One four-legged friend is offering more than just companionship and sloppy kisses to students at Santa Clarita Christian School (SCCS).
With his calm demeanor and nurturing disposition, Charles, a licensed reading therapy dog, is also giving students the confidence to read aloud and improve their reading fluency.
“The impact of having Charles in my classroom is huge,” second grade teacher Deborah Essex said. “I have students who have never volunteered to read aloud in class start to volunteer to read aloud in class. I know it is the confidence they have gained through reading to Charles that has allowed them to have the courage to read aloud in class.”
Charles first appeared in classrooms at SCCSS in September 2015 after completing a year of training. He worked with his owner and licensed handler Dawn Plew, an SCCS culinary arts teacher, for several hours each week before he gained his certification.
“We did a group class once a week and then private lessons once a week so it’s about three to five hours a week,” Plew said of the trainings at public places, with people and with other dogs. “We hired a personal trainer to get us ready to pass the test so we could get certified.”
When Charles became certified, Plew knew she wanted to marry her love of books with her passion for animals.
“I love reading to kids and I’ve been an animal lover my whole life. The thought of combining them all was ideal,” she said. “I was already at SCCS and the teachers already knew me and I knew them.”
With her job as a culinary arts teacher, Plew is able to bring Charles to primary school classrooms in the morning and then teach her secondary school students in the afternoon.
Now, in his third year in classrooms at SCCS, Charles continues to bring joy to students of all ages by acting as someone “non-threatening” to read to.
This exercise of reading to Charles allows students to release feelings of embarrassment, develop the ability to speak in front of people and make them comfortable opening up to others.
“I have seen many students who are not comfortable reading aloud, read aloud with more confidence and less mistakes when he/she reads to Charles,” Essex said. “I have had students ask to spend more time reading to Charles to practice oral reading.”
Charles visits Essex’s classroom each week during center rotations where students move between different activities. In groups of three to four, students rotate to Charles’ spot and spend time reading aloud to him.
“Even though the students enjoy all the centers, they can’t wait to get to Charles’ center,” Essex said. “When the students are the most excited to read aloud, even more than playing games or using a tablet, I know that I am doing something right.”
Sometimes, Plew has students spend “Charles time,” or one-on-one time, with Charles outside of the classroom to improve their reading skills.
One time, a student, who struggled with reading continuously, was able to immediately read through a passage after spending one-on-one time with Charles.
“One girl really struggled with reading. She was really slow and choppy and had a hard time sounding out the words. It made her really nervous and kind of tense,” Plew said. “Then we did a one-on-one session with her… She was reading to him by herself and she started petting him and her whole demeanor completely changed. She was so clam and she didn’t stumble anymore.”
After his many weeks in the classroom, Charles always develops a bond with the students he interacts with.
“The students from the last two years look at him lovingly and longingly when they see him walk through the campus,” Essex said. “Last year my class wanted Charles to be on our class door banner because they felt he was part of our class.”
In addition to working with young students, Charles also visits the classrooms of junior high schoolers, participates in school outreach events and attends local bookstores for reading time.
“He loves it,” Plew said. “He knows when we’re going to see the kids when I put his vest on.”
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_