This is the first in a series of essays on teaching Torah literacy in American day schools.
If you have access to elementary age day school students, I recommend the following experiment:
1) Present a child with an unfamiliar and difficult English language text (a sentence from the Declaration of Independence works well). Give the child time and reference books, but no assistance. Ask the child to explain whatever he or she understands of the text.
2) Now, present the same child with a familiar sentence from the Torah (a sentence from the Shma works well). Give the child time and reference books, but no assistance and no translation. Ask the child to explain whatever he or she understands of the text. You will probably discover that our day schools are doing a much better job teaching English reading comprehension than teaching Torah reading comprehension. Difficult and unfamiliar English texts are far more available and comprehensible to our children than familiar words of Torah that they recite every day.
Why the discrepancy? Part of the answer, of course, is that our children speak English in their daily lives, not Hebrew. But that is not the whole answer, and it is not a good enough answer. The real reason for this comprehension gap is that we use dramatically different methods to teach reading in English and reading in Chumash, and the methods we use for Chumash are far less effective. Of course, Chumash should not be taught just like we teach English; but isn’t it important that we teach it at least as well as we teach English?
In English, starting at age 5 or 6, we offer our children books to read, give them time for quiet independent reading, let them form their own conclusions, and ask them to explain what they have read. We teach them how to ask for help with difficult words, and how to make their own judgments about the overall meaning of the text. We teach them that the text is supposed to make sense, and that they can and should acquire the skills and knowledge needed to derive its meaning.
In Chumash, we don’t give our children that trust and empowerment. In many classrooms, and even entire schools, students are never asked or allowed to read Chumash on their own and draw conclusions about meaning. Instead, the teacher tells the students what the text means and what to think about it. I have visited high school classrooms where a token student “reads” the text aloud, and then the students spend 45 minutes writing down notes about what the teacher says it means. In this case, “read” means “sound out without any attempt at comprehension”.
English teachers do not go through books sentence by sentence, telling the students what each sentence means. Math teachers don’t read students equations and tell them to memorize the answers. Rather, in both English and math we ask students to practice skills over and over again. In English and math, we know that practicing is the only way to gain skills. So why do we teach Torah so differently?
There are two main reasons:
ONE — we define academic progress in Jewish studies by the content that students “cover” each year. In kindergarten, this may mean parsha stories and holiday projects. In sixth grade, it may mean six parshiot of Chumash and a halacha workbook.
Whatever the specific requirement, the idea is the same. School is about what you know and what you have produced. Even though the knowledge is often very temporary. Even though the projects are ephemeral. Success at every level is measured by temporary knowledge and fragile creations, not durable skills or repeatable abilities.
Time is limited. And students live up (or down) to our expectations. Time spent “covering ground” cannot be spent on practice, and skills lose out. Less practice means less skill, and, over time, this means that our children are less able to read and understand.
Ironically, this lack of practice also ends up diminishing content learning. Children feel more attached and friendly towards information that they figure out for themselves. (So do adults!) In the same way that people would rather have one kav of their own produce than nine kav of someone else’s (Bava Metzia 38a), or a crooked bookcase that they assembled themselves, rather than a professionally assembled one (“the Ikea effect”), people also value learning that they have “discovered” themselves more than spoon-fed learning.
TWO — We are afraid that, left to understand things on their own, our children will reach inappropriate and incorrect religious conclusions from their learning. In Torah classrooms, the spiritual stakes are very high, and the cost of error is serious. This concern is reasonable and necessary, but there are better methods to address it than enforced illiteracy. We can teach our children how to read for themselves AND how to understand what they read through the mesorah. With Hashem’s help, I plan to detail some of these methods in coming posts.
Our children can learn to read and understand for themselves. But we will have to want it to happen. And we will have to accept that it will take time and effort.
Please tune in to next week’s blog post for practical suggestions and further discussion.