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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Happy Birthday, Brown Bear!

This September, a special 50th anniversary edition of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle finds its way to bookstores. In anticipation of a year-long celebration of the 1967 publication of this beloved picture book, Macmillan publishers have produced special editions and planned a year of events. They even created a dedicated website for the Brown Bear celebrations to come.

Eric Carle celebrating 50 years of  Brown Bear
at the Eric Carle museum. Photo by Jim Gipe.

What makes a picture book worthy of all this hoopla? This classic picture book appeals as much to kids today as it did 50 years ago, and has introduced millions of kids to the joy of reading. It is often the first book with Eric Carle’s distinctive illustrations that kids encounter.

Courtney Kissell, TRC's executive director, shares Brown Bear with kids at ARHA.

At The Reading Connection, Brown Bear is our go-to book, whether our topic is the importance of rhyme and repetition or the appeal of illustrations.

We love Brown Bear’s
  • Vibrant, cut-paper collage illustrations,
  • Rhyming, rhythmic, repeating text that is fun to chant,
  • Colors and animals,
  • Just-right length and
  • Surprise ending.
These qualities build reading skills. Colorful illustrations and familiar animals hold kids' interest, while galloping rhyme and repetition and frequent chances to predict what comes next teach phonemic awareness and build comprehension.

We asked Angus Killick, Vice President at Macmillan Publishing Group, what he thinks gives Brown Bear it's enduring appeal.
It's the perfect picture book! Bill Martin, Jr.'s skill was bold rhythmic text and word repetition. Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? is a fine example of his genius in that respect. It is also a wonderful example of the drama of prediction and that's why children who are not yet reading can appreciate the predictive nature of the text and participate in the many readings. Martin's text, paired with Carle's gorgeous illustrations featuring impressionist portrayals of colorful and playful animals ('blue horse', 'purple cat' anyone?), make for nothing more than a perfect picture book to read aloud and share with a small child over and over again.

Eric Carle and Bill Martin Jr.  in 1992

Twenty-five years after Martin and Carle created Brown Bear, they collaborated again to create Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? This time, zoo animals make a ruckus, inviting kids to bellow, flute and snort along with the story.

Next came Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? This time, 10 years after Polar Bear, Martin and Carle featured endangered species strutting, soaring and strolling through the pages, daring kids to romp along.

Finally, Martin and Carle created Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See? Their last collaboration, published in 2007, follows a baby bear as he looks for his mother among animals from North America. As with its predecessors, Baby Bear’s simple rhyming text delights children and invites them to chant and move along with the story.

"All together, the four Bear books have sold 50 million copies in the U.S., including 14 million of Brown Bear,” according to Kare Rauquist in the August 10, 2016 edition of Publisher’s Weekly. The numbers don't lie. Brown Bear and his relatives have enchanted millions of kids, and at 50, they are still going strong. These books are fun to read and to listen to and a delight to look at, making learning to read a pleasure.

Move over, Cat in the Hat. The Bears are coming for you!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Summer Superheroes: We Are Readers 2016

Just a few weeks ago, The Reading Connection (TRC) finished its We Are Readers summer reading program at five participating sites. I am happy to report that it was both super fun and successful! TRC augments its regular Read-Aloud schedule every summer to include two days of reading, as opposed to the normal one day per week during the school year. Engaging kids in reading aloud and related activities is important because they are at risk of losing reading skills during the out-of-school months. These activities are especially important for the disadvantaged, at-risk kids that TRC serves.

Here’s a quick look at the success We Are Readers saw this summer. 

We Are Readers Kits 

We provided each volunteer team a kit for its Read-Aloud that contained books, an activity and a snack, chosen specially for the day’s theme. Every Read-Aloud at every site had a designated bag, which provided support to both summer-only volunteers and regular Read-Aloud volunteers.

Superhero Theme

All the We Are Readers Read-Alouds this summer revolved around a unified theme: superheroes! We kicked off the first week with the subtheme “Be your own superhero.” Volunteers encouraged the kids to reflect and consider what their superpowers are because not all superheroes have the same powers.

We reinforced the kids' superhero identities (and tracked attendance) by asking the kids to create a superhero poster that included their superhero name, picture and a description of their super-selves and powers. The kids placed a sticker on the corresponding date on the poster to track their attendance. We also gave every child a charm necklace for which they received a new charm every day they were present.The kids enjoyed both the posters and the necklaces. The Polaroid "instant cameras" used to take their pictures intrigued them, too!

After working through the concept of “be your own superhero,” we introduced kids to more superheroes and super things during weeks two through six: superheroes of the community, superheroes of the animal kingdom, super-foods, super-STEM and super-authors.

Because We Are Readers lasts six weeks and we used six subthemes, we spent a week (two Read-Alouds) exploring each theme. This is twice as much time as kids usually spend exploring a theme in our program, and we found that the kids were very engaged, asking questions and discussing the new ideas presented in the Read-Alouds.  

For example, I led a Read-Aloud about super-foods during the third week of We Are Readers at Sullivan House. There are tons of interesting books about food, of course, like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Stone Soup, which we took advantage of before our activity.  A local bakery, Village Sweet, provided “super-food muffins” (made with zucchini, carrot and currants) for the kids to try, and they loved them! Trying the muffins and other super-foods provided by our volunteers sparked a conversation about which foods they had and had not tried, and they started to make a game of it.

Since the kids expressed an interest in discussing all the foods they knew, we stopped and read Eating the Alphabet together, which is basically about a ton of fruits and vegetables from A to Z. They really enjoyed thinking of the fruits and vegetables not shown in the book, and it helped them learn a lot about each other’s cultures and backgrounds through food.  

Using a more unified theme structure this year worked exceptionally well. It allowed the kids to get more immersed in the subject matter than in previous years, when the themes rotated more quickly and were less woven into the overall structure. For instance, connecting the subtheme of super-foods to the overall theme of being your own superhero made it easier for the kids to establish a good background knowledge of healthy foods and how they can help kids' development into super-people. 

Special Guests 
To help drive home the ideas from our theme, we invited several special guests to speak during We Are Readers. One set of special guests was Zach and Bentley (pictured on the right), who visited the kids at ARHA during the “superheroes of the animal kingdom” week. From the age of five, Zach has suffered from serious seizures that can be harmful to his health. To help manage the seizures, Zach got a service dog, Bentley, who can help alert Zach when he’s about to experience a seizure. Zach and his mom, Mary, were kind enough to bring Bentley to ARHA and talk to the kids about service animals. Bentley was kind enough to let everyone pet him! 

The kids at New Hope Housing got a special visit from Mr. Berman, a chemist, during super-STEM week. He taught the kids about how light and light waves work, and they thought it was super cool – as you can see. 

Firefighter Mike Kelly, a superhero of the community from the Bethesda Fire Department, was kind enough to visit our kids at Greentree Shelter, showing them his firefighting gear and letting the kids try it on. Zookeeper Becky Malinsky from the National Zoo visited our kids at Sullivan House to talk to them about superheroes of the animal kingdom. The Reading Connection staff, volunteers and kids really appreciate all of our special guests! 

We Are Readers made an impact in the lives of 114 children and provided them with over 500 books this summer, and we couldn’t have done it without our many wonderful volunteers – thank you! We’d also like to thank the “behind the scenes” volunteers who provided materials for various activities, such as the superhero cape materials provided by Susan Kelly for the kids at New Hope Housing. 

This post was written by Zach Griffin, TRC's AmeriCorps VISTA dedicated to the We Are Readers Program. 

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.