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.
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.