Should your child enroll in a dual language program?

Your child has the option to enroll in a dual language program in your school district. Will this option be beneficial for your child’s literacy development? And why has this question become part of a national and local policy debate?

My son was five years old when we moved to a community piloting a dual language immersion program in the local public school district. The option was for first graders to voluntarily enroll in the French or Spanish program (programs in Japanese and Chinese would be added in subsequent years). Students would be learning in both English and a second language throughout the school day; the curriculum would be the same as in other classrooms, but students would have the opportunity to learn how to read, write, listen, and speak in two languages.

I liked the idea that my son could begin Spanish in the first grade, and stay with it through elementary, middle and high school (International High School was on the drawing board). When families signed up, the school let us know it might be confusing in the early years for our children to be learning in a second language, but we should not pull out of the program if this occurred. So we signed up for Spanish and my son stayed with it throughout the International High School. By third grade, the teachers told us if our children were dropped into a Spanish-speaking country, they would understand the local language even though they might not be able to speak it well. Over the years, as more native Spanish-speaking children (English Language Learners or ELLs[1]) moved to our town, the school district put them in the dual language program so they could further develop their Spanish skills and learn English. This is how my son learned a lot of his “street” Spanish —the kids happily taught one another the slang and swear words they were not learning in class from the teachers.

I have long wondered if my view that my son’s education was greatly enhanced because he participated in the 12 year language program is supported by research. So it was with great interest that I recently read several papers[2] produced by Ed Central at the New America Foundation on research, policies, and practices of dual language programs in U.S. public schools —and learned about efforts underway to inform a growing national and local debate— should school districts (and communities) continue dual language learning programs and grow more of them—or close them down?

Like so many public policy debates, there’s typically a “good” and “bad news” story. In this debate, the good news is that dual language programs are increasingly prevalent in school districts throughout the U.S. The bad news is, despite the trend toward expansion based on research showing significant, multiple benefits of these programs, many school districts are looking at these programs as “luxuries” that can be eliminated as schools face budget shortfalls.

Who wins and who loses in this situation? Consider the following three points.

First, the context. Dual language learners[3] are the fastest-growing group of U.S. school children—an estimated 7- 9 million are now under the age of eight. The 2015 Census data projections tell us that these numbers nearly double the most recent count of K-12 English language learners in the 2011-2012 school year (4.4 million). About 90 percent of the dual language learners are U.S. citizens who will be entering the nation’s workforce in the coming decade. School systems, therefore, play the key role in providing the educational supports for this group, and their literacy development and biculturalism is both a local and national priority. “Overall, 40 percent of immigrant families in the U.S. come from Mexico, but the remaining 60 percent come from all over the globe—including the Caribbean (7 percent), Latin America (13 percent), and Asia (19 percent).” While nearly three-fourths of the English language learners speak Spanish, another 149 languages are spoken among these groups. This tremendous diversity creates significant challenges for schools whose role is to instruct and assess dual language learners in languages other than English. And while schools in many states (e.g., California, New York, Texas) have long been supporting these students’ development, multilingual students have been arriving in large numbers to many more schools throughout the U.S. For example, the number of English language learners grew by over 600 percent in South Carolina and 306 percent in Kentucky during the first decade of the century.[4]

The demographic facts are compelling.

It’s not a choice ─ whether to educate dual language learners;

rather, the choice is how best to educate this diverse group of learners.

That said, do dual language programs in fact help children learn? There is substantial research showing multiple benefits for children who acquire a second language. The Springfield Public Schools (Oregon)[5] describes the following seven benefits as the district institutes a new dual language immersion program in Spanish:

  1. Children more easily learn a foreign language than adults and typically end up with a better understanding of their native language.
  2. English learners have an opportunity to make more progress on grade-level instruction — reducing the number who fall behind.
  3. Early foreign language learning increases achievement as measured by standardized testing.
  4. Young bilingual children show more critical thinking skills, greater sensitivity to language, and stronger communication and listening skills.
  5. Children develop a sense of appreciation for other cultures.
  6. Proficiency in a second language gives students a head start in language requirements for college.
  7. Proficiency in a second language gives students a head start for many jobs.

Ed Central’s summary of the research[6] informs us that “the benefits of bilingualism are countless and lifelong. Students who speak two languages have a longer attention span and stronger executive functioning. Increasing evidence suggests that bilingualism permanently alters neurological structures and slows down the decline in cognitive functioning, memory, and executive functioning as we age. Dual immersion programs also offer a host of non-academic benefits to all students. Finally, learning another language can increase tolerance, respect, and appreciation for other people and cultures.”

The research further informs us that “dual immersion programs, when designed and implemented correctly, are also the most effective way to teach English language learners. Multiple studies have confirmed . . . that dual immersion programs were most effective at closing the achievement gap between native English speakers and non-native speakers by eighth grade. Building home language proficiency in the early grades while simultaneously learning English can lead to higher academic success, especially when it comes to literacy. In immersion programs, English language learners’ native language is treated as a strength, not a deficit to overcome, which can positively affect student confidence and long-term socioemotional well-being.”[7]

“In Portland, Oregon, where dual immersion programs now reach almost ten percent of the student population, a new study just found that students enrolled in dual immersion outscored their peers in reading by an entire school year in eighth grade. In California, where Proposition 227 eliminated bilingual instruction options for most schools, there is continuing growth in dual immersion programs under a waiver program. Cities like San Francisco are now educating over 5,000 students in Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, and Korean, and demand exceeds the number of seats in the programs. In New York City, council members . . . are teaming up to rapidly expand dual immersion programs, with 39 new programs this school year. They hope to eventually provide second-language instruction to all NYC students, and use dual immersion programs as an integration tool.”[8]

Research shows that dual language immersion programs serve children for whom English

is their native language + children whose native language is not English, 

giving both groups the opportunity to become fluent in a second language.

It also helps students better understand their native language and strengthens literacy,

communication and critical thinking — key skills for their academic and lifelong success.

Who wouldn’t want this for all our children?

What then is the public debate about? Communities throughout the U.S. are expanding their dual language immersion programs in response to the research showing multiple benefits for children who acquire a second language. Yet the case for starting and continuing these programs bolstered by this compelling research is not “always enough to sustain them in tough budget fights.”[9] There is still the widespread perception that dual language immersion programs are “luxuries” schools can afford to cut.

Ed Central offers us a case in point — the public debate in the Fairfax County Schools (Virginia) where a budget task force has recommended that all the dual immersion programs be eliminated next year in order to save an estimated $1.9 million. The debate is pitting needed budget cuts against preferred educational services needed by many students.

The Fairfax County School’s English language learner population is now the eighth-largest among school districts in the nation; and there are large numbers of students speaking various languages at home (e.g., Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Urdu, Amharic, Telugu, and Farsi or Persian). The County Schools has addressed this diversity by implementing 16 dual language immersion programs at the elementary school level, where students spend half of their day learning science and math in one of five target languages: Spanish, French, Japanese, Korean, and German.[10]

“With its growing ethnic and linguistic diversity — and considerable local resources — Fairfax County should be a model for dual immersion education. These programs provide the best education possible for ELLs, can attract upper- and middle-class parents in order to support socioeconomic diversity in the schools, and provide all students the cognitive and socioemotional benefits inherent in the ‘bilingual advantage’. Instead, there is a very real possibility that students will see their access to multilingualism cut short in June 2016.” Advocates for dual language programs can only conclude that “As districts across the country embrace dual immersion to promote academic achievement and equity, it’s an embarrassment that a county as diverse as Fairfax would even consider eliminating them. Dual immersion programs should not be considered luxury programs we can afford to lose, but the ideal way to educate children for the challenges of the twenty-first century.”[11]

The policy debate is both a local and national issue:

competing demands for scarce educational resources — 

who gets the preferred educational programs and why/why not?  

With these three factors in mind — our nation’s rapidly changing demography, findings from research, and policy considerations — let me return to the original question. Your child has the option to enroll in a dual language program in your school district. Will this option be beneficial for your child’s literacy development?

Answer this question for your own child and perhaps in doing so you will help to answer the questions of the national and local policy debate.

[1]As defined by the U.S. Department of Education, English Language Learners (ELLs) are individuals who, due to any of the following reasons has sufficient difficulty speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language to be denied the opportunity to learn successfully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in the larger U.S. society: (a) was not born in the U.S. or has a native language other than English; (b) comes from environments where a language other than English is dominant; or (c) is an American Indian or Alaska Native and comes from environments where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual’s level of English language proficiency.

[2] See Ed Central, New America Foundation at <>. New America Foundation is a public policy institute that addresses the next generation of challenges facing the U.S. Ed Central is written by staffers on New America’s Education Policy Program. DLL (dual language learners) is one area of focus.

[3] See The Office of Head Start defines dual language learners (DLL) as children who acquire two or more languages simultaneously, and learn a second language while continuing to develop their first language. The term “dual language learners” encompasses other terms frequently used, such as Limited English Proficient (LEP), bilingual, English language learners (ELL), English learners, and children who speak a Language Other Than English (LOTE)” (OHS 2009).

[4] Data from Dual Language Learners Reader Post #2: Who are Dual Language Learners? at and Investing in What Works: San Antonio’s Success With English Language Learners at


[6] Dual Immersion Programs: Expanding and Endangered at

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


Blog for mom on her 99th birthday ─ why I wrote a “how-to” book for children

My fifth children’s picture book (How 7 Fish & 2 Ponds Landed in the Z House Backyard) came out a few weeks ago. Shortly after, the book landed gift-wrapped in a big box of gifts headed to mom for her ninety-ninth birthday. Yep, 99! After she read the new book, she remarked on the phone with surprise, “It’s a how-to book.” I agreed.

I’ve been mulling over her comment for the last few days. With full intention, I did write a how-to book, hoping a child would get the gist of how a pond can be built. And hoping too that a child would get ideas like ─ ‘o look, the boy really likes fish and he wants to learn how to build a pond.’ And ‘look at all that dirt they had to dig up.’ And ‘look at the different colors fish come in.’ And ‘wow, fish can grow big just like children do and what happens when they get so big that they don’t fit in their home anymore?’ In that sense, I was also writing an “informational storybook”─ a book that uses a story to convey information.[1]

And I hoped too that children would get that they can dream up an idea and then try to realize it like Noah did in the book. All of this dreaming things up – creativity, thinking and planning ─ can start early. It must start early.

Reading for information is a critically important tool in the child’s literacy development toolbox. Children need to learn early that asking questions is great ─ and learning by watching others do something is great─ and that reading is a main way they are going to acquire information vital to their lives.

21st century children are facing huge challenges in literacy – not only learning to read and how to apply reading in many formats ─but how to retrieve information from rapidly changing technology tools to access knowledge. How to question computers and pull out credible information are “survival skills” in their lives. “The amount of information available doubles every couple of years; some futurists predict that in two decades, available information will double every two to three months. It is no surprise that instructional books constitute approximately one-half of the books in most libraries’ juvenile collections. Instructional books help satisfy natural inquisitiveness and spark new curiosity.”[2]

Nonfiction informational books are central to literacy development. These types of books include the “how-to” books ─ as well as the related “how does this work” books.[3] “A child uses informational and non-fiction books to assemble what he knows, what he feels, what he sees, as well as to collect new facts.” [4]

Here’s what distinguishes information books from other types of books (or “genres”) out there.[5]

Info books for children …

  • Have a main purpose to provide in-depth explanation of fact-based material.
  • Are literature and considered trade books.
  • Are nonfiction but not textbooks or reference books.
  • Inform by attention to facts and capitalizing on children’s wonder at all that is out there.
  • When most effective, suggest a wealth of information, stimulating a wish to know more.

Info books for children …

  • Include the “how-to” books.
  • Contain interesting details and lesser-known facts.
  • Use expository language (writing that explains, describes, informs).
  • Are organized using a logical presentation of information.
  • Include photographs or illustrations to provide authenticity.
  • When the main purpose is to inform but contain entertaining elements of fiction are called informational stories ─ informational storybooks use a storyline to convey information.

Children benefit from info books in many ways …

  • Experience “authentic learning” as they investigate their own questions/topics of interest.
  • Inquire and solve problems ─ and foster critical thinking skills.
  • See connections and interrelationships among content and concepts.
  • Learn about faraway places, past times, and new ideas and concepts.
  • Begin to view the world as changing and evolving.
  • Acquire new vocabulary and broader background knowledge.

It’s not too early for young readers to know that there are many categories of books out there to provide different types of information. Trips to the library, for example, should underscore the many categories of books including story books and informational books available to them. The latter will include categories such as history; understanding peoples and cultures; nature; the arts; discovering how things work; and the how-to books.

Schools, of course, play the major role in guiding children to develop their reading and information retrieval skills using reading and critical thinking. Children begin the earliest grades now (including pre-school) using an array of technology tools because they must become familiar with them early to master their uses. They will have to know what “information retrieval” processes are and how and when to use them. Their vocabulary will need to include terms such as key word search, queries, web search engines, FAQ (frequently asked questions), tutorial, user guide, database, and apps. Without this level of literacy (reading and information literacy), they’re not going to be able to fill in words within a search box to access online applications for school, employment, and do their taxes someday.

A sample lesson plan from two teachers posted at Scholastic[6] underscores the types of lesson plans teachers are encouraged to incorporate in the early grades.[7] The lesson is aimed at pre-kindergarten through grades 1 and 2. The aim for the lesson is that “students will be able to identify nonfiction how-to books, discuss the ways how-to books are used, apply their knowledge and create a how-to book of their own.” One of the recommended activities is that the teacher will “ask parents to place focus on nonfiction procedural books that they use and will be using at home.” Scholastic offers some wonderful titles of books in the how-to category for teachers putting together these lesson plans.[8] Of course, parents can pick up these books and many other books in the nonfiction informational category too in order to help their children learn about the ways of acquiring new information.

Here’s the bottom line. Living in the 21st century is a journey increasingly in acquiring and processing new knowledge as things change around us. Reading early to develop these skills is key. So let’s help all our children develop their reading skills; teach them that there are many types of books out there and that they represent how knowledge is divided up ─ and that one of their important missions in life is to acquire knowledge. When young learners acquire the tools of reading and information retrieval ─ and understand that the knowledge they need is shaped into categories accessible through these tools – they can advance their journey as a learner, learning from autobiographies, poetry and how-to books alike. At an early age, children can and should do key word searches ─ type them in a box or speak them into a voice recognition system in their smart phone, tablet or computer; or tell the librarian at the library what the topic is they’re interested in – even if they don’t have technology tools right now ─ so they can watch the librarian start the information retrieval process and know that they soon will be doing this for themselves …

Pond.Front cover.21764715_High Resolution Front Cover_4728367_1 (2)


[1] Another Z House book that falls somewhere between informational storybook and how-to is How the Dog Came to Live at the Z House. It tells the story of a boy’s getting his first dog but also describes the many steps to adopting a dog through the local animal shelter.

[2] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[3] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[4] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[5] Drawn from: Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[6] Scholastic (NASDAQ: SCHL) was founded in 1920 as a single classroom magazine. Today, Scholastic books and educational materials are in tens of thousands of schools and tens of millions of homes worldwide.

[7] Lesson Plan How-To Books by Alexandra Savvas, Naomi Randolph

[8] Scholastic publishes several books that fit into a lesson plan where the teacher (or parent) could follow up to make these items in class as follow-up activity. Examples: Tomatoes to Ketchup by Inez Snyder; Milk to Ice Cream by Inez Snyder; Wax to Crayons by Inez Snyder; Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie De Paola; Benny Bakes A Cake by Eve Rice; Building A House by Byron Barton; Bruno, The Tailor by Lars Klinting; Beans to Chocolate by Inez Snyder.

How should reading literacy be measured? PISA thinks globally …

especially Most of us think that reading is looking at written words and de-coding them ─ and understanding what the words are saying. And, to test students’ skills at reading, that’s what you focus on ─ how well did students de-code and how well did they comprehend what they read.

But there’s so much more to reading, especially after students master the basics. What comes next then?

Think globally and check out PISA’s definition of reading literacy: ‘the capacity to understand, use, reflect on and engage with written texts, in order to achieve goals and develop knowledge and potential ─ and participate in society.’[1]

The PISA view is ─ you can’t really participate in society without reading literacy ….

Who is PISA and why should we care about this definition of reading literacy?

PISA stands for The Programme for International Student Assessment.[2] PISA is an international test conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 15-year-old school students’ performance on math, science, and reading. The purpose of these assessments is to try to improve education by delivering information to policymakers and educators about how students are doing.

Every three years since the year 2000, 15-year-old students from randomly selected schools throughout the world take PISA assessments in the core subjects of reading, math, and science ─ and beginning in 2012, some nations also elected to participate in an optional assessment for problem solving and financial literacy. In each year of the assessment, PISA especially focuses on one of the core subjects.

What are the PISA assessments like?

The two-hour long PISA assessments are a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that present reading passages in real-life situations. A total of about 390 minutes of test items are covered. The students and their school principals also answer questionnaires to provide information about the students’ backgrounds, their schools and learning experiences ─ and about the broader school system. This background information is important for understanding how to interpret information collected from schools in many different systems and nations.

Why should we care how 15-year-olds in the U.S. stack up to 15-year olds in other nations?

Consider how reading literacy is assessed and then you decide …

In PISA, reading literacy is assessed in three ways: (1) the format of the text, (2) the processes of reading, and (3) situations for reading.

The format of the text: In typical tests of reading in the U.S, students are asked to read text presented in a series of sentences and paragraphs; and they’re tested on ability to read and comprehend from that format. But PISA tests additional types of reading formats such as information contained in lists, graphs, and diagrams; and reading that occurs in varied formats ─ story-telling, application forms, and advertisements. The thinking behind this is that individuals will encounter all types of written materials in their life and we should know how prepared they are to read these varied materials. In my early career, I worked as a K-12 resource teacher in a big public school district and recall so clearly the Superintendent of Schools remarking that a good teacher could teach reading from “the Yellow Pages.” Back then, that was the book that contained alphabetical lists of businesses and non-profits in the city; and it did contain the names of businesses and their addresses, phone numbers, ads, pictures, and charts about who they served. His words ring ever more true about our need to be sure our students can indeed interpret the world around them – through reading all kinds of materials, though the Yellow Pages have by and large given way to the world of websites now for this information.

The processes of reading: The PISA test does not assess 15-year olds on basic reading skills because it assumes that most students by this age will have these skills. What PSA does focus on is how well students can access and retrieve information; and whether they can form a general understanding of the text─ and interpret it and reflect on its contents and its form and features.

Situations: The PISA test wants to know how well a student reads for four different “situational” uses ─ reading for private use (personal); reading for public use; reading for work (occupational); and reading for education. For example, reading a novel, personal letter or biography is for private use; reading official documents or announcements are for public use; reading a manual or report is for occupational use; and reading a textbook or worksheet is for educational use. Some groups may perform better in one reading situation than another, so the assessment includes a range of reading situations among the test items.

Who among us could argue persuasively that our students need only to read well in one or two of these four situations?

In the most recent PISA assessments, some 70 nations participated. The PISA results are tabulated by country ─ and recent testing cycles have separate provincial or regional results for some countries. The public attention, as you would expect, focuses on rankings: the average scores of countries and how they stack up next to one another. PISA never combines math, science and reading scores into an overall score to create a “best of show.” However, some folks have combined test results from all three areas (math, science, reading) to create such a ranking system. OECD does not endorse this type of summarizing of the outcomes of these assessments, however.

How does the U.S. stack up in the most recent reading assessment for our 15 year-olds?

PISA 2012 testing results were announced on December 3, 2013, based on tests of some half a million (510,000) participating students in all 34 OECD member countries plus 31 partner countries. Here are the rankings by country for reading. You have to scan pretty far down the list to find the U.S. at 24th on the list among 65 nations!

Reading scores PISA 2012 (reported 2013)

Rank            Country                         Score

1 Shanghai, China 570
2  Hong Kong, China 545
3  Singapore 542
4  Japan 538
5  South Korea 536
6  Finland 524
7=  Taiwan 523
7=  Canada 523
7=  Ireland 523
10  Poland 518
11=  Liechtenstein 516
11=  Estonia 516
13=  Australia 512
13=  New Zealand 512
15  Netherlands 511
16=  Macau, China 509
16=   Switzerland 509
16=  Belgium 509
19=  Germany 508
19=  Vietnam 508
21  France 505
22  Norway 504
23  United Kingdom 499
24  United States 498
25  Denmark 496
26  Czech Republic 493
27=  Austria 490
27=  Italy 490
29  Latvia 489
30=  Luxembourg 488
30=  Portugal 488
30=  Spain 488
30=  Hungary 488
34  Israel 486
35  Croatia 485
36=  Iceland 483
36=  Sweden 483
38  Slovenia 481
39=  Lithuania 477
39=  Greece 477
41=  Russia 475
41=  Turkey 475
43  Slovakia 463
44  Cyprus 449
45  Serbia 446
46  United Arab Emirates 442
47=  Thailand 441
47=  Chile 441
47=  Costa Rica 441
50  Romania 438
51  Bulgaria 436
52  Mexico 424
53  Montenegro 422
54  Uruguay 411
55  Brazil 410
56  Tunisia 404
57  Colombia 403
58  Jordan 399
59  Malaysia 398
60=  Argentina 396
60=  Indonesia 396
62  Albania 394
63  Kazakhstan 393
64  Qatar 388
65  Peru 327


The press reports on PISA going back to its origins in 2000, and more recently, have stirred up considerable debate about how our school systems should be changed in light of what many folks think has been a lukewarm performance by U.S. 15-year olds.

Regardless of what our ranking is among nations, we should be asking ourselves: do we want our children to achieve a use-able level of reading literacy in the four situations we know reading is vital for ─ to read for private use; to read documents for public uses; to read for work/occupational uses; and to read for education uses?

I’m a fan of thinking globally when it comes to assessing the real-life reading literacy skills of our students. I can hear my former Superintendent of Schools calling for us to teach reading from the Yellow Pages ─ he understood decades ago that reading was indeed a skill our students would need to apply in multiple situations.


[1] OECD, 2009:

[2] The U.S. rendition of their name is, The Program for International Student Assessment.

How can a map of tech-assisted interventions in early literacy be helpful?

Technology tools sit at our kitchen table, ride with us in our car, and take a place on our bedside table. Smartphones, tablets, TVs with video games, and computers are turned on ─and we’re tuned in, adults and children alike.

These developments are not lost on educators. Shayna Cook who studies an array of policy issues concerning birth through third grade for New America’s Early Education Initiative recently noted that: “Many early education programs around the country are beginning to determine how they might harness these [technology] tools to engage with parents, improve home-to-school connections, and otherwise augment efforts to help children develop early language and literacy skills.”[1]

Cook describes an interesting new effort led by New America and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop ─ the launch of an interactive U.S. map of early literacy programs categorized into five buckets:

  1. Professional learning programs
  2. Center and school initiatives
  3. Home visiting and parent engagement programs
  4. Library and museum programs
  5. Public media partnerships.

The just-released “beta” version of the interactive map lets you click on “pin-drops” categorized by these five types of programs. What you get when you click on the map is information about the literacy program; for example, where the program is located, what tech tools are used, and what evidence of impact there is on children’s reading skills through the program’s intervention. Each program provides information within the following 14 categories:

  • Program description
  • Summary
  • Story of program beginning
  • Program goal
  • Technological tool(s)
  • Purpose of technology
  • Technology concerns
  • Biggest challenges
  • Program documentation
  • Evidence of impact
  • Evidence of impact rating
  • Larger initiative
  • List of program partners
  • All locations

For example, when you click on the pin-drop positioned in central Ohio, up comes “Kids Read Now” which targets children ages 6-8 and is categorized as a center/school initiative. The description tells us that this program “seeks to eliminate the summer reading slide[2] by partnering directly with schools to enroll students in grades K-3. Students choose nine books, attend a Family Reading Night event where they receive the first three of those books, and then receive weekly phone calls/text messages/emails throughout the summer to remind them to read their books. These calls, placed using One Call Now technology, allow students to record books they have finished. When a book is reported as finished, the child is sent another book from his/her list through the mail. Children keep all books.”

While this program is available nationally, the statistics seem to come from Ohio and Indiana: “During summer 2014, we enrolled 4,000 students from 22 school buildings in Ohio and Indiana in this program. We estimate our program will serve approximately 5,000 students from 24 buildings during summer 2015. We have hopes of growing to serve a national audience and are limited only by the amount of funding we have in place.”

When you click on the pin-drop in New Mexico, up comes the “Great Reading Adventure” which is in the library/museum category. This is “an online platform to help families engage in the statewide summer reading program and track minutes read over the summer. [The] online platform allows participants to earn badges and complete early literacy activities as they participate in the summer between May and August.” Serving more than 10,000 students, the technology tools the program uses are touchscreen tablets, mobile apps, and computers online. The program is finding “a way to make it easier for families to engage and participate in the summer reading program by using technology to help overcome common issues or challenges such as transportation or lack of access.”

The challenges identified by the 28 programs on the U.S. map are interesting. For example, New Mexico’s program cites the lack of or unreliable internet access, lack of professional development (presumably for librarians and other staff), and concern about using technology with families with young children (see other Z House blogs on research calling for limits on “screen time” for very young children). The Ohio program cites lack of access or transportation as a challenge.

The name of the mapping project is “InTEL: Integrating Technology in Early Literacy.” Early feedback on InTel is promising ─ the map-makers report “positive feedback from state and program leaders who have been testing new approaches and need to be able to see the landscape and find examples with a solid research base.”

This map is really for an “inside baseball” audience ─ state and program leaders and researchers in early child literacy. This is not a map that seems to be designed for parents, teachers, librarians and others on the frontline working with children to improve their reading skills. But the map could in my view morph into a source of useful information for a frontline audience as the map is improved in the coming months and years. It may be useful, for example, to know what programs are operating in your schools, libraries and museums; and what programs are out there in other communities that would be helpful to adopt/adapt for your community to fill gaps in literacy programs for children.

Efforts are underway to improve the map. The current pin-drops were fed by data collected from a national survey conducted in February 2015. The survey has been re-opened to collect more information. So the good news is the InTEL map-makers will continue to update and expand the pin-drop sites. More good news would be expanding the use of the map ─from the “inside baseball” audience to the “frontline” audience who could help call for the adoption and adaptation of well-tested early literacy programs.

Would that the “pin-drops” become so numerous on the U.S. map that the map-makers biggest challenge is how to portray them!

reading map


[1] “A Map in Progress: Integrating Technology in Early Literacy” (June 15, 2015):

[2] “Slide” refers to students who lose their reading skills during the summer.

Can your dog or cat help a child learn to read better?

Early this morning ─ really early ─ BJ the cat[1] sprawls across my collarbone peering into my face, “vocalizing.” Her meows grow louder which can only mean one thing: “get up, I’m hungry, can’t you hear me?” BJ is mostly deaf from advancing age. I’m convinced she has no idea how loud she is. As she tunes up the MEOW volume, I shuffle downstairs to get the food bowl ready ─run water in the faucet until it’s hot enough to mix with her canned food to make warm gravy. She watches quietly next to her tan placemat on the kitchen floor. As I put the food bowl on her placemat, she vocalizes soft mewings that I interpret as, “I’m happy to just about be getting my food.” Then there’s quiet while she laps the gravy. Next, a visit to the water bowl followed by stretching. Finally, a trip to the window seat where she waits for the sun to stream in for a morning sunbath.

BJ is 20 years + some months old. In her senior years, she seems to have more to comment on than ever before ─she did not vocalize much when she was younger. She never has been the kind of cat who might sit and listen contentedly, for example, to a child reading out loud. Why you ask would I even expect her to do this?

Well, I learned recently that some cats do –that animal therapy teams throughout the country are joining forces to listen to children read. So I’m looking at BJ through new eyes. Could we be a therapy team – go to schools and libraries and help children learn to read better? Nope, not BJ the cat and me. And truth be told, it’s primarily dogs who participate in these programs. I learned this from looking at the pictures of therapy teams posted on the Internet – from animal assistance reading programs in Georgia, Florida, Connecticut, Delaware, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Puget Sound.

So now I’m wondering how to get my therapy team together ─ join forces with a dog (or mellow cat) to participate in one of these programs because the data shows they are really helping children learn to read better. And children, schools, and animal therapy teams alike are saying it’s fun!

What do these programs look like? In an article for The Bark, [2] Anita Stone explains: “For each session, the dog and the child-tutor settle down onto a blanket-covered pad on the floor in a corner of the school media center or in the library. Either the dog picks out a book or the child selects a picture book, brings it to the dog, holds it flat and begins to read. Though the children believe they are teaching dogs to read, in fact, with the dog as a comfortable, attentive audience (and an occasional gentle assist from the dog’s adult volunteer partner), they are actually teaching themselves. As far as the child is concerned, however, reading is about the dog, not about the child. No pressure. No embarrassment. No humiliation.”

Stone provides some good history about these programs. “Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) was among the first to use “reading dogs” in the classroom. Launched in 1999 by Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals, the program was introduced in a Salt Lake City library … and a year later, successfully moved into the school system. READ dogs are trained, registered and certified therapy animals who serve as classroom reading tutors, assisting children with their quiet presence and helping them develop a love of reading.”

Many other programs around the country have followed suit. For example, a psychologist volunteering with Helping Paws International, collaborated with Intermountain to create a therapy assistance program called BARKS (“Bonding, Animals, Reading, Kids and Safety”) in Durham County, North Carolina. By 2002, the program had accepted and trained several breeds of dogs, and the demand from schools waiting to participate has grown significantly. BARKS dogs act as partners in 30-minute weekly reading sessions with elementary school children. “Helping Paws International” has also been successful in working with autistic children in North Carolina, and many teams are now operating in states such as Florida, Ohio, and Texas.

“Sit Stay Read!” was established in the Chicago area more than a decade ago by an owner of a dog training school. The Chicago program worked with teachers, reading specialists and literacy experts to establish a program focusing on reading fluency with second- and third-graders of low-income communities. One volunteer team (human + dog) works with groups of four children. The program started with four schools but quickly found some 40 schools were on the waiting list. The results have been really positive. Fluency test results show reading acceleration to 24 words per minute, versus 9 words per minute for children not involved with the program. And both the attendance of children and their attitude in the classroom have improved.

The Reading With Rover![3] literacy program places volunteers in the schools, bookstores and libraries of the Puget Sound area of Washington State to help with literacy programs. I especially enjoyed the testimonials (“woof” reviews) at their website. Here are a few:

  • It’s always been a struggle to get my child to read each day. I’ve never seemed to be able to find the right topics to draw him in. Reading with Rover has been a HUGE help! My son will read almost any kind of book during Reading with Rover, and he wants to read for the entire hour! This is so different from how he is at home. I highly recommend this program for any child who is not a fan of reading! ─ Jessica
  • My granddaughter is in love with your program! And when I was first introduced to it at Third Place Books last month, I totally understood her delight and enthusiasm. In the 40 years that I’ve been involved with education, I don’t think I’ve experienced a more exciting and rewarding program. I had tears in my eyes as I walked around and watched the various children read to these wonderful dogs! I have told anyone who will listen about it! I applaud all of your special efforts to make this so magical! ─ Jennifer C
  • Wow, was it a hit!!! Nate had a blast. Read to 5 dogs and finished 2 whole books. He was so proud of himself. He talked about the dogs all the way home. He is also trying to figure out how our unruly dog, Norton, could be a Reading with Rover dog. When we explained that Norton didn’t behave well enough to be around all those other dogs, he kept thinking. He’s now convinced we can start our own Reading with Rover at home with the neighborhood kids! I had to laugh. That should be funny. Thank you  ─ Shay H

All of these programs (there are many described on the Internet) report success in helping children learning to read. The biggest problem they seem to share is how to find more animal assistance teams.

So, what does it take for a dog (or cat even) to make a good therapy animal? These programs generally require registered therapy animals that have been trained and tested for health, safety, appropriate skills and temperament. And training for the human that accompanies the dog for the reading sessions is needed as well; for example, what to say to the child when Rover falls asleep while the child is reading to him.

A report on these types of reading assistance programs by ABC news a few years ago[4] highlighted researchers at the University of California, Davis, who confirmed that children who read to a dog really do perform better. They found that young students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program, while children in the same program who didn’t read to dogs showed no improvement. For young kids, one of the big challenges in learning to read is the embarrassment of making mistakes. Reading to dogs provides a simple solution — a non-judgmental, comforting furry friend who “listens” and takes the pressure off a child as he stumbles.

So, with the research suggesting that animals can help children learn to read better, I’m hoping that other lovers of animals will look into these programs to help meet the growing demand for animal therapy teams.

I wish that BJ the cat could listen to children read but she’s doing too much of her own talking to be a good listener these days. My plan, therefore, is to look for a dog with the right temperament to be my partner in one of these programs in the future.


[1] Subject of one of the Z House stories: “How BJ Diana Came to Live at the Z House.”

[2]“Reading” Dogs Help Children Learn By lending an ear at story time:


[4] Report: Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort to Students. Study: Reading to Dogs Helps Children Learn to Read.