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A Powerful Twist on the Use of Skype to Promote the Minority Language

October 11, 2013

A Powerful Twist on the Use of Skype

In 3 Good Ways to Boost a Bilingual Child’s Language Ability and Loving Bond with Grandparents, I mentioned that we make regular use of Skype so my kids can connect in English, our minority language, with family members in the United States. As you would expect, these interactions have consisted of conversation about recent activities: school, free time, special events, etc. My experience, though, has been that the outcome of each Skype session depends largely on the “richness” of these recent activities. In other words, when the news is rich, this naturally tends to produce richer conversation.

The other day, however, I tried a powerful new twist on our use of Skype that can fuel a lively conversation in the minority language without relying at all on recent activities.

And as I eavesdropped there at the door, happily listening to my son chatter like a chipmunk—talking to his grandmother more than he ever had in the past—I was already plotting ways to continue making use of this strategy, far into the future.

Books are the focus

The basic idea is simple: a family member reads the same book that you’re reading aloud to your kids (or that a child is reading independently), then that book becomes the focus of the conversation via Skype.

Not only does this activity help enrich the online interaction, it promotes literacy through the act of reading itself. Remember, too, that the example of adults reading books has a potent impact on a child’s interest in literacy, so a grandparent, or other loved one, reading the same book serves as a very positive role model.

Eager to chat

The idea occurred to me when I began reading aloud The Grand Escape, the first book in a four-book series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (a fine and prolific author of children’s literature) about a pair of house cats who go on various adventures in their neighborhood. Because my mother is a cat-lover with two cats of her own, and because the story itself is a fun and lively read, I thought she might enjoy it, too. And so I ordered the book for her (a used copy through amazon) and suggested that she read it as well and then discuss it with Lulu and Roy via Skype.

As it turned out, both sides finished the book more than a week before we were able to hold this chat, which wasn’t ideal since the story was no longer as fresh in our minds. So prior to our Skype meeting, I reviewed the book with my kids, chapter by chapter, to refresh their memories, while jotting down key questions and “talking points.” They could refer to this “cheat sheet” as they discussed the book with their grandmother.

When they spoke to her—individually, as always, since they simply shout over each other to be heard when they’re together—Lulu and Roy both engaged in a pretty substantial conversation about the book. And, as I mentioned, I was particularly pleased that Roy became so eager to chat with his grandmother, freely sharing highlights and impressions of the story.

Despite the tricky business of timing the Skype call, our first experience of this idea was a good success, and I now plan to make online conversations about books a regular part of my efforts to promote the minority language.

Things to consider

If you’d like to give this idea a try—and give a boost to both oral ability and literacy development—here are a few things you might keep in mind…

  • Grandparents would make ideal partners, of course, but don’t overlook other relatives or close friends. I’m thinking it would be fun and effective to pursue this with a cousin in the United States who’s the same age as Lulu.
  • This activity could start when the children are smaller, by reading the books aloud, and evolve to include books that they read independently.
  • Choose books that will hold some appeal for both sides. To keep costs down, maybe your partner can borrow them from the library.
  • Try to set a clear time frame for reading the book, scheduling the Skype call for immediately afterward. For example, both sides read the book within the next two weeks, and connect via Skype the following day. Note relevant dates on the calendar.
  • Prior to the Skype session, review the book with your children and make a page of key questions and “talking points.” (Creating this “cheat sheet” could be a mutual activity, which would also nurture their literacy development.) Your partner might find this information useful, too, so consider emailing a copy beforehand.
  • You may have more success permitting each child to discuss the book individually with your online partner, without the presence of parents or siblings. My own kids, for instance, don’t feel comfortable, and won’t speak freely, if someone else remains in the room.

Read more about reading!

How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books
If English is your target language, here’s a list of chapter books that come in a series. Maybe you could read through a whole series with a grandparent!

Free Report: The Power of Reading in Raising a Bilingual Child
A handy PDF file of my thoughts on reading in connection with raising bilingual kids.

How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home?
Research shows a strong relationship between the number of books in the home and a child’s language development and ability.

How about you? Would this idea be worth pursuing in your situation? If you’ve already tried this, how did it go? Any further tips?

1 Tove Kinooka October 11, 2013 at 10:17 pm

I like this idea, and will definitely give it a try – thanks! Don’t know how you come up with all these inspired ideas, but please keep them coming! We’ve been doing your mini-whiteboard in the bathroom idea for a couple of weeks now, and it’s working really well. Milly loves reading the messages I leave, and enjoys leaving them for me in return. We’ve always done lots of reading together, but until we started this we only found time to do English writing once a week – I work full time, but managed to negotiate a work-from-home day once a week specifically to do English with Milly when she gets home from school. This has been ok, but only doing writing once a week has made for very slow progress. Even though we’ve only been using the whiteboard for a couple of weeks so far, it’s already having a positive impact – her writing is getting faster and more confident, and it gives us a chance to talk about “funny” English spelling. Thanks for the great ideas – am looking forward to the next one!
Tove

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2 Adam October 12, 2013 at 11:37 am

Tove, I’m happy to hear these ideas are helpful to you and your daughter! Writing is definitely the toughest skill to nurture—there just isn’t enough time for it. Still, I continue to do what I can, which also includes daily workbook pages, regular letters to grandparents and pen-pals, and a mailbox for personal messages.

At the same time, I think it’s true (as researcher Stephen Krashen suggests in “The Power of Reading”), that much of the mechanics and style of good writing is learned naturally through reading, so the more reading we can encourage, the more progress will be made with writing, too.

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3 Olena October 12, 2013 at 2:06 am

My mom is very good about talking about kids’ favorite toys with them. I instruct her before hand on what is popular with them right now. At least 10 min of conversation is granted!

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4 Tatyana October 15, 2013 at 12:41 am

We found a new idea for Skype this weekend ourselves. We post pictures online for extended family to see. This weekend my mom and my 4 year old had the pictures up and were discussing them over Skype. It gave my daughter a jumping off point to describe her experiences and my mom a jumping off point to ask questions.

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5 Adam October 15, 2013 at 5:53 am

Thanks for sharing this, Tatyana! It’s a really good idea!

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