When Brenda Grinnell’s fraternal twin boys, Jeremy and Shawn, were eighteen months old, she taped colorful letters to a sliding glass door in the family’s home. Every day as her sons ran from living room to backyard, they’d pass the alphabet. “I’d point to the letters and say, this is an A, this is a B,” the La Crescenta, Calif. mom says. She surrounded her sons with everything that involved learning from a library of preschool board books to wipe-off white boards where the boys practiced writing their names. When they were four years old and showed an interest in learning to read, Grinnell happily complied. “I exposed them to many different things. It was a matter of constant availability,” she adds.
Her dedicated support paid off—both twins were reading by the time they reached kindergarten. To top it off, by the end of the school year Shawn had scored the most points out of a class of sixty children in the school’s independent reading program. (Brother Jeremy was a very close second.) “I just wanted to make school fun for them,” Grinnell says of her efforts, “and it is.”
Do Twins Differ Academically From Singletons?
These days, kindergarten is more demanding than ever. No longer just a place where young students learn to socialize with their peers, today’s kindergarten has a much stronger focus on academics and cognitive learning than it did when we were kids.
Making sure your children are ready for kindergarten is especially important for parents of multiples since research shows that on average, twins experience more learning disabilities than single-born children of the same age (twin boys are especially vulnerable). Reading difficulties tops the list. And since reading is tied to nearly every other school subject, trouble in this area can be far-reaching for a multiple who is struggling. It’s important to note that twins aren’t any less intelligent than singletons; they just struggle with more learning problems. Remember, too, that most twins do very well once they hit school. (Just look at the Grinnell boys!) The point merely emphasizes the importance of kindergarten readiness. And since parents are their children’s first teachers, they can make the difference between school success or stress.
Concentrate on Language
So why do twins suffer from more learning disabilities than single-born children? Although it’s a complex issue with a variety of factors, researchers say that it’s strongly tied with early delays in language. “Multiples may be behind singletons in their articulation and in their ability to express themselves. Their sentences may be shorter and baby talk may persist longer,” says Dr. David Hay, a professor of psychology in the field of education at Curtin University in Western Australia, and a highly respected twin researcher. In fact, in his La Trobe Twin Study, thirty-month-old twin boys were eight months behind same-age singletons as well as twin girls in expressive language. (There is no research on higher-order multiples.)
Although twins may lag behind singletons in expressive language, they are usually much less delayed in their receptive skills—they have a greater understanding of vocabulary and what’s being said to them. “Therefore if multiples have very poor speech, don’t dismiss this potential problem because their vocabulary is good and they understand what you are saying,” Dr. Hay cautions.
Parents of twins can try a variety of techniques to improve their children’s expressive language (see the sidebar below). Angie Broccardo of Livonia, Mich., for instance, found that teaching her children American Sign Language (ASL) has helped her two-year-old fraternal twin girls, Gina and Bailey. “We have a DVD series called Signing Time Volume 1: My First Signs DVD and the girls say the word along with the sign they are learning,” she explains. Research has actually shown that young children who sign begin speaking earlier and have a larger vocabulary than children who were never taught to sign. “I think it gives them more confidence in their ability to communicate. Plus having a word and a sign just seems to reinforce each other. They both now say hundreds of words and they’re speaking in full sentences,” Broccardo adds.
The Power of Preschool for Twins
Enrolling your twins or triplets in preschool is a great way to encourage them to use their developing language skills. In fact, studies have shown that twins use more words when playing with other children or in speaking to adults than if they were left to play alone with just each other. Yet even twins who aren’t delayed in their speech can benefit from attending.
“Preschool helps children with their socialization skills in a group atmosphere, and the classroom experience helps them transition to the more formal environment of kindergarten,” explains Melissa Mullin, Ph.D., an educational psychologist and director of the K & M Center in Santa Monica, Calif., an institute that diagnoses and remediates learning disabilities. According to Dr. Mullin, activities such as drawing and cutting develop fine motor skills while circle time builds the ability to sit still and listen to directions—all of which are critical to kindergarten success.
My two just started preschool,” says Kim Clayton of her opposite-sex twins, Max and Emily now three-and-a-half years old. “It’s mostly play oriented. But I have learned even that is a huge learning experience.” Clayton, a Monroe, New Jersey mom, knew her pair where advanced academically but she quickly realized they still had plenty to learn! “They still have a lot of growing up to do physically and mentally. They need to learn to play with others, listen to directions, learn how to transition, and focus on tasks given. And I was worried they’d be bored!” she laughs.
Although Stephanie Corby’s two-year old fraternal boys, Alex and Max, also attend preschool, she thinks it’s more important to instill a love of learning and discovery. “I know all the cores skills and concepts will be taught at school and supported at home, but what can’t be taught is how to learn or a desire to want to learn,” she notes. To help her children gain an adventurous spirit, the Indianapolis, Indiana mom is constantly asking her twins questions like, “What is that?” or “How do you use that?” inspiring her children to think for themselves. “My hope is that we can encourage them to view the world around them with a desire to know more. That we can encourage them to approach new experiences with curiosity and thoughtfulness,” she says.
Are Your Twins Ready for Kindergarten?
There are many factors that go into determining whether a child is ready to attend kindergarten such as adequate motor skills (Can he throw a ball? Use scissors?), academic ability (Can he describe something in complete sentences? Does he know basic shapes, the alphabet, his numbers to ten?), and social skills (Can he follow directions? Play well with others?).
Yet Dr. Mullin encourages parents to also consider a twin’s maturity level before enrolling him in kindergarten. Some children who enter kindergarten hastily and are less mature than their classmates, she explains, may struggle and suffer for years. “I see so many children with fall birthdays who are now repeating the fifth grade rather than advancing on to middle school where they’d be socially, mentally, and sometimes physically behind,” she says.
Parents whose twins were born prematurely or who have fall birthdays may want to consider delaying kindergarten for a year giving their children ample time to catch up to their peers.
Learning Begins at Home
Remember, however, that kids attend preschool and even kindergarten for such a short period of time each day. Most of their development therefore happens at home. And that’s where you come in. By creating a fun, educational atmosphere at home (think lots of age-appropriate books, maps, puzzles, art supplies, and most importantly, your attention), you’ll be giving your twins the best gift of all. Make learning a family affair!
Talk it Up: Helping Your Twins Develop the Gift of Gab
Since delayed speech in early childhood is associated with later learning disabilities, it’s important for parents of twins and triplets to be aware of their children’s language skills. Here are a few tips to help your twins “talk it up.” (If parents suspect that one or both of their twins is significantly delayed in speech, however, they should consider contacting a speech therapist for a formal assessment.)
- Speak to each child individually rather than as a “pair.” Give each “speaker” your full attention and eye contact. Speak slowly, clearly, and in full sentences. Never allow a co-twin to interrupt or answer for the other. If one child asks for a cookie, don’t give cookies to both—encourage the other to ask, too. Be patient in waiting for a response.
- If your child makes a mistake in pronunciation, repeat the word correctly back to him but don’t make him say it again.
- Enroll your twins in preschool, play groups, or mommy-and-me classes were they’d have an opportunity to interact with a variety of different people. Consider having your multiples attend on alternating days.
- Teach rhyming skills by playing a game to see who can rhyme the most words in a minute. Teach segmenting skills by having your children clap their hands to the correct number of syllables in a word. And finally, develop both listening and speaking skills by reading out loud daily.