The Grandparent Effect by Carrie Gelson
Two years ago, I taught a little boy named Emilio in Grade 3. In his first week of Grade 4, Emilio showed up at my door every day at 3 p.m. He would stand there and give me a big smile, sometimes a hug and tell me quite seriously, “I really miss this class.” When I asked him what he missed, I thought he might say that he missed choices time at the end of the day or the picture books we shared together or maybe even that he missed me. Nope. “I miss Mr. and Mrs. Gelson.” He didn’t even need to think about it. Mr. and Mrs. Gelson are my parents. They come in every Tuesday afternoon to listen to my students read. They sit outside my room at a long table that holds two big baskets of carefully selected picture books. Children take turns having their reading time throughout the afternoon. This reading time with two very special volunteers is what Emilio missed.
When Emilio started Grade 3, he recognized seven letters and knew two sounds. He was not a reader. But he loved books. Every week, Mr. or Mrs. Gelson, read to Emilio. Often, once he was out in the hallway, he wouldn’t come back in. He sat and listened to other children read stories. He asked questions. He got Mr. Gelson telling him about his life and had Mrs. Gelson laughing as he asked for favourite books to be read and reread. They all giggled over silly stories, pretended to scare each other on a spooky page and shared quiet moments when a book touched their hearts. Out in my hallway, on any given Tuesday afternoon, Emilio was gifted by what I have come to call the “Grandparent Effect.”
I teach at an inner city school in Vancouver, B.C. characterized by high child and family poverty. Many of my students have not had early literacy experiences. Nobody read to them at bedtime. They never attended library story times. There are few, if any, books in their homes. Families have limited income and limited time. Many parents are working multiple jobs, learning a new language and caring for a family with limited resources. Read aloud time is a luxury many families cannot afford.
Many of my students also do not have grandparents around. Grandparents live in another city or another country and visits are few and far between. I have students in my class being raised by a grandparent so their grandparent is in a parental role. The lovely experience of story time with Grandma and Grandpa that my own children were raised with has not been experienced by most of my students.
Fortunately, I have two amazing parents who have brought their grandparent love to my classroom. They share it through the magic of books with each of my students every week. As teachers, we know that it is a rare moment when we can just sit with one child and enjoy the experience of having a story read to us by an eager little reader. We are always scanning the room to make sure others are on task, we are taking mental or physical notes about the child’s reading skills and needs, or we are thinking about which book we are going to recommend next to this child. It is hard to turn off our teacher brain. We have a job to do with these little readers. Grandparents, though, have the gift of time. The time to give to each child with their full focus and attention. The time to go off on a tangent and answer a million questions or share connections. The time to read a story again and again just because it was that great. The time to joke and cuddle and coax and smile.
Last year, when I told Mr. and Mrs. Gelson that Emilio missed them (missed them so much, he showed up every day at my door to tell me so) they started coming in a half an hour earlier to read to Emilio, grabbing him from his new class before they began with my students. This year, in Grade 5, half an hour of reading with Mr. and Mrs. Gelson is still part of Emilio’s Tuesday routine. In these past few years at our school, Emilio has been getting daily direct instruction in decoding skills. Slowly but surely, Emilio has been learning to read. This Tuesday, Emilio read The Enormous Potato (written by Aubrey Davis) two times through. How do I know this? Two excited “grandparents” cannot stop gushing about it. “Emilio read the whole thing!” “Twice!” “He can sound out anything!” “He really perseveres.” “I just can’t believe it. He has come so far.” “Remember where he started?” “Emilio is a reader!”
I do my best to promote a love of reading in my room: daily read alouds, buddy reading, book talks, library visits, reading instruction, free choice reading . . . . But, one of the best things I do is to stand back and be in awe of how the “grandparent effect” helps associate reading books with love and happy experiences. I believe if we want to create lifelong readers, anything we do to make this association is a gift we give to our students.
I have shared this story of Emilio and my other little readers to remind us all that the magic of reading shared between generations does not just need to happen in our homes. And if it never happened, it isn’t too late. Find your students some eager seniors to come in and create your own “Grandparent Effect.” Everyone benefits.
Carrie Gelson teaches Grades 2 and 3 in Vancouver B.C. She is always looking for ways to share the love of reading with her students and shares highlights of her reading and teaching journey at There’s a book for that Find her on twitter at @CarrieGelson.