For struggling readers in Howard County elementary schools, the phrase "man's best friend" has taken on a new meaning.
Thirty-three students from 10 schools graduated from the Howard County Library System's annual Dogs Educating and Assisting Readers (DEAR) program March 23 at the East Columbia Library.
The program, part of Fidos for Freedom and the A+ Partners in Education between the county libraries and school system, brings together therapy dogs with elementary students who struggle with reading.
"The dogs give unconditional love," said Marilyn Hummer, coordinator of the DEAR program. "We work through the dogs. When a student stumbles or doesn't know what a word means, we use the dogs as a liaison. I'll say, 'you know, I don't think Gracie Mae (Hummer's coonhound mix) knows what that word means, let me explain it to her,' and then the student learns what the word means. The dogs are conduits for learning."
Students come into the library on Saturdays for either eight or 16 weeks, and by reading to the dogs, they improve their vocabulary, reading comprehension and confidence. While ideally the program is for students who aren't reading at grade level, Hummer said elementary reading teachers also recommend students who are good readers, but perhaps need confidence-building when it comes to reading aloud.
Sometimes, Hummer said, a student can improve up to four grade levels over the course of the program.
"This is great for kids because there are no inhibitions," said Valerie Gross, president and CEO of the Howard County Library System. "When they read to a dog, the dog has no expectations. They don't correct the child when the child makes a mistake, so the child has far fewer fears of making a mistake in the first place, and therefore makes fewer errors and improve a lot more quickly. … It's a calming effect on the student, and it brings joy to the experience."
Sisters Daina and Tamara Abushkeidem, students at Bushy Park Elementary School in Glenwood, both said they read better after 16 weeks of reading to "their" dogs — Jane and Sophie, English cocker spaniels.
"I was really happy when I met Sophie, and I really liked reading to her," said Daina, 10.
Tamara, 8, said she liked the program because, when she learned she would be reading to a dog, she thought the adults meant a stuffed animal or a toy.
"I was so happy when we met the real dogs," she said. "I wound up having lots of favorite books, and we learned lots of words."