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.

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