Last year, as part of a conversation with my friend about her precocious daughter, I tried to reassure her that Sophia would likely be fine in a mainstream preschool. There was no need to stress over how she would be able to afford a Montessori preschool.
Don’t be guilt-tripped into thinking that you need to provide a special learning environment for a preschooler. Preschoolers learn from real-world experiences that can be found pretty much anywhere.
But now here I am, a year later, with very analogous worries. I’m not worried about preschool, but I do worry about kindergarten and elementary school for Peter. As I have mentioned before, Peter learned to read over the past year. A little over 12 months ago, I noticed that Peter had a significant collection of sight words. In August, I worked through a set of phonics-based primers with Peter, and the art of decoding clicked with him shortly thereafter. I didn’t work with him much after that, being absorbed in my own pharmacy studies, but now that I am spending more time at home with him, I am struck by his precociousness once again.
About 1 percent of children can be classified as precocious readers. They may or may not have been early talkers (Peter was not). They may or may not go on to be gifted students. They may or may not have autistic characteristics. They are marked by an early interest in understanding symbols and decoding words. They enter preschool, kindergarten, or first grade with the ability to read, usually with minimal to no prior formal instruction. My friend’s daughter is one such precocious reader. Peter is also a precocious reader.
As far as I can tell, Peter has the decoding skills of at least a second grader but only has the attention span of a 3-year-old. That is, he is intellectually capable of reading second grade-level material, but in practice, he can only make it through late first grade books like the Clifford stories. Another interesting aspect of his reading is his inflection. Kathie remarked one day that Peter reads with more inflection than any other kid she knows. I assumed that she was referring to stories that Peter had memorized; I already knew that he could retell Are You My Mother? and The Very Hungry Caterpillar with much gusto. Now, however, I realize that it goes beyond that. Give Peter a brand-new book, and he spends most of his time not trying to figure out the words but trying to figure out how to read the book with feeling. He will sacrifice reading accuracy for the sake of adding inflection… changing the word order, adding adverbs, or modifying the prepositions. He will read the prepositions accurately if you ask him to correct his “error”; but the prepositions were really just of secondary importance to him.
On the other hand, Peter demands accuracy when I am typing search terms into YouTube for him.
Peter: You need to put, “Excavators smash into airplanes.”
Me (typing into YouTube’s search box): “excavators smash into airplane” <return>
Peter: You need to put an ‘s’ there.
Me (thinking): Did my three-year-old just correct my grammar??
Part of the reason I am only now discovering this is because Peter would really rather have me read books to him than read to himself. He will read signs and packages and subtitles all day long, but when it’s story time, he would prefer to just study the pictures. I’m not really sure how much I should be encouraging Peter to read independently, given the gap between his decoding ability and his attention span. He did express a lot of interest in the library’s summer reading program when he saw the fabulous prizes they are offering this year. (Peter can read, “Hot Wheels,” from yards away.) But again, it’s hard to explain to a 3-year-old that the ticket he earned today because he read a book to me will increase his chance of winning the prize that he really wants seven weeks from today. So I made Peter his very own reading chart. One star for every book that he reads to me. Twenty stars, and he gets to pick out a prize from the toy store. This system seems to be going well… sometimes he still wants me to read to him, but sometimes the star incentive is enough to get him to read a new book himself. He has 13 stars now, 11 days into the reading program.
(I didn’t read with him at all at the end of last week because I got my Authorization To Test on Wednesday and scheduled my NAPLEX for Sunday. That was the only test date available before August. The exam was fine. MPJE is scheduled for next Wednesday… and in case you can’t tell, I hardly thought about law at all today. Now back to Peter.)
Peter hit a couple other linguistic milestones over the past year. He learned to count the number of syllables in a word, and he rhymes words for fun. He also likes to discuss the onset, nucleus, and coda of syllables (Thank you, YouTube!), but I don’t think that’s a legitimate milestone, and I’m not sure how well he actually understands those concepts.
Peter can count backwards from ten. He knows right from left. He knows when I’m driving to the library, Walmart, the grocery store, Kathie’s, the pet store, the playground, or Davis Farmland. I honestly have no idea when he hit those milestones, but I am confident that Peter has a good sense of direction. He also fell in love with maps at some point in the past year; we can’t walk past an area map in an airport or park without a request to study it. He adores atlases and globes. His first love is the oceans and continents, but he paged through a U.S. atlas earlier this week, reading the name of each state as he went. He has also attempted to make himself a solar system expert through YouTube videos. I thought he might enjoy reading the Magic School Bus Lost in Space, but he tends to be a know-it-all when I read that book, telling me the name of the planet on the current page and then trying to turn to the next page. Like I said, the second grade reading materials are hit-or-miss…
We made some progress teaching Peter Vietnamese vocabulary before our trip to Vietnam, but he is somewhat resistant to speaking Vietnamese these days. I’m not sure whether I should encourage Son to only speak Vietnamese to Peter or trust that Peter will learn Vietnamese the way he has learned everything else: on his own time.
Speaking of time, calendars have also become objects of fascination for Peter. He knows how to read a calendar and knows the order of the days of the week. I don’t think he knows the order of the months, though. He’s been showing some interest in telling time (and wearing wristbands), so I’m planning to get Peter a time-teaching watch for his birthday. I was quite fond of my watch when I was a young girl, so I imagine Peter would also appreciate one.
Peter was rather opinionated and a bit irrational during the first half of his fourth year, but thankfully, this has largely given way to a disposition that can be rationed with. He doesn’t strike me as eminently logical in the way a profoundly gifted child might be, but he is quite the little diplomat. This time last year, I would laugh at the way he would say, “Um, that’s not my favorite,” when what he really meant was, “No, thank you.” Nowadays, he is more likely to say, “I’m not sure that’s what I want.” Also endearing but at times exasperating is his way of making requests. “I want something that’s red.” “I want something in the closet.” “I want something that’s round.” “I want something else.” Mind you, he almost always knows precisely what he wants when he makes these statements, he just isn’t ready to come out and say it.
Some things have not changed in the past year. He still loves to quiz me on shapes (he now throws 3D shapes into the mix), colors (he now throws more nuanced shades into the mix), and opposites. Stereotypically, gifted kids are a fountain of questions. Peter, however, usually doesn’t ask a question unless he thinks he knows the answer. He could be a teacher when he grows up, I suppose.
In other areas, Peter has not leaped ahead. Many precocious readers also display an early interest in writing, but Peter only wants me to write words for him. I think that he doesn’t yet have enough confidence in his own ability to write letters. Similarly, he still hasn’t learned to pedal his tricycle. I don’t see any reason why he physically can’t pedal, but I also haven’t seen him put in an appreciable effort to learn. He is, thankfully, starting to use the phrase, “I can do it myself,” more and more often. He’s attempting to put on and take off his clothes, he’s using the toilet himself (when he doesn’t “forget” and poop in his pants), and he can even enter his own search terms into the YouTube app on our Kindle. He’s not ready for kindergarten yet, but I’m pretty confident that he will be ready next year.
The interesting thing with Peter is that if he had been born near his original October 7th EDD (or any day after August 30), he would have had to wait until 2016 to enter public kindergarten. Since he was a July baby, though, he’s eligible to enter kindergarten next year. I don’t see any reason to hold him back from entering kindergarten in 2015, and I’m starting to wonder whether we will need to consider having him skip a grade in early elementary school. He has already mastered a good chunk of the first grade curriculum at the age of 3 and seems very interested in mastering other essential areas of the first grade curriculum. He hasn’t shown much interest in addition and subtraction yet, but honestly, given his general love of symbols and spatial reasoning, I doubt it will take him long to develop algebraic thinking.
We’ll see. At this point, it’s unclear whether Peter will be globally gifted or just a precocious reader. I’ll be happy either way, of course, provided that he is well-served by his school. Although I was flagged as gifted in second grade, I really attribute my academic success to the fact that I developed good study skills at an early age, allowing me to achieve my potential. I hope Peter will achieve his potential, too, whatever that may be. Massachusetts doesn’t have any funding or mandates for gifted education, so it’s generally up to individual teachers to differentiate the curriculum for advanced students. That works most of the time in small school districts like ours, but I’m not sure how well it will work when you have a child who is reading 3 years ahead of his age before he even starts kindergarten. We’ll see.