As Common Core State Standards begin to be implemented in the general education world across the country, one of the areas that has received significant attention is the role that reading nonfiction text plays in the new standards. A recent article (linked here)  in the Washington Post the standards' authors clarified that their goal was not to lower the amount of literature read in English classes but to raise the amount read in classes like science and history. Students, they argue, are leaving high school unprepared to deal with the range and complexity of texts they will be expected to understand in college and the workplace. 

In a response to the article entitled "What Separates Students from Enjoying Literature?" (linked here), a teacher suggested that the emphasis on classroom activities like role playing and projects have moved teachers in all subjects away from assigning the amount and type of reading that students need to improve their skills. "Fearing mass failure and perhaps running into parental objections to homework," the author claims, "teachers decide to “talk” their students through the course."

In thinking about how this debate applies to Judaic studies, I wonder how much we have loosened our requirements or given up the expectation that students be able to navigate the hebrew text of Tanach or its classical meforshim. To what extent do we "talk" our students through the ideas, messages or analysis of Tanach without holding them responsible for actually reading the text? 

At recent parent teacher conferences, a parent criticized me for assuming that a high school senior in an honors Tanach class could be expected to learn a perek of Tanach (not nevi'im acharonim) in hebrew on their own. After reflection I realized that while the student may have succeeded in three year of Tanach classes, he may not have been expected to know the text itself since middle school. Assigning reading at home or reading and talking about the text in class may not be sufficient to ensure students are reading. We know that, in general, students have become less patient in deciphering complex texts and that for years English teachers have struggled with ensuring that students read the actual text assigned to them instead of the "spark" notes or newer parallel. While these types of summaries may not exist in Tanach, students who are not intrinsically motivated to better their skills are quickly able to determine the minimal amount of text they can read to succeed in a class. 

To what extent and how do you hold students accountable for reading hebrew text in your classes? What type, if any, bekiut assignments do you give and how do you decide whether students have actually read the text? Are there bekiut requirements separate from the regular Chumash or Navi classes students attend? Should the expectations be different for stronger and weaker students? (Mostly for boys schools- should we spend the time pushing students to read more when their Tanach skills will  not determine their acceptance or success in Israel yeshivot?) Would an American parallel to Israeli bagruyot help us in this area?

I look forward to sharing some of the things I have learned from others and try in my own classes but look forward to hearing from others first. 

Tags: tanach, text

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I don't do this enough on my quizzes or tests. However, this is a possible way to test it:

I tell them that they are responsible for studying a perek and that I will give them a pasuk or a part of pasuk from the perek and they will have to:

a) Translate

b) who said to who (if applicable)

c) context - what is going on

d) what is the significance

It forces students to review the text in Hebrew.

I have posted online about this topic on lookjed and on my blog so I don't want to sound like a broken record about the need for systematic, sequential and scaffolded instruction in tanach vocabulary (see,20956,20963#msg-20963 for more about a system for this)

How should basic vocabulary skills  be reinforced and demanded in high school? Really, these skills  should be mastered by 4th grade. They parallel the skills expected to be taught in English in the Common Core for grades K-4 .  I teach 3rd grade, and these Tanach skills are expected for all students, male or female, weak or strong by the end of 3rd grade because they are the foundation for future success in TOSHBA and Tanach.  

Students who enter high school without these skills will be frustrated because they don't have the reading comprehension skills to engage Tanach or Meforshim on a high school level. If you check out the Core Curriculum expectations for high school Reading Informational Texts, it is a description of how students should be interacting with meforshim. .  

Without understanding 90-95% of text, students won't be able to analyze it, and teachers will be having all the fun when it comes to learning Chumash. The fun is not listening to a teacher share his chiddushim, but coming up with your own chiddushim and bringing proofs from rishonim, chazal and other pesukim.  The ability to read hebrew texts  needs to be evaluated, practiced and if necessary remediated as soon as the kids step in the school.

Here are some thoughts on teaching and assessing reading comprehension in high school to guarantee that students are engaging with tanach on a high school level. 

1) Tanach is academic vocabulary which must be taught explicitly while teaching content.  If you google "teaching academic vocabulary strategies" you will come up with a lot of suggestions how to do this. My system has been the PPP - Pre-Perek Prep that includes ALL shorashim, nouns, prefixes and suffixes, and verb forms that will be encountered in the upcoming perek. The vocabulary words are  divided into 3 levels based on frequency of use in Torah. Before learning any unit, my students are expected to translate all the words using reference materials I supply. Then, they are  held responsible for all the words for the rest of the year.  I dislike random vocabulary lists because vocabulary must be taught in context and there is no motivation to learn these random words when they will not be used immediately.

2. I give  assessments to students on the vocabulary from the perek out of context to make sure that they are not hiding any weaknesses because they are strong students or are looking at the Artscroll at home. Once a student has shown that she has mastered a level in vocabulary, she graduates to the next level of vocabulary and skills so she doesn't get bored. The beginning of the year may seem babyish, but students will appreciate learning what they know and what they don't know and will come to value having self-awareness about their skills. 

3. Biblical hebrew is different than the Hebrew used in rishonim, so I teach each style explicitly. I also use guided questions for meforshim which helps with the reading comprehension and graphic organizers and highlighters to teach the structure of a peirush.

4. There are always new vocabulary words to teach so the need for vocabulary preparation and assessments doesn't end after middle school. Vocabulary in Sefer Bereishis is very different than vocabulary in Vayikra and Devarim. These numbers are very approximate because I don't have time to run a full data analysis right now, but while approximately 5,000 words make up 70,000 words in Chumash, the other 11,000 words show up less than 10 times, mostly within one sefer. The same holds true for the rest of Tanach, especially Tehillim and Iyov where the words can show up 2-3 times in all of Tanach.  Students can't translate pesukim  unless the words have been taught before. If we don't want them to go to Artscroll, they need to have something to use when the going gets tough - in English. When students study Shakespeare, they have the hard words "translated" into simple English on the adjacent page - Giving out vocabulary lists of hard words, and then holding them accountable for knowing them, helps more students become independent learners

4. The common core focuses  on referencing the text as the basis of analysis and so I test for this skill from elementary school to high school getting more sophisticated as the students mature. From the Common Core for 9th grade:

 CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

In Chumash class in 3rd grade, this looks like "Where in the pasuk does it say. . " In high school it might be "Quote a line from the Ramban that would prove this idea"  For more accelerated students, I would give them a peirush and ask them to compare it to other meforshim using quotes to do so. The key is not testing just the content, but always demanding using the actual text appropriately.

5. For Bekiut work, students should have to answer questions using the actual text. There should be no way that an honors students could get through 3 years of Chumash in high school without knowing how to translate the texts independently if we are demanding students use the texts in their answers.

6. Finally, students learn if they have a chance to set their own goals for learning. I give out a self-assessment on the different skills needed to learn Chumash. . Many students set being able to translate independently as a goal so they don't mind all the drills and work that I give them on vocabulary.

I can't wait to hear the ideas of others here.

I agree with Shira that these skills should be learned by 3rd or 4th grade.  The problem is that somewhere around 5th and 6th grade, as the learning switches from "learning to read" to being "reading to learn", many classes focus too much on the learning and thinking and analyzing and give kids a pass on reading.  As such, the reading skills begin to atrophy.

We encounter this issue on a regular basis as some of our 8th graders have a hard time reading and translating psukim when they go for high school interviews.  The can learn wonderfully, but they have not taken the time to read all that much for the past few years.  Understandably, teachers with great ideas and meforshim to share often want to get past the "basics" of reading so that they can analyze the texts - but who is doing the analyzing, the teacher or the student?

Kudos to Shira for her many suggestions as to how to keep reading skills in class as the learning gets more involved.

the shift in middle school to reading for content is one that is prevalent at the middle school level in secular studies as well. I think the core curriculum is trying to address this very issue so that teachers can't spoon feed content while the students are unable read and interpret the source materials on their own. 

The only way it is changing in secular studies is because of standardized tests and lots of money and resources. I think that the core curriculum is a great place to start to get an idea of age appropriate expectations of what students should be doing in Tanach class. I go to my co-teacher often to see what she wants the students to do in ELA so that I can do parallel skills in Tanach.

Shira S. introduced me to the להבין ולהשכיל curriculum for grades K-4 which focus on the core skills for grades K-4. The real challenge will be clarifying what we want students in grades 5-12 to be able to do. 

I agree with Shira S. that the only way to get kids to read is by focusing on reading during class time and including it as the major focus of assessments. This will mean having less of the teacher analyzing and discussing meforshim. However, that time is where a lot of the connection to  Torah life and transmission of Torah values comes from. 

The question that remains for me is - Do are curricular expectations exceed the time given to teachers in which to teach? We can't have it all, what should be our priorities and how to we get it all done in less than 45 minutes a day?

During at home preparation, my assumption is that even strong HS students are using a Hebrew/English text or summary.  Giving students time to work on texts in class (through chavruta, projects, preparation etc.) forces the students to engage, decipher and analyze the actual Hebrew texts.  Depending on the level of the students, it's also a great opportunity to provide support and draw on support staff to help with reading skills. 

Thank you Shira S. for contributing to the conversation!

Can you elaborate on how you might provide support or draw on support staff within the context of class? 

Also, if the assumption is that students will run to artscroll on their own even if they are "higher level" and more proficient, why (to play devil's advocate) create an artificial environment in the classroom? Why not allow them to use artscroll and still ask them questions that force them to respond with the hebrew text?

I have used learning center faculty to come into my class during chavruta time to help work with smaller groups on decoding.  Sometimes both of us rotated, sometimes we each targeted a specific group, or sometimes we broke the (already small) class into two so that each student had a chance to read to the group with a faculty member present to provide support.  Aside from the extra manpower that allowed us to differentiate, the fact that she had a degree in special ed was really helpful in thinking of strategies how to work with with students with language disabilities.  I was able to use many of these strategies when she wasn't there also.

I think students will often choose an easier route when they have the choice, but that doesn't dictate our goals in educating them.  Many students also would choose to read CliffsNotes over actually reading the novel, but that would be insufficient to reach our goals of understanding, analyzing and appreciating literature. When you read just the translation you miss out on a significant piece of the beauty of the actual words, the multiple meanings that are often inherent in each word or phrase, the excitement of understanding davar Hashem, among other things.  Like English lit, most students appreciate that even if they wouldn't opt to take more of their own free time to achieve that goal.

That being said, I agree with Aaron, and many of the weaker students never really mastered the skills that would allow them to independently translate a pasuk of Chumash, let alone Navi. The challenge in teaching serious textual skills to these students in HS, especially in 11th and 12th grade, is that they are not as on board anymore to go back to the basic decoding skills that they really need to be able to understand a pasuk independently.  There also is not as much face time as we would like to spend a significant amount of time on decoding and also on the analysis and creativity that make teaching Chumash so exciting and alive and that they often excel at.  In the end of the day, my number one goal is for the students is to love and appreciate Chumash and to see it as a source of knowledge and inspiration that is incredibly relevant to their own lives. 

This is a very important issue - based on the work many of us have done at Yeshiva College over the past 5 years, we know that significant numbers of day school graduates, including those who spent two years at Israeli yeshivot or "yeshivot", are unable to score 70% on a basic test of translating Chumash. Many of these students have language-based learning disabilities, which are much more common in our community than we expect. Nevertheless, we have found that these students can indeed be remediated, that they can be taught to read Chumash on their own. Similarly, students who have no disabilities, but have not learned these skills in elementary school, can be remediated. If this can be accomplished in college, it should be possible (kv''ch) to do this in middle school or high school.

There is a tendency among many Orthodox rabbis I have met to avoid teaching text skills because they feel that students will be less motivated to attend Orthodox institutions if demands are placed on these students. Frankly, I am more concerned with the well-being of our students than I am with institutional survival. If our institutions aren't teaching our kids basic skills, what purpose are they serving? More importantly, teaching student these skills is of the very greatest importance: it is the basis of Talmud Torah, and my experience has been that students who believe that they can understand chumash and siddur have a greater motivation to keep mitzvot and learn Torah. 

Here is a link to a video in which students speak about their experiences in our remedial classes.

In the uploaded files, I provide:

a. A detailed discussion of how our first successful pilot of remediation worked, in 2010;

b. A detailed taxonomy of the language skills students need in order to translate chumash;

c. A list of the 400 most common words in Tanakh. This is NOT a teaching tool, but it can be used by teachers to familiarize themselves with the vocabulary. If a student learns 10 perakim of Tanakh, pasuk by pasuk, s/he will inevitably cover most of this list.

You are welcome to contact me (off list) for more suggestions about this issue. You also have many wonderful resource people in the NY area, including: 

*Rachel Kra Schaum, who teaches at Yeshiva University

*Carolyn Rubin, a learning specialist at Yeshiva University

*Rabbi Moshe Yasgur of the Ramaz School

(Each of these people has much to add to this discussion, but I cannot speak for their willingness to do so.)

I also suggest working with Prof. Adi Raz of the University of Texas, who is an expert in teaching Hebrew language to students with language based learning disabilities.

-Shawn Zelig Aster

Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva College (on leave)

Senior Lecturer in Land of Israel Studies, Bar Ilan University



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