It may be just a coolness factor for kids, but one classroom in Canada is getting a big boost in reading thanks to canine teaching assistants.

University of Alberta researcher Lori Friesen's says one Alberta classroom showed positive success when small children signed up for weekly reading or writing sessions with her and one of her dogs. During that time, they would read children's literature or work on the student's writing.

Friesen said the small group work seemed to ease some children's trepidation when it came to reading aloud. Using picture cues or clues to provide context in the story, Friesen helped students learn new words or overcome challenges with other words—lessons, she says, the students grasped and applied to try and help the dogs understand new words as well. 

"This is a goal-oriented activity; we're not doing therapy with children," said Friesen. "Animal-assisted literacy learning is about how children experience literacy learning in a safe, supportive, effective, meaningful and exciting learning environment."

Friesen notes that Grade 2 is a crucial time period for students developing the potential to become lifelong readers, or to turn away from reading. However, the dogs seemed to be an important catalyst in the children's motivation to display and engage in a committed habit of reading.

"One-third of the class began reading to or writing with their own dogs at home, and were choosing to read when otherwise they wouldn't," she explained. "Their parents reported that these children hadn't used to talk about school at home, but now when they got to the dinner table, the parents heard all about Tango's favourite books—it was the first time they actually knew what their children were reading at school."

Friesen said the impact this work had on the children was remarkable. She also noted that the reaction from parents was positive in terms of how motivated children were to read with the dogs. In fact, one child's parents noted that he refused to go on a family vacation because it meant he was going to miss a turn. Many of the parents also noted that if their child was lacking motivation to go to school, if they were reminded that Tango and Sparky were going to be there, they'd be at the door in no time at all.

"The classroom teacher, as well as many of the parents, noticed positive changes in the children's reading behaviours and an increase in their confidence," she said. "The children were constantly learning and engaging with text in new ways. This is what literacy should be about for children."

Friesen said her work will be in a future issue of Language  & Literacy.