Bring a dog to class to increase children’s literacy? Yeah, right.

That was my first thought when I read a recent study suggesting that bringing canines into classrooms helps significantly increase student performance. I didn’t understand how dogs could possibly help, but I soon discovered that I had entirely missed the important principle underlying the argument–that making your classroom a stress-free zone can be an important key to accelerating your English learners‘ literacy.

It was only a few days after reading the study that I had an eye-opening conversation with my eight-year-old neighbor, Adni, which helped me understand the true significance of using dogs to increase literacy.

Adni’s family moved to the United States a few years ago, speaking only Spanish. Over the past four years, Adni has attended public school and has learned to speak English very well.

I casually asked Adni if he liked speaking English.

“I like speaking Spanish better,” he responded, sounding somewhat frustrated.

Adni’s tone took me by complete surprise. When I asked why he preferred speaking Spanish, he told me that at school he feels dumb when he says something wrong in English. His teacher often interjects, saying in front of the class, “No, that’s not correct, Adni. This is how you say it.” Adni’s classmates then burst into laughter. For that reason, Adni hates being called on to answer a question or read a passage aloud for the class.

As I listened, I thought back to the seemingly bizarre study I had read about using dogs to help kids read aloud. But this time it clicked. A furry friend in the classroom facilitated success not because it served as a cute pet to play with but because it helped the students to feel comfortable and relaxed as they read aloud— a stressful classroom exercise for students learning to read, especially ESL students like Adni.

Taking the stress out of learning is an essential element of developing literacy and, ultimately, achieving classroom success. But it isn’t necessary to bring a dog to class to create an inviting learning atmosphere. Here are some simple things that you can do to make your classroom a place where students feel comfortable reading aloud and participating in class discussions:

1. Allow students to hold a comforting object. Even though you may not be able to bring a real dog into your classroom, a stuffed puppy might do just the trick. Sensory activities, such as playing with a rubber ball or holding a soft toy, are said to reduce stress. Reduce anxiety in your class by allowing students to either bring their own comforting objects or choose one from a selection you provide.

2. Eliminate the word “no” from your critiques. As my young friend stated, receiving a harsh “no” from a teacher decreases his enthusiasm for class participation. It is important to be conscious of how your responses may be perceived and always compliment your students for giving their best effort—even when they make a mistake. For example, it might be better to say something like “You are so close. That was a great guess; I can see why you would think that,” then provide the correct answer with an explanation.

3. Adjust the room temperature. When you imagine being nervous, what are the first things that come to mind? Clammy hands? Sweaty forehead? A common first response to anxiety is heightened body temperature. For that reason, it is important to ensure that the temperature in your classroom is neither too hot nor too cold so that your students can feel as comfortable as possible.

4. Play music softly. Numerous studies have been conducted that prove the value of playing music in the classroom. Music provides a steady beat that not only helps to reduce stress but also helps students develop a rhythmic pattern when they read. Further, lyrical music assists language development. How many kids do you know who sing to learn the ABCs?

5. Make sure students are hydrated. Dehydration can create a feeling of intense discomfort that is heightened by anxiety. Students who drink water before an assessment are said to perform better because they are able to concentrate less on their thirst and more on the task at hand. Allowing your students to take a few sips of water before read-aloud time or class discussions may increase their performance.

6. Create a comfortable reading area. For a lot of kids, just the thought of being in a classroom turns their stomachs upside-down. Wooden desks and hard plastic chairs don’t exactly scream comfort. When I think back to my favorite school classrooms, however, I remember that there was something special about them—an area of the room that didn’t feel like a classroom. These areas were usually the designated reading areas. Looking back now, I realize what a difference it made to me to have an inviting space in which to read and learn. You can create a relaxing reading area in your classroom by providing comfortable chairs or bean bags. Because the right lighting (or mood lighting, if you will) is also important, it might be a good idea to add a nice lamp too.

7. Provide time to work in small groups. Some students feel more comfortable working in small groups than participating in a big class discussion. By allowing students to work in small groups, you give them the opportunity to not only use their language skills but also to make friends, which will help them feel more comfortable when they transition to speaking in front of the entire class.

8. Develop a personal relationship with each student. One of the best ways to help students feel comfortable is to get to know them individually. What are their interests? If one student likes cars, you could ask him or her to read a passage about cars. This will heighten the student’s excitement and confidence to participate.

What other ways have you found to take the stress out of learning in your classroom? Please share!