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, May 30, 2017

Flipping Your Lid: An inside peek at stress and your brain

There’s more to Spring Fever than just restlessness. If you’ve noticed kids at your Read-Aloud or at home acting more rambunctious than usual, there’s a reason. For kids, this time of year includes lots of testing; the excitement of the end of the school year; anxiety about changing grades, classes, or maybe even schools; and the unknown of the ten weeks of summer looming ahead. 

Kids are processing all of these changes, often unconsciously, while they make their way through the day. Does it seem like they have more trouble following directions or regulating their behavior? They are, because handling all of these stress factors increases the demands on their brains.

When people are stressed, their brains are managing that stress while trying to complete other tasks. Their ability to do those other tasks, like follow directions, is slowed and sometimes diminished. And the brains of people who experience chronic, or "toxic," stress suffer damage to neural connections, further impairing brain function. 

In addition, stress takes the thinking part of the brain “off-line,” and gives priority to the amygdala, the part of the brain that manages the fight, flight, or freeze reflex that keeps us safe.

Here’s a great model of what happens in your brain when you are stressed.

  • Your arm is your spinal cord.
  • Your palm is your brain stem, which regulates basic life functions like breathing, circulation, and heart rate.
  • Your thumb is the amygdala, or reptile brain. It’s the most primitive part of the brain whose purpose is survival. It regulates the fight, flight, or freeze impulse.
  • The back of your hand is the back of your brain, and your fingers are the prefrontal cortex, or “The Wise Leader.” This part of the frontal lobe is the last to develop in the human brain (so a kid’s prefrontal cortex isn’t yet fully developed), and it is responsible for making reasoned decisions and anticipating and understanding consequences.

When you are calm, all the parts of your brain are integrated and communicating (feel your fingers wrapped around your thumb and touching your palm), and your prefrontal cortex is running the show.  When you are stressed, you “flip your lid” (straighten out your fingers, leaving your thumb in your palm), and the prefrontal cortex gets upstaged by the amygdala trying to keep you safe. Communication between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain shuts down, and the amygdala calls the shots. It is in close communication with your brain stem, making your heart rate go up and sending more blood to your limbs so you can run away, but it’s not communicating with the part of your brain that helps you make reasonable decisions based on consequences.

To get your Wise Leader back in charge, you need to reduce the cognitive load on your brain and, optimally, relax and work through some of the stressors. Imagine a kid at your Read-Aloud who isn't following directions. Instead of scolding him (increasing his anxiety and fueling his fight, flight, or freeze impulse), 

  • offer some humor, 
  • provide an opportunity to move,
  • break down the task into smaller steps and only give one instruction at a time, and
  • help him feel safe and welcome.

Before you know it, his developing prefrontal cortex will be back calling the shots, and Spring Fever will recede.

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Easy hands-on science at your Read-Aloud

Want to play with lasers? Have you ever blown up a balloon using yeast or baking powder, or looked for surprising patterns in stories or nature? 

AHC's Emily Ward demonstrates the expanding power
of leavening agents in a hands-on demonstration

A science-themed Read-Aloud lets you have all that fun while building reading skills. Many science concepts and skills are the same skills needed for reading comprehension:  careful observation, noticing patterns, prediction, and problem solving. A kid who might not be wild about a London, baseball, or poetry Read-Aloud, may come alive with a science theme because it allows him to investigate and experiment. And, best of all, science feeds imagination, creativity, and curiosity by encouraging kids to ask "what if?"

Dr. Michael Berman plays with light and lasers
Some volunteers have told us they are too intimidated to do a science-themed Read-Aloud because they find the topic too complex and worry an activity would be too elaborate or time-consuming. At a recent volunteer seminar, special guests demonstrated how easy it is to do simple but fun science activities at your Read-Aloud. 

  • Emily Ward explored the expansive power of leaveners with yeast, baking powder, baking soda, and balloons. 
  • Sol Livingston showed volunteers how to build pattern-building skills for the youngest Read-Aloud participants while reading Caps for Sale.
  • Dr. Michael Berman played with lasers and light reflecting, refracting, and diffusing, using common items like water and Febreze.

Attendees were also able to look at TRC science resources, such as science books, fiction books to go along with science themes, and materials to create hands-on experiences for the kids, like balloons, pipe cleaners, Lincoln Logs, and a popcorn popper.

Online Book and Activity Resources
You don't even need to plan the science Read-Aloud yourself. There are lots of resources for you online. 

  • Here are the science Reading Road Maps we gave out at the seminar. All of the Reading Road Maps were created by TRC and have been conducted successfully at our Read-Aloud sites. 
  • The TRC Blog has multiple posts about science books and science Read-Alouds.
  • Reading Rockets Family Reading Adventure Packs and Start with a Book have lists of science-themed books and reading activities already prepared for you, with appropriate age levels noted.

If you'd like to plan your own science Read-Aloud, there's a host of science book resources.
Try science. It is fun and oh-so-doable. Go on, build a rocket, take a closer look at a pine cone, bake! The kids will thank you!

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Voices of homeless youth

The Reading Connection works with at-risk children in different settings, including homeless shelters. Most of the information we find, and eventually provide to you, comes in the form of research studies or news reports. We rarely hear from the kids themselves.

In the video featured below, you'll hear candid, and sometimes heartbreaking, descriptions of the stark realities kids face, as well as insights into the far-reaching effects of homelessness and caring adults in a young person's life. This video has been provided by The SchoolHouse Connection, a new national organization promoting success for children and youth experiencing homelessness.  

This video spotlights the voices of homeless youth. From SchoolHouse Connection's Education and Homelessness: Young Children to Young Adults series, "this video features four young people talking about their homeless experiences and sharing advice for educators and service providers."

Although the young people featured in this video are older than those TRC typically serves, many of them were homeless as younger children. They provide important insights to what it is like to be a homeless kid and shine a light on the fact that experiencing homelessness in a family can contribute to a teen becoming homeless on their own -- an "unattended youth." 

A recent study of homeless and formerly homeless youth found that 47 percent experienced homelessness both with their family, and on their own.

In the video, the teens talk about what education means to them: stability, opportunity, escape. Not only did school provide structure, safety, heat, food, and support, learning itself was empowering. By supporting reading development, TRC's Read-Alouds help kids be more successful at school and make learning more enjoyable.

The teens also offer some advice.
  • Don't single kids out -- use discretion
  • Encourage -- the challenges of homelessness can damage a kid's confidence
  • Respect -- sometimes when a victim receives service, it feels like they are being treated like the criminal instead
  • Provide support, but respect boundaries -- don't become a parent figure for a child if you aren't able to fulfill that role
  • Follow through -- that's essential to building trust
  • Be empowering -- teach kids how to advocate for themselves
  • Don't judge a book by its cover. Never assume. Just be yourself and have a conversation
  • Listen -- and seek to understand, not judge. Then advocate for the child throughout their journey through homelessness

Watch the video to hear these young people share their experiences. Their message is important and powerful, and it tells you so much more than a research report ever could.

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

Monday, February 13, 2017

Picture Books as Powerful Portals

Sharing and exploring diversity with children’s literature

Children’s literature serves as both a mirror and a window. To develop a sense of identity and self-esteem, children need to find mirrors in which they see themselves and their experiences reflected in the books they read for both pleasure and school. Equally important, however, is the ability of books to open windows into new worlds and experiences. Picture books are powerful portals that transport children to special places, both internal and external, where they can explore familiar terrain, experience new adventures, and discover unknown treasures.

One of the goals of TRC’s Read-Aloud Program is to help kids “discover the magic of books and reading.” By integrating diverse picture books into our programming, we can help our children discover this magic but also expand their horizons and open their imaginations. Volunteers can build the children’s self-esteem and cultivate empathy, respect, and cultural and global awareness through their book choices.  

Choosing diverse literature focusing on a variety of perspectives allows volunteers to explore different cultures by incorporating multicultural resources in Read-Alouds, as well as recognize that children are shaped by personal experiences and culture. Sharing these books shows an appreciation for the diversity of the cultures found at TRC sites and celebrates that diversity as well as our shared experiences.

Finding diverse books isn’t difficult, but beware -- not all diverse books are created equally. There is a large diversity gap in children’s publishing. In 2015, only 26 percent of children’s books published depicted children of color, and the number of books published annually by authors of color is even lower. Older books can unfortunately propagate outdated and inappropriate cultural stereotypes. 

Here are some useful resources to get started:

We Need Diverse Books:  Check out the "Where to Find Diverse Books" page for an extensive list of resources and suggested websites. 
CBC Diversity:  The resources section of this Children’s Book Council site has recommendations for parents and caregivers and for teachers and librarians that would be helpful at Read-Alouds.
Youth Media Awards:  Announced annually by the American Library Association, these awards include the Coretta Scott King Award, the Pura Belpré Award, and the Schneider Family Book Award. The 2017 awards were announced on January 23rd.

These resources will help you find great books suited to the kids at your Read-Aloud sites. To get you started, here are some child-tested and -approved recommendations.

Radiant Child:  The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
by Javaka Steptoe  
This year's Caldecott winner explores the childhood of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The vibrant collage and painted illustrations are perfect for playing “I Spy” with the kids using repeated symbols.

The Princess and the Warrior:  The Tale of Two Volcanoes 
by Duncan Tonatiuh
This retelling of the classic Mexican legend of the creation of the Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl volcanoes, located near Mexico City, won the Pura Belpré Award this year. Tonatiuh uses Mixtec influences to recreate the love story between the beautiful Izta and the warrior Popoca.

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music 
written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Rafael Lopez
This book is based on the true story of a young Chinese-African-Cuban girl, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, who grew up with the sounds of drums pounding in her heart and aspirations of playing the drums dancing through her dreams. Drum Dream Girl won the Pura Belpré illustration medal for 2015, along with the 2016 Charlotte Zolotov Award (CCBC), and the Asian Pacific American Honors.

Ada Twist, Scientist
written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts
Ada is a young girl with lots of questions. Wanting to know what the world is about keeps landing her in trouble. Will Ada find the answers she is looking for? This is a book for curious scientists everywhere. 

Giant Steps to Change the World 
written by Spike Lee and illustrated by Sean Qualls 
Every person has the power to change the world, and many people have taken that brave first step. What does it take?  Bravery, strength, and intellect. Read Giant Steps to learn about how many heroes took their courageous first step to make the world a better place. 

I Lost My Tooth in Africa 
by Penda Diakité
Amina is on her way to visit her father's family in Africa when she discovers a loose tooth. She wants to lose her tooth in Africa because the African Tooth Fairy will bring her a chicken. As she visits family and friends and experiences daily life in an African village, she wiggles her tooth. 

The books volunteers bring to a Read-Aloud can do so much more than represent a theme like music or loose teeth when they are chosen carefully to reflect the experiences of the kids. Including diverse books at Read-Alouds will help TRC kids become regular and passionate readers by affirming their experiences and providing a path to exploring others'.

This post was written by Julie M. Esanu, MLIS, lower school librarian at St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School and TRC board member.

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

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Fun (not frantic) Read-Alouds

When kids walk in to a Read-Aloud, they may be in a rambunctious mood from playtime, stressed or hungry after a long day, or antsy after sitting in a classroom for hours.  Getting everyone calmed down and on task can sometimes seem impossible.  In fact, in our recent volunteer survey, calming and engaging high-energy kids was the most requested training topic.  Our December 2016 training covered skills and strategies for welcoming, calming, and engaging kids at Read-Alouds--here are some highlights.    

Talk to your fellow volunteers about the skills and strategies in this post. If your entire team is aware of these techniques, implementation will be much easier.

What are your expectations?
Before we start talking about strategies, the expectations you start out with should be appropriate, realistic, and consistent. Expectations should be

  • Age-appropriate.  The physical, social, and intellectual needs of the kids you work with will vary. A 4-year-old and an 8-year-old won't behave the same way or be interested in the same things.
  • Culturally aware. Remember that you are in their home or in their space, not at a school, library, or your home. Different social, cultural, and ethnic groups have varying social norms about the volume and give-and-take of conversation, especially with family and friends. Just because kids might be louder than you would be doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong. 
  • Trauma-informed. Some TRC kids are experiencing stress that is, in some cases, persistent and toxic. Toxic stress damages brain development, including the connections between parts of the brain. That affects a kid’s executive function. Executive function is the ability to follow directions, manage one’s emotions and reactions to situations, and defer gratification.

To best ways to accommodate our kids’ needs include the following: 
  • Have appropriate expectations.
  • Be consistent. When the kids know what to expect, it is easier for them to positively engage. You can increase consistency by having a standard welcoming process used by all the teams at your site and by consistently enforcing rules and boundaries.
  • Prepare a structured Read-Aloud.
  • Give simple, short instructions.

Beginning the Read-Aloud 

One tried-and-true way to draw kids into your Read-Aloud is to engage their curiosity. Try one of the following tactics at your Read-Aloud:

A book box for Zin, Zin, Zin A Violin
contains sheet music, rosin, a
violin string and other related items
  • Using a book box, show items related to the theme and encourage kids talk about what they know about the items.  Then they can guess the theme.
  • Display the books for the Read-Aloud. Encourage kids to look at the books as they come in. A volunteer or two can talk with the kids about the books and ask them to guess the theme.
  • Start reading right away in small groups as kids come in and get their name tags. Once everyone has arrived, gather the group, review the Promises, and introduce the theme.
  • Provide word searches or mazes for the kids to work on right away, or tell riddles or jokes related to your theme and ask the kids to guess the theme. A quick internet search will provide lots of options for word searches, mazes, and riddles. For example: type “pirates kid word search” in your Google search box. You’ll come up with results like this.
Not only will you get the kids excited about the theme, but you’ll increase their comprehension by helping them remember what they already know about the topic.


When you need to get the group's attention, use a consistent “attention-getter,” such as these call-and-response phrases, or use the attention-getter currently used by the site staff.  Here are some favorites.  

Call: Bump budda bump bump              Response: bump bump

Call: 1,2,3, eyes on me                        Response: 1, 2 eyes on you

Call: If you can hear my voice, clap once        Response: clap 
Call: If you can hear my voice, clap twice       Response: clap clap

Calming activities

To calm kids before or during your Read-Aloud, try the following physical activities:

  • Yoga can relax kids and increase focus and concentration. At the training, Charlie demonstrated several poses, including tree, eagle with arms and legs, mountain with prayer hands, rag doll, warrior poses 1, 2, and 3, and child’s pose.
  • Focused breathing can calm kids and improve their attention. Stephanie taught several breathing techniques that the kids can do individually, in pairs, or as a group.

Energy-burning activities

After sitting all day at school, sometimes kids need to burn off some excess energy. Try these ideas before and during your Read-Aloud.
  • Energizers are short songs or rhymes with movement. They are perfect for vigorous but limited activity. "Go Bananas" is one of our favorites.  
  • Games, like "Simon Says," "Red Light Green Light," or "Mother May I?" can provide a needed outlet for energy in a structured way.
  • Incorporating kid movement WHILE you read aloud can be as simple as 
  • Asking the kids a question and having them turn and talk to each other, instead of selecting one child to answer for the whole group.
  • Identifying a part of the book you will be reading that lends itself to the kids acting out and encouraging them to do so when you get to that part. Look for repetition or active language when you pre-read the book. 
  • Involving the senses. Let kids snack while listening or give them items related to the story to hold during reading.

When all else fails...

Sometimes you will still have to redirect disruptive behavior. When you do, follow these guidelines.

Connect, then correct
  • Develop your relationship with the kids from the get-go. Engage BEFORE there is a problem. Don’t let the first time a kid is talked to at the Read-Aloud be to be corrected.
  • Call the kids by name, look them in the eye, sit at their level, and LISTEN to what they have to say.

Put the child to work

  • Turning the page,
  • Pointing out something in the illustrations,
  • Helping set up the activity,
  • Helping pass out snacks or set up the book give-away.

Abide by the promises yourselves

Model positive behavior -- your words and behavior can model positive behavior and conversation

Leverage site staff involvement
  • Use your site's attention-getting strategies
  • Use your site's behavior guidelines or incentives 
  • Ask staff for help

Getting to know the kids at your Read-Aloud, welcoming them each week, piquing their curiosity, and including movement to calm your kids or burn energy, along with consistent and appropriate expectations and rules, can make your Read-Alouds fun, not frantic.  Talk with the other volunteers at your site and identify some strategies you'd like to use, and then give them a try.

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