I could see right away that she was very bright. She could write the English alphabet and knew what sounds the letters made. (Most likely she learned the alphabet in preparation for writing pinyin, not English.) She had studied Chinese reading and writing, a bit of art and music, and mathematics.
Watching her over the first couple of weeks, I didn’t see any signs that she was immature compared to a typical third-grader. She was well-behaved, related well to people, and was interested in learning. There didn’t seem to be any reason not to go ahead and enroll her in third grade, with English language learner (ELL) support. (The Chinese grades do not directly correlate to ours, but third grade is pretty close.)
May got right into the school routine. Obviously, language was a challenge. She was pulled out of class for ELL instruction for an hour every day. She completed reams of language arts worksheets while the other kids did their spelling and reading lessons. A couple of older students who spoke both Mandarin and English were assigned to help her find her way around, which was invaluable. Several girls in class took her under their wings, and I’ll be forever grateful for their kindness.
She was ahead in math, at least in computational skills, because the American students were just starting to talk about multiplication, and she already knew multiplication and long division. But American schools’ highly verbal approach to teaching math was a disadvantage to her. I’m not just talking about the ubiquitous story problems. She brought home worksheets asking her to identify place numbers – ones, tens, hundreds, thousands. This was in preparation for learning the more advanced computational operations, which she already knew. In most of her homework, she was expected not just to get the correct answer, but also to explain how she arrived at her answer. It wasn’t enough to do math; she had to be able to talk about math.
She finished third grade speaking conversational English, beginning to understand American-style math, reading first-grade books, and playing and chatting with new friends at recess. We spent her first summer building on that foundation. I read more challenging books to her while she followed along, to give her a better “feel” for English. She did some language arts workbooks. She watched American TV and Chinese movies.
Mostly, we talked, all of us, and she learned proper English, and colloquialisms and slang as well. For a while, it was like having a 2-year-old again; she clung to my side all the time, constantly asking questions. It was intense and exhausting but necessary, because she had a lot of catching up to do emotionally, socially, and intellectually.
Third grade is about basics. In fourth grade, we got a better sense of her educational gaps. Social studies and science were completely new subjects to her. She had no sense of world geography or history or cultures outside of China and the United States. She wasn’t familiar with art or literature, Chinese or Western. She didn’t know how many planets are in our solar system or that Earth circles the sun or that the sun is a star. She didn’t know how plants grow or where baby animals come from.
This I was not prepared for. May had skills, but she had no foundation of knowledge on which to build her broader education. Partly this was because of the Chinese educational system. The Chinese language is so complex that students spend many years learning to read and write characters properly, and language is the most important subject in school. Math comes in second.
There were also cultural reasons; China is still quite closed off, and information about the rest of the world is closely guarded. (Ethnocentrism is certainly not absent in our country – we study the history and culture of the Americas and Europe, but learn little about Asia or Africa, for example.)
But her gaps had to do with more than schooling. Most American third-graders have never studied world history or science either. But they’ve been surrounded by the general concepts since birth, through popular culture. They’ve watched Ratatouille and have a sketchy idea what France looks like and how the people speak and what they eat. They’ve recited nursery rhymes about London Bridge. They’ve seen ancient Egyptian mummies on Scooby-Doo. They’ve watched Bugs Bunny rocket through the solar system with Marvin the Martian in hot pursuit. I’m not kidding about this. You don’t realize how much our daily lives are saturated with information, trivial and important, until you spend time with someone who missed that exposure.
May learned quickly. She received minimal ELL support in fourth grade. By the end of fifth grade, she was reading English at grade level. She soon tested out of ELL. Today, having just finished seventh grade, she has a straight-A average. She writes amazing poetry and creates beautifully executed school projects. She works very hard, and complains equally hard. She is absolutely on track with her peers socially, physically, and academically, even ahead of them in some ways. Despite the challenges, placing May in third grade when she arrived was absolutely the right choice for this particular child.
We continue to build her general fund of knowledge. She is very expressive in English, but some of the more irregular aspects – helper verbs, prepositions – still trip her up. Building vocabulary is difficult because she does not have an innate sense of the language. She doesn’t automatically recognize prefixes, suffixes, and root words as a native speaker might; for example, she would not be able to figure out what monophonic means despite knowing the words telephone and monotone. She can’t figure out words from context while reading because so much of the context is meaningless.
She has little sense of historical time. I try to explain ancient Greek or Roman mythology and she can’t place their ancient civilizations in time. I try to use Jesus as a milepost, but she can’t quite grasp the magnitude of events that can occur over the course of 2,000 years. Classical music means nothing to her. She can’t associate a musical style with a particular era. The same goes for art. She wouldn’t know a Michelangelo from a Picasso. (I suppose not all American 13-year-olds would, but this is a household where art and music are valued and available.)
Literary references are lost on May. Even the nursery rhymes that every American child knows are strange to her. If she jumps away from a spider and I joke, “You’re like Little Miss Muffet,” she gives me a blank look. So many of the cultural touchpoints that we take for granted are missing. She enjoys reading young adult fiction, the more angst-ridden the better, because the language is contemporary and familiar, and she can understand modern teens’ challenges. But the language in classic works of children’s literature – Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables – is too antiquated for her to get anything out of them. She quits in frustration after a couple of pages.
In the world of science, I keep explaining that Earth is the third planet from the sun, and there are nine planets (or eight, it keeps changing) in our solar system, and our solar system is one of many in our galaxy, which is one of many in the universe, but it doesn’t seem to stick. I know she just doesn’t have the picture in her brain that we all have because we once made a model of the solar system with Styrofoam balls or a teacher took us out on the playground and used a marble to represent Earth and a basketball to represent the sun.
She learns facts, but she doesn’t know them in her bones yet. This year she learned to identify all the countries in Europe and Asia on a blank map. But she still isn’t exactly sure where Europe is on the globe. She isn’t dense; she lacks the benefit of repetition. How many times did you study the solar system in school? She is hearing this stuff for the first time. I explain as much as I can, but there’s no point of reference on which to pin the bits of information.
Helping her with schoolwork is like stitching together a tablecloth that is filled with holes. She will get it eventually, but we both feel frustrated in the meantime. She is a good enough student that several of her teachers were encouraging her to sign up for honors courses next year, and we said no. Part of her wants to do it – she says, “Mom! I’m the only Asian kid who isn’t in honors math or learning an instrument!” – but she also understands our reasoning, that she needs to get a really solid grounding in the basics before moving on to more challenging work.
So we patch the holes and make connections wherever we can. Summer is a great time for this. Movies work just fine. For literature, we can watch Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet and the Katharine Hepburn version of Little Women. Amadeus should help with music history. I’ll let her watch Scooby-Doo (shudder), and then I’ll unroll the big Wall Chart of World History on the family room floor and point to where those ridiculous mummies came from. We’ll get there one way or another.