Friday, May 22, 2015

Taking on the COGAT - Part 1

This is the first in my series of exploring the COGAT, my favorite of all tests.  I tried to start with an introduction, but I just ramble on, so instead we're going to jump into question 1 and I'll comeback to the introduction later.

There is a sample on the web from the publisher, but it will never come up with a google search because of all of the money to be made from the COGAT.  Here is a power point presentation from the test maker, David Lohman.  He also has 50 other academic papers on this site and they're all worth reading if you are insane.  On page 15 he introduces a same question for each section.

There are 3 sections on the COGAT: the verbal section, the math section, and the figure section.   I decided that we would read a lot to cover the first section, master math at the PhD level before the test, and then spend most of our prep time on the last section to give us a competitive advantage, hopefully making up for any weakness we have in the first section.

Most of the parents I've talked to have told me that their child magically got into the program (aka became braniacs and passed the test) by simply reading a lot at all times most of the day.  I agree with this approach, but test prep doesn't diminish your chances.

It's not a bad idea to do some test prep for the 1st section to give your child an opportunity to familiarize himself with the way the test works and get some wrong so that he learns to pay attention better and not think that he knows everything.  But the problem with vocabulary is that there is a lot of it and making your child memorize 1000 vocabulary words will leave permanent psychological scars that I'm still paying a therapist to fix.

In PreK, we struggled a bit on the verbal section of the first test (it was the OLSAT).  I won't tell you the word, but he could have figured it out if he crossed out some of the obviously incorrect answers.   After this, we started the first book of the Vocabulary Workshop series.  There's nothing more motivating for a child to learn to cross things out  than having to do vocabulary on a Saturday morning.  There was no better test prep for a verbal section than this book if you child has learned to read.  Because of this book, we did much better on the COGAT the following year which was the test he needed to pass.

I think my approach to reading was pretty good, but some of the kids go a year or 2 beyond this before 1st grade. I'll cover a special example after I describe what I did.

Below is what you do from Age 1.  For those of you reading this a few months before the test, the only thing I would do is either the verbal section from the Building Thinking skills book or the first Vocabulary Workshop book.  My first son passed the test with almost no reading skills (my bad) and only 2 months to prepare after I found out about this test.  Our strategy was to concentrate on the other parts of the test and we did very little for the verbal section.

Age 1-2
Talk all the time to your child.  Narrate everything that you are doing, e.g., "Mommy is taking her keys out of her pocket and opening the door.  I am unlocking the door with my key.  I turn my key to the right, and the door unlocks.  Now I am removing my key and putting it back in my pocket..."

Any parent who pulls this off for a year creates a super genius.   I couldn't do it.  My conversations were more along the lines of "Get your finger out of your brothers ear.  Stop touching his head.   Get away from your brother..."

Do not use baby talk ever.  Ever.

Age 3 
Read a lot to your child all day long.  Get really good books.  Find a list of book awards and illustrator awards.   Find a list of every book that won the award and check all of them out of the library.  Read them to your child, and with the good ones, read them over and over and  over.

Age 3 1/2
Start with the letter blocks and teach the letter sounds but not the name of the letter.  Three months later, start with C-A-T and see if he can read it.  This will take 6-8 more weeks, and when he can, move on to D-O-G.

Age 4
The most important part of reading is Read-To, so we kept up the Award Books program.   Then I made a list of each book in every Beginning Reader Series and checked 12 of these out of the library per week.  Of these, maybe 1 or 2 would actually be at the appropriate level, and I'd make a note to get the others again when we got there.   The leveling is horrible.   I created my own leveling system by marking ordering the list on the books I returned without reading, and then I checked them out again later.

I read most of the book, and he read a word, then a sentence, and increased from there.

At this time I got an older version of Hooked on Phonics, and we started on page 1, again a little at a time. This series was worth it.  If the price is too high, you can just google phonemes and make your own list for each sound, starting with 3 letter words for the simplest of all sounds, and then going to 4 and 5 letter words, then bigger ones.  It takes about 5 minutes per phoneme.   There are only about 30 of these.

Here is the "at" list.  Cat, bat, GAT, hat, mat, Nat, pat sat, scat, etc.   That's it what the series used to be. HOP included about a dozen little books specially made for each section, but with all the beginning readers from the library, we didn't make a big deal out of the books.  Just a list of words with similar sounds that we read each week. We also made letter cards (c,a,t,m,p,s from the list above, one letter per card) and he arranged the letters into words as I read off the list.

Age 5
Once he got through all of the Beginning reader series and started to move to easy chapter books, I got the first Vocabulary Workshop book.  He loved it.

By this time, I had been studying the tests for about 2 years.   While I wasn't great in the verbosity department, I do appreciate the nuances of words, so I was happy to explore opposites, synonyms, and similar yet different words.  We covered a lot of new vocabulary, and with each word I would be happy to explore it and its neighbors just for the fun of it.  Take the words Hold, Grasp, Clasp, and Clutch.   Grasp introduced to my son by Hooked on Phonics, and we ended up talking about all of them.   Kids love to learn and can pick up a lot quickly, but I wanted him to pick up on the concept of shades of meaning and appropriate context for each word choice.  If he asked what a word meant, it was a long discussion.  That was my way of making up for not talking nonstop during his first 2 years of life.

The Building Thinking skills books have very easy sections on figures (more on what we did later) so we moved quickly.  By the time we got into the 4-6 Grade book, the figure questions were hard, but the verbal sections were downright impossible.  He didn't even know much of the vocabulary in the question let alone the official vocabulary words he was supposed to consider.   We did a little bid, and spent a lot of time exploring word meaning and guessing.  I think this helped.

We also tried 3rd and 4th grade reading comprehension questions.  I don't know if this helped, or even if this required the same cognitive skills used by the COGAT.  But it was really great for the executive skills needed for the test, like high degree of concentration.

Was all of this test prep worth it?  I'm not sure how it impacted his score, but the skills he picked up along the way make him a great reader, not just processing verbal coding and syntax, but thinking deeper about the content and retaining most of what he reads.  There's very little he doesn't understand when he reads, and vocabulary is one of his strong points.   I know many dads who spend hours each week teaching their six year olds how to master a sport.  It is much more likely that my son will benefit from the time we spent reading and mastering vocabulary then he would benefit from the soccer travelling team.

Special Cases
We have a friend who has kids are at least 3 times as smart as us.  They have a family room full of bookshelves.  The dad went to the Brown Elephant and other resale shops and bought boxes of books for just a few bucks.   He won the Competitive Parent Magazine's Competitive Parent of the Year award in 2012.

Last year's Competitive Parent of the Year award winner is this couple from Poland who speak with broken English but produced a 6 year old who reads at the 3rd grade level in 2 languages.   "She taught herself to read" they claimed at the award ceremony.  Liars.   They won't tell me what they did other than they make her take a Polish immersion course every Saturday for much of the day.   I told my son that this classmate of his is his Nemesis.  "What's a Nemesis?" he asked.   Rival, arch enemy, competitor, opponent, adversary, challenger, foe...

What's Next
I didn't bother to dissect and reverse engineer the 3 verbal sections of the COGAT.   In my next article in this series, I'm going to take on at least one of the math sections and things are going to get a lot more interesting.


  1. for age 5 reading comprehension which books did you use? Do you recommend to use reading comprehension workbooks or test prep workbooks?

  2. See my next article where I answer the question. I used 2nd grade ITBS and SAT test prep books and read the questions using my finger under each word so he could follow along.

  3. One of the parents in my Parents Forum pointed out a bunch of misspellings in this article. Sorry about that. I was typing in a Starbucks as fast as I could and my 6 year old was filming a movie trailer and kept pestering me to film him.

  4. Steck Vaughn test prep - did you use the old version or 2014 version (core skills houghton mufflin harcourt)?