raven Madison to get on the North Avondale Library floor
and open a book. She loves to read aloud. And she adores her audience.
Raven is quite fond of who's watching and listening to her. But her audience
isn't a classmate or her teacher. Raven has borrowed the floppy ears of
Josie-Ann, a gray, shorthaired Whippet, a breed of dog that resembles a
greyhound. But Josie-Ann has no intention of running away.
Raven says Josie-Ann, and the other dogs in the Sit, Stay, Read! program at
Birmingham Public Libraries, have the qualities she's looking for in reading
"Fun. (They're fun.) Uh, pretty. (They're pretty) Lick you. (They
lick you?) Ticklish. (laughs)"
Raven's mom - complete with ear-to-ear smile -- stands at a distanceï¿½
watching the connection.
"I'm very very much proud of my daughter"
She says Raven's been reading ever since she had the ability to open a book.
So it doesn't take much coaxing.
"She constantly wants to read, draw, write and just write out words,
what have you."
But there are other kids who may become embarrassed and withdrawn because
they don't read as well as Raven. To them, Beth Franklin says the warmth of
a friendly animal can add magic to an otherwise dreaded assignment.
"The librarians actually select the children who are problems with reading,
self-esteem issuesï¿½ there's a lot of people that will make fun of,
other children that will make fun of them if they read aloud...Therapy
dog's not going to do that."
Franklin is the executive director of Hand-in-Paw therapy animals, which are
the dogs used for 'Sit, Stay, Read! She, along with Birmingham Public
Librarians, say it's a matter of being empathetic to a student: having to
get up in front of a group of people - teachers; or worse, other
students -- and perform a task -- in this case, read, the student is not
likely to gain much confidence.
Now think about reading to a dog.
That was Sandi Martin's recommendation two years ago for a child reading
program in Utah, which the Birmingham program is based on. Even she was
skeptical at first.
"I thought I'd be laughed off the face of the earth."
In fact, the Salt Lake City nurse has gained praise from educators and
parents all across the country for her approach to teaching literacy skills,
called READ, or Reading Education Assistance Dogs. She says dogs are far
less confrontational than people are, so kids feel natural and uninhibited
"They know that the animal is non judgmental...part of it is because
they know the animal doesn't read, but really, even if the animal could
read, they know the animal is not going to make judgment calls about them."
And the numbers back her up. She kept track of ten at-risk students: kids
who live in the inner city, had used drugs before or had excessive
absenteeism. By the end of a 14-month period, every child's reading level
had improved. One 3rd grade girl nearly doubled her reading level from a 3.4
to a 6.4 over the course of a year. And she says most of the children began
to make it to school more often and showed improvement in self-confidence
Which is music to a teacher's ear.
Beth Franklin says it's all in a day's work for dogs like Josie-Ann, who
seems to enjoy all of the attention.
"And this makes it fun for the children. They've proven that if you can
make something fun for a child, they're going to retain more and keep it
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