By Dyann Nashton | Contributing writer

UTICA — It’s all gone to the dogs at Notre Dame Elementary School. But in the meantime, some hesitant students are also becoming better readers.

The school’s Reluctant Readers program allows a few furry friends into the building to be read to by students. The sessions build student confidence in a comfortable environment with attentive and patient listeners.

Carlo, a one-year-old mini schnauzer, and Sophia, a five-year-old Yorkshire terrier, visit the school weekly with librarian (and owner) Sondra Nassar to help a handful of second and fourth grade students improve their reading skills. The dogs arrive at school in uniform — unless it’s a dress down day — and know exactly what the blanket on the library floor means: it’s reading time.

On a recent day, second graders Samantha Bender and Skylar Nicholas worked to settle the pups down for a session. Then, they began reading “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Clover!” by Lucille Colandro. The dogs are like little children, agrees Samantha, it takes a bit for them to settle down and stay focused.

Nassar said she sees definite improvement in the students’ oral reading abilities since the program started. She saw early progress with students who went from stopping altogether when they did not know a word, to spelling the word out, to sounding out the word.

“Both of these girls’ fluency has improved and the use of inflection and expression is showing up this week,” she said. Reading to the dogs gives the children a comfortable environment to practice reading aloud.

The reading skills of Daniel Nicholas, a fourth grade student, have flourished especially with Carlo’s help. The pair have developed a special friendship and Daniel’s confidence “has grown in leaps and bounds,” Nassar described. Of all the Reluctant Readers, Daniel has shown the most change in fluency and attitude toward reading, she noted. He will rush through his lunch to spend time reading with Carlo and is now teaching Carlo some new tricks, she said.

Nassar tracks the students’ progress by providing regular reports or “Dog Logs” to Principal Mary Rossi. And no visit to the school is complete without a trip to the principal’s office. “Carlo marches right in to Mrs. Rossi’s office like that is just what he’s supposed to do,” she said.

The Reluctant Readers program allows the children to bond with the dogs and each other to help form a small social group. The students develop a sense of teamwork in this format as well, Nassar explained. On their own, the second grade girls came up with the idea of passing the book back and forth to take turns reading a page to Carlo and Sophia.

Even students who are not part of the Reluctant Readers program enjoy Carlo and Sophia’s visits. Nassar visits the pre-kindergarten classrooms to talk about animals and pets.

“The children get a chance to pet Carlo and Sophia if they wish,” she said. “Today, a child who has been reluctant to even come near the dogs, willingly [pet them]. Even his teacher thought that was a big step.” She added that she thinks the dogs teach the students to be gentle and about empathy and sympathy.

Some of the children are convinced that Sophia is Catholic, Nassar said. The Yorkie attended the blessing of the pets and sat quietly in a pew for Mass one day. Nassar overheard the kids surmising that Sophia must be Catholic since she attended Mass and behaved so well.

The Reluctant Readers program translates into confidence for these students around their peers, Nassar said. “They know that the dogs are non-judgmental and they won’t be made fun of,” she added. “You know dog spelled backwards is God and He’s non-judgmental, too,” said Nassar.

Dyann Nashton is a writer from Oneida, in the Eastern Region of the diocese, and the development associate at Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School in Utica.

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