Last week our CareSouth Story Dog Buster turned 10! To celebrate this important milestone the wonderful students in CareSouth’s Homework Hub threw Buster a party. There were presents – new books and dog treats – and lots of cuddles and stories with Buster. Students also painted a picture of Buster and played Pin the Tail on the Reading Dog. It was a fantastic day and everyone agreed how lucky we are to have Buster visit the Homework Hub each Tuesday to read with the students.

CareSouth Homework Hub coordinator Danielle said in the 18 months that Buster has been sharing stories with students their literacy skills and enjoyment of reading has increased.

“We are extremely passionate about literacy at CareSouth,” said Danielle. “And we have seen students gain confidence in their literacy skills each time they read with Buster. He is a very attentive listener, he is not judgmental and he loves a scratch or a pat, which is also therapeutic for the kids, with research showing patting a pet lowers a child’s heart rate and anxiety levels.”

Throughout the year we have been sharing videos of Buster – an accredited Story Dog – reading with his handler Natalie, and other CareSouth staff, to encourage children and young people in our programs to love literacy as much as we do. For some of our Story Times with buster click here.

But sometimes children and young people from vulnerable backgrounds find reading a real struggle. There are many reasons for this, but one of the biggest is confidence. Many kids don’t think they are good readers so they avoid reading at all costs. But the things we are not good at require the most practice. It’s a real catch 22.

In the Homework Hub we encourage students to choose the tools they need to feel confident in trying a task. We only ask students to read aloud if they are comfortable to do so. If kids prefer to listen to an audio book with Buster that’s ok too, they are still gaining the benefits of exposure to literacy.

We have seen the confidence of students who read with Buster increase because it doesn’t feel like a struggle. Buster doesn’t laugh or criticise and doesn’t even mind if students read silently. He’s just happy to see kids reading and so are we.

Here’s some tips to encourage a love of literacy amongst children and young people:

1. Providing age and skill-appropriate materials for struggling readers. Teacher librarians can help with this so reach out to schools and ask for ideas. The more a student enjoys and is interested in reading, the more likely they are to keep it up.

2. Support for students with special needs and readers at risk. Audio books are great for readers who need a little extra support. Throughout the COVID-19 lockdown popular authors like David Walliams and the stars of Harry Potter read books online

3. Matching struggling readers to appropriate books for their skill level. Research has found when struggling readers have texts matched appropriately with their ability and personal interest, they are more persistent, invested, and use more cognitive skills.

4. Promoting access to books.  Access to books is positively related to reading motivation, reading skills, reading frequency and positive attitudes toward reading. If you can, have lots of books lying around the house to pique kids’ interest. If students prefer audio books, and you also have a copy of the text encourage them to use the text to follow along with the audio book reader.

5. Making books and reading socially acceptable. If young people believe books are socially acceptable, they’re more likely to read and have a positive attitude toward reading. Reading frequency is associated with literacy benefits, so make reading a part of a student’s everyday routine, in the same way screens and iPads have become routine. You can even link the two – so if a student reads for a certain amount of time they earn the equivalent in screen time.

6. Reading to students beyond the early years. Reading aloud offers a range of benefits in the early years and beyond, including an increased enjoyment of reading and increased motivation. Read a book with a child or young person in the same way you would watch a TV show with them.

7. Provide the tools needed for students to become confident readers and learners.  Make reading feel fun and not like a chore. This could be as simple as encouraging students to read to their pet, or even a stuffed toy. Let them build a reading fort or nest where they can snuggle with a book. And provide assistive technology where appropriate. Older students who struggle to read will also find it difficult to understand the assignment and assessment tasks they are being asked to do at school. In the Homework Hub we provide the option of using Microsoft Immersive Reader. This is a free tool, built into Word, OneNote, Outlook, Microsoft Teams, Forms, Minecraft Education Edition and the Edge browser. Immersive Reader includes tools that read text out loud, break it into syllables, and provide options for visual layout, such as spacing between lines and letters, or colour themes. This helps students with independent reading and comprehension and improves their confidence in attempting and completing assignments. Immersive Reader: