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Three Critical skills to becoming a successful learner | Rabbi Dovid Abenson

I recently received an email from a parent questioning my approach when discussing the pitfalls of miseducation, alluding that our Torah educational system is failing us. I would like to reiterate that these articles are intended to be informative for parents and educators,

illustrating potential problems a student may be experiencing. They are NOT intended to undermine the important role our institutions play in the Chinuch of our children and Mechanchim and Rebbeim are working to the best of their ability. Nevertheless, having worked with struggling and gifted students globally for over three decades, these are the issues that keep reappearing, and they are hampering our students’ capabilities. Thus, this is the reason why I am addressing these topics.

There are three critical and essential skills necessary for a student to succeed in Torah study: fluency in kriah, whole word reading, an exact translation. Whilst these essential skills are focused on early in the educational system, it quickly progresses onto Chumash, Nach, Mishnayos, and Gemara before the skills are fully grasped. The lack of solid textual skills becomes a worked-around handicap later on in the system. Having worked in evaluations for several decades, I see these three critical skills can get overlooked and it prevents students from achieving clarity in and engagement with their Torah learning. It also keeps them from being able to learn independently, which is vital for a lifelong connection to learning beyond Yeshiva.

Fluency in kriah means that reading must be effortless without hesitation. Slow speed or hesitation indicates that a student’s brain is overtaxed in the kriah department. Consequently, less brainpower is available for comprehension and concentration will suffer. Ideally, the stages of kriah should be worked through at each child’s pace, letter recognition followed by a vowel and letter combinations, and finally, the whole word reading. Each stage should be completely fluent before moving on to the next. As mentioned in a previous article, the phonic method and the use of cute pictures have become popular but seeps in from a secular approach to language teaching. It not only goes against our Mesorah but ultimately slows down reading fluency and comprehension.

Whole word reading is contrasted with syllable reading. Even when a student’s kriah is evaluated, this is typically done by hearing a student read a passage and listening for speed and accuracy. The evaluator may conclude that a student is reading effectively when in truth, he only evaluated the ability to decode letter and vowel combinations phonetically. Once the level of word reading is reached, words must be seen and read as a whole. Without whole word reading, it will be impossible to grasp shorashim, prefixes, and suffixes, or read without vowels later on. If the phonic method was taught the same-sound letters, such as “saf”, “samech”and “sin”, this will frequently mix up the child’s head, and shorashim containing these letters will be confused. Rashi reading is also much more difficult when whole word reading is not mastered.

Exact translation includes being well versed in Biblical Hebrew and comprehension and understanding the role of various words in the construction of Hebrew sentences and the clear meaning of terms. The issue goes even further with the Gemara study, where words are not usually translated at all. For example, the 3rd perek in Bava Basra is חזקת הבתים. When asking a talmid to translate חזקת into English, even if they have been learning that perek for several months, they possibly cannot. When working with rebbeim, I often ask them to translate a word, such as “potur”, concisely into English. If the rebbe needs several words for the translation, it is a good indication that the rebbe is “over-expressing” himself when transmitting the Torah to his talmidim. Imprecision and lack of clarity on the Rebbe’s part cause students to lose focus on the material being taught.

Rabbi S, a maggid shiur, who had been teaching talmidim for 30 years, asked for a 4-hour crash course upgrade in Chumash and Gemara. As we worked together, Rabbi S discovered, to his own surprise, that he was overly expressive when conveying information to his talmidim and that he sometimes lost track of himself. Because of these teaching issues, basic points of grammar, such as prefixes and suffixes, were being missed by his students.

As in previous articles, I have written about the value of teaching in one’s mother tongue. We learn that Moshe Rabbeinu gave over the Torah in 70 languages so that no one could say they didn’t understand the Torah. I have witnessed students burning out because they did not learn in their mother tongue. Even when it appears the student is reading and translating fluently in, let’s say Yiddish, it doesn’t mean he understands what he is saying.

As an example of my initial screening, I customarily ask students to translate the first pasuk in Lech Lecha (Bereishis 12:1), since it is almost universally taught in elementary schools. In many cases, the student only translates the first word, “lech”, meaning go. They completely skip translating the second word “lecha”. By translating lech lecha imprecisely, the student cannot grasp the “What’s Bothering Rashi?” question or Rashi’s answer. There is another common problem when students translate the Rashi on the first pasuk of Lech Lecha. The second part of the Rashi on Bereishis 12:1 says ועוד שאודיע טבעך בעולם “v’od sh’oydia tivachah ba’olam”, but talmidim frequently translate it as “to make known Your goodness in the world” instead of the correct translation of “Your nature”. This mistranslation occurs mainly with talmidim who have learned with a rebbe who taught in Yiddish. The word “tevachah” resembles the shoresh of “tov” good in Yiddish, which is “gitskeit”. Because the students aren’t trained sufficiently in textual skills and what to focus on when looking at a word, they overlook the letter “ayin” in “tevachah”.

In a Cleveland Airport awaiting a connecting flight, I happened to meet a chassidishe yid and we got talking about learning plus the pitfalls in incorrect translation skills. I asked him how he would translate the above Rashi and replied “gitskeit”. He was bewildered that he had truly never understood Rashi correctly.

Rebbeim themselves must be fluent in these fundamental skills and know-how to teach them clearly. A case in point was Rabbi B, a Rosh Chaburah, who brought his son to see me. His son was struggling in school and the screening showed trouble in Hebrew reading, comprehension issues, poor basic translation, and difficulty relating to dikduk. In discussing his son’s evaluation and explaining the basic grammar rules that the son was missing, Rabbi B himself revealed that he did not know what a “vav hahepuch” was. Without knowing this basic rule, tenses are inaccurately reversed and the meaning of the text is misunderstood.

When these three steps are prioritized throughout the student’s formative years, the student will have been fortified with solid foundation skills which will carry him through to become a successful learner!

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Rabbi Dovid Abenson can be contacted at: Tel. 15147393629. Cell/Whatsapp 15149935300. Email: ravabenson@shaarhatalmud.com. Rabbi Abenson is the founder and director of ShaarHatalmud, a unique yeshivah-based online program, which incorporates learning all Kodesh subjects, from Kriah up to learning Gemara, Rishonim, and Shulchan Aruch. He also conducts evaluations, remediation, and training, and consults with Roshei HaYeshiva and Menahelim to improve students’ underdeveloped learning and textual skills.

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