Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Gifted Grab Bag Mega Article

I've been so busy with my latest research project so I'm just going to cram a months worth of articles on ancillary topics into one Mega Article.

I talk to a lot of parents about their kids.  The conversation includes a score and some questions.   Other times I just observe.  Over the years, some things strike me as odd.

I've seen kids who are good a puzzles.  Anything else?  "No, he just likes to do puzzles."  Is that the secret to passing the test?  Here's how it works.  You get your kids puzzles starting at age 2.  The kid can use them as chew toys.  Every birthday, Christmas or whatever include puzzles with a small number of big pieces.  Your child will toss it aside in favor of something shiny and branded and rediscover them a few months later.  By about age 4, you can find puzzles that have big pieces on one side and small ones on the other.  When a puzzle gets solve quickly, the next one will have smaller pieces in a greater number.  Ramp up slowly.  Sometimes you leave one on the dining room table and a piece at a time gets added, but someday your child will just sit down for 3 or 4 straight hours doing a singe puzzle.  At this point, you have won.  After talking to a more experienced mom about puzzles and interviewing her 4 year old, I invented this recipe.  Thanks for that, Puzzle Mom.

But kids end up doing well GAT programs who don't do puzzles.

At age 3, there are numerous craft books about cutting, pasting, folding and drawing.  These are a life saver if you are juggling a  pre-K kid, a toddler, and a baby, especially if you need quiet time.  I think my wife bought 2 or 3 thousand of these books and 3 or 4 laundry baskets full of felt, googly eyes, pipe cleaners, colored pencils and crayons of all types (there are a lot of types of crayons, especially German ones).  Our house is littered with crafts and origami characters.  Once you get past K, there are really cool books with cutout-fold-glue robots and monsters.  I'm not sure this guarantees 100% on COGAT folding questions, but it makes test prep easier to have a child who is used to sitting down and concentrating on shapes.

You'd think that sports would be counter productive but there are gifted kids who do sports morning noon and night.  What about kids who do Tai Kwon Do or ballet?  Does this give them an advantage?  There is really good research that says yes and I believe it.  But it probably wouldn't give an advantage to someone else.  Maybe it's kid specific.   So I invented fast walking while talking about math. 

We are faced with math facts again, my nemesis, this time with multiplication.  Timed math facts exercises have been banned by our school (perhaps the top school in the universe now that Aristotle and Plato are not around anymore).  But as every teach knows, a kid who hasn't learned their math facts is going to struggle on more advanced material.  Our teacher sent home a cryptic letter explaining that timed math facts tests are banned, but if you untwist the logic and read behind the lines she just announced that our class is doing them anyway.  So on our last Math Walk 2 miler, I introduced our newest exercise:  Explain to me, using parenthesis, how to do "6 x  7" using the least amount of mental energy.  Then we argued whether (3 + 3) x 7 is easier to do than (5 + 1) x 7.   The first one doubles 21 and the second one has 1 x 7 in the distribution step which has a mental energy level of zero.  We'll cover all math facts eventually this way, but we ended the walk with 1700 x 17 and there are 3 different ways that make this an easy problem to do on a walk.  Take that Math Facts.  The reason I like this exercise is that I can't get 9 year olds of any shape, size or color do comprehend parenthesis, at least in the context of a worth 9th grade problem.  But I can't get any kid who is an expert at memorizing math facts to understand pre-algebra at age 9.

I've always been really impressed with kids who spend an hour or 2 hours practicing an instrument with multiple lessons each weak from qualified musical experts.  Their accomplishments are really impressive outside of school and I suspect that they've gotten through the test and through the program with out a lot of effort.  These kids give stunning concerts.  This would never work for us.  We don't have 2 or 3 hours a day for practice what with the puzzles and math walks

So I invented Do-It-Yourself music in 20 minutes a day or less.   It works this way:  Here's the book, here's the instrument, here's the fingering chart, here's a copy of the Empire March.  Give me 20 minutes of squeaking and fumbling and complaining.  I'll check youtube to find out why we're squeaking and fumbling and fix things occasionally like finger placement.  Mostly I'm just happy that we get 20 minutes of squeaking and fumbling each day.  Once a song is played with the right tempo, we move to the next page.  I've found that as the year goes by, we actually achieve some sort of competence, not exactly the level of the competition from the last paragraph.  This still leaves plenty of time for crafts and puzzles and Minecraft programming and talking about what is canon in Star Wars and what is not and of course Math Walks.

There are ancillary benefits to the DIY music approach.  The summer before band, the little one went from zero to skipping the first year and joining the intermediate band on a new instrument.   Even more impressive is what is about to happen in Karate Recorder once his class gets their recorders.  Look it up, it's a great exercise and you should do it with a 3rd or 4th grade child.  Last weekend he found his older brother's recorder so I printed a fingering chart and the 9 songs for this program.  He started with the Black Belt song, and in about 90 minutes memorized all of them.  I should point out that gifted programs are zero competition - not even the slightest bit.  They just work together in teams.  This is both a really good thing and a really disappointing thing to a parent at the same time.  So my kid is going to walk in and trounce the other kids in Karate Recorder on the first day.  The older one warned us both that there are 29 other kids who are all super smart and they will gang up on him and crush him, which is why you don't want to do this.  Wise beyond his years.  But still, why pass up the opportunity?

I'm not taking any chances on the negative effects of sleep deprivation.  We've always had a 7 p.m. bed time because I like to get up really early and write.  Lately, we're still working on things past 9 pm, but at least we're doing it in PJ's and with teeth brushed.  Nonetheless, there are really great kids excelling who routinely get zero sleep.  But there are many more kids who don't get enough sleep and it ruins their education.

I'll have to finish my mega article in the next article.  I tried writing the two topics but they are too big to fit and too important. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

2017 Review of Practice Tests

I've completed my practice test review.   I already have a page for this so I just updated it.  You can find it here.

It was fun to lay the books out side by side for a full comparison.  Most of the market is in the K to 2nd grade range, so that is where I focused my efforts. 

The review left me with an overall sense that any of these books would work.  I noticed that some were harder than others and the original ones from past reviews still had a format that was closer to actual test.   Is it worth sacrificing format to save $15?  Maybe, maybe not.  It depends on the child and where the child is in their test prep program.

Some of the best new books were careful to mention the proper role of the practice test and it's value, which is both limited and critical.   Over time, other publishers have been marketing their books as Test Prep.  I'm not comfortable with this definition.  Preparing for a cognitive skills test means primarily developing the cognitive skills of your child.  A large quantity of practice problems is not the way to do this.  It doesn't hurt, and it helps at test time in certain ways, but kids at the 99% level of the academic bell curve generally didn't get there by practice tests.  I think this holds true for the math and verbal sections, especially verbal, where I recommend very little time with a practice book in most but not all cases.

In the few weeks leading up to popular test times, I get quite a few questions about what to do, and the time limit dictates a practice test and not much else.   This is a good start, and might be just enough in some cases, but it's important to me to provide direction and hope when asked.  There is always hope and there is always next year.

What I'm not going to mention in the review because I don't want to put anyone off is that I coach kids with material that is 3 to 5 times more complicated, more moving parts, more advanced that what is in a practice test.   It seemed obvious in theory and it worked really well in practice.  To get a 98% on a really hard test, over 100 questions in a 60 to 90 minute time frame, the the best way to prepare is to develop concentration, analytical skills, logic, soft skills, grit and working memory at the 130% level or higher, and that means a few problems a day that are more thorough.

If you happen to have a boy who is facing a test, but not before January, and you want to be part of my over the top research project for 1st grade, please send an email to   I'm working on Test Prep Level 1.  Ideally, you have tried and not passed the test before.  I won't guarantee that your child will pass the test, but I will provide custom material to close any gaps I find.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Time For A Practice Test

Test Prep season is almost over for some school districts.  Others will begin testing in December and continue through March.  I've been busy with cognitive skills training since about April and I'm ready for a break.

A practice test is the last step in test prep.  I recommend switching over about 2 weeks before the test.   In preparation, I bought practice tests from the two newest publishers that I don't have on my shelf.  The books will be here in a few days and I will lay out all of the books side-by-side against my charts of skills and report back my findings.

Teaching cognitive skills is, in general, counter intuitive and it's hard to get parents to switch gears to cognitive skills methods and away from the approach that schools use with school curriculum.  This has been the focus of my research lately - training parents to be GAT parents.  Using a practice test is also an odd exercise.

The goal of a practice test is to make sure the child understands the format and basic rules of the test, to prevent any mistakes or confusion from ruining the test, and to relax.

It is very common for a bright child to make up their own rules.  You can identify and correct this problem with a practice test.  It's common for children to forget to check all the possible answers before answering for 71 consecutive questions even though you told them to check all possible answers before answering on the last 70 questions.  Your voice will echo in their brain during the test, but many children won't give you that satisfaction during practice.

It is very common for a child that has already gotten a 98% on the test last year, and who is poised for a 99.7% on the next test - brace yourself - to get half or more questions wrong with a practice test.  The child's brain has a section dedicated to increasing anxiety and frustration in the parent, and this part, called the Frustracampus, is in charge of taking a practice test.

Understanding the format of the test and it's basic rules has been proven to add 4 points to a child's score.  It's not good for much more.  Two weeks is not enough time to turn a 65% child into a 99% powerhouse, but 4 points is 4 points so I recommend this step.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why The Word Board Is So Important

In most school districts, gifted and talented entry is based on the score sheet, and the score sheet includes an a line on it even scarier than test scores:  The teacher rates your child.  It's called the teacher inventory.

It doesn't matter how smart your child or how high the test score if the teacher rating is low.  There is a simple solution to the teacher score.  First, you need a creative, engaged, dedicated student.  That will help. But most of all you need an articulate student who raises his hand first and can express himself articulately at a level far beyond his peers.  Or her peers, as the case may be.

Like everything else that most people think is an innate gifted, talkativeness is a learned skill.

For this reason, The Word Board is much more important that I ever mentioned before.  Here is a little background.

The Word Board was originally conceived as a way to accelerate the process of mastering phonics and conceptual vocabulary in the context of Delia.

Delia was less than two years old at the time.  My child was in a mom and tot group with Delia.  Delia was reading a book, pointed to a picture, and said, "Look mom, it's the Eiffel Tower".  Once the other mothers got over the shock that Delia spoke in a complete sentence, they hovered over the book to verify that it was in fact a picture of the Eiffel Tower.  I heard about it for a week.

At the time, my research consisted of devouring studies and articles on the impact of vocabulary.  In his papers, the author of the COGAT mentioned that all cognitive skills are present during the process of learning to read (a fact known since 1911), that vocabulary is a thread that runs through all parts of a cognitives skills test, that a simple vocabulary test has about 75% of the predictive power of a cognitive skills tests.  I think these are nicely summarized in a chapter of Welcome to Your Child's Brain.  The more talking at home, the higher the level of vocabulary.  A higher level of vocabulary predicts a strong academic performance.  And of course cognitive skills tests are designed to predict academic performance.  The bottom line of all of this is vocabulary, whether you are staring at a figure analogy, a folding question, or a quantitative puzzle.  It's not intuitive until talk through a math question as described in the previous article.  And then it works.

Flash cards are the main competitor of the Word Board, but flash cards are about learning words or sounds or vocabulary.  The Word Board is about learning to think and answering questions.  It's about owning the answer to some inane question I just thought of.  The Word Board steps up to talking, defending, thinking, making things up on the spot.  On the spot is crucial.

Here's how the Word Board works:

1.  You put the unit on post it notes on the refrigerator.  This unit could be a phonics lesson, Vocabulary Workshop, Foss science vocabulary on the rocks unit, Wordly Wise for 6th grade, or freshman Chemistry (before freshman year, of course).  The kid has to earn it before a word comes down.  For a 4 year old, this could be reading the word adequately and making a face (in the beginning, but we're going to ramp up after that) and for a 2nd grader facing a GAT test, it may be parts of used by sounds like made of similar to and all other parts of the analogy skillset.

2.  The parent needs to pick up 2 important skills.   The first skill is to have a book or wiki or online thesaurus or map handy.  If the kid defines sap, that's good for lesson 5, but by lesson 43 "fleck" is going to need some differentiation between spot and bit and all things small.   The kid doesn't know these, so you'll just have to put up some more post it notes for the next trip to the Board.  You are going to do a lot of talking because you are the primary educator of the child.  By the next lesson, the bar just got raised.  In one session ( 2 years later) we started with cobble and pebble, and then I just kept adding words until I ran out of post it notes.   That first year I went from reasonably over educated to All Knowing Knower Of All Things.

3.  The second skill is grilling your child in an encouraging productive way so that the child is unable to leave the Board without a proper dissertation defense of whatever words are there.  As long as you have Zero Expectations and are OK With Mistakes and as patient as a pile of dirt, this will always go well.  With this approach, it's hard to do the Word Board without laughing about something.  I find, however, for most parents, especially the high strung ones with a GAT program in mind, these are totally learned skills.  You will know what I'm talking about when you are talking about the 6 words related to "fleck" and your child remembers zero of these until the third week.

Picture a child with a unit of 10 vocabulary words doing exercises and reciting definitions off of flash cards.  Then picture a child facing those 10 words on post it notes surrounded by 20 more that I just thought of and having to answer a bunch of questions on each all the while I'm sharing things off the map or new related words.  Some days, you may picture silence, but bad days are par for the course.

What I got out of this was a child who woke up at 6:30 am, started talking as he came out of his room, talked non stop the rest of the day and talked for about 20 minutes after his door was shut at bed time.  There's also hyperlexia, but I'll describe that later.  Plus so many words so fast the kid learns to listen carefully and memorize immediately.  But mainly I can ask difficult questions and get well thought out answers that go on for a long time.

Take that teacher inventory.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Panic Button

This is the time of year that my inbox fills up with panicky questions from parents.   In this article, I'm going to tell you exactly what to do when your child misses easy practice test problems and you panic. I've said this before but you need me to repeat it over and over again and you don't ever check your answers.

This is much better than the time of year (rapidly approaching) in which I'll get 100 questions like "I just found out that my child is taking a test called the CoGAT in 2 days.  Do you have any advice?" I actually have an aswer.

The Practice Test Panic Button

Step 1 - Stop Panicking
You're children are way smarter than my children were at that age and it doesn't matter because I used even way harder problems than you are using, and my kids missed most of them.  If my child got the problem correct, it would be a waste of time, and with the clock ticking, we can't afford any time wasting.

On normal not super hard problems, I usually observe a 50% error rate going into the test.  The parent voice doesn't kick in until you are not in the room.  Then in the child's brain it's like 'read the question reread the question look at all the answers choose one no guessing do it over check your work' and the child will need therapy after the test.

Step 2 - Backtrack
I used to talk about backtracking 6 years ago.  It was my go-to-crutch.  I demphasized it in my books because step 3 is faster and more effective, but Step 3 requires more time per question.

Backtracking is very useful in test prep situations, trying to do advanced math after skipping a year or two, and dealing with bad days for kids under 8 years old.

When you are struggling with folding questions, get out the paper, scissors and a whole puncher.  Spend some time doing the basics.  Cut out some shapes for the figure matrices and build your own figure analogies.  Even if you don't devise a corporate skills based training program in shapes, you'll take the pain out of test prep and it's a nice break.

Feel free to take a break and have your child make up their own questions one day.

Step 3 - Make An Easier Question
This is my new go to method and it has a bigger payoff but is harder to do.  Reduce the problem to the simplest variant you can think of.  The quantitative/visual-spatial problems in Shape Size Color Count are based on this method, as is problem solving in Geometry and Calculus, competitive math, and every thing in between.  It's more than powerful.

The premise of this approach is that you take all factors out of a hard problem and slowly add them back in so that your child can take an intuitive leap on each factor and own the complicated logic behind it.  We're looking for a light bulb to go off.

He are some examples:
  • The simplest version of the figure matrix you are struggling with is the top row with a piece of paper over the rest of the problem.  Slowly introduce the next 5 shapes (the bottom row has 1 shape and the answer set has 4 more).
  • For quantitative problems, the simplest problem is x = 1 or shape = 1 or even 1 = 1.  You can add elements back in.  I know this sounds silly, it takes experience to start with the right level and you can't go wrong with 1 = 1.
This teaching method goes way beyond super powers into the miraculous.

By the way, this year I've been watching 4 year olds who are doing Shape Size Color Count + Pre-K Phonics and Conceptual Vocabulary and the results are amazing as I predicted.  If your child is going this route, warn me at the end of K because I've got something special in the works.

Step 4 - The Blind Coach
All 9 sections of the test rest on a foundation of vocabulary and cognitive processes that manifest themselves in verbal skills.  Vocabulary is behind the whole thing, including the shape that gets wider instead of bigger.

Take out a blank piece of paper and ask your child to tell you how to draw the problem.   Take liberties on vague terms and don't put things where they belong unless instructed to do so.   This will frustrate some kids - what with having to think and do work and all - so you can draw a smiley face on a shape because he never said not to do so.

Expect about 5 iterations while your child learns to articulate what he sees.  What is actually happening is that the child realizes that what he sees and articulates is not what is actually on the page.  There's a lot more.  Light bulb.

For the verbal section, there is a variant called The World's Dumbest Parent, where the child has to explain every word to you and you just don't get it.  You kind of get the word 'spatula', but not quite.  Who uses it?  If it's in a group of things, what is that group called?  What is it used with?  Doing what?  Etc.  That only leaves 6 more words to work through before you can actually do the problem.  I'm hoping that experience sticks with your child when he's confused on the test.

I'm shooting for the verbal version of 'draw a picture'.  Draw a picture is a great problem solving strategy but lousy for problems that already start out as a picture.  I realize that some kids have different learning styles: visual, verbal, auditory, kinetic, etc.  These are all founded on a variety of previously learned skills and burned pathways.  During cognitive skills practice, I want to develop all of these learning styles.

Step 5 - Don't Do Things The Normal Way
There are a variety of other tricks I use with different age groups and different skill gaps.  For example, with fast answerers, we go through the whole book focusing on this question on each problem "what is the trick in this question" or "tell me an easier way to solve it" and I am not the slightest bit interested in the actual solution because I threw them away after I bought the book.   Or I announce the solution I like, which is the wrong one, and make the child prove to me that they are correct.  Or instead of giving the answer, I make them prove to me that their answer is the best one, choice-by-choice.

At some point you need to tell your child what to do when they are stuck on a question.  More importantly, in this article, I'm telling the parent what to do when stuck on a question.  Something's going to rub off on the child, either panic and frustration and impatience, or let's take a step back and try something different.  It's hard not to smile when I'm drawing the worst version of a matrix per instruction, staring with 1 = 1, or taking 20 minutes to do a single 3 minute question because I'm so dumb.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Apple Question

Lately I've been experimenting with small questions that pack a punch.

To qualify, a question has to have a small number of words (obviously) but the question should require the child to step out of their comfort zone and include some words that seem harmless or innocent but are in fact very demanding.  The question has to challenge the core skills with the exception of working memory which may not be possible under the circumstances.  The question can't be like a brain teaser that requires some outside trivia to answer.

Test Prep Math throws quite a few punches, especially in bonus questions.   The effect I'm looking for is "You can't expect me to answer that question.  My boring math book at school doesn't expect me to answer questions that require thinking.  This is not fair."  But small question that packs a punch would stand on it's own in terms of time requirements, and frankly 12 words on a page would look stupid, especially if some lucky kid takes 60 seconds to answer it.  Maybe I'll do some more experimentation for the 4th edition.

Here is the apple question.  I think this is suitable for ages 6 to 9 or 10.   I'll answer it below.

Describe in detail the third best way to eat an apple.

Some Background First

This line of research came from this question:  "Name the 4 arithmetic operators".

When teaching math, quantitative reasoning, or quantitative test prep to children under the age of prealgebra, it's pretty much all adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing.  For younger kids, it's halving and doubling instead of multiplying and dividing.  Countless times a child has been totally baffled by a question, and if they just took a step back and asked 'which of the 4 operators is this unusual diagram doing or word problem asking for?' then they could eliminate 3 of them and do the work.

When I first pointed out to my own child "It's got to be one of the arithmetic operators, just try them all and see which one works" he responded "what's an arithmetic and what's an operator?"   If this were reading, I would just explain away (of course the bear has an ulterior motive, let me explain greek tragedies...) but this is thinking practice, and a parent is not allowed to answer questions.   This question came up recently and it was a fun for me not to answer it with someone else's kids.  When you can get a child to tell you what 'arithmetic' and 'operator' mean and answer the question, you've got real learning going on.  This question packs a punch for the parent.

Back To The Question
The first response I get to the apple question is total bafflement that I would ask them a question like this so out of nowhere.   I've only asked this question only to kids who have at least started working with Test Prep Math so they all know they can't get out of it and I'm not going to help.   The older ones ask me to repeat the question and the younger ones just stare at me so I repeat it anyway.

That covers the first skill which is to be baffled without tears or frustration.

The range of answers I get is breath taking.   The best answers are kids who are thinking "Well, I eat it.  That's the normal way.  Sometimes mom cuts it up."  Then they are totally out of ideas and have to invent a convoluted apple eating machine or something.  Ideally I'll watch them attempting and discarding ideas before they announce the answer.  Other kids go a completely different route and think of apple recipes.  By the way, did you ever wonder why apple sauce was invented?  You'd know the answer if you were a German in 1870 and you were staring at a bountiful apple harvest rotting in the barn.

The answer is always wrong.  (Core skill #3, get it wrong).

Sometimes the kid names the method so we'll start reading the question again in more detail.  (Core skill #2).  It says 'describe in detail'.  I'll get a correction with more detail.

But in analyzing the question, there are the words 'third' and 'best', and these require a much more complete answer.  "Are you correct?  Prove it to me." I'll ask.  Because there is no solution manual for this problem, this requires naming the other 2 (which is the most fun when the child has already forgotten what they are) and then explaining why the third one is not as good as the first 2.

There are 2 more even punchier punches behind this question.

Years from now, if you can see into the future as far as 3rd or 4th grade, you might see your child turn in a project or paper that is almost complete.  You might even see a limited effort.  This is unlikely because in 3rd or 4th grade the rubric is usually very detailed.  By middle school detailed rubrics don't help.  You'll see a range of work from 'good job' to 'way over the top extraordinary' and the kids who hit 'way over the top'  impute all of the extra demands from a limited number of words in the rubric.  That's what I'm going for.

But the most punchy punch of The Apple Question is that for the kids at a certain level of skills, it only takes this single question for them to totally get it.   Children usually respond to follow-up punchy questions by demonstrating that they won't get fooled again.

An evaluation of long term results are under way.