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, April 30, 2012

Read-Aloud Feature: Wild Animals

Team D at the Berkeley recently organized a “Wild Animal” themed Read-Aloud. All the kids present -- a wide range of ages -- had a blast reading animal books, making animal masks and getting their faces painted like their favorite animals.

  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
    • This old favorite got everyone in the mood for the evening’s theme. 
  • In the Wild by David Elliott
    • Lovely color woodblock illustrations accompany short poems for each animal.
  • Snarlyhissopus by Alan MacDonald
    • In this jungle version of the game “telephone,” a hippopotamus becomes a scary “Snarlyhissopus” in the wild imaginations of the other animals.
  • Elephants Can Paint Too! by Katya Arnold
    • Based on the author’s real-life experience teaching elephants in Thailand to paint, this book also presents fun facts (for example, elephants have 150,000 muscles in their trunks). 

The team prepared two activities to follow the Read-Aloud: face painting and mask making. Two volunteers began the face painting. While two children had their faces painted, the other volunteers helped the kids who were waiting their turns to create animal masks using crayons, markers and paper plates. Pictures from the books provided inspiration.

The team came prepared with the following supplies for face painting:
  • A pre-packaged set of face paints, which also included makeup pencils, sparkles and fake blood.
  • Sponges and paper towels. To keep things hygienic, separate sponges were used for each child. Brushes might be easier, but they need to be cleaned frequently.
  • Library books on face painting and color printouts of different ideas from the internet.

The volunteers tried to provide the kids with a limited number of options for animal faces. Although the theme was wild animals, other types of (easy) animals were encouraged. 

In the end the menagerie included a tiger, a couple of butterflies, three snakes, some rabbits, and a spider. One young man who requested a Spider-Man face agreed to be transformed into a puppy instead.

Recommendations for a face painting activity:
  • Ask permission of the site staff beforehand to make sure the activity is acceptable.  
  • Face painting can be time-consuming, especially with non-professional artists. Make sure you have a large volunteer team for this activity. Ask for additional volunteers from other teams to help out if needed.
  • Get photo releases for the kids beforehand and bring a camera. Make sure there is enough time for a photo session at the end. 

The kids loved getting their faces painted and liked the extra one-on-one attention from the volunteers.

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

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dialogic Reading

How can a Read-Aloud be more than a Read-Aloud?

interrupting chicken coverWhen it is a conversation. Reading books aloud to kids accomplishes several goals. It provides pleasure, builds vocabulary, and exposes children to plot structure, characters and the world around them. But can it do more? Why, yes!

If, instead of reading a book straight through to a group of silent children, you have a conversation with the kids about the book as you are reading it, you can accomplish so much more.

Here's an example. Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein is a powerhouse of a picture book: great illustrations, accurate portrayal of a bedtime scenario, wry humor and the perfect example of how NOT to read to a child. In the story, the little red chicken is driving her papa crazy. She interrupts him every time he tries to read her a fairy tale. And every time the little red chicken interrupts, her papa stops reading and scolds her, telling her to “try not to get so involved.”  

But involved is exactly what we want from a child listening to a story. By interrupting with her own ideas, the little red chicken is exercising her imagination, analyzing the story, predicting what happens next and making connections to her life and experiences. Having a conversation with children about a book while you are reading it to them helps them develop these crucial skills for successful reading.

Many of the children we serve experience a "conversation gap." This means they don't have as many opportunities to have in-depth conversations with adults as more affluent children and they've spent less time learning to interact and analyze on a deeper level. Discussing books with the kids as you read them provides much needed practice at these important social and thinking skills and can build reading comprehension abilities.

The fancy name for these conversations is dialogic reading. It basically means having a conversation with a child about the book you are reading together, while you are reading it. It means asking questions about the story or illustrations and then exploring the child’s answer and the story together.

What kind of questions, you ask?
  • Fill in the blank: In rhyming and repetitive books, pause at the end of a phrase and ask the child to finish it.
  • Prediction: What does the child think will happen next?
  • Who, What, When, Where, Why and How: The first four allow the child to identify elements of the story. Why and how are open-ended questions allowing her to provide her own insights and analyze the situation.
  • Connection: Can the child connect this to another book or a life experience?
Reading a story to a child this way is more fun for the child and more fun for the reader. By asking questions--and listening and responding to answers--you actively involve the child in the story, and you gain insights into her thoughts and imagination while building her reading comprehension and motivation.

Reading Rockets has a great article covering in more detail the what, why and how of dialogic reading. And here's a video showing how it's done.

So the next time you read aloud to a group of TRC kids, plan on lots of interruptions, conversation and fun.

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

Monday, April 16, 2012

Say it again: the benefits of repetition

Anyone who has worked with young children has probably experienced firsthand the ability of kids to do the same thing over and over...and over...and over again. For hours. But while this may be frustrating for older minds that like to finish one thing and move on to the next, remind yourself that repetition is a valuable teaching tool for young kids. By repeating phrases or stories over and over again, kids learn about patterns and prediction, both of which are valuable skills when learning to read.

Rhyme and repetition, which stick naturally in a reader's brain, do something incredible: they empower the reader. For a child learning to read and to appreciate books, being able to guess what comes next is a wonderful feeling.

A classic example of this is the story of Chicken Little, who thought the sky was falling and ran around telling everyone he met. The phrase, "the sky is falling!" is repeated throughout the story--giving readers a chance to shout it out and a reason to build up the level of excitement over the course of the book! This story also gives a great example of how rhyming can function to make a story sillier and more entertaining: traditionally, the characters Chicken Little meets in the story have names like Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, Ducky Lucky and Foxy Woxy. 

Many folktales share these characteristics along with their repetitive structures. Some other great examples of folktales with repetitive structures and refrains are The Little Red Hen, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Three Little Pigs.

Another great use of structural repetition can be found in cumulative tales. These stories follow the structure of There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. On each consecutive page, another element is added to the story and the whole group is reviewed in the order they were added. Then, at the climax, one last addition joins the group which tips the balance and it all unravels. Luckily for the young reader, the group comes apart in the same order it got put together, so she'll know what's coming next, which is a great feeling.

Another great story with repeated phrases is The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Think:

"And he was..."
"Still hungry! How did he get so hungry?"

You can use repetition in activities, as well--one fun game is, "I'm going on a picnic and I'm bringing..." where you go around in a circle and each child has to remember all the things that were added to the picnic basket and then add something of his or her own. This game can be played with food, but there are endless variations, and you can split the kids in to groups so that the circle doesn't get too big, making it a little easier for younger children. 

Rhyme often occurs side-by-side with repetition--and both are great tools for developing memory skills--but rhyming poetry or songs are just as fun on their own.  Prepare for a Read-Aloud that focuses on repetition or rhyme with a round of "Boom Chicka Boom":

I said a boom chicka boom (echo)
I said a boom chicka boom (echo)
I said a boom chicka rocka chicka rocka chicka boom (echo)
Uh huh (echo)

Oh yeah (echo)
One more time (echo)
___________ style (echo) 

Fill in the blank with the style the next round will be in: whispering, opera, with British accents--anything you want.  And you never know, by the end, the kids could be begging to do it all over again.

Post by The Reading Connection intern Anna McCormally.

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

Monday, April 9, 2012

Parts of a Book: The Importance of Book Mechanics

While Read-Alouds are about getting kids excited for the stories inside books and giving them information on all their favorite subjects, there's another part that we talk about less frequently: helping kids learn about books in general.

Children who grow up in families where books aren't an integral part of daily life may not be as familiar with the parts of a book as kids who use books every day. Helping kids at Read-Alouds get comfortable with the way books are organized is just as important as inspiring them to read on their own or teaching them how to sound out words. It's part of the mechanics of reading. 

In Read-Alouds, take time to emphasize the parts of a book.

How to hold a book
If you're not too familiar with books, you might not know how to hold one--it's important to be gentle and not pull too hard on the pages or bend the spine. This you can show by example, and when kids are picking out books to take home, gently correct a child who is being too rough with it. Hold the book, smooth the cover, and say, "This looks like a great book! What a beautiful cover. Remember to treat it nicely." Observers will learn from your example.

The cover and title page
When you first bring out a story, take a minute to show the cover to the audience. Ask what they can guess about the story from the front of the book. Who will the characters be? What does the title tell us? Point out where the author's name is and read it out loud. Despite the old saying about not judging a book by its cover, learning to discern what a book is about from its cover is an important skill.

What can we take from the cover of Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories? Well, we know it's by Dr. Seuss. Ask your audience what they know from experience about Dr. Seuss books. (There will probably be silly words and rhymes.) Point out the picture of the turtles all stacked up--take a minute to talk about what that is all about!

Turn to the title page--note how the title and author's names are printed again. This is true of every book!

Table of contents and chapter list
When you have a reader who is just moving up to longer books--or if you're going to read part of one to a group--take a minute to show off the table of contents or the chapter list. Some nonfiction books will have a table of contents that shows where different sections begin and end. Show the kids how to find which part you want to read, and the corresponding page number. 

Explain how not every book has to be read from the first page to the last page--the table of contents lets you skip around to what you want to read. If it's a nonfiction book and you're working one-on-one with a child, let him look through the table of contents and pick which section he wants you to read. 

The first page of Shel Silverstein's Everything On It index.
Like the table of contents, knowing how to use an index is an important reading skill. Fast-forward a few years and the kids you're reading to will be asked to do a research project in school. The point of using an index is to give the kids practice finding relevant information inside books. You can give your readers a head start by helping them understand the concept of an index. It sounds like such a little thing, but the difference between knowing what an index is and how it's used and not knowing will make a big difference!

Note to your readers that the index is located at the end of the book, whereas the table of contents is at the front, and that the index works alphabetically (talk for a minute about what that means) while the table of contents lists things in the order they appear in the book.

Understanding how a book works is just as important as knowing how to read one. Don't devote an entire Read-Aloud to talking about how indexes work or what information is available on the title page--that's what school is for, and Read-Alouds are primarily about having fun with reading. But, you can integrate this kind of important information about book mechanics into every Read-Aloud you do. Even though it may not seem like it, doing so can help give readers a big advantage when it's time to use books in the rest of their lives. 

Post by The Reading Connection intern Anna McCormally.

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

Monday, April 2, 2012

Give-Away Book Cheat Sheet

Sometimes the kids at a Read-Aloud need your help to pick a great book to take home with them. If you're not regularly immersed in the world of kids' reading materials, you may need some help knowing how to help kids find books they'll like. Here's a primer to get you started.

Early Readers
These books are geared for kids who are getting their feet under them in reading on their own. Early readers are leveled, where level one is made up of very simple sentences and level four is basically a very short chapter book. They are almost always the same size, a tad larger than a normal novel, but very thin. Many titles are nonfiction or based on popular movies, such as Star Wars and Cars.

Graphic Novels 
Graphic novels are a great choice for "reluctant readers" who are intimidated by lots of words on a page. Graphic novels tell a story in comic book style. Among the graphic novel series that kids love these days are Babymouse (kids often consider it a series for girls), Lunch Lady (see below), Squish and Bone (more advanced).

Illustrated Chapter Books
  • Geronimo (and Thea) Stilton books combine text, cartoon-like drawings and words in playful type.
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are written to look like a diary and they mix in stick-figure drawings along with the text. There are now lots of spin-offs that have text written in a similar manner.
  • Books in the Captain Underpants series are a mix of graphic novel and fiction writing and are fast-paced and silly.

Popular Chapter Book Series
  • Judy Moody & Stink: Judy is a fun-loving and energetic third-grader. She and her brother, Stink, have all sorts of adventures. 
  • Junie B. Jones: She has a tendency to get into sticky situations in both kindergarten and first grade.
  • Magic Tree House: Jack and Annie travel through time on their adventures, landing in a different time period in each story.
  • Goosebumps: Scary stories, popular with 9- to 11-year-olds.
  • American Girl: Girls who lived in various times throughout American history share their stories.

When helping a child pick a book, some key tips include the following:

  • Browse the selection before the children start picking books so you know what is available. 
  • Put out a variety of titles from each book type, displaying the covers. The aim is to give the kids choices, but not to overwhelm them.
  • If a child isn't finding anything she wants to read, ask what kind of topics she likes (sports, animals, fairies, science, fantasy, etc.) and use that as your guide.
  • Use the book cover as your guide about subject matter.
  • Read the description on the back of the book.
  • Flip through the book to gauge text size and line spacing.
  • Listen to what the kids get excited about so you'll know what's popular.
  • Write down titles they're searching for and contact the TRC office to see if those books can be obtained.

If a child gets excited about a book, let him have it, no matter the difficulty level. Even if it's at a more advanced level than you assume they can currently read, they'll get to it eventually. Kids might also feel a special attachment to a book or series they read at a younger stage in their lives.

If you're excited about the book options, the kids will follow your lead. Remember that if a child asks for a specific book, write down the book title and the child's name and contact the TRC office to see if we have it or can get it. For more tips on helping kids pick books check out this blog post from last year.

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