Kids’ best friend: Dog helps students improve literacy skills

Published 11:01 am Monday, January 16, 2017

NORTH SHELBY – English as a Second Language students at Inverness Elementary School have a favorite day of the week.

It is the day that comes after Wednesday and before Friday: Wallace Day.

Wallace is a 4-year-old Golden Retriever that visits the school each week as part of the Hand in Paw organization’s “Sit, Stay, Read!” program.

“Those kids love it,” ESL teacher Kiffany Rueda said about the group of 28 kindergarteners and first graders. “I have never seen them so excited about learning. They really care about the dog.”

Wallace visits with Laura Falone, a volunteer who works at Valleydale Animal Clinic and has a child attending IES.

The ESL students sit with Wallace and Falone in groups of five or six for about 20 minutes.

On Thursday, Jan. 12, they greeted Wallace with exclamations of “Doggy!” and “I missed you!” and are eager to pet him.

Once they settle in, the students ask Falone questions about Wallace’s activities since they last saw him, including Wallace enjoying snow.

Then the students read to Wallace and Falone from books they have begun writing. “Wallace likes to go to the park,” one book begins. “He likes to run fast.”

According to the Hand in Paw website, Sit, Stay, Read! helps improves reading skills through calming, motivating therapy animals, and has demonstrated significant improvements in children’s attitudes toward reading.

Rueda said the students have researched Wallace’s breed and begun compiling information that is being used for the books, including what dogs eat and how to take care of them.

The research project has helped them build their vocabulary and gain confidence. They may even read their finished books to the school, or record themselves reading and share the videos.

“There is a real reason for reading and writing and learning about dogs,” Rueda said about the students’ motivation.

IES Assistant Principal Jeff Norris coordinated bringing the program to the school and said the program could eventually be expanded to students with special needs and other targeted groups.

Norris said the program connects students to stakeholders in the community, introduces an adult mentor, increases confidence and provides a comforting environment to practice literacy skills.

Some students were hesitant at first, but it did not take them long to come around and join classmates in petting Wallace.

Falone said another benefit of the program is the students learning about dogs, including how to approach and things to avoid—such as grabbing Wallace’s tail (though he does not seem to mind).

“I think they’re learning some good life skills too,” Falone said.

The process of having Wallace certified for such a program took about four months, Falone said.

“It has always been a passion of mine,” she said. “I love seeing how excited the kids are to see him, and I can see the impact it has made.”