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, August 22, 2016

What's Your Story? Helping kids become storytellers

Reading books with kids is a good idea for so many reasons. Years of research show that reading aloud with kids daily is one of the most important activities that contributes to their reading success. Listening to books read aloud motivates kids and gives them models for fluency, boosts their comprehension, builds their vocabulary and background knowledge, and gives them the opportunity to wonder, ponder, and question ideas they might otherwise never encounter. But what about telling stories from life -- yours or theirs, past or present?

Image result for what's your story

Everyone has stories to share. It is important to help kids tell their own stories and to encourage parents to share their own family stories with their children. Hearing and telling stories about their family helps kids learn from the experiences of those closest to them and helps them better understand who they are and where they come from. These are the stories that kids will hold onto for a lifetime.

But kids often don’t know where to start when telling a story. Whether you are at a Read-Aloud or with kids in your own life, you can help them when you offer the following:

Share your own stories. Start with a book that has a theme everyone can relate to, such as Ally-saurus and the First Day of School by Richard Torrey or First Grade Jitters by Robert Quackenbush. Then tell a tale from your own back-to-school experiences. Get kids to help you compare your experience with the characters in the book, and then invite kids to share their own school stories.

Using objects to start kids on the road to storytelling. Choice Literacy has great ideas about kids using important objects to inspire personal narrative stories. Having something concrete to explain and describe creates purpose and direction for creating a story. If a kid struggles to get past the simple description of his object, ask him to talk about how he got it, who he was with and how he felt , in order to get him going.

One way to provide three-dimensional objects for the kids is to bring in a storytelling sack. To make a storytelling sack, get a fabric drawstring bag or a pillowcase. Fill the sack with small, interesting items — toy animals, LEGO figures, toy tools, craft items and other random objects. To start the storytelling, unpack the sack! 

Each person takes a turn removing one object at a time. The first person uses the object to start a story. As each kid removes an object, she uses it as her prompt to add to the story. Practicing making up and telling stories about random objects allows kids to develop their skills. You can also encourage kids to make their own sacks filled with personal items and then take turns telling stories that use some or all of the items in their sacks.  

When we hear each other’s stories, we can't help but care about each other. Show kids you care! Make time for conversations in which you show real interest in what kids are saying and ask substantive questions that lead to kids to share their stories and experiences. Talk about yourself and help them feel safe to share their own stories, happy or sad. The stories they have for you are a gift just waiting to be heard.

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

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

Monday, August 8, 2016

Parental Engagement in TRC Programs

Recently, The Reading Connection (TRC) had the opportunity to work with graduate students in a research methods class at Marymount University (Arlington, Va.) on a project to identify ways to strengthen our efforts to involve the parents of kids who participate in our programs. 

What are we doing now? Currently, three of our programs help parents support their child's literacy development.

Our Read-Aloud program, conducted for kids ages four and up, is provided by volunteers who visit housing sites weekly to read aloud with kids, talk, conduct activities and help kids choose a new book to keep. Parents are welcome to attend with their child, but more often, kids come on their own and take a new book home with them. By providing books for kids to read at home, TRC helps parents create a home environment that supports reading.

In the Book Club, parents help their children choose books each month and receive tips on how to share those books with their kids when the books arrive in their monthly package. In addition, parents receive quarterly information about child and literacy development and information about available resources. The Book Club is targeted at families with children ages newborn to 5 years but serves families with kids of all ages.

TRC's Reading Families Playgroups and Workshops work directly with the parents of Read-Aloud and Book Club children on literacy development. Each playgroup or workshop includes exploration of several children's books, modeling of effective book-sharing strategies, discussion and the opportunity for parents to choose free books for their children.

The Marymount students found much in the literature that validates TRC's programming, while also revealing some areas where our programs could be enhanced. Here are some of the highlights.

TRC programs support parent engagement
The research review showed areas of parental engagement that positively affect scholastic achievement, which TRC programs encourage. 

Home-based involvement  
Studies found a positive correlation between home-based parental involvement and grades and attitude toward education as well as decreased behavioral issues. Home-based involvement was also found to be the most widely used form of scholastic engagement among African American families (Wang & Sheikh-Khali, 2014 and Ganotice & King, 2014).

TRC programs support home-based involvement by providing age-appropriate children's books to be read at home and by teaching parents about literacy development and book-sharing strategies. 

Academic socialization refers to parents talking with kids about school work and the importance of education as well as supporting educational goals. This type of engagement had the strongest positive relationship with academic success among adolescents. However, children of all ages benefit from this kind of parental engagement (Wang & Sheikh-Khali, 2014; Reece, Staudt, & Ogle, 
2013; Ganotice & King, 2014).

TRC’s programs (described above) help parents understand literacy development and create supportive home reading environments, which includes the crucial importance of conversation between parent and child. We encourage this conversation through the tips provided with each book from the Book Club and by providing bookmarks each week for the kids to take home from the Read-Aloud program. With a little information about the Read-Aloud theme and prompts for parents, we hope this bookmark, provided in Spanish and English, will help parents talk with their kids about their experience at the Read-Aloud and support their learning and curiosity. 

In reviewing the literature, the student researchers also found a Parent Reading Belief Inventory. This inventory demonstrated that parents’ beliefs were significantly associated with the reading practices between parent and child, along with the child’s attitude towards the book.

When socio-economic status is held constant, parental beliefs were significantly related to reading practices and child’s attitude and motivation (DeBaryshe & Binder, 1994). The higher scoring parents (those with more positive beliefs about reading) read to their children more frequently, had more books, had higher quality interactions and discussions with the child that stimulate language skills, and had a higher reported interest in books by their children. 

For TRC, this means when we can influence a parent’s beliefs about reading, we can make an impact. Reading Families Workshops and Playgroups are designed to foster parents’ positive attitudes and beliefs about reading in addition to teaching skills and providing resources.

Where socio-economic status does matter is in parents’ access to resources to promote literacy and in their teaching style with their kids (Lam, Chow-Yeung, Wong, Lau, & Tse, 2013; Vandermaas-Peeler et al., 2009). TRC's programs target at-risk families to provide free, high quality books and teach effective teaching strategies to parents. 

Barriers to participation 
The literature about parental engagement also identified several factors that prevent some families from fully engaging in school or community programs, including schedule conflicts, child care responsibilities, working or going to school, and lack of energy in parents (Lamb-Parker et al., 2001). It also identified income as affecting the various resources and opportunities available to families. Libraries were not frequently used for a variety of reasons (Sonnenschein and Schmidt, 2000).

By bringing our services to families where they live, TRC's programs remove some of these logistical barriers. 

While the Marymount literature review found research supporting TRC’s programming, it also identified areas where we can adjust our curriculum and programming with intensified focus on enhancing parental engagement. These areas include, but are not limited to, the following:
Renewed effort to encourage library use,
Strengthening parents’ understanding of literacy development to enable them to more effectively advocate for their children at school,
Explicitly encouraging conversation and shared reading activities by providing prompts and teaching an increasing variety of book-sharing techniques.

As TRC continues to grow, adding Read-Aloud and Book Club partners in the Washington, DC metro area, we also will continue to deepen and enhance our programs to better serve developing readers and their families.

For a bibliography of studies cited in this post, click here

Monday, July 25, 2016

Have a ball reading!

Our last blog post featured a Read-Aloud about being yourself. For the activity, kids and volunteers took turns answering questions about themselves based on questions from a paper cube they rolled like a die.

Volunteers found the cube with questions online.  They discovered that having the cube to roll to prompt kids to answer questions was a great tool. 

You don't need a theme-specific prop to use this idea at your Read-Aloud. You can get the kids talking with each other and moving at the same time by using a beach ball to prompt questions. You can use it at any point or at several points during your Read-Aloud. For example:

  • With the kids standing or sitting in a circle, toss a beach ball around to each kid and have them answer a question about themselves or about the Read-Aloud.

  • Before, ask a theme-related question to start the Read-Aloud and get the kids thinking about what they already know about the theme.
    • What lives in the ocean?
    • What is your favorite food?

  • During, ask questions while you are reading:
    • What will happen next?
    • Do you agree or disagree with the character's choice?
    • Does this remind you of another book you've read?

  • After, ask questions about books the books you've read:
    • What was your favorite character?
    • If you could change the ending, what would happen?
    • Why did a character make a certain choice?
    • What did you like or dislike about this story?
    • Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

  • You can also use the beach ball to get the kids to:
    • Answer questions about themselves (likes, dislikes, etc.);
    • Think up rhymes with words you provide;
    • Name things in categories related to your theme like nocturnal animals or feelings;
    • Name something they learned during the Read-Aloud.

You can use any kind of ball to do this, even a tennis ball, but a beach ball is easy to catch and store and isn't likely to break anything if it gets away from the group.

You can just ask one question at a time and throw the ball around, with each child or volunteer answering as he or she catches it, or you can use a dry-erase marker to write specific questions on your beach ball. The person catching the ball would answer the question his right thumb is on when he or she catches it.

In addition to being a way to encourage and organize conversation at your Read-Aloud, using a ball has the added benefit of integrating physical activity into the reading experience. So have a ball at your Read-Aloud and get some conversation rolling!

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

Monday, July 11, 2016

Read-Aloud Report: Encouraging Kids to Be Themselves

Volunteers on Team B at New Hope Housing recently put together a captivating Read-Aloud session with the theme “Be Yourself.” It was a follow-up to a Read-Aloud presented the previous month on the theme “Positive Self-Esteem/Self Love.”  

Inspiration for some of the book choices came from this site

We began the session by reading the book Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio. This humorous book features two dog families, a family of poodles with one boxer sibling and a family of boxers with one poodle member. The kids enjoyed the characters and the message that your family loves you just the way you are.  .

Next, we read Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown. In this story, a tiger is tired of being “proper” in the city, wearing clothes and a top hat. He becomes a troublemaker when he tries to loosen up. He gets dismissed from the city into the wilderness, where he can let go and be himself.


The colorful book, Wild About Us by Karen Beaumont, came next. This book is beautifully illustrated by Janet Stevens, and depicts all the warty differences of animals in the zoo. A Kirkus review said that “ultimately the animals conclude that they are glad for their differences. After all, wouldn’t it be a shame if everyone at the zoo — or people, too — looked exactly alike?” It was also fun to look for the hidden fly in each illustration of this book. 

Finally, we read Red: a Crayon's Story by Michael Hall. This story is told by a pencil about his friend, the crayon, who had a red label but was actually blue. The story is, of course, about being true to yourself in spite of the obstacles. As with the other books, the kids had a great conversation. They wondered why no one noticed the mislabel sooner. They showed empathy for Red and were happy when someone finally saw him for who he was. 

Other books about being yourself can be found here.

Our activity allowed the kids and volunteers to learn about each other.  We brought in a giant paper cube and all of us, adults included, rolled the cube and answered the prompts on the cube (such as “I am good at…", "Three words that describe me are…", and "I am great because…”).  This activity captured everyone’s attention. The kids were great listeners while everyone took turns sharing their responses.

In this activity, the adults served as models for the kids. We were also able to provide positive suggestions for the kids to use, based on our observations during the session or what we already knew about the kids. For example, we were able to supply such suggestions as “You are a good listener." "You are good at predicting." "You are helpful because…” As we answered the questions, we colored in a heart on the worksheet with the corresponding number from the giant cube. 

As we progressed through the questions, the kids began to come up with answers that told us a little more about each of them. The boys shared examples of their athleticism. One child helped her brother when he was at a loss for words on what made him special. She said he was funny and caring. Other kids said that they helped their friends and were kind.
Before the kids left, the volunteers slipped an award over each kid's head. The award was made of a box of Cracker Jacks with a ribbon around it and a colorful “I am SPECIAL” label attached. This was a great hit! 

Everyone enjoyed this evening! We feel it was valuable for the conversations we had as well as providing an opportunity to honor the individuality in all of us.

Guest blog post written by Patsy Quick, a volunteer on Team B at New Hope Housing.

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

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.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Author Profile: Jarrett Krosoczka

Meet Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author-superhero.

The Reading Connection is lucky to be on a first-name basis with this beloved author and illustrator. He was featured at Of Wine and Words in 2012 and, as a part of his visit, participated in a Read-Aloud. 

From his offbeat, hilarious picture books to his goofy chapter books, Krosoczka books are favorites at TRC. It's not just that his books are funny; his own personal story of considerable hardship, his characters and his books are meaningful and motivating to kids. From bed- or bath-time struggles and bad hair days to surviving the perils of student government, Jarrett's books reflect kids' experiences and foster resilience and creativity.

When Jarrett was a newly published author, a chance encounter with the lunch lady from his own elementary school sparked the Lunch Lady graphic novel series, which feature a cafeteria worker who fights evil villains and serves up justice as well as nutritious meals. Tapping into a common childhood experience and spinning it with secret crime fighting, cool gadgets and a graphic-novel format resulted in a wildly popular series.

Over time, the Lunch Lady series has grown beyond the books to include School Lunch Hero Day, recognizing the crucial role nutritious food and dedicated cafeteria staff play in nourishing growing bodies and minds. This event, held on the first Friday in May, encourages kids to thank their lunch ladies (and gentlemen) in creative ways. 

Thank you, Jarrett, for your playful insight, your terrific books that really connect with kids, the fabulous and free resources you create to get kids excited about reading, and for your support of schools, libraries and organizations like The Reading Connection. 

While the Lunch Lady series may be Jarrett's most well-known, many of his other books are favorites with TRC kids, too. Here are a few of his titles. 

Punk Farm and Punk Farm on Tour
These titles, featuring five farm animals who like to rock, are crazy good fun for reading aloud. And for singing and dancing! Download free Punk Farm music to hold a sing-along or dance party to familiar tunes with a twist, such as ”Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “The Wheels on the Van.” Be ready for plenty of encores!

Max for President
With so much focus on elections these days, reading about Max’s experience running for class president is a great way for kids to learn a little about the process and gracious ways to deal with winning, losing and working together. You can also hold an election of your own and let kids vote on a favorite book or favorite book character. 

It's Tough to Lose Your Balloon
This book is a series of vignettes that will give kids lots of ideas about how to turn everyday setbacks into opportunities. Your balloon disappears into the stratosphere, but . . . Grandma will smile when she sees it flying by her airplane window. Bad things can become good things if you change the way you look at them. The frustrating situations that are presented will resonate with all kids. After reading the first few vignettes aloud, see if kids can predict the silver linings. 

Lunch Lady series
There are 10 titles in the Lunch Lady graphic novel series, beginning with Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, which introduces our hero, her sidekick Betty, and kids Hector, Terrence and Dee. When reading this or any graphic novel aloud, create different voices for the different characters, and change or lower your voice to read narration. As you read aloud, be sure to "read" the images as well as the words, commenting on the details, and give kids a chance to point out what they see. 

Give kids a chance, too, to create their own Lunch Lady gadgets. Betty’s blueprints can help get them started!

Not enough Jarrett for you? Try these resources.

Studio JJK: Jarrett’s website is packed with activities, videos, music and more!
The JJK Blog: Jarrett’s blog is full of interesting info about his work, travels and life.
Interviews: Jarrett gives great interviews and he conducts them too on The Book Report with JJK.

And something to look forward to: Star Wars: Jedi Academy: A New Class by Jarrett J. Krosoczka will hit bookshelves on July 26th! Return to TRC's blog post about Star Wars to use it in a Read-Aloud.  

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

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