“Once upon a time…” those words were magical – magical because someone special was reading them to us.
Few people believe they are “professional” readers, but there are five easy tools a grand can employ to add another dimension of learning and involvement to the enjoyment of reading with the grandchildren.
You’re already familiar with the warm feeling that flows when the grandkids come to visit. Whether they’re sitting on your lap, or on a comfortable sofa side by side, or on a beach towel by the water; the fact that they have your undivided attention is the pre-requisite for reading and learning. Your patience allows opportunities for them to express themselves as unique individuals. Listening and conversing prepares young ones for later reading success.
2. Choose the books.
Some guidelines to choosing the best books: First, consider the child’s stage of development; infant, toddler, pre-school or grade level. Every child develops at her pace, in her own way. Train your eye to observe objectively by seeing beyond the most precious child there ever was, and gauge attention span, activity level, vocabulary, interests and preferences. Jot down these characteristics and watch them change over time.
School-age children who are learning to read or, who are already proficient readers, have an independent reading level. A quick way to find out what that level is, is to ask them to bring a book they’d like to read to you. They will choose an easy read. Note the title and author and visit the library; a childrne’s librarian will be happy to help you select a book on the same level or slightly higher, more challenging level.
Choose both fiction and non-fiction books and stories based on the same topic. For example, dinosaurs may be of particular interest. Reading both fact and fiction provides a balanced approach: there is plenty of food for thought and conversation.
The ability to connect ideas and concepts is the key to learning at any age. Relate the reading selection to your grandchild’s own experiences. Whether the book is about farm animals, fire trucks or fairytales, Mars, a mystery or marbles; listen to them tell you what they already know before you read. Reading with a purpose increases interest and helps young children focus on listening which, in turn, increases both vocabulary and comprehension.
In addition to relating the book to “self”, the next step is connecting the text to a broader context. Let’s use the dinosaur example. A non-fiction book appropriate for pre-schoolers may also include a simple time line. This is a great spring board for discussing time and place. “How long ago did they exist? Where were dinosaur fossils found?” You may want to relate their size to the concept of measurement with comparisons; ‘as tall as the clock tower’, ‘as heavy as five dump trucks’. “Were they carnivores (meat eaters) or herbivores (plant eaters)? Let’s find out.” You get the idea.
Fairytales and tall tales with ogres, scary creatures, heroes and heroines all help to expand awareness of universal feelings and emotions. Very young children, especially, often learn how to express and deal with feelings by way of a story. Older children enjoy reading about characters in true-life situations they can relate to: situations involving peers, friendship, teammates, relationships, and conflicts; they also enjoy biographies of visionaries, people who have made the world a better place. Then, of course, there’s fantasy (like Harry Potter) for children of all ages.
Relating stories to other texts is the last component of making connections. Compare books and stories. “Are they the same, or different? How?” and “What did you like and why?” You may want to read books by the same author or about the same subject with a different treatment. Choose a variety of literary styles such as poetry, riddles, rhymes and diaries. Mixing it up makes it interesting and fun. Introduce a variety of genres; mystery, adventure, science fiction, biographies, sports. Children of all ages like interesting and unusual formats such as pop-up pages or ‘feely’ objects. Kids also love onomatopoeia – words that imitate sounds like Ka-Boom! Crash! Buzz!
4. Be flexible.
Flexibility goes hand in hand with patience. Allow enough time for talking and laughing. Allow for a leisurely beginning. Entice the senses. Encourage young children to feel the glossy cover; then, ask for a prediction. “What do you think this story is about?” Take a “book walk” by flipping through the pages before reading. Take your cues from your spontaneous toddler or pre-schooler who may need to get up and imitate the characters in the story. Sometimes a short break is just what they need in order to return with renewed interest to see what happens next. Encourage their participation in “reading” familiar words or repeated phrases. Think about your own favorites, “Run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!”
5. Extend learning.
This is where you increase the fun. Continue the theme of the book through activities and excursions. Find words that rhyme with the title, character or featured animal. On a rainy day, take an imaginary walk in the garden as you play a game of describing a flower or insect that the other person has to guess. Play “What happened next?” and help a child recall story events in sequence, thereby practicing organizing his thinking and increasing his vocabulary and comprehension.
A little imagination and simple props can go a long way to extend learning. Whip up some “green eggs and ham” with food coloring or bake monster cookies with healthy ingredients. Plan an afternoon to do “science” or “math” in the kitchen as you experiment with new recipes or increase the ingredients to accommodate a large gathering. Pull out some old clothing from the closet and make costumes for an impromptu play. Take photographs of your adventures, whether it’s a trip to the zoo or watching a cement truck pour concrete in the driveway next door.
There’s no better legacy we can leave our grandchildren than the knowledge that we played a part in helping them establish a love of language and learning.