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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
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LE ROUX, Marieanna; SWARTZ, Leslie  and  SWART, Estelle. The effect of an animal-assisted reading programme on word recognition and spelling skills of grade 3 children. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2015, vol.55, n.2, pp.289-303. ISSN 2224-7912.

Reading problems constitute a problem world-wide. Literacy figures in South Africa are particularly worrying. The reading skills of 80% of South African children are not fully developed by the time they reach grade 5. In recent literacy tests, South African children fared worse than their peers from African countries like Mozambique, Botswana, Swaziland and Tanzania. Despite attempts to improve literacy and numeracy, South African children do not reach their potential. Many South African schools are labelled as "dysfunctional" and 79% of schools do not have libraries. This is a complex matter with multiple causes. Reading programmes may contribute to addressing this issue. There are different types of reading programmes and they can take place at different levels. One type of programme includes the use of pets. The aim of the present study was to determine the effect of an animal-assisted reading programme on the word recognition and spelling skills of grade 3 children in a working class rural South African school. All the grade 3 children were assessed with the ESSI Reading and Spelling Test. Those who were identified as poor readers (N=102) were randomly assigned to three experimental groups and one control group. The Dog Group (n=27) read to a dog in the presence of a Pets as Therapy volunteer, the Adult Group (n=24) read to an adult only while the Teddy Bear Group (n=26) read to a teddy bear in the presence of an adult. The Control Group (n=25) continued with their normal school activities. Collection of the data took place before the start of the reading programme (Time 1) and directly after completion of the programme (Time 2) with a follow-up measurement eight weeks later (Time 3). The Reading Educational Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) programme of Intermountain Therapy Animals was followed. Once a week during the 10 week animal-assisted reading, all the children read for approximately 20 minutes from grade 1, grade 2 and grade 3 level reading books which they chose themselves. The children were called from their classrooms, individually, to another room where they could read calmly and peacefully either to a dog with an adult present, to an adult only, or to a teddy bear with an adult present, depending on the group in which they were. Nine PAT volunteers and their therapy dogs and 10 other student volunteers were used in this project. All the volunteers received the same instructions from the researcher. At the start of the programme the reading ability of all the children were on grade 1 to 2 level. After a 10-week reading programme (Time 2) the children from the Dog Group read on a significantly higher grade level than the children from the Adult Group, the Teddy Bear Group and the Control Group. With the follow up measures at Time 3, the children from the Dog Group still performed at a significantly higher grade level than the Adult Group, the Teddy Bear Group and the Control Group. This study contributed to the knowledge of human-animal-interaction and specifically to the use of dogs to improve the reading skills of children. This unique reading programme is flexible and can be successfully used in schools and libraries. More research on this topic needs to be undertaken.

Keywords : animal-assisted reading programme; animal-assisted therapy [activities]; grade 3 children; reading literacy; reading dogs; word recognition; reading.

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