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, June 20, 2016

Reading and Brain Development

Have you ever wondered what is going on inside children's heads when they are reading?  Or when they are learning to read? Jennifer Gray, Ph.D., assistant professor of education at Marymount University, discussed reading and brain development at the most recent TRC volunteer seminar on May 18. 

Many parts of the brain are involved in reading, requiring rapid-fire coordination of centers involving speech, hearing, vision, language, concentration, motor control, facial recognition and coordination.  This video illustrates how the brain works to create the miracle of reading.

How does the human brain development affect reading ability? Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child has identified three core concepts in brain development.

Experiences build brain architecture. 

The experience of reading and being read to builds and strengthens synapses and creates connections across different parts of the brain. Life experiences also build those connections. When we include hands-on activities at a Read-Aloud to build enthusiasm and background knowledge, we're also building brains.

Video #1 from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University explains how life experiences stimulate brain development, allowing different parts of the brain to communicate more easily.

At our training, Dr. Gray suggested the following hands-on activities to provide book-related experiences: 

  • Book Boxes containing items related to the story. Show them 
    A book box for Zin! Zin!
    Zin! A Violin contains items
    related to playing a
    violin like a violin string,
     rosin and sheet music.
    one by one to help the kids guess what the story is about.
  • Sensory bins, buckets or bags contain items related to a story. Let the kids touch these items, in covered containers so they can't see them, and guess what they are and how they relate to the story.
  • Scent bottles engage the sense of smell. Place items with strong fragrances in a closed bottle. Let kids smell the open bottle and guess what the smell is and how it relates to the story.
  • Finger plays
  • Manipulatives are anything related to the story that a child can hold. If you are reading a book about cooking, give the kids spoons, measuring cups and whisks to hold. 
  • Physically acting out concepts in a story

Hands-on activities work well at Read-Alouds because they can be completed quickly, they are aimed at developing conceptual knowledge, and they provide kids with the chance to use new vocabulary and to talk with the other kids.

"Serve-and-return" shapes brain circuitry. 
The brain develops through interaction. When a baby coos and a caregiver smiles and answers the baby, the baby's brain circuitry is strengthened. When you ask a child a question, listen to his answer and respond, you are strengthening connections in his brain. Video #2 on the Center on the Developing Child website explains how this process works for literacy development.

Dr. Gray suggested the following "serve-and-return" activities to support healthy reading brain development:
  • Model making predictions before and during reading and encourage kids to do so.
  • Choose texts that employ "call-and-response" or other features that encourage participation.
  • Ask questions before, during and after reading and give kids opportunities to “turn and talk” with peers. Allow kids to BOTH ask and answer questions.
  • Encourage the kids to use props, manipulatives and physical responses like clapping or snapping during reading.

Toxic stress derails healthy brain development.
When a child experiences prolonged exposure to unrelenting stress, such as extreme poverty or neglect, her body's stress management system becomes overtaxed. Without relief, eventually her body will remain in a state of high alert, even when no threat is apparent. This constant flood of adrenaline and other hormones can weaken the architecture of the developing brain, affecting learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. Video #3 shows how toxic stress affects the brain.

One of the areas of development significantly affected by toxic stress is executive function -- a child's ability to regulate his responses to situations and behavior and to make decisions. This video explores executive function in kids. Kids whose executive function has been affected by toxic stress may demonstrate problems with acting out, impulse control or following directions.

When working with at-risk kids, it is useful to remember that their behavior may reflect the impact of toxic stress on their brain and executive function development. To compensate, you can include lots of opportunities for physical engagement, be consistent and give simple one- or two-step directions.  These will help support their ability to participate fully in the Read-Aloud.

The experiences and conversations kids have shape their brains and directly affect their reading development. By choosing to include hands-on experiences and conversation in your Read-Aloud, you are building kids' brains and positive associations with books and reading.

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

Monday, June 6, 2016

Reading aloud: Take it outside

With summer days on their way and the anticipation of beautiful weather, kids should be clamoring to spend time outdoors. Yet kids spend less time outside each day than inmates in maximum security prisons. Prisoners get 2 hours of outdoor time, whereas a recent survey of 12,000 parents who have children aged five to 12, found that one-third of kids spend fewer than 30 minutes outside each day.

The list of benefits for kids who spend time playing outdoors is impressive. Playing outside

Strengthens the immune system
Provides opportunities to practice solving problems
Builds language skills and vocabulary
Teaches respect and empathy
Contributes to fitness, overall health and fewer behavioral problems.

What can you do to get kids outside? Fortunately, the book is an enticing portable technology that can go almost anywhere! Here's a selection of titles and ideas that will help you take reading outside.

Go on a bear hunt 
Take advantage of the beautifully illustrated call-and-response title We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, and get physical outside as kids search for a bear in the great outdoors. No cave in sight? Have them use their imagination to “discover” grass, a river, mud, a cave, etc. on their adventure. 

Have a wild rumpus
When Max cried, “Let the wild rumpus start!” he and the wild things begin dancing wildly.  Take your wild things outside to read Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and encourage kids to respond to the words and pictures with their own expressive movements.  

Pitch a tent with Amelia Bedelia
Pitching a tent isn’t like pitching a baseball, but both are fun to do outside. Warm kids up with a few baseball tosses, read aloud Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping by Peggy Parish, illustrated by Lynn Sweat, and then pitch a tent together.

Punt with Mr. Gumpy
Turn you outdoor setting into a riverbank and take a boat ride with Mr. Gumpy. Read aloud Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham, then designate spots along your riverbank where the animals decide to hop on board. Reread the book with everyone taking a part to act out as the boat tips and everyone falls into the water.

Play outside with Elephant and Piggie
The weather keeps changing Elephant and Piggie’s plans to plan outside in Are You Ready to Play Outside? by Mo Willems. Read this title aloud outside then have kids act out how they would change their outdoor play with changes in the weather. Call out “Rain!” “Wind!” “Snow!” etc., and see what interesting pantomime kids come up with.

Dig a hole with Sam & Dave 
There is something enormously satisfying about digging a hole. Read Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen, and pass out the shovels! If there’s no digging spot available to you (please check before digging anywhere), set up a digging station or two in wastebaskets or other large containers filled with sand or soil. You can even hide a few treasures so kids can discover something spectacular! 

There are, of course, also many excellent nonfiction titles to share about the great outdoors, but try first to build wonder and connection before filling in too many facts about nature. Story can do a lot to inspire kids to engage with the natural world — even your own personal stories about a hike you took, a bird’s next you found, or a wonderful wet walk in the warm rain can spark a connection and kids’ imagination. 

But the best thing to do is to take kids outside to observe budding flowers, follow an ant’s trail or turn over rocks and let them find their own nature stories.

Guest blog post by Belle of the Book, Rachael Walker.

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