How to Grow a Reader While Nurturing a Relationship With Your Faraway Grandchildren Using Skype
By Dedra T. Montoya
Is there any sweeter time spent with your grandchildren than gathering them to you for a cuddle and a story? You watch their eyes widen in wonder at splashy, colorful illustrations and delight in their giggles when you come to the funny parts. And when the story’s done, they’re the inevitable squeals for “just one more”. How can you possibly resist, right?
But what if you live far away from them? An empty lap and vacant arms aching to be occupied can take their toll. Believe me, I’m familiar. My grandsons—four-year-old Jackson (Jax) and one-year-old Beckett—live over 1600 miles away from me, moving every few years around the world. Although I’m grateful to get to see them a couple of times a year, it is never enough.
One of my favorite things to do with my grandsons is to read to them. As a teacher, I know the importance of reading aloud to children. In fact, it is one of the most significant factors that makes readers of young children. Author Emilie Buchwald said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” I’ll just add grandparents to that sentiment.
Luckily I have discovered a way to read to my distant grandkids as much as I want. Skype and FaceTime. We had always skyped together at least once a week, Jackson and I. His wiggly attention span while talking with Nana (with prompting from his mom) would last all of about two minutes or so, and then he was off to other things.
A book is one thing that has the power to hold Jackson’s attention for an extended length of time. His mom, (a former teacher) and dad have read to him and his baby brother since practically before they were out of the womb.
One day I was cleaning out bookshelves when I came across a silly Little Golden Book one of my second-graders had given me to read to Jackson when he visited because it was titled “Jack Attack”. It was about a baby who could do magical, naughty things that wreaked havoc on his babysitter. Jackson’s mom hated the book; Jackson loved it and would laugh all the way through it.
During our next Skype session, I asked Jackson, then three and living in England, if he remembered that book and would he like me to read it to him. “Sure!” he said, and he sat there—on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean—for the entire book, laughing and interacting just as if we were sitting together on the couch. I was on to something.
Now, every time we Skype or FaceTime, we read. After showing me his latest Lego masterpiece he settles down on his tummy close to Mom’s iPad, his hands propping up his head as I hold the pages close to my screen. And when one book is finished, there’s always a request for another . . . and another. Sometimes his baby brother is there on Mommy’s lap, listening to the story for a little while. Our Skype sessions have gotten longer and more numerous. To Jax, Skyping has become synonymous with reading. Now there are phone calls with a little voice on the other end saying, “Nana, can we Skype?” Not even a “hello” first. Just “Nana, can we Skype?” Music to my ears.
I’ve taught elementary school for 27 years. I can attest that the best readers in my classroom have always been those children who have been read to on a regular basis and from an early age. But you don’t have to just take my word for it. Studies show that reading aloud to children builds literacy skills and helps develop language and vocabulary. According to a recent study by Dominic Massaro, psychology professor emeritus at U.C. Santa Cruz, reading picture books aloud that are infused with rich language is actually more effective in building children’s vocabularies than just talking to them. (Susan Frey, 2015, EdSource.)
When Children are read to, they are being exposed to different, richer, more purposeful “languaging” that will stay with them. One night at the dinner table Jax’s mom asked him what he thought of the sweet potatoes. He responded, “Ummm, they’re odd. Odd means not right.” When his mom asked him where he learned that, he said, “From Hugless Douglas. Don’t you remember you read that to me?” And then he proceeded to quote from the book. At three years old.
Reading aloud to your little ones doesn’t have to stop just because you live apart from them. A computer and a bunch of library books are all you need to nurture your bond with your distant grandchildren. Your librarian or bookstore clerk can recommend the classics that have stood the test of time and the new releases that will enchant and amaze. Also, look for book ideas from Jim Trealease’s Read Aloud Handbook and read-aloud lists on sites such as Goodreads. Once you’ve got your stack of books, here are some tips for making the most of your read-aloud experience on Skype and FaceTime (or when you have your little ones with you on your lap).
- Tell your grandchild you are going to read a story about (fill in the blank). Always tell the author’s name so they can start becoming familiar with authors.
- Make sure your child can see the pictures in the book but try to include the text as well. It’s important that children practice seeing words.
- Read with lots of expressions. Overdo it! Try funny voices, different accents, and even a silly hat that reflects the story or a character. You don’t have to be particularly “talented” because your grandchild won’t mind!
- Stop once in a while to check for comprehension. If needed, explain a bit about what’s going on … or better yet, ask the child to comment.
- Don’t shy away from stories with rich language and a couple of “hard” words. You can stop and quickly explain. Eventually, your child will learn to ask what they mean. Yay! That means she is listening and wanting to learn. Next thing you know, you’ll hear her actually using the word!
- See if your grandchild can make a prediction about what’s going to happen next, both from the text and from the pictures. At first, he might respond with “I don’t know”. Help him through that thinking, and soon he will surprise you with his own little nuggets of brilliance.
- If your grandchild happens to own the book you are reading, encourage him to fetch it from his bookshelf (or off his bedroom floor) and turn the pages with you.
- Depending on your grandchild’s age, you can read longer stories that would take a few sittings. Stop at exciting parts. Leave her wanting more! Then when you resume the story, remind her of where you left off.
- Finally, when you come to the end of a story, instead of just asking your child if he liked the book, ask him what his favorite part was or who his favorite character was. Share your opinion as well. Yes, have an actual book discussion with a four-year-old!
Jackson’s daddy is working overseas right now, and he misses his dad terribly. His Mom sent Dad a care package that includes some favorite books. Children’s books. Now, he can read to his sons from far away.
Reading aloud to children not only builds bigger brains, it inspires children’s imaginations, nurtures close bonds, exercises listening skills and plants the seeds for a lifelong relationship with books. Plus, it’s just plain fun!