Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Best Pre-K Phonics Book Ever

I just approved the publishing of the Phonics book.  

I think this is the first Pre-Test Prep book on the market.  While the content is solid, since I spent 5 years on it, I still need to work on the cover.  My kids hate it.  I designed it to look like my favorite abstract math books from graduate school, the ones that really motivated me, because at the end of the day this is what it's all about for their future.  My oldest son said I need a mascot like a yellow stick dog with brown ears, not to mention brighter more cheery colors.  I told him the only way a stick dog is going to appear on this cover is if he is driving a bulldozer over thousands of words.  

He's not impressed with the fractal which is a visual representation of the word links I saw when I wrote a computer program to organize all words that are 6 letters or less so I could verify that the ones that I had been using had the highest cognitive load.  If I run out of other projects, I'll fix the cover.

The book won't be on Amazon for about a week, and then it will take another week for the search terms to kick in, and the first edition is probably going to contain a few typos despite 5 months of review and testing.  If you are desperate, and can't wait for Amazon, you can order a copy from here.

There is so much in this book that its going to take me many months to explain it.   The main premise is to be the fastest, easiest way to get into a GAT program, provided that a parent follows up phonics with the requisite test prep.  But that's just the beginning, because, after all, if your child gets into a GAT program, you still have to survive it and then excel.

The oldest one is gearing up for 7th grade.   This is the year of mandatory straight A's and 99% test scores on multiple tests to get into high school.   We've already made a lot of progress gearing up for math, writing and language appears to be going well (and when you see this book, you will understand why), so I thought I would turn my attention to Chemistry.

Next year, the kids will be studying 9th grade Chemistry.  I bought the book best book I could find, handed it to my son, and asked him to make a flash card of every bolded word in the book, with a definition on the back.  In the first 100 pages (950 more to go), he created 80 flash cards which we've been refining and trying to understand.  Is it too much to ask of an 11 year old to memorize a thousand technical 9th grade Chemistry words in his spare time?

Pre-K Phonics introduces the Word Board in all its glory to navigate the vocabulary words in the phonics lessons.   We continued to use the Word Board with Vocabulary Workshop for a few years afterwards, until my children mastered the process of mastering vocabulary.  Our flash cards for Chemistry include not only definitions, but whatever else we think is important to understanding a word without going deep into the material.  He doesn't need to look at the flash cards but a few times to get a basic understanding of each word.   He won't know 9th grade Chemistry by the time he sees it in school next year, but he'll have all of the words, definitions, and concepts ready to go so that when he does see it, he can spend more time with "Aha" and less time with "What".  I call this ready to learn.  It's the exact same process we started in Pre-K all over again, and it's build into the book.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Zero Expectations vs Insanity With Phonics

After two years of coming into work at 4 am to write a phonics book, I finally sent the manuscript to the publisher.  Big expectations required big work.  Unless something is messed up, it should be available this week.

I'm not crazy about the introduction, which includes a parenting manual, because I had to cut 50 pages in order to make the cost of the book less than it's price.  It's not so much of a phonics book than a complete change in lifestyle from slightly above average to super duper gifted.   When I created this course in 2011, I was knee deep in reverse engineering the cognitive skills test, and was haunted by something that the test author wrote in one of his papers.  In 1911 (or around there) E.L. Thorndike pointed out that all of the cognitive skills - the whole skill set - is active during the process of learning to read.  The child will over course continue to develop these skills over the course of their academic careers, but activities like math and reading comprehension are going to use a subset of skills.  Learning to read has the whole list.  Reading comprehension and math combined comes pretty close, which is why the Test Prep Math series looks like reading insanity and math combined, which it is.

Of course, there's a bit more work that needs to be done to get into a GAT program if the bar is 99.8%, which it is in Chicago, but proper training during phonics is such a huge advantage that it's possible a child who excels during phonics will have a permanent advantage.  I've spent most of my research hours devising ways for a child with no advantages at all to close the gap, with lots of success.  It's possible by high school to close the gap permanently, but between age 3 and age 15, I don't think it can ever fully be closed.   I've hinted at this in prior articles, but I've been reluctant to write about this extensively because most of us didn't think to start the work during phonics, and without putting the material on the market it's somewhat unfair of me to mention it.

In the introduction, I outline some of the parenting skills needed during phonics.  It's a small list compared to test prep.  One of the featured parenting skills, probably the most important, is Zero Expectations.  I'm amused at my own advice, to maintain Zero Expectations, when the whole point of the phonics course is to get a child from 0 to the 99th percentile.

It works this way:
  1. I expect you to get through this ridiculously ambitious workbook even through you obviously aren't the slightest bit prepared for reading and have none of the skills needed.
  2. The first lesson takes 45 minutes to 2 days, and you got everything wrong, but we're just going to keep going.
  3. As a parent, I'm willing to suffer through an abysmal performance over the next 4 to 6 months and viola:  my child 2 years ahead in not only this material, but a host of other skills as well.
This has been my experience on just about every academic project we've undertaken.  We've been doing some ridiculously ambitious projects at the 8 and 11 year level and it's the phonics experience all over again.   What's really cool is that it's the same core skills again.  I'm going to write about these next month in more detail, but some of the key ones emerged during phonics and were extended over the next few years, and we're still successfully using them.

I wanted to name the book "Gifted and Talented Phonics", but this would confuse people in thinking that the book is for gifted and talented children, which it is not, instead of children who aren't gifted and talented but will be by the time they get through the course, which it is.  The one secret that I know as a parent is that all kids learn how to read, although phonics helps a lot.   But, assuming they all learn to read, what else can be done during this period to take advantage of the 6 months spent sounding out words, especially if there is a GAT test in their future?  It turns out a lot can be done, and that's what this book is about.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Subskills #1 - Reading

I'm taking a break from parenting skills to address child skills.   I think in the next few years I'm going to have to rewrite both of these topics twice.  There's no way I'll articulate this properly the first time, even though 90% of my research is focused on identifying the skill set a child needs to succeed at the right level (which is pretty high for all children), and the parenting skills are just those skills I've identified to make this happen.

When I first started doing this, I had about half of the child skills down and no parenting skills. When you read the description of these skills, and how to get them, you might think that you've fallen short as a parent.  If you would have done this right starting at about age 3, your child would be in the 99.9% and test prep would be a waste of time.  

The good news is that it's never too late to catch up.  Never.   In the future, when I talk about cognitive skills in other contexts like math, what I'm going to be talking about is my efforts to catch up.


I'm starting with reading because I do almost nothing in terms of reading skills, since reading a lot and vocab workshop have been mandatory in our house since age 4.  Plus, a month ago I banned all video games for the 10th time, and it's been 30 days of reading out of boredom.

Age 4

As I mentioned previously, when a child learns to read all 1,529 subskills are used.  Obviously, these skills don't develop to their full, more advanced level, but they are all there.

Let's read the word bright for the first time:
1.  I see all the letters and problem decomposition begins.
2.  There's a rule that needs to be applied from an example.
3.  I need to take 3 or 4 of these letters and group them.
4.  Then there is the ight to deal with.
5.  And I probably got it wrong, this is taking a long time
6.  So I said b-r-igh-t, and that doesn't really sound like a word because of the pauses.
7.  OK, what does this mean?  It rhymes with light, but also night, which are opposites, so that doesn't help.  But it sounds cheery and happy, not a sad word like pout or dour.  Br words are like breakfast or bring, but also broken.  I give up.
8.  If this is in a book with a picture, then context helps.
9.  There are more skills here, I'm not an expert.  I don't spend much time with this activity.

The first time I saw #7 in action, I was doing test prep with a 5 year old who is the daughter of my Reading Nemeses who live 3 blocks north of me.  They have 4,000 books in what's left of their family room.  If I overhear something like "I missed 2 questions on that test" or "I forgot to turn in my homework", I think "Good, it serves you right for evolving into some super intelligent being."

Anyway, I was using a 3rd or 4th grade reading comprehension book and she kept getting answers right even though she didn't know what any of the words meant and couldn't follow the passage, so I finally asked how she figured out what the words meant.  She explained #7 above, very articulately. Curse you Reading Nemeses.

For the rest of us normal humans, my advice is to start your child reading as soon as possible, because I'm afraid if they start reading later, they won't have to do all of this thinking and miss out on building that cognitive skill set and then you have to buy Test Prep Math in 2nd grade to fill in the gaps.  If you want to know why my math questions are so convoluted, now you know why.  Trying to catch up.

Age 4-6

After learning to read, the next big step is to learn vocabulary.  My favorite skill during this phase is to see things that others don't see because the child has a word for it and can acknowledge it's existence.  The best example is to see the word wide as opposed to just see big.  The COGAT practice tests usually have this example in the figure matrices.   The list of interesting words "to see" is about 2,000 words long.  I'll say more about this list in the next month.  Something big is coming. Something really big.  But you have to wait.

Seeing is almost a core skill, the kind I focus on, like taking a long time to do something or trying again.  I should officially add this to my list.

If you see things, then this opens the door to more thinking.  Take the word lobby.   An interesting word.   What's the difference between a lobby, a foyer, and a vestibule?  When we came across this word during phonics, we took a field trip through our neighborhood walking up to each building to see if it was a lobby, a vestibule, or a foyer.  I don't have room to write out all of the differences and similarities, but again, it exercises many cognitive sub skills.

During this stage, working memory develops naturally during reading.  The more reading the better.

Age 6-9

This is the age where memory develops.  Like working memory, it's not exactly a core skill, and it's not a subskill.   A basketball player has core skills like motivation and determination, and subskills like accuracy and fancy moves.   But he or she also has physical strength and endurance, and a big set of lungs.

Anyway, during this phase, with reading, the goal is to pack the brain with as much information as possible, and then pack it with some more.  This is a fun time to be a parent.  You get to tell your kids stuff nonstop.

I have another theme in Academic Coaching, which is to start working on skills for the next level.   Many parents do the opposite, which is to keep doing what they've been doing all along without realizing that the level changed.  The result is an academic train wreck.  In this case, to avoid the train wreck, at about age 9 start asking questions.  My favorite questions are not answerable, like "What is this character doing?  Why are they doing it?  How is this book going to end?"

I've experimented with comparisons, like "How is a wizard in Harry Potter like a wizard in Lord of the Rings" but this doesn't seem to be panning out yet.   Maybe this is a level 5 skill.

Age 10
The skill bar is raised.  Telling is over.  Of course, telling was over in math at age 4, and ironically, I find telling making a surprise reappearance in math at this age.

The first skill that I've identified at this age is for the child to see clues in a story.  The author introduces something or mentions something, usually in a clunky, contrived way.  Even the best authors use clunkiness.  Many kids don't even realize that they are looking for clues.

The related skill is to solve the mystery.  Where is this book going?  There are a lot of mystery stories on the market for little kids, but most don't seem to realize that every book is a mystery, even Captain Underpants.  This book is going somewhere, and if it's written properly, it is going to be a surprise.   The best way to enjoy the book (assuming memory is developed), is to count the markers on the way and build expectations while trying to put all of the facts together.

If you think about this, success in life and science and other fields is dependent on this skill.

The "solve a mystery" takes the basic subskills I already listed and applies these widely to people, places, activities, but at this stage, usually not emotions.

Age 11

Well, this is where I am now.   I can see things in 6-8th grade reading evaluating emotion, motivation, and everything else.  Not sure where the bar is.  My goal at this age is to start bowing out as an academic coach anyway, just going back to the cores skills and grit and letting my child take over the detail work.  I guess that is where the bar is raised on a parent.