TRC Read to Kids

Welcome to The Reading Connection’s blog, where you’ll find the best guidance on reading aloud to kids. Whether you are a TRC Read-Aloud volunteer, parent or student, the book themes and crafts ideas, child development guidelines and recommended websites will expand your world. For 25 years, The Reading Connection has worked to improve the lives of at-risk kids by linking the magic of reading to fun experiences that inspire a passion for learning. Visit our website at

Monday, July 30, 2012

Writing and Reading: Two Halves of the Same Coin

The processes of learning to write and learning to read are very closely related. Reading helps children learn the rules of grammar (in a fairly painless way!) as well as letting them hear variety in sentence structure, unusual words, different voices, etc. All these things will make them better writers later!
But here's a lesser known fact: the act of writing can also help children learn to read! Like many other things, you have to practice working with words if you’re going to get good with them. It's not just the physical act of practicing writing that is useful -- though phonemic awareness, or understanding of the way sounds come together to make words, does improve with the physical act of writing. The act of verbal creativity warms up the brain and primes it for reading. After all, creating stories can only help when it comes to learning how to understand and enjoy stories and words.

If you're planning a Read-Aloud and want to include some writing, take a look at Gail Carson Levine's Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly  and Jack Prelutzky's Pigs, Pizza and Poetry: How to Write a Poem. If you find them not quite right for the kids at your Read-Aloud, here are our own writing-based activities. They can be incorporated into all Read-Aloud themes.

Rewriting stories and story endings

This activity gets kids thinking creatively and works best with well-known stories, fairy tales and myths. Everybody knows how those stories end up -- and sometimes the endings are unsatisfying. Kids will leap at the chance to tell you what should have happened.

Depending on the number of kids, divide the group into two or three groups, and give each group a big sheet of paper. Have the adult in each group write down the kids' ideas about different ways the story of Cinderella (for example) could have ended. Spend a while brainstorming and putting together a skit.  At the end, have each group act out their new ending for everybody else.

Writing poems as a group

Open this activity, and other poetry activities, by talking about what a poem is. Do poems have to rhyme? Do they have to look a certain way on the page? What is the purpose of poetry? Talk about making vibrant pictures with words -- pick a few examples from some of your own favorite poems to illustrate this.

Have every kid write down five words: two nouns, two verbs and an adjective (describe what these are: a noun is a thing, a verb is an action, an adjective is a describing word), and put them all together in a hat. If you have very young kids, pair a volunteer with them to help think of words. Then have one volunteer go around the circle and let kids pick out words one at a time and read them out loud. (You might want to read the words to yourself first -- let's keep this activity G-rated!) On a big sheet of paper, write down the words in the order they're read. Keep adding words one at a time until you're done -- and you have your poem! The sillier the words are, the more fun the poem. Read it out loud many times, putting emphases on different words, and ask the kids if they think the poem makes any "sense." 

An example of found poetry.

"Found" poetry

Bring in pages from newspapers, magazines and old books (make sure the content is kid-appropriate) and pass them out. Make a found poem by going through the page and circling some of the words, and crossing out others, making a poem out of the words that have been circled. You can set patterns for the kids to work with (circle every third word on your page, every fifth word, every seventh word) and see what they get, or just let 'em go and pick the words they like. Have everybody read his or her found poem aloud at the end.

Making stories out of pictures

Have kids partner up. Both kids in a pair draw a picture and then trade.  Then each kid writes a short story about what's going on in their partner's picture. This activity works best with older kids, kids who feel comfortable writing down their words (confidence and excitement are actually more important than writing ability, but they do basically need to be able to write). After each kid has written a story about his or her partner's picture, have the partners share their stories. What did the artist mean to have going on in the picture? What did the author interpret? If there's time, everybody can share with the group as a whole, but they might be shyer about sharing their personal work than a found poem.

Remember that the key to these kinds of activities is to keep it from being anything like school! Encourage silliness -- and if you get any great results from any of these activities, be sure to send them our way so we can share them!

Post by The Reading Connection intern Anna McCormally.

To receive credit for this online training, please fill out the form here.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Norm-proofing your Read-Aloud: gender in children's books

It's important to remember that even when it seems like kids are squirmy and fidgeting, they are absorbing on a subconscious level the things that are going on around them. Unfortunately this doesn't mean that they can learn the multiplication tables by osmosis; it does mean, however, that we have to be careful about the social messages we send with the words, actions, and texts we share with them.

Luckily we've reached a day and age where we recognize sexism in many of its most blatant forms. Most people of any gender can tell you why it's important that books about careers show both boys and girls as both teachers and doctors, presidents and stay-at-home parents. The bad news is that sometimes the progress that we have made makes it harder to see where we still need to make progress.

There are a few methods of combating stereotypically restrictive "gender norms" in books. One familiar method involves celebrating young women as the strong protagonists of their own stories. The shelves are full of stories where girls save (or outsmart!) boys, retellings of fairy-tales that cast princesses as their own savior, Hermione-esque girls who know that looks are not nearly as important as intellect.

Cimorene would
make Betty Friedan proud...
...Bella is another story.
Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted or Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing with Dragons are both "princess" stories with girls who take control of their own destiny, and Annie Barrows' Ivy and Bean are certainly a force to be reckoned with. These are definitely books to point our girls towards as they get older and start to read on their own--but a female protagonist does not necessarily equal a positive message about gender! After all, this is the Twilight generation, and Bella Swan simply doesn't hold up under critical scrutiny. So be aware of what you're giving out, and remember that the lessons taught to us by media in any form are the hardest to unlearn.

There are books that show boys in non-traditional roles as well--check out Sport in Harriet the Spy and as the star of the sequel, Sport. In Leonardo the Terrible Monster author Mo Willems champions sensitivity and friendship over fierceness, and in Max by Rachel Isadora a young boy learns to have a great time practicing ballet!

For younger children, the important thing to look for in books are characters who are not defined by their gender--that is, characters who are vibrant and distinctive and creative and also just happen to be boys or girls. This is the case in many picture books these days. It doesn't matter if Anna Dewdney's Little Llama is a boy llama or a girl llama; the important thing is that Little Llama can't sleep!

When choosing books for a Read-Aloud, be wary of any book where gender is a defining characteristic of a character.

When it comes to the give-away book box, directing girls to only books about girls and boys only books about boys needlessly limits their options. Of course, if a little girl only wants to read books about female fairies and a little boy only wants to read books about male truck drivers, then it's better for them to read only those things than not at all--but TRC is all about forming healthy reading habits, so why not try to help kids form healthy attitudes about gender too by encouraging broader book choices?  We’ll provide books with interesting, caring and independent characters and you can do the rest!

Post by The Reading Connection intern Anna McCormally.

To receive credit for this online training, please fill out the form here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Silence is dangerous: TRC volunteers learn about reporting suspected child abuse

It’s all over the news, and it should be. Children are abused in our communities every day. According to Childhelp, child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education. Every year, more than three million reports of child abuse are made involving some six million children. Most children know their abusers. Every day, five children in the U.S. die as a result of abuse and neglect. For the millions who survive it, the lasting impact of abuse haunts its victims for the rest of their lives.

And yet, we hear stories about folks who suspected abuse but didn’t report it. Why not? The reasons might include the following:
  • Fear that they may be mistaken and will be making a false accusation.
  • Fear that the child will suffer retaliation from the abuser.
  • Fear that the child will be summarily removed from his or her home or otherwise be victimized by the investigation process.
  • Fear of retaliation from the abuser on the reporter.
  • A strong desire NOT to get involved in another family’s issues.
  • Lack of information on what constitutes abuse and how and to whom it should be reported. 

At TRC, we work with hundreds of kids and parents every year. At some of our sites, our volunteers get to know kids over the course of several years. At our May 2012 Volunteer Seminar, Althea Simpson, from the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services, spoke with 35 of TRC’s Read-Aloud volunteers about recognizing and reporting child abuse and neglect as well as the effect that witnessing domestic violence can have on children. She discussed at length with our volunteers what happens when someone places a report and why folks are reluctant to do so.

We learned the following:

  • The definition of abuse and neglect is changing to be more comprehensive, and includes neglect as well as physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
  • Anyone, not just mandatory reporters, can report suspected abuse. In Virginia, if you desire, your name as a reporter will not be revealed to the family unless the investigation results in court proceedings.
  • Reporting suspected abuse does not automatically result in a child being removed from his or her home. In fact, while policies vary from state to state, in Virginia, an effort is made to strengthen and support families and prevent further abuse of the child once a child’s immediate safety has been assessed and addressed. 
  • Sometimes a child is removed from the home, and the family is offered support services including home visits, parenting help and counseling.
As a result of the May training, the 35 volunteers and the TRC staff members attending the session became mandatory reporters, not just at TRC Read-Alouds, but any place they might encounter suspected abuse.

As a Read-Aloud volunteer, you can help make our Read-Alouds a safe place for kids by remembering the following:
  • Observe and listen carefully to the kids.
  • Take the time to notice changes in demeanor or behavior.
  • Report any suspected abuse to site staff and appropriate social services.
    • DC Children and Family Services Agency: 202-671-SAFE
    • Virginia Child Protective Services: 800-552-7096
  • Respect a child’s right to privacy. Discuss concerns only with site staff and appropriate social service agencies.
  • Model respectful, kind and appropriate behavior with the children, staff, parents and other volunteers.
If you were one of the 35 volunteers who attended the training, share what you learned with your fellow volunteers. If you did not attend the training, check out Childhelp’s website for information about how to recognize and report suspected abuse. 

To receive credit for this online training, please fill out the form here.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Read-Alouds for the older crowd: how to keep tweens engaged

Occasionally you might find yourself at a Read-Aloud mainly populated by kids who aren't as interested in hearing picture books read out loud. The problem isn't that they're too old for Read-Alouds; many kids enjoy being read to until thirteen or fourteen (and we know some adults who like to be read to, as well!). The problem is the book!

By the time kids are old enough to read on their own, they might be able to read the text of a picture book in their heads faster than you can read it out loud to them. This can be frustrating and, frankly, boring for an older kid who's moving on to bigger and better reading materials, even if the pictures are interesting. 

Parents can solve this problem by reading ten or twenty minutes from a chapter book every day until the story is finished, but it's harder to do that in a Read-Aloud situation. In an article on, author Rob Reid gives a suggestion for how to handle having an audience with minds that are hankering for longer, more complex material than picture books. 

Ried's suggestions are aimed towards young people who "want to learn about themselves and their own place in the world." If you capture their attention with a segment from a chapter book, it might inspire them to pick up the book themselves!

See Ried's article for his segment suggestions, including selections from Ben and the Suddenly Too-Big Family by Colby Rodowsky and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.

Here are some suggestions by TRC for selections from chapter books that could be read to an older group (ages 8-11):

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

This is a book that requires very little introduction! After explaining the basic premise (keep it simple: Harry Potter and his friend Ron are at a school for wizards called Hogwarts) read from chapter ten, 'Halloween'.

Start towards the end of the chapter, with "On Halloween morning they woke to the delicious smell..." (in the American paperback addition this is near the bottom of page 170) and read to the end of the chapter. This segment is about ten pages long and works for a few reasons: it shows Hogwarts students in Charms class, really highlighting Rowling's Hogwarts universe; it shows Harry and Ron and Hermione fighting a mountain troll and then becoming friends; and it works well as a self-contained story in that it resolves -- though the audience will definitely be left wondering what happens! 

Rascal by Sterling North

In Sterling North's largely autobiographical children's novel, the eleven-year-old protagonist becomes unlikely friends with a baby raccoon. He spends a year raising his new pet, named Rascal, and the book details the adventures they have together.

There is a memorable chapter where Sterling and Rascal enter (and win!) a pie eating contest together, and this segment would make a great Read-Aloud. Begin towards the middle of the "September" section of the book, with the sentence, "The most exciting event in Brailsford Junction each September was the Irish Picnic and Horse Fair..." (around page 119, give or take given the edition) and read until the section ends with "it was a delicious victory." No kid will be able to resist the image of a raccoon helping out in a pie-eating contest!

Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary
Kids might be familiar with this title; the book is old but it was recently adapted into a film starring none other than the famous Selena Gomez. The introduction for the story is that Beezus Quimby is having trouble with her little sister, Ramona--something many kids might be able to identify with! 

In this short selection, Beezus is having a hard time on her birthday. Start at the beginning of chapter six, page 131 in our edition (pictured), with the very first sentence: "When Beezus came home from school on the afternoon of her tenth birthday..." and read through to (on our page 144) Aunt Beatrice's line: "What's an aunt for if she can't come to the rescue with a birthday cake once in a while?" The section ends on a positive note after ten pages of birthday cake drama. And what kid (or adult!) doesn't feel horrified at the idea of a ruined birthday cake? Everyone will enjoy watching Ramona's cake-antics--especially since Beezus comes out on top in the end with a wonderful birthday.

 The Enormous Crocodile, Esio Trot and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, all by Roald Dahl.

These novels are short enough that you could conceivably read  the entirety of one in a Read-Aloud. They all feature pictures, too, so they're even shorter than they look.

If you read a segment of a book, round out the Read-Aloud by having a couple copies of the book in case kids want to hear some more of the story during small-group time, and have some picture books on similar topics in case the younger end of the age range want to look at those.

If you're a TRC volunteer and decide to try this out, let us know what book you're going to read segments of; we might be able to put some of the same title in the give-away book box for kids who are eager to continue the story! They might be big enough to read it on their own, or have a parent to read to them at home. And having a really good book that's a little too hard can be a great incentive to struggle through the difficulty.

Post by The Reading Connection intern Anna McCormally.

To receive credit for this online training, please fill out the form here.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Author Profile: Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Laura Vaccaro Seeger, author and illustrator
of The Hidden AlphabetFirst the Egg,
Dog and Bear, and more.
This week we'll take a minute to appreciate a treasure of the children's book world: the award-winning Laura Vaccaro Seeger, whose twelve artfully conceptual books have captivated children since 2001. Seeger
has won many awards and recognitions, including the Caldecott Honor.

Seeger's books together would make a fantastic Read-Aloud as a set. Spanning a variety of topics that will capture the imaginations of children with different interests, Seeger's books are tied together by her distinctive artistic style: vibrant colors and simple images combined with flap-ups and pop-outs that can be counted on to go in a direction the reader does not expect. 

The Work of Laura Vaccaro Seeger

"Less is more" works like magic when it comes to the text in Seeger's books. Through minimalist dialogue and open-ended premises she creates books that invite the reader to imagine and create themselves. 

For example, in What If?, a book created with only six different words, readers themselves are prompted to answer the question when three seals have to decide how to share one ball among themselves. Different scenarios play out in the pictures but the simple text leaves a lot to the imagination--and the beautiful, bright paintings that accompany the text are sure to keep young imaginations awake!

ln Black? White! Day? Night!: A Book of Oppositesthe brilliance of Seeger's illustrations really comes out. In this book, which has pairs of "opposite" words as its only text, the pictures for one concept are incorporated into the picture for its opposite. A flea becomes the tiny eye of an elephant; a dolphin that appears to be leaping over waves on one page is revealed to be swimming under them with the lift of a flap. 

In an interview, Seeger explained that she is inspired by simple threads of concept that can be tugged and pulled until they give way to books:

"In Lemons Are Not Red it was the concept of 'not' that intrigued me the most. What else is not red? What is never red? What else IS red? I always imagine the conversations that might evolve based on the words and pictures in my books, and I try to add something that will encourage such discussion."

This, of course, is heaven-made for a Read-Aloud, where kids are bound to have something to say. For all their textual simplicity, the concepts behind Seeger's books are so complex that it's worth spending ten or twenty minutes on one story with a young child and taking time to talk as much as you and your reader want about each of the pictures. Ask questions like the ones Seeger herself posed, particularly: what else? and everything it implies.

To get a better idea of how the books work, mechanically, check out this book trailer for The Hidden Alphabet:

Seeger says that she knew she wanted to write and paint children's books from a very young age; she recalled being inspired by her grandmother's rendition of The Little Engine That Could.

Now there's something to think about--who knows what book you'll read today that will end up as inspiration for the next generation of children's literature?

For more information about Laura Vaccaro Seeger and complete list of her work, visit her website

To receive credit for this online training, please fill out the form here.