Zanne van Eeden, a Masters of Education student at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, presented an innovative study to last week’s Pan-African Literacy for All Conference suggesting that the presence of animals can benefit learners’ literacy skills.
During her ‘Reading to Dogs’ programme, van Eeden took a dog into an Eastern Cape classroom for a 12-week period, spending time with Grade 3 learners who had fallen behind in their literacy. The result was positive, with learners developing an improved attitude to towards reading, and increasing levels of attainment.
Although this study marks the first time that the approach has been taken in Africa, using animals to improve children’s academic skills is not a new concept. Initial theories on the subject were developed in the mid-1990’s, and the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) programme launched in Salt Lake City, USA, in 1999.
Research shows that this ‘Animal-Assisted Therapy’ can be beneficial for students’ learning – partly because the presence of animals can reduce stress, and also because children are likely to open up to animals – research conducted in 2000 found that 70 per cent of children talk to and confide in their pets.
Van Eeden said: “The dog provided emotional support in a way that I could not provide. With a friendly face and a wagging tail, the children started to associate reading with something fun. It’s an exciting approach that can open up the imagination of children and teachers”
Michael le Cordeur, who oversaw the research, added: “I was fascinated by this study. The learners were at ease. They really enjoyed reading to a dog because there is no pressure – the dog doesn’t judge them or laugh at them. That that was really interesting for me.”
Although in many parts of Africa, dogs are not kept within the home, van Eeden believes the concept could be adapted for different cultures: “We have to keep in mind that some children are not used to animals or afraid of dogs, and we must respect this. We could try a stuffed animal, or a teddy bear. We need to think outside the box – to find a reading companion that children feel comfortable in front of.”
In line with its commitment to education across Africa, in September 2015 Oxford University Press proudly sponsored the Pan African Reading for All and Reading Association of South Africa Literacy Conference. This article is part of a collection of insights from conference and reflections from delegates. To find out more about the event, go to www.rasa2015.co.za