Meet Rita the Reading Dog

During a recent trip to the Wirral, FCBG Chair Chris Routh visited Birkenhead High School Academy, an all-through state-funded academy for girls aged 3-19. The school was very keen for Chris to meet Rita their reading dog and see her in action, and Rita’s owner, Assistant Vice Principal Gwen Saccheri, has written this piece about the impact Rita is having on the pupils’ developing confidence as readers.

As a secondary school English teacher and avid reader, I have been puzzled for years by students’ reluctance to read aloud in class.  For many children reading is not a fun activity and reading aloud is something to be feared.  Two years ago, I asked our Principal here at Birkenhead High School Academy, if we could have a resident school reading dog whose main purpose would be being read to by the students; the answer was‘great idea’. The rest is history so they say. Our school reading dog Rita has been in school since the age of 5 months and this is her second year working 3 days a week. Her first reading was Juliet Donaldson’s ‘The Detective Dog’, read to her by reception which went down very well.

She is now in three days a week and attends reading sessions in our all through Academy so sometimes she is with 5 year olds reading the good old Biff and Chip books, and sometimes a sixth former uses her to practise her speech on. She follows the Kennel Club Good Citizenship’s scheme and the entire school population is proud to say that she is close to completing her gold certificate. The impact of having her in school for three days is tremendous. Students who are wary of making errors read to Rita with great enthusiasm, even managing to bring in their reading books as they simply will not want to miss out. Some go one step further and choose books they think Rita wants to hear. Overall, we can see that she develops enthusiasm for reading in all classes she works with.

Each class has a weekly session in one of the school libraries and the presence of Rita has helped focus, but also has enabled the creation of an atmosphere of tranquility that helps all children to read. We had not anticipated that children as young as 5 realise that a noisy environment is not good for a dog so there is an impressive amount of self-regulation going on when Rita is in the room. Though Rita’s prime function is as a reading dog, she also helps to calm anxious students and we now have a team of year 7 dog monitors who, under supervision, walk her and attend to her needs.

In these scheduled library sessions, we then take it in in turns and each student can read to Rita for 10 minutes whilst the rest of the class either chooses a book or reads in silence.

For students in year 7 who are in need of an extra literacy boost, we organise an intervention session at lunchtime, which the students attend with noticeably more enthusiasm than before. It has been wonderful to see an increase in confidence to read and not worry when stumbling over an unknown word. Rita won’t judge, but simply goes to sleep if she isn’t enjoying being read to all too much.

Look out for Madeline Finn and the Library Dog by Lisa Papp, published by Old Barn Books, who is supporting the work of the ‘Read2Dogs’ scheme from Pets as Therapy, with royalties from sales of the book. This is a guest post by Gwen Saccheri, and the views expressed do not necessarily represent the FCBG.

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