From Today's Herald:
Animals help kids read
Horses, dogs and guinea pigs are helping struggling South Florida students acquire a taste for reading by acting as unconditional listeners.
''I wanted to show it to him,'' whispered Cristen, 6.
''I can't hear you. Champ can't hear you,'' said Champ's handler, Denise Houghtaling, who was holding on to his bridle.
As Cristen started to read -- louder this time -- Champ scarcely blinked. He just looked on, listening.
In South Florida and across the country, teachers, librarians and animal rescuers are pairing animals with children who are struggling to read. Horses, dogs and even guinea pigs have been enlisted as unconditional listeners who look on without a single snicker or criticism.
Neigh, not a one.
Many of the students targeted by these programs struggle with reading because they are learning English or are from poor families. For them, reading can become a painful chore.
''That's basically what this whole thing is about,'' said Wendy Sue Lewit, a teacher at Avocado Elementary in Homestead. ``It's to teach them to read -- not only that book -- but to read anything. It really does seem to work.''
She and other teachers have seen it happen.
''This one little girl . . . she was not a reader,'' Davie first-grade teacher Sandra Uranga said. ``The horse nudged her when it was her time and she turned and just started reading. She thought this horse was talking to her.''
Another Davie first-grader, Martine Magloire, couldn't say her age. She doesn't know enough English. But on Page 4 of Little Black, A Pony, she pointed to the big red horse and the two paler ones, then to the three real ones in front of her.
''I see this one, this one and this one,'' said Martine, who just moved here from Haiti.
''She loves books, and I think this really made a connection for her,'' said her teacher, Heidi Wolfson.
Former Homestead Rodeo Association President Nick Coffin learned about the Black Stallion Literacy Project at a rodeo convention several years ago. Pairing students with horses was pitched as a way to draw TV cameras to the rodeo. After expanding to six Miami-Dade schools, he brought it to two Broward schools when he became president of the Davie-Cooper City Rotary Club.
''We never got any television coverage for our rodeo. It doesn't matter anymore,'' he said, explaining he gets all the satisfaction he needs from watching the students.
The project was created in 1999 by the owner of the Arabian Nights attraction in Orlando and the son of Black Stallion author Walter Farley. It has provided books to more than 200,000 students in nine states, President Larry Bramblett said.
In Broward and Miami-Dade, volunteers from the South Florida Trail Riders Association bring horses to participating schools. For about a month, students practice reading and learn about horses. Then they go to their local rodeos where they watch horses get shoes, learn their body parts and get a second book, Farley's Little Black Goes to the Circus.
A similar program pairing young readers with dogs began in Salt Lake City in 1999. READ -- Reading Education Assistance Dogs -- is now in 49 states, executive director Kathy Klotz said.
The program concentrates on first- through third-graders to reach students early. She said quiet older dogs -- and the occasional guinea pig, African gray parrot and cat -- make ideal listeners.
''We're trying to get that love of books and reading established before it's much harder to do,'' Klotz said. The dogs are accompanied by adults who may ask questions on behalf of the dogs.
''Rover's not quite sure what he heard there. What does that mean?'' Klotz said. Or if the student is wrestling with a word, they may say, ''Rover doesn't know that one.'' Broward's own creation, Wags & Tales, was started in 2000 by the county's Humane Society and was the first of its kind in Florida, education partnership coordinator Marni Bellavia said. It has grown to operating at 20 libraries and six schools. This year, about 1,100 kids read to dogs at the library or at school.
In Davie and Homestead, though horses are plentiful, many children have never seen one up close.
The kids find pretty much everything the half-ton animals do to be riveting.
''Look, Mrs. Uranga!'' said the Davie first-graders who were lined up for their turns with the horses. They were pointing to horse droppings.
''He doesn't have a bathroom to go to like we do,'' Uranga explained. ``Let's look at his beautiful face.''
They took turns stroking the animals and showing them their new books. Then they plopped down and started to read.
''Stories don't actually come to life to these kids. It's just a book,'' reading specialist Hilary Pollack said. ``This instills the love of reading in them.''