Books!"Mum, my teacher doesn't think I'm good at reading," my daughter, Maia, said when she got off the bus yesterday. No mother wants to hear this.
Processing over Pirate Booty, I figured out the first grade teacher did not actually say this to Maia. She had just assigned kids to reading "bins" and "buddies." The bins contain books that are appropriate for the reading level at which each student has been assessed. And the kids read with buddies who are around the same reading level as them.
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Of course they don't use labels like the "smart bin." But kids measure their abilities against their peers. Maia knows she's at level four, and there is a kid in her class at level 16!
Maia attended Montessori preschool, which focused on learning through guided play. She knew about Picasso and the solar system, but she did not learn sight words. Most studies say teaching kids to read and write earlier and earlier doesn't necessarily mean better grades and test scores later on. In fact, facilitated play has been shown to help develop academic skills. So we weren't worried.
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Starting kindergarten in a highly competitive public school system was a rude awakening. We learned that many local preschools focused heavily on academic preparation. Maia's kindergarten teacher told us that having so many classmates starting school at such a high reading level impacted Maia's confidence. I saw this in her classroom last year. Maia was reading a book to me, and her friend came over and took over.
"It's ok, mom," Maia said, not wanting me to make a stink. "She's just a faster reader than me."
My husband and I are writers and teachers. Our kids read and write at home every day. In reality, Maia's reading level and development are age and grade appropriate. She loves first grade and is learning new things every day, but still she doubts her reading ability.
Redshirting kindergarteners seems to be fairly common in our town. This means waiting to enroll kids in kindergarten until they turn six. Maia started kindergarten a few months after she turned five, and I didn't consider holding her back. From the birthday chart the public schools sent out, I saw that she was eligible and didn't think twice-- partially because I was so happy to be finished with expensive preschool tuition.
Studies about the advantages of redshirting show that grades and test scores generally even out as the kids get older. But now I wonder about the intangible advantages of being older and more experienced than your classmates. Does the feeling that you are at the head of the class socially and academically in the early grades affect your development? Looking back, I wonder whether the extra year would've given Maia more confidence.
I don't want my daughter to feel like she "belongs" at a certain (low) reading level, because I am convinced this affects future performance and development. We tend to live up to what is expected of us. I was placed in a group of gifted and talented kids after we moved in the fourth grade by accident (my test scores were misplaced). After that, I believed I belonged with the "smart kids," even after my next round of standardized tests placed me back with a middle group.
For now, I am working with Maia double-time at home, trying to build her confidence. But I feel like I am trying to catch up in a race I didn't mean for either of us to be running in the first grade.
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