SELMA – Reading with a buddy has been shown to improve students’ reading abilities. But if parents don’t have time to sit and listen every night, they can take a cue from Roosevelt Elementary’s library.
Whenever students come in for library time and want to read to someone, there’s simply not enough staff on hand at one time to listen. Instead, they stretch out on rug and read to Grace. Grace has received special training to sit patiently and listen to multiple readers at any one time.
“There’s some kind of dynamic between the children and Grace. There’s this special relationship. I don’t know if it’s that they want to nurture her and, having enjoyed the story, they want to read to her.”
Grace is no ordinary reading buddy, however. She’s a golden doodle, a cross between a golden retriever and poodle, and is owned by teacher librarian Debbie Spencer.
“This is the precise reason we got Grace,” Spencer said of their school’s reading program. “There’s been some really good research out of [the University of California] Davis where students who read 10 times in a library to a dog, grew anywhere from 12 to 30 percent in their oral reading comprehension and fluency. So we said, ‘let’s give this a shot.’ We saw really good increases in the students’ reading last year.”
Wearing her staff T-shirt and ID badge, Grace is more than a pet or school mascot. She’s helping timid readers gain confidence and is even sharing the occasional snuggle with school staff for stress relief.
“When I brought her into a class at the beginning of the year, a little girl ran to me and already wanted to read to Grace. She even had to book open and was ready to read. The teachers love it and they’re already telling me which of their students need to read to Grace this year.”
When they first visited her breeder, Spencer was told Grace had a birth defect where her right elbow had been dislocated. But with her soft, fluffy golden brown hair and patient demeanor, Grace has turned out to be a dog that’s teaching students about even more than just being a good reader.
“One of the students wrote a book about Grace,” Spencer said. “They wrote about being kind to people even with birth ‘effects.’ That student is learning that compassion to be kind to animals and other people even if they have birth defects.”
Before becoming a reading buddy, Grace underwent weeks of certified therapy dog training through Therapy Dogs International. Spencer then spent months honing each skill with Grace before advancing on to the next set of skills.
“We took her to classes and then came home and practiced for months. When we felt she mastered those skills, we take her to the next level,” she said. “To pass her test, she had to be able to obey, sit and stay and navigate her way through people on crutches and in wheelchairs. She had to be able to go with a stranger and not jump on them. They take them through a course and she had to follow those commands,” she said. “You wouldn’t know it now, but she’s a very spirited little girl. She was just so hyper, but now she’s matured.”
That training is now paying off as Grace, now seven years old, demonstrates a great deal of patience despite the hubbub of the school’s library. Grace has been working with Roosevelt students since January of the previous school year listening to students as they read to her in small groups. She listens to readers three times a week and will rotate her schedule next semester so other classes can read to her during library time. She listens to readers during lunch time as well, and at other times she accompanies Spencer to the classrooms. When she’s off duty, she’ll stay in Spencer’s office within the library.
“If the class has turned in all their work, I’ll tether her in a quiet corner with the teacher and she’ll stay in the class. Like with the first graders, I’ll say ‘Grace wants to watch you use technology today.’”
Valeria Angeles and Elissa Reyes were among second graders in Leslie Mynderup’s class in the library that morning. They were both reading “Babymouse” books and agreed that Grace is a good reading buddy.
“She’s so patient and sits quietly listening to all the books,” Elissa said. Her family has a dog but he’s too busy playing with toys to listen books being read.
Mynderup said she’s seen results in even her most struggling readers since they love the idea of getting to sit with a special dog for reading time.
“Sometimes the pressure of the classroom can be intimidating. [One struggling reader] would come in and read to Grace and her reading scores just started going up and up. It was a special bonding time for them. So I’ve seen results from it, aside from the fact the kids just love it. They’re inspired to want to read more.”
Mynderup said since hard chairs and desks aren’t always conducive to reading, she’s set up bean bags, kid-sized chairs, a couch and special lighting for reading time in her classroom. This is something that can be replicated at home, but if there’s no reading buddy available, a stuffed animal can be used.
“I have lots of stuffed animals my students can snuggle up with. They can’t wait to get to their book baskets, grab a buddy and sit down and read. And that can be done at home as well.”
It’s especially helpful for students to get in as much reading time in as possible, but students don’t always have reading materials at home. To get more books in the students’ hands, Selma Unified is having a Grace T-shirt fundraiser to purchase books for students. See https://bit.ly/2DotFPx for details. The fundraiser ends Nov. 13.
“Grace is also really good for the teachers,” Mynderup said. “She’s so sweet. You can go up and get a hug and a snuggle.”