Brain the size of a planet

Today I met a kid named Marvin. It was a pleasure and a privilege and a truly strange experience.

How I met Marvin

Part of my job is to meet with parents who may want to sign their kids up for phonics or reading classes conducted by the company I work for, My English School. I test the kids to see how much they already know so that I can recommend the most suitable program.

After Marvin’s mom apologized (in English) for her “bad English”, she said she had brought him to the centre because his childcare teacher had told her his English was weak.

Children growing up in bilingual households may be weaker in one or both languages than their monolingual peers—assuming they have any. Marvin’s parents are Singaporeans who use Chinese at home, while his preschool uses English.

Vocabulary

Given his age, and given what his mom had said, I was not expecting Marvin to be able to name many of the twenty-seven pictures on the first page of the assessment paper. I’ve heard kids call the window a door, a whiteboard, and a mirror, and the yo-yo has been called a ball, a lemon, and even a hamburger, despite its vertical orientation. Two of the pictures represent abstract groups of things, ‘insects’ and ‘vegetables’, so kids tend to name one of the things in the picture, assuming they can isolate something identifiable. ‘Butterfly’ is considered acceptable in place of ‘insects’.

Not only did Marvin name the window, the yo-yo, and the vegetables, he also called the strawberry jam ‘jam’ and not ‘strawberry’, and he didn’t confuse the tiger and the lion like a lot of kids do. This from a child with supposedly weak English. Strange.

Marvin didn’t know ‘thumb’, but he was, like, over-the-moon thrilled when I demonstrated. He kept high-fiving my thumb with his thumb and had the biggest grin on his face. He kept imitating me saying ‘thumb’ and got better and better at it each time, like he was having the time of his life, or trying to permanently engrave the correct pronunciation into his memory, or both.

First Sounds

Right, so the next step is to ask the child to say the first sound of the words for all those pictures. I wasn’t expecting Marvin to understand this kind of question, because kids his age usually don’t. Usually the assessment just stops there. But Marvin’s assessment was far from over. Very, very far from over.

Although he started out by answering with letter names (thus revealing an arguably more advanced skill than the one being targeted), he figured out very quickly what I actually wanted him to do and answered all but two of the questions correctly.

What did he miss? He kept saying /s/ for ‘sheep’ instead of /sh/, and he didn’t say the /th/ sound of ‘thumb’ correctly. Never mind, 80% to 90% of the kids here—and, I dunno, maybe also half of the adults—say /f/ or /t/ instead, and mainland Chinese say /s/.

The Alphabet

Okay, moving on to the letter names and letter sounds. I was expecting Marvin to know some of them because he had already told me some of the letter names when I was asking for first sounds.

In fact, he knew all the letter names and letter sounds. He spat most of them out quickly, confidently, and systematically, as if he had been looking forward to and preparing for this test his entire life—which in a way I suppose he had.

Then we had like a little mini-lesson on how /ch/ is almost like /j/ but not quite. He was super into it. The actual chairs we were sitting in were referenced delightedly and emphatically. Then I told him that ‘s’ and ‘h’ together is how we write the first sound of ‘sheep’, the sound that he had struggled with on the previous page.

I mean, the assessment is supposed to be about what the student knows or doesn’t know, but I can’t resist an opportunity to teach a kid something. Especially a curious kid so obviously keen to learn.

Nonsense Words

Letter sounds was absolutely the most I would possibly have expected this kid to have been taught by his parents and preschool. Still, just for the sake of completeness, I asked the mom whether he had done any ‘blending’, i.e., putting sounds together. She made vague dissenting noises, but I gave Marvin an example anyway, just to prove that blending was definitely over his head.

He interrupted me halfway through the example to pronounce the nonsense word I was writing for him.

Welp. Read me these other three-letter nonsense words, then, why don’t you?

And he did.

He needed my help with the four-letter nonsense words, and his vowel sounds were a little off, so I could “only” give him full credit for three of the five. Regardless of whether I ticked the boxes, he seemed to want to go through the words until he had said them all correctly.

Then he read me two or three of the five-letter nonsense words.

So I was like, hm. If he can blend, maybe he knows some real words? Onwards to the next page of the assessment!

Sight Words

He took one look at ‘the’ and said ‘this’. He said it several times. Uh, nope. Maybe he didn’t know any sight words after all. Maybe we had reached Marvin’s limit.

Uh, nope. Not even close.

He went on to correctly read ‘and’ and maybe nine or ten more of the twenty-four sight words. He made a solid stab at pronouncing all of them (without guessing other random English words), and copied me when I told him the right answers. He even copied some of my example sentences aloud.

Most kids are like, Whatever, let’s get this thing over with. They don’t stop and correct their own mistakes. Or if they do, then they want me to tick the box to give them credit even though I helped them. Marvin didn’t seem to care at all about the boxes. He cared about the words.

When examining the words he didn’t recognise, Marvin pointed at the letters of the word from right to left and spoke their names. It was like he was studying, trying to fetch old knowledge from his brain or upload new knowledge into it. I can’t remember ever seeing a kid do that during the assessment. Such intensity.

Sentences

After he read the word ‘weight’ (!), I got him to try reading the first line of a paragraph of simple sentences with lots of short-a words in them.

“Dan has a hat and a rag. The fat rat had ham in a can. That tan bat can nap.”

He didn’t read smoothly, and he didn’t read every word accurately on the first try, but he kept at it. When we got to the end of one line, I had seen enough to know how well he reads short words with short ‘a’ in them. I asked him if he wanted to read more or stop, and he pointed to the period all the way at the end of the paragraph and said he wanted to stop there. Okay. Fine. Sure. Why not.

So he read the whole paragraph.

Surely we must be finished now? He has already thoroughly digested two and a half pages of questions, when some kids his age can’t focus long enough for me to rush through one.

Nope.

You have got to be kidding me.

Marvin has seen that there is another paragraph on the assessment paper and he wants to read that too. Fine. Any minute now he will get stuck and give up.

“If a bad germ gets into your body, it can make you sick. That is called an infection. Sometimes when you get an infection, you need to go to the doctor and get an injection. Sometimes the solution to the problem is to rest and eat nutritious food.”

Marvin, not seeming daunted, distracted, or discouraged for a single second, struggled manfully all the way to ‘food’, and the only words I can’t give him personal credit for are the six I’ve crossed out.

What does it mean?

I would be pretty impressed with a four- or five-year-old who demonstrated the skills—and the sheer persistence—that Marvin did. I have met plenty of children at ages six and seven who come from English-speaking Singapore households whose reading skills (and whose sitting skills) are worse than Marvin’s. So how old is this kid, anyway?

Six weeks ago, Marvin turned three.

Whoever you are and whatever you have accomplished in your life, if at age two you were not reading in English (and also speaking Mandarin, LOL), you have been outdone by a toddler.

Oh, and another thing…

Now you’re thinking that probably Marvin’s mom is certified in Early Childhood Education, or at any rate she must be teaching him intensively at home?

Nope. She knows nothing about teaching phonics. She doesn’t even read to Marvin that much, presumably because she worries he will copy her “bad English”. She seemed to have no tiger-mother ambitions of pushing Marvin to get ahead of his peers, nor any idea that Marvin’s skills are already unusually good. On the contrary, she thought he needed to go to class to catch up.

So Marvin must be attending a super-fancy preschool?

Nope. He goes to a regular childcare kind of place, and even the alphabet isn’t part of their curriculum for his age, to say nothing of blending, sight words, sentences, or big honking paragraphs with multi-syllabic words in them.

So he has an older sibling?

Nope. At least, not that I know of. I feel like the mom would have said.

So he’s going to some other weekly phonics enrichment class like the ones offered at My English School?

Nope.

So… what’s Marvin’s secret?

YouTube.

Marvin taught himself to read by watching YouTube.

I kid you not.

Next time someone tells me that “screen time” is good for exactly nothing, I will have to disagree. Screen time is good for approximately nothing. For Marvin, it was the gateway to literacy.

What next?

I recommended a class level based on Marvin’s age and not his reading ability because his mom kept saying his English was not good, his speaking was not good. I interpreted this to mean she wanted him to practice speaking in natural English sentences to express himself, and needed to expose him to a friendly, encouraging, quality English environment. Marvin also really needs to learn pencil grip and how to write the letters. But oh, boy. When the teacher reads the class a story, he’s probably going to be helping her do it!

Absolutely Phenomenal

Did you ever see that John Travolta movie, Phenomenon (1996)? Travolta’s character has extraordinary mental abilities that enable him to learn fluent Portuguese during a car trip lasting half an hour and to move his sunglasses by telekinesis.

Though I didn’t see him move anything with his mind, Marvin struck me as no less extraordinary. Like the morose Douglas Adams character “Marvin the paranoid android”, he seems to be in possession of a brain the size of a planet.

But there’s an important difference.

Marvin the human exudes joy.