Video/Gallery: Heathcliff the reading dog who helps children at Nacton Primary School is nominated for education award
He’s named after one of fiction’s most famous characters, but Heathcliff the dog’s involvement with literature doesn’t end there.
The eight-year-old Shih Tzu has been nominated for a Raising The Bar Award for improving the literacy skills of children at Nacton Church of England Voluntary Controlled Primary School.
Heathcliff, whose owner is headteacher Joanna Kidby, has become an unofficial teaching assistant at the school by coming in once a week to listen to the pupils read.
By listening calmly and uncritically to their reading, he’s encouraged pupils’ confidence and fluency.
Now Heathcliff has been nominated for one of Suffolk County Council’s education awards in the Volunteer of the Year category, with his nominator describing him as a “forward thinker”.
Ms Kidby got the idea of having Heathcliff listen to her pupils read when The Times newspaper reported on a similar project in the USA.
“He’s very calm and great with children and I thought we’d give it a go,” she said. “He comes in once a week and the teachers used it as a trial, but it was so good that we kept it going.”
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Heathcliff has now been lending his assistance at Nacton Primary School for a year and has become something of an institution.
Ms Kidby said: “They just sit and read and because he doesn’t comment or interrupt them their confidence and fluency improves. Their reading has just shot up.
“We have had the most fantastic results. One child moved up 27 reading months in just two terms.”
It isn’t only literacy skills that have improved through Heathcliff’s efforts, children who were nervous of animals previously are now growing in confidence.
“The children have developed their skills with animals,” she said, “It’s surprised me that they know what to do now and how to talk to the dog.
“We have seen a marked improvement in the children who wouldn’t go near an animal before and now they’re petting him and walking him.”
Heathcliff certainly isn’t averse to the attention his new role has garnered.
“I think he loves it because when they finish reading they give him a treat and a high five and he holds his paw up for them,” said Ms Kidby.
Now some of the pupils at Nacton Primary School have brought the exercise home with them, helping to make Ipswich’s pets among the most learned in the UK.
“We’ve parents saying their child goes home and reads to the cat and I think someone is reading to their goldfish, and that’s great for me because I’m encouraging reading at home and they’re doing it for fun, parents haven’t asked children to do it.”