"If only learning to read was that simple. Here’s a dog, now read to it. Tokenistic intervention at best."


I love a tug-at-the-heart-strings story like anyone else. Like when Lady and the Tramp share a plate of spaghetti and end up gazing longingly into each other’s eyes as their lips edge closer and closer. It must be love. You can feel it, can’t you? Or when Cinderella lives a life of hardship then finally gets her prince. How can you not love those happily ever after feels? Last night and again this morning, I saw a segment about Story Dogs on the ABC News, where chosen dogs are taken into schools for struggling readers to be taken out of class time to read to the dogs. I read lots of comments where others are clearly getting those warm and fuzzy feels, yet I am left feeling outrage. There is a fire burning inside of me and I need to scream and shout, “NO! THIS IS NOT WHAT OUR STRUGGLING READERS NEED!”

If only learning to read was that simple. Here’s a dog, now read to it. Tokenistic intervention at best. NO. NO. NO. And let’s advertise it so the community thinks that the children are getting wonderful support. The reality is that Lady and the Tramp is make believe and as for Story Dogs, while the sound of a program like that definitely gives us the warm fuzzy feels, isn’t much more than a fairy tale. While the children might be practising some reading during that time, it isn’t explicit instruction and that is what struggling readers need. They don’t need to be removed from class time to sit outside on the grass and read to a dog.

If schools used those 20 minutes to teach reading using evidenced-based approaches, then imagine the improvement for those children. 20 minutes of explicit instruction would enhance the readers decoding ability. When you can decode properly, your fluency and comprehension will improve. When you can decode properly you become a competent reader. Competent readers become confident readers. Those 20 minutes could be spent more meaningfully, being taught the essential skills involved in reading. Some schools provide their volunteers with training in evidenced-based programs, such as MultiLit, and this is when results are evident. Bringing a dog into a school for struggling readers to read to just perpetuates myths about struggling readers, such as ‘the struggling reader just needs more practice’. More practice using the same poor skills doesn’t lead to decoding accurately, especially when you aren’t given correct feedback. It also perpetuates the myth that it’s up to the child to work harder, and it doesn’t take into account the poor instruction which may have been provided to the child in the first place.

Using a dog to ‘listen’ to children read is about as useful as using an expired Epipen during anaphylaxis. Schools would be held accountable for that type of negligence, so why aren’t they being held accountable for using poor reading programs and tokenistic reading experiences where struggling readers are being removed from teaching time?

One of the important questions that I have seen asked in relation to this story is, “Why aren’t classrooms judgement free zones? Why do we need dogs to remove judgement from our classrooms? What does it say about our system that we need this?” Why indeed.

Given the current literacy crisis in this country, we need to teach our children to read, and to do that properly using competent teachers, teachers who are trained in evidenced-based programs, and we need to stop wasting time out of the classroom, especially for those who need it most. In 2016, more than 53,000 Australian Year 4 students did not meet the nationally agreed proficient standard for reading literacy. (Ref. Extrapolation of PIRLS 2016 Data).

Judging by all the comments today on the post on ABC News, I’m sure that I will receive a lot of backlash for my view. While I appreciate that many people will find the story about Baron the Story Dog to be positive, as it pulls at the heart strings and leaves viewers with those warm and fuzzy feels, I’m also sure that some viewers will see this story and assume that schools are doing enough for our struggling readers. I’m not debating that this is a sweet story. Any story with a giant friendly dog is bound to be a sweet story. What I do have concerns about is that our struggling readers aren’t being given explicit instructions in decoding, which is exactly what they so desperately need. Struggling readers need to be explicitly taught how to decode the English language. They require systematic synthetic phonics and quality teaching instruction. They don’t need tokenistic reading experiences. Reading to a giant friendly dog isn’t providing them with the intervention that is vital.

I have been advocating for children with dyslexia and dysgraphia since my middle child started school in 2010. It feels like I have been banging my head against a brick wall since then. I’m tired of advocating and I don’t want to advocate anymore, but I don’t have a choice. I don’t want more children drowning in the school system like two of my children have done. I want all children to experience quality evidenced-based reading instruction. All children deserve the best practice approaches being used in their classrooms by their teachers. While the whole language approach and PM readers are continued to be used in schools, children are receiving second rate reading instruction. Put simply: we can do better but we can’t be ****ed.

The more I have thought about the Story Dogs segment, the more I have read the comments on the post, the more I realise that reading education is doomed. We are in the dark ages and it feels as though there is no way out. Why? Because no one wants to admit that they aren’t doing things right. Teachers hands are tied when the school is so financially committed to whole language and those bloody PM readers. However, instead of having volunteers be trained up in MultiLit or other evidenced-based programs, schools are inviting dogs to sit and be read to by struggling readers. Struggling readers are being pulled out of class time to read to a dog. Now I love dogs. I really do. But you might as well be reading to a brick wall. Struggling readers need support to decode. Struggling readers need explicit structured literacy to support them towards their happily ever after warm and fuzzy feels.

I recommend that anyone who thinks that students struggling to read will benefit from reading to dogs please click on this link to take you to Lyn Stone’s Blog on this very issue . Lyn is a highly regarded linguist who teaches teachers, psychologists, and speech therapists about reading. Lyn Stone is an authority on teaching children to read.

For anyone who wants to experience some warm and fuzzy feelings then go visit the RSPCA. The RSPCA runs a Reading to Dogs program, which is purely for the benefit of the dogs. The RSPCAs program is not so struggling readers can get practice reading to someone who has no idea if what they are reading is correct or not. If you would like to know more about Reading to Dogs at the RSPCA please follow this link.

Julie Stone
Code Read Dyslexia Network Member