Sunday, March 18, 2012

Is Griffin ready for preschool?

Now that Griffin has been admitted to the bilingual preschool program at Pioneer Elementary for the fall, he had to undergo a screening, probably to see if any of the new students will need extra help (speech therapy, physical therapy, etc.).  The county requires this screening for all new preschool students, not just those at the bilingual school.

Griffin and his daddy in front of Pioneer, or rather, in front of a giant inflatable bowl of Quaker Oats  commemorating Lafayette's annual Oatmeal Festival, held at the school
My husband and I were very curious to see what this process might entail--especially since we've never received any sort of formal evaluation or progress report or had a parent-teacher conference from his current preschool--so we both accompanied him.   My inner applied-linguistics-student had a lot of fun trying to figure out what they were checking for and how!

For example, at the "language station," the evaluator showed Griffin individual pictures of common objects and asked him to identify them--for example, a feather.  As he said the words, she took notes on a form.  The only one Griffin couldn't identify was the tweezers, and I'm not surprised--I don't think he's ever had a splinter, so he's probably never seen tweezers used, and it's not as if tweezers appear in any of his favorite children's books.  (Come to think of it, I don't even know how to say tweezers in French!)  Then she showed him a page with pictures of all of the items from the previous task and asked him to point to the tweezers, which he did correctly.

When she asked him to chant the letters of the alphabet, on the other hand, he refused.

It's not a surprise that he did well at the language station--Griffin has always loved books.
Then while we were waiting for the next station, I peeked inside the form that she had given us to hand to the next evaluator--I mean, she didn't explicitly tell us it was off-limits, right?  Turns out that what we had assumed to be a simple vocabulary test was also a task targeting specific sounds--the /th/ in feather, for example--because that section of the form had the phonemes listed for her to check off as to whether or not they were pronounced correctly.  And for the vocab, there were two boxes for each term: active and receptive. Since Griffin couldn't produce the word for tweezers, but could identify them, he had receptive knowledge of the word.  Interesting stuff!

Another task at the language station left me a little confused.  She showed Griffin a drawing of a family in a kitchen and led him through a series of questions (which I will do my best to transcribe a month later):

--Do you see anything that starts with the sound /f/?
--Do you see anything that doesn't look right?
--There's a banana peel on the floor.
--What should they do about that?
--Pick it up!
--What else isn't right in this room?
--There's a bug flying over the table.
--Why is there a bug in the kitchen?
--Because the kitchen door is open.
--What should they do about the bug?
--The daddy should hit it with the thing that makes it dead.
--What do you call the object that you use to kill a bug?
--The thing that makes it dead.  [At this point, watching her take notes about his responses, I so wanted to say, "He does know the word 'fly swatter' in French!  That counts!"]

You see, Griffin and flyswatters go way back.
--Griffin, now I have a question for you.  If you're playing with a toy, and it breaks, what do you do?
--I go ask my daddy to play something else with me.
--Do you ask your daddy to do anything else?  [This was a leading question, clearly trying to get him to say something along the lines of "fix the toy," but Griffin wasn't going there.  Later, I saw that she had credited him 0 out of 2 points for his response to the broken toy question.]

One thing really jumped out at me: how good my husband and I are at deciphering Griffin-talk.  We're so used to his linguistic quirks--certain mispronounced sounds (/th/, /r/), certain charmingly garbled words (like "goofball" for "golf ball"), his French-isms (such as "put it at the trash" because of the influence of "a la poubelle")--and we know to what he's referring when he mentions things like his "honey car" (a yellow Matchbox race car emblazened with the Honey Nut Cheerios logo) or "sausage rolled over with pancake" (a breakfast treat from the freezer consisting of a turkey sausage on a stick which has been dipped in pancake batter).

Griffin (usually) is perfectly comprehensible to us--this evaluation process was a good reminder that not everyone else can follow everything he says.

We felt a little insulted at first, in fact, when the language evaluator asked his what his full name was and Griffin eagerly announced his first, middle, and last name.

--Hmmm, well, I guess that's close enough.

His dad and I shot glances at each other.  Up to that point, we had done a pretty good job of not interrupting or prompting or even reacting to his responses so as not to influence his answers, but there, we had to butt in.

--What do you mean, "close enough"?  That's exactly it!
--Oh, I guess I didn't understand him.

During this two-hour-long process, we filled out a long questionnaire about his behavior, social skills, and so forth (fortunately, none of the questions concerned his incessant, gleeful, very public nose-picking, or we might have been tempted to prevaricate).  Griffin also did tasks for evaluating his gross motor skills (toss a bean bag at a target, hop on one foot, etc.) and fine motor skills (cut a dinosaur shape out of paper), plus had a health screening (height, weight, verify paperwork for vaccinations, etc.).

Picking one's nose is an excellent demonstration of one's fine motor skills.
At the latter, they also checked his vision, which necessitated a secondary screening in the nurse's office, where she used a very high-tech machine to test his vision in seconds (which thoroughly impressed my husband, whose PhD is in optical engineering and who works as a systems engineer developing cameras for weather-type satellites).  But, yay, Griffin doesn't need glasses!  (Yet.)

Gross motor skills really aren't an issue for our constantly-in-motion boy.
He even wields a mean snow shovel...
...and plays a passable ragtime.
We were very proud parents during the "concepts" tasks, watching Griffin hit it out of the park, blow it out of the water, knock the evaluator's socks off, and [insert favorite cliche here].  For instance, she placed colored cubes in front of him and asked him to locate various colors.  After he had pointed to the eight or so she had called out, she started to put the blocks away, but he interrupted her to tell her that she hadn't asked for the red one yet (and then helpfully gave it to her).

And here's a fun one:
--Griffin, how high can you count?
--Fifty-nine?!  [to us]  The form only goes up to twenty!

Board game? Yoga? No, math!
My husband hypothesized that 59 is his limit because Griffin's beloved Snakes and Ladders puzzle game has numbered pieces that he has to put in order before he can play it, and the last number is 59.  And I know that his counting ability in French falls apart in the sixties, doubtlessly because you have to do math: "seventy" is actually "sixty-ten," "eighty" is "four-twenties," and "ninety-nine" is "four-twenties-ten-nine"!  Silly French numbers.

After the concepts screening, the evaluator pulled us aside and said, "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but these tasks are designed for three- to six-year-olds, and your son, who is barely four, has a perfect score on all of them."

Beaming parents, with children and farm-fresh produce.
Did I mention that Griffin's parents were very proud?!

One other highlight of this station: we found out that Griffin can count backwards from ten to one!  We'd never done that with him at home, so based on how quickly he spouted the numbers, I assumed that he had heard it at preschool and just memorized the sequence.  But later, when I asked him to count backwards in French--which I know for sure that he had never done or heard before--he managed just fine.

Anyway, we're proud of him (and of us) and very much looking forward to seeing what develops when he enters the dual-language immersion preschool program and adds Spanish to the mix!  And we're confident that one day soon he'll be counting to 100, whacking bugs with his own flyswatter, leaping tall buildings with a single bound, and picking his nose in private.

While I don't have a photo of Griffin using a flyswatter, you can still check out his  technique when whacking a pinata.


  1. Hello! Great article. I'm sure you are very proud. I'm having a baby boy in a few months and I'm hopeful some day someone will tell me about how advanced he is. It's not real surprising, as a lot of bilingual research says that concepts are grasped at earlier ages and with greater ability by bilingual children. Speaking of... how is Griffin's french going? I'm thinking of raising our son trilingual in a non-native language however I have some doubts... I certainly don't have the proficiency that you have in French in German and would have to work very hard the next few years before my son really starts talking a lot to get up to the point for it to be feasible... but I could do it. I'm a bit confused, though, as to whether or not it would really sink in and be valuable. However, I have thought about doing whatever I can and then, when he gets the opportunity to go to a school, big a bilingual German/English school as my wife and I keep speaking 100% Spanish at home. Any thoughts?


  2. Hi Jeff, and welcome, and congratulations on your soon-to-arrive baby boy!

    Griffin's receptive/passive knowledge of French is quite good--I'd say he can understand French almost as well as he understands English. He prefers speaking English, but is still willing to speak French when prompted; familiar words and phrases come easily to him, but he has to stop and think about longer or more complex or less common ideas before he can create the sentence in French. He code switches from time to time as well.

    I'm not sure how to respond to your question about raising your son trilingually--can you give us a little more information, like where you live, what you and your wife's native language(s) are, and how likely it is that he'll be able to attend a G/E school when he's older?

    Research indicates that for a child to become fluent in a language, he needs to spend about 1/3 of his waking hours immersed in the language. That means that raising a child trilingually and expecting him to have equal ability in each language is very challenging, especially if the parent(s) work outside the home.

    And I will caution you that once baby boy arrives, it will be much harder to carry on as normal, plus take care of the baby, plus become proficient in another language!

    On the other hand, you don't have to be fluent to share German with him. Songs, books, games, rhymes, fingerplays--you can do all that with him to help prepare him for a bilingual school down the road.

    Hope this helps! Give us more info if you get a chance!

  3. Sounds like a pretty strict preschool!! You must be very proud of Griffin! As far as I know "bilingual" nurseries here aren´t so strict,nor unfortunately as "bilingual" as I´d like!

    1. Since Pioneer is part of the county's public elementary schools, and has been a dual-language immersion school for 12+ years, I suspect that they follow stringent guidelines about how to make the bilingual instruction work both for the native English speakers (50% of the students) and the native Spanish speakers (50%).

      Private daycares and preschoolers can probably do whatever they want as far as how "bilingual" to make it!

  4. You should be proud! How amazing!

    We went through a similar but much less stringent inteview process for my son's kindergarten. At the time I was on maternity leave so his English was stronger than his Japanese and I wanted to always interject that he knew the word in English!

    When it came time for my daughter they know so much about her that it was basically her spending the entire allotted time singing soccer fan songs in Japanese. I am not sure what that says about our family...

    1. I think it says that your children are enthusiastic, well-adjusted, and open-minded in two languages! :)