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updated: 10/12/2010 11:51 AM

Lombard students practice reading to therapy dog

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  • Cooper, a therapy dog, listens to eighth-grader Jose Bravo read to him at Westlake Middle School. Lombard District 44 administrators think reading aloud to dogs helps students learn English and become more fluent. Cooper's handler is Brigitte O'Brien.

      Cooper, a therapy dog, listens to eighth-grader Jose Bravo read to him at Westlake Middle School. Lombard District 44 administrators think reading aloud to dogs helps students learn English and become more fluent. Cooper's handler is Brigitte O'Brien.
    Scott Sanders

 
 

They do partner reading and choral reading, oral reading and silent reading and, for the second year, students learning English at Westlake Middle School in Lombard also do therapy dog reading.

Brigitte O'Brien, a retired sixth-grade teacher and Lombard's village clerk, brings her Labradoodle, Cooper, to the school once a week to be the listener in one-on-one reading sessions with students in the school's English Language Learners program.

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"They lose consciousness of the fact that the dog doesn't understand what they're talking about. But he listens, O'Brien said. "Kids have a tendency to forget there's a person at the other end of that leash.

But when they get to an interesting illustration or a new word, they remember.

"Doggy, do you want to see the picture? sixth-grader Theodhora Puja asked as she read to Cooper from the book "Duck for President.

Eighth-grader Jose Bravo read to Cooper last year, the canine's first coming to Westlake.

"He looks bigger, Jose said before reading from a children's book called "Dear Mr. Blueberry. "Give me that paw, Cooper.

Four sixth-grade students and four eighth-graders met Cooper recently during the first therapy dog reading session of the year. Each of the 40 students in the program will get a chance to read to the dog about every two or three weeks, English Language Learners teacher Karen Biernat said.

Dogs assist kids with reading because they function as nonjudgmental listeners, O'Brien said.

"Kids who have difficulty reading find it very embarrassing to read out loud to anyone, O'Brien said. But when reading to Cooper, "the stress level is down.

With the dog playing the role of listener, students gain a new role in communication, English Language Learners teacher Anne Scatchell said.

"They're the storyteller through the use of books and they're communicating with them, Scatchell said. "It's just a different venue to practice the skills.

Cooper's calm demeanor he listened without a bark as students read to him for about an hour makes him perfect for his therapy dog duties, O'Brien said.

"He was just in one place. He wasn't wanting to move around, Jose Bravo said.

Results of a study the University of California Davis released in April showed kids who read regularly to dogs improved their fluency as much as 30 percent and increased their reading speeds up to 30 words per minute. But subjects of the study were not new to English.

For Westlake students who are new to the language, the therapy dog reading sessions can be fun and beneficial.

"It's a combination of both because they don't realize they're using their reading skills to read to the dog, Biernat said. "For them, it's a fun activity, but they're still learning.

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