Written by Kara S. Anderson
“It tastes just like cheesecake,” she said laughing.
She was, of course, referring to dog frosting – the dog frosting she had whipped up from scratch to decorate her homemade banana pupcakes.
Frosting them was the last step in a process that had taken most of the day. She had also made applesauce treats and pumpkin bones.
She was getting ready for the last week of her read-to-a-dog program until the summer session.
It’s always hard to say good-bye to Gus and Mimi, Ozzie, Odie, Grace, Finn, Cocoa, Love, Koda and the other dogs who have become such good friends.
I adore every dog who has ever taken part in Books and Barks – their humans too, and the caring librarian who facilitates this program that I have no doubt, helped my daughter learn to read, and has built her confidence and fluency in a way that has never been stressful or hard.
I know there’s supposed to be a certain confidence when you have taught one child to read, so to those who didn’t know our story, it would have seemed like I shouldn’t have been worried at all to teach my daughter, my second child.
My son, after all, was reading at a 6th-grade level at age 4, and a college level by 5.
But kids are different, and we’ve never really known how my son learned to read. In fact, I’ve asked him and he doesn’t know. It just clicked one day when he was 3, he said.
Wonderful, but not exactly helpful in terms of further teaching.
And so, when my daughter expressed an interest in learning to read, we did what I thought we were supposed to do – we worked on letter sounds; we read together, and I would point to the “easy” words.
Sometimes those words would come quickly, and other times they wouldn’t. Some days she would forget the words she had known the day before.
And then one day she surprised me:
“Mama,” she said gently, “you and Brother-Bear are such good readers. Daddy said it was hard for him to learn to read, so maybe I could try reading with him.”
Just the idea that my son and I loved to read was a little intimidating to my girl.
And so, my husband would sit with her, and the two of them would practice at night and on weekends.
During the day, as part of “school,” my daughter and I tackled a book that I had heard wonderful things about. But it didn’t work for us, and ended in frustration, so I put it away.
She simply did her reading practice in the evenings with Dad, I told myself.
And I tried to let it go. I told myself that she would learn to read when she was ready.
I reminded myself again and again that the goal was not reading by a certain date or age – it was that my girl love reading and love books.
So when we heard about the opportunity to read to therapy dogs at our local library, we signed up right away.
The first week we walked into the quiet room and saw dogs and their humans sitting around the room – the dogs would lie down on blankets and kids would softly read to them.
It was such a peaceful, happy scene. My daughter squeezed my hand.
She carefully approached a Standard Poodle named Mimi, and sat with book in hand. We had decided we would read together, and so I started the book and when we got to a word she knew, she would say it softly, directly to Mimi.
All the while she pet Mimi’s soft black fur, and talked to her about the book.
At the end, she got a sticker. It said, “Today I read to Mimi.”
She didn’t want to leave.
So each week, we came back for her 20-minute session, and she met with a new dog – Ozzie the ham, gentle Jack, and a giant Newfoundland named Gus who once comforted my girl after she fell in the mud and got her new shoes dirty.
And each week, she took a shot at a few more words and got just a little louder – her confidence was growing.
Finally, one week she sat down across from a dog and read a whole book. I didn’t say a word. I just tried not to cry.
I always tell people that if there is a program like this in your community, attending could potentially be the very best thing you do for your young reader.
But I know not everyone is so lucky.
And so instead, if you have a reader who is learning on their own timeline, I would encourage you to try to let the worry go, if you can.
I’m a little more seasoned now, and I have seen again and again that unless something is tugging at your gut, saying that there is a learning difference at work, kids will learn to read when they are ready.
So instead of trying to make it happen by a date or age, make it your job to take the pressure out of reading.
Do whatever you can to make it fun. Let your kids read to whoever is best at not-pushing – a sibling, a friend, a loving grandparent who believes your child is clearly an emerging genius of unmatched personality.
Let them read to a pet or stuffed friend.
Let them listen to audiobooks, and if they love that format, find every way you can to make them accessible.
Help them fall in love with characters, like Charlie.
Read to them every day, even if it’s just for 5 or 10 minutes, and choose books you both enjoy.
And always, always, keep your end goal in mind – that what you want is a child who loves books and reading.
I’m so thankful for the dogs who helped me remember that.
What has helped your kids most in learning to read?
Wondering if your community has a read-to-a-dog program? Try local libraries, shelters, or Therapy Dogs International. Shelters might not have an existing program in place, but might love to have your family volunteer as readers.
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