Program uses dogs to help kids learn to read

CHICAGO (WLS) -- You've heard of therapy dogs, comfort dogs, but how about reading assistance dogs? Sit, Stay, Read is a program that brings dogs to the classroom to help improve literacy skills!

Sit, Stay, Read started in 2003 with three volunteers and their dogs going into Chicago Public Libraries and reading to kids. They found they could make more of an impact bringing the dogs into schools.

"When we bring the dogs in it changes the classroom and the kids are excited to read and they're excited to be in a different learning environment that what they typically are seeing and the dog changes their abilities and their love of reading," said Mara O'Brien, executive director of Sit, Stay Read.

Seventeen Chicago Public Schools in low income neighborhoods participate in the program with more than 200 volunteers and 80 dogs. They visit first, second and third grade classrooms for an hour, once a week. Book buddies work with small groups of students, reading dog-themed books. Then students read one-on-one with the volunteer and their dog.

"They love being with the dogs, and there's no threat to their ability when they're with the dogs and it's very comforting and soothing and safe," said Cecilia Ice-Mays, third grade teacher at Hughes Elementary School.

"It's fun and easier to read to the dogs but reading to a person is kind of hard because I get nervous around lots of people," said Malaya Mays, a student at Hughes Elementary School.

"Sometimes dogs listen more than people and he's more fun," said Clarence Steen, student at Hughes Elementary School.

Even though the program is only six to eight weeks, there's a big "keep reading celebration" at the end of the year where each student will receive five new books.

"A student who is from a low income home, statistics show they have only 25 hours of reading when they enter into kindergarten. A middle income child will have up to one-thousand hours of reading and a lot of that disparity comes from just books in the home," O'Brien said.

"They have that hour with the dog that they get to give treat and give high-fives and pet the dog and in the older classrooms, second and third grade, we get to do work and they improve so much!" said Kara Severson, dog team volunteer.

The impact of this program is tremendous. Studies done by the School of Psychology at Loyola University Chicago show students in sit stay read had gains in fluency at a rate 47.8 percent greater than their non-participating peers. Next school year the program will expand to add kindergarten.

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