Closing the gap (English)

As I had mentioned in previous posts, it takes A LOT to achieve Chinese literacy level above ILR level 3 (age adjusted).  The way I had suggested is to “open the gap” between Chinese and English reading proficiency, by strongly emphasizing Chinese literacy and proficiency before working on English.  The result is that the child will have to “close the gap” and catch up in English as s/he approaches middle school.  This can be a VERY stressful few years for the parents, ourselves included.

I am going to use dd#2 “Georgia”‘s reading comprehension as an example.  Since third grade (7 years old at time, as she skipped a grade), Georgia has taken TerraNova test annually at school.  It is a national normed standardized achievement test.  Compared to other third graders at the time, she scored in the 78th percentile in reading comprehension.  I had expected that her reading comprehension, along with other more English intensive parts of the test, would improve over time.  I spent a good bit of time working with her on her English assignments, gradually letting her do more and more independent work on her own.  In fourth grade, her reading comprehension score improved to 92nd percentile.   However, by fifth grade (spring of 2016), she did worse in almost all areas and scored 45th percentile in reading comprehension.  That really threw us off and put us in “DEFCON 2” “emergency mode”.

After some “root cause analysis” early summer, we decided that Charlotte really needs to read English more.  She had not picked up English reading previously, preferring to read her Chinese comics.  So, upon her return from 6 weeks of educational trip to Taiwan in mid-July, we worked on her English more and made a few changes to her routine.  We figured that the time she spent on iPad, YouTube, TV, and Chinese comics have had a negative impact on her interest in English reading.  So, we cut out most of her electronics time and put away most of her Chinese comics, except for the science/history/finance comic series.  Georgia did not take it well initially, with a few tears shed.  I asked that she does a certain amount of English reading (Harry Potter series) almost every day and started reviewing her homework assignment with her more intensively again.

After 3 months of effort, Georgia now enjoys English reading much more and has done much more reading as well.  She quickly got used to the new routine and is a happy camper again, which is very important to us, of course.  To assess her progress, I decided to get her tested privately, outside of school.  Since TerraNova can only be administered by school or homeschoolers, I chose BASI, which is another standardized and normed achievement test that is administered at testing centers.  Georgia took the two hours computer test today.  She thought the test was difficult but had “fun” taking it.  We are pleased that her reading comprehension has rebounded to 90th percentile, up from 45th percentile just a few months ago!  What a sigh of relief!  (And this is normed to students who are on average one year older than she is.)

We hope that with continuing concerted effort, her English reading comprehension percentile score will improve further by the end of the school year.  I may get her tested privately again in 3-4 months to monitor her progress.  So, if things go well, we won’t need to pull her back a grade.

(In case some parents are wondering, her math rebounded also and she scored 95th percentile compared to other sixth graders.  That should improve further over time, as she will do better on word problems with improving English and maturity.)

At the mean time, we had continued our Chinese lessons, though at a slower pace.  Georgia continues to read youth novels from 東方世界少年文學 series several days a week.  She continues to practice Chinese reading-aloud with video recordings as shown on this blog.  We haven’t done much Chinese writing recently though.  On the side, she continues to take guitar group lessons at school and is the “top” player for her grade level, though she is still a novice player.  She also enjoys tennis lesson once a week.




Updates on “Mind the gap”

As I have indicated before in a prior POST, it is important to have a stronger foundation in Chinese than English early on, before the age of ~ 8.

“One important aspect of achieving early high level competency in Chinese (by ~8 years of age) is that the parents likely have to forgo high level English competency early on.  Compared to Chinese, English is so easy to learn in the ELE that surrounds us, that children will instinctively favor speaking English and reading English books, unless they have much stronger Chinese listening/speaking/reading proficiency.  Therefore, the parents have to create a English-Chinese proficiency differential in favor of Chinese early on, for which I have coined the term “open the gap”.  Toward the end of this phase, it is important that the children can enjoy the CLE through multimedia AND reading.  The inability to read a variety of Chinese books that the children are interested in by around the end of third grade can often deal a critical blow to the children’s interest in the CLE.  (And this is one major benefit of learning phonetics, either zhuyin or pinyin.)  However, around the end of third grade, it is important to start catching up in English proficiency, given that the transition from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn takes center stage in subject classes +/- annual standardized testing.  I call this phase, “close the gap”.  It often takes at least a couple of years (~3 years for my elder daughter) to close the gap to achieve native level English proficiency, matched for age and intellect.  That period of time can be nerve-racking for parents, and probably intolerable by parents without decent command of English and/or decent understanding of English pedagogy.  I think it can be critical that one of the parents have decent English proficiency, so that the parents are willing to “open the gap” in the beginning and then know how and when to “close the gap”.  If neither parents has decent English proficiency, such as when both parents are adult immigrants and neither had learned English reasonably well, they may not be comfortable with this aggressive approach to learning Chinese for their children.  On the other hand, if the child is gifted and the parents can establish a good CLE, it is possible that the child can learn both languages reasonably well early on at the same time.  Regardless of the circumstance, it still takes lots of work for the child to learn Chinese reasonably well (IRL level 3 and above) and English very well (native level) by early teens and lots of patience and work too (plus frustration!) for the parents.  Luckily, parents of this generation can take comfort in the experience of tens of thousands of youth immigrants who immigrated to the US in the 1980s and 1990s around their tween years and had been able to catch up in their English while retaining much of their Chinese.  “

To put things in perspective, my elder dd “Charlotte” was able to read Chinese youth short stories and then young adult novels WITHOUT phonetics starting at ~ 10.5 years old.  She was capable and able to truly enjoy reading English youth/young adult novels starting ~ 10-10.5 years old, using the Harry Potter series as the reference point (Lexile rank 880-1030, mostly ~ 900 or grade 5-6 reading level).  She was in 5th grade when both mile stones were reached.  [Previously, her English was so terrible by the middle of third grade (sigh, by my design – CLE, yes) and her Chinese was not good enough still, that I pulled her out of school, along with her younger sister in kindergarten, to homeschool them for ~ 20 months. ]

Moving forward a few years, my younger dd “Georgia”, was able to read Chinese young adult novels without phonetics at ~ 9.5 years old (see POST), about a full year before Charlotte was able to do so.  Based on their relative progress in Chinese acquisition, I was pretty confident several years ago that Georgia would reach that milestone at an earlier age and she did.

After homeschooling them, we let Georgia skip a grade unto third grade upon their return to your typical all English private school, since there is no good public gifted program in our small, relatively rural, town.  I knew that we will have to work on “closing the gap” in English along the way.  Georgia was able to do relatively well but did show sign of deficiency in areas where English proficiency is important.  We continued our CLE at home but did spend extra time to work with her on English, trying to “close the gap”.  I have to say that the last three years have been trying, as the instruction (English, of course) shifts more and more from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”.  It was our hope that Georgia would start to catch up in English in 5th grade, like her sister, though she would be one year younger than her sister at the same grade (9 instead of 10).

Well, that didn’t happen.  Using the Harry Potter series as a reference point once again, it was not till this week that Georgia, who just started middle school, is capable and able to truly enjoy reading the novels.  She is now engrossed in reading the series in earnest, on her own time.  She is right in the 10-10.5 years age range at this point, just like her elder sister was three years earlier.  This comes as a relief for us, especially since the second chapter of her sixth grade’s World History textbook is very dense, discussing some fundamentals concepts, such as trade, globalization, business cycle, supply/demand curves, before moving unto the easier story-telling portion of of the textbook.  The entire textbook, to no surprise, assumes competent 6th grade English proficiency.  It is definitely NOT “learning to read”.  So, it is a BIG relief that Georgia finally starts to “get it” and should “close the gap” in the coming 2 years.  This whole scenario would have not been as “acute”, had we not allowed her to skip a grade, since she would have an extra year of cushioning.  It seems that Georgia applied her “intellect deferential” to Chinese (1 year ahead of Charlotte), and not so much English (similar to Charlotte).

Both my daughters’ experiences mirror those of tens of thousands of youth immigrant like myself (1.5 generation) and many of you in our initial struggle to learn English.  It is infrequent to see such “ordeal” in heritage children born and raised here.  In the unintentional and “natural” scenario that such occurs, those children were probably raised in ethnic enclaves in one way or another.  What I had designed was to create such an “artificial ethnic enclave” through heavy doses of CLE + “accelerated” Chinese language instruction early on, such that my daughters kind of grew up as 1.5 generation youth immigrant instead of as 2.5 generation, despite being born and raised here.  Given no prior published “success” stories to guide me, that was what I figure would take to get them to achieve ~ ILR level 3.5-4 Chinese proficiency and native level English proficiency, matched for age and intellect.

Is it doable?  Yes……, even in relatively rural eastern North Carolina, but the family have to have the resources, knowledge, and grit to pull it off.  But it sure is tough and not for the faint of heart.  As I had mentioned in prior post, I knew it would be tough.  But I was wrong.  It was tougher than I had ever imagined.  (But, it depends on your expectation, of course.)


Lastly, a couple of corollary, observation, and comment:

  1.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that it is next to impossible for any Chinese immersion school in the US to conduct subject instruction (namely, science and social studies) competently in Chinese by 6th grade level.  The demand for Chinese language proficiency is simply way too high.  Just look at the English textbook and imagine the same book in Chinese!  Also, even upper elementary math word problem would be too difficult for many.
  2. Based on my daughters’ intellect (observed and tested), they should have been able to enjoy reading the first few Harry Potter novels by or during third grade (~ 8 years of age) at the latest, had they been effectively monolingual  in English.  Instead, it took them till 10 years of age to do so.  That occurred by design, namely through years of heavy doses of CLE.  Those two year gap was the “price” we had to pay.  Had I shifted and accelerated their English learning pace, I would have increased the risk of them not being able to read Chinese young adult novels early enough, thus not achieving my initial goal.


I propose two new terminologies:

Two favorable conditions for the child to achieve very good Chinese (ILR level 3 or above) in both speaking and reading by their teens seem to be for the lead parent/care giver involved to 1) converse pretty much in only Chinese with the child, both ways, and 2) at least one of the parents has good English proficiency, so that the parents are willing to let English slide in the beginning (“open the gap”), thus creating a proficiency differential in favor of Chinese in the beginning, know when to catch up in English (“close the gap”), and has the means to close the gap.

This does not apply for those who pick up more Chinese in adulthood.

If you have more than one child and hope that the younger children also have good Chinese, I recommend much heavier dose of Chinese than English for the eldest child. You need that eldest one to have excellent colloquial skill up through, say, middle school to benefit the younger siblings. (And reading proficiency is needed to complement / reinforce speaking proficiency and to maintain interest.) That was my plan from the beginning. Except, I had no idea whether the whole thing is feasible and how things would turn out, since nobody has done it before AND shared the experiences, as far as I could find. So, my elder daughter’s English did lag behind initially to the benefit of my younger one. But she was able to catch up by the end of 5th grade. Parents really can’t be sure if the first child’s Chinese will be strong enough to converse fluently with the second child all the way through 8-9 years old (for the younger child); therefore, I think it is more prudent to overshoot in Chinese initially for the eldest child, as one can always catch up in English in middle school, as so many youth immigrants had done before.

My younger daughter would have gotten much less practice in Chinese if not for my elder daughter.  Afterall, after ~ 8 years old, it is extremely difficult to find fluent Chinese speaking peers to play with, at convenient times and frequent intervals.

What do you think?