A lot of learning goes on when you read aloud with a child, even if you're doing that reading isolated by a pandemic and separated by an ocean.
That's what a Minnesota retiree and a shy Swedish schoolgirl learned recently when they began reading a book to each other on video calls.
The story of how the cross-Atlantic reading sessions came to be actually starts in 1989, when a Swedish high school student named Max Florenius came to live with the family of John and Susan Wabaunsee in La Crosse, Wis., as a foreign exchange student.
It was a life-changing experience for Max. At the time, John Wabaunsee worked as a public defender in La Crosse. After attending some trials and seeing Wabaunsee at work, Max decided he would become a lawyer, too, when he returned to Sweden.
As a law student, he even returned to La Crosse to do an internship at the public defender's office.
Max's two younger brothers also came to live with the Wabaunsees as foreign exchange students. A friendship grew between the two families that would lead to regular visits and even vacations together in the U.S. and Europe.
In retirement, John and Susan moved to Apple Valley to be near a grandchild.
Last year after the pandemic hit, Max checked in with the Wabaunsees with a FaceTime conversation to see how they were doing. His daughter, Flora, however, didn't want to participate on the call, "as she thought her English was not good enough," Max wrote in an e-mail.
So Susan offered to read with Flora over the internet.
Because of COVID-19, the Wabaunsees have been limiting in-person meetings with family members, but Susan had been using video calls to read to her own grandchildren.
When Susan started reading with Flora, they chose the young adult novel "The Hunger Games." Flora was able to get an English language version of the book at her school library.
Starting last fall, the two met about once a week on a video call, typically on Sundays when it was noon in Minnesota and 7 p.m. in Sweden.
Then they would read to each other for a half hour or so, with 75-year-old Susan reading one paragraph of the book and 11-year-old Flora reading the next.
Susan, a retired school psychologist, would occasionally explain a word's meaning or pronunciation, but she said Flora didn't need much help.
"She is quite amazing for a fifth-grader," Susan said. "She's a very capable reader in English."
"I think her skills in English are extraordinary," said John Wabaunsee.
Max said his daughter's English has "improved amazingly" as a result of the reading sessions.
"Susan has been so amazed by Flora's progress that she has written a letter to Flora's English teacher, Mrs. Hörman, to inform her of Flora's hard work and progress," Max wrote.
"She's helped me a lot. It's really fun reading with her," Flora said in a Skype interview. She said she and Susan recently finished "The Hunger Games" and now are looking for another book to read together in English, possibly "The Diary of Anne Frank."
The reading sessions are more than just a way to help a young girl become fluent in a foreign language, Susan said.
"It's actually at this point a family connection," she said. "It's our extended family."