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Ulti-mutt reading partner

Researchers have found Australia’s literacy levels have been declining, but Story Dogs is an organisation encouraging children to read their favourite book more often.

Primary school students Freddy and Jessica read to Aero from Story Dogs.

Data from a 2015 PISA report revealed 71.1 per cent of 15-year-olds in Australia are achieving baseline competency in reading.

Australia has now fallen to 12th at reading, according to the report, compared to 10th in 2012.

Story Dogs was created in 2009 in New South Wales and currently partners with 327 schools across Australia to encourage children to practice and improve their reading skills.

Swanbourne Primary School teacher Maryanne Hood decided to bring Story Dogs to her school after hearing about it last year.

She says there can never be enough time for children to practice their reading.

Ms. Hood says she loves the idea of children not having to sit with an adult when they could read to a dog, “which is a little bit magical.”

She says the children who participate in the program are there for a range of reasons, from practicing their fluency to spending some time with a dog every week, all of which can be beneficial to them.

However, Ms. Hood says above all, she wanted the children to acquire a love of reading.

“The fact we’re getting a third dog now is amazing,” she says.

Western suburbs Story Dogs coordinator Anne Durack decided to get involved with the program after retiring because she wanted to volunteer and give her dog a job.

Ms. Durack says the dogs were examined by an accredited assessor to test how they dealt with distractions and loud noises.

She says it’s a great program for the children as well as for the volunteers, as nearly every school who was approached has been interested in participating.

Swanbourne primary school students Freddy, 8, and Jessica, 7, have been taking part in the Story Dogs program.

Swanbourne primary school students Freddy and Jessica explain why they like to read to Aero, the Story Dog. Video: Elena Morabito.

Professor Tania Signal from Central Queensland University studies the interactions between humans and animals, and she says in the context of Story Dogs, it’s about “an unconditional positive regard” as the dogs will not judge the child if they make a mistake.

“Someone you are reading to [who] isn’t going to point out that you’ve mispronounced a word, that isn’t going to mind if you pause or you stumble, [means] there is no embarrassment or pressure to always get it right,” she says.  

Prof Signal says reading out loud is a repetitive task and if the children have reading difficulties or not a lot of experience, reading to another human can be a daunting activity.

“We know from research that you see lowered heart rate, lower blood pressure, you have markers of wellbeing’s, there is that kind of bonding,” she says.

“Talking to a dog allows kids to practice this behaviour and the more you practice reading out loud, the easier it becomes.”

Literacy and children’s literature expert at the University of Technology Sydney Professor Rosemary Ross Johnston says Australia used to well in literacy

Professor Johnston says her research has found “disadvantage compounds”- meaning if children are not proficient in English when starting school, their struggles will only multiply.

She says we should give every parent the opportunity for their child to attend preschool from the age of 3.

Professor Johnston explains Australia’s lack of literacy skills.